CUNY chancellor, a Pelham resident, seeks to open doors for students, as they were opened for his family


CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez.

Félix Matos Rodríguez views the City University of New York (CUNY) as a force for social mobility for its students. 

The Pelham resident has been in the perfect position to ensure it continues to play that role since May 2019, when he was named the eighth chancellor of the nation’s largest urban university, with 25 colleges across New York City. He is the first educator of color and the first Latino to lead the university.

“I am humbled to be CUNY’s first chancellor of color and embrace the opportunities and promise that this unique role holds,” he said in an interview. “My commitment to CUNY comes because I want to be part of an institution that is at the center of that kind of social mobility in New York and the country. I want to continue opening doors for others, just as doors were opened for my father and grandmother, and I hope that will lead to meaningful inclusivity and representation at all levels of our society

Hailing from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Matos Rodríguez’s passion for education began at an early age, inspired to study English and history by his family. His mother trained to be a Spanish language teacher. “When other kids were reading children’s books, my mom was reading ‘Don Quixote’ to me,” said Matos Rodríguez. “From a very early age, she seeded in me a lifelong interest in literature and the power of the written word.”

Matos Rodríguez went on to major in Latin American studies at Yale University and received a doctorate in history from Columbia University. He began his CUNY career in 2000 at Hunter College, where he worked as a professor in the department of Africana, Puerto Rican and Latino studies. 

One of the most important factors in his success throughout his career has been his ability to work with others. “I always remind students of the importance of networks,” said Matos Rodríguez. “Classes are important, but who is around you in the classroom is just as important. You learn from your fellow students, and these are the same people who may be opening doors for you later in life.”

He knows that from personal experience, becoming chief advisor to the Puerto Rican governor on health and social welfare issues as a result of a connection through his college roommate. “I was intrigued by the possibility because it was purely public service,” he said. “The idea of service to others is one that my parents instilled from a young age, and it continues to be a guiding principle for me.” 

Matos Rodríguez returned to New York in 2009 as the president of Hostos Community College in the Bronx. He moved on to become president of Queens College in 2014 before being elevated to the top position at CUNY.

In his experience working with students, he said he found himself learning as much from them as they were learning from him and the rest of the faculty. 

In all of the students he has interacted with over the course of his career, he has seen aspects of the drive and passion for education he grew up seeing in members of his family. He said he sees students who come from modest backgrounds with talent and potential and is able to help them showcase their abilities through his role as chancellor. 

Despite his many professional successes in New York, Matos Rodríguez holds tightly to his Puerto Rican roots and sense of familial responsibility: “Throughout my career, I have always felt a personal bond that takes me back to my roots growing up in Puerto Rico. In every CUNY student I’ve taught or known, I see my mother and father. I see people who come from modest backgrounds, full of talent, potential and aspirations who get the opportunity to showcase their abilities and move closer to their ambitions through their sheer drive and hard work.”