A Conversation with the New President

President Felix V. Matos Rodriguez has been listening to students' concerns and trying to provide what they need.
Hostos Community College has a new president: Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, former secretary of the Department of the Family for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. But Matos Rodríguez, a graduate of Yale and Columbia universities, is no stranger to the University. He was the director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, a nationally recognized research center at Hunter College, from 2000 to 2005 and is on leave from his tenured position there as associate professor of black and Puerto Rican/Latino studies.

At Hostos, Matos Rodríguez is shepherding a diverse population of 6,000 students: 75 percent are women, and 97.6 percent are minorities. Students represent 112 countries, and speak 75 languages.

What do you like about Hostos, and what would you change?

I like the mission of the college to help students from groups that have been traditionally left out of the opportunity of entering higher education. For changes, I'd love to be able to create something of a larger campus experience; we can use a lot more green space.

What is your vision for Hostos?

We have been known for our allied health programs such as nursing and dental hygiene, and I want to continue to expand on that - to have niches at Hostos traditionally associated with the instruction of students whose first language is not English.

The community colleges are getting a big boost from the Obama administration. What role do you see Hostos playing in that?

The first task is to lobby and educate the public about how important community colleges are for our economic recovery. I want to make sure that we create the partnerships with state, local officials, community groups and the unions. I want a real diverse offering of continuing education, workforce retraining and development programs.

In a letter to the college community, you said you'd like to know what students are concerned about. What did you find out so far?

There are little things that can make a dramatic difference in terms of how welcomed students feel. For example, some said that they do most of their copying and printing in the library, which opens at 9 a.m. So the students who have 8 a.m. classes weren't able to make copies before class. But you can also print at the computer center, so we got them to open earlier and have copying services. So we've been trying to listen to them and do what they need.

What are the challenges of a mainly minority institution?

In the case of the South Bronx, minority demographics comes along with higher levels of poverty, higher levels of financial and social issues. Our students are the poorest students within the CUNY system, we have the highest number of female heads of households attending our institution, which is an additional challenge... You need to make sure that internally and externally all the support that students need is here.

Hostos is the first and the only dual-language college at CUNY. Why is it a good idea to have dual-language education, and are there any disadvantages?

I don't think anybody can point to a disadvantage to people speaking more than one language. The students who come here take courses in English even if they're Spanish-dominant. They have to pass all the CUNY proficiency tests in English. The research shows that if you work with the competency that folks have in their own language, they become stronger students, and they learn faster and better. If you look at our data and you look at students that come from foreign high schools, they have very high graduation rates. But the other side is that we're in a global economy, we're in a global city. They are going to be more competitive on an economic perspective. For me, that's a debate that shouldn't be a debate because I don't think that anyone, other than folks who have political agendas, is using language as a code word for other issues like immigration.

You've spent the last couple of years living in Puerto Rico. Winter is coming up. Aren't you going to miss the warm climate?

Even though I spent most of my professional life between New York and Boston, the cold weather is one thing that I have never enjoyed.