Q&A with CUNY Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost José Luis Cruz

The Higher Learning Advocates team sat down with José Luis Cruz, Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost at The City University of New York, to learn more about CUNY’s response to COVID-19 in New York City, previously the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S.

Q: The coronavirus pandemic has affected colleges, and students, across the country. What has this experience been like for you so far?
A: Like most people, the uncertainty that the pandemic presents weighs on my mind. But it’s also given me a chance to reflect on how the hundreds of thousands of students, faculty, and staff that comprise the CUNY system—which is the largest urban university in the world—came together to embrace distance learning and distance working as mechanisms to not only protect themselves, their families, and the communities they represent, but also as a means to ensure that CUNY would continue to deliver on its promise of opportunity and social mobility, even as it faced the direst of circumstances.

Q: Are there one or two student stories that stand out to you?
A: Our students have faced an unprecedented disruption to their learning and their lives. While they’re negotiating distance learning they’re also under stress as parents, essential workers, and caretakers. They have lost their jobs, have had to negotiate use of their family computer with partners who may be telecommuting and kids who are themselves trying to distance learn. Their aspirations to meet their full potential and chart a new path for their lives and those of the ones they love and the communities they represent have been challenged from many directions. The stories are too many, too rich, and too symbolic of the economic inequities that characterize the times we live for me to single any one of them out. But they are poignant enough to remind all of us at CUNY that our mission is as simple as it is important: to serve as a vehicle of upward mobility for those historically underserved.

Q: How has being in New York, which was for a while considered the epicenter of the virus in the US, affected CUNY’s response to the pandemic?
A: The recovery of New York runs through CUNY. I say this because CUNY is an anchor institution in New York City that serves not just the 500,000 enrolled students we have, but also the city as whole, providing essential workforce, revenue, and services that indispensably contribute to the city’s vitality. And the fact is that CUNY, which is comprised of 25 highly diverse campus communities spread out across the five New York boroughs, has made our COVID-19 situational awareness sharper than it has been for most. And being on the frontlines, we answered the call to action. Take, for example, CUNY’s work with New York City and State to hire contact tracers to track and contain the spread of the coronavirus. Some of our colleges are now serving as COVID-19 testing sites, including Medgar Evers College and Lehman College. We also have teams of students and faculty at six of our colleges that have adapted their 3-D printers to make protective face shields for local hospitals. And CUNY’s School of Public Health has been conducting and publishing a weekly survey of the public opinion related to the pandemic—the survey results have been frequently cited in media outlets.

Along with all of these community-based initiatives, we’re doubling down on the creation of conditions for optimal online learning and training for hundreds of CUNY faculty, which will have a far-reaching, positive impact on our students’ learning advancement. And then there’s the establishment of the Chancellor’s Emergency Fund and the development of an equitable allocation model for emergency aid received through the CARES Act that have and will benefit tens of thousands of students, among many other university-wide and college-specific initiatives.

Q: What decisions have you come to so far about how CUNY will respond to the pandemic? What was the most difficult part of making those decisions? Have there been external factors that have been difficult for CUNY to navigate?
A: CUNY is an anchor institution with an obligation to a city of nearly 9 million people. So, we understood that the decisions we made in the crucial hours of the outbreak would have sweeping ramifications, not only for our campus communities, but for the city as a whole. And that we therefore needed to align the scope and timing of our decisions with the public policy objectives articulated by our city and our state. Difficult decisions to make and challenging to implement included the cancelation of all of our study abroad programs and the evacuation of our dormitories to make space for possible hospital beds. Equally challenging decisions to implement, but easier to make were the adoption of a flexible credit/no credit grading policy, the distributions of thousands of tablets and laptops to students who needed them, and securing early graduation to students in medical and allied health fields so they could join the fight against COVID-19.

Q: Looking forward, what is most important for policymakers to get right to best support students?
A: Just as the recovery of NYC runs through CUNY, the recovery of our nation runs through its state and regional two-year and four-year colleges and universities. Policymakers need to not only invest in our students, but also in the institutions themselves as it is important that access and affordability be paired with rigor and value. It is this sector of higher ed that predominantly and disproportionately shoulders the responsibility of increasing educational attainment in America as a means to narrowing gaps in opportunity and paving the way for a more just and equitable society that can not only recover from COVID-19, but be better positioned to deal with future disruptions to our ways of life.