A Difficult Decision

Dear CUNY Community,

As you know, we returned from spring break yesterday at a time marked by the increasing presence of demonstrations at colleges across the country, including at City College. As a member of the CUNY community for over 20 years, first as a member of the faculty, then as president of two CUNY colleges, and now as Chancellor, I know that calling on the NYPD to assist an on-campus incident is something to be done only as a last recourse, and one I hoped I would never have to consider. Below, I want to share why we reached that very difficult decision on Tuesday evening with the safety of our students, public safety officers and community at the center of our concern.

Around 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, over 200 demonstrators, most of them unaffiliated with CUNY, moved from Columbia University, entered the City College campus and were joined by people in the encampment. A group of them quickly attempted to break into the college’s landmarked Shepard Hall before moving on to the Administration Building, where they smashed glass doors, vandalized offices, covered security cameras with paint and trashed files and computers as they tried to barricade themselves in the Financial Aid Office before CUNY public safety officers were able to subdue them and arrest 31 individuals. As we began surveying the damage, public safety officers found bags left behind by those arrested, which contained chains, flares, a bolt cutter and box cutters.

In the face of immediate danger to personal safety and damage to campus facilities, and with the fast-growing number of demonstrators creating an emergency situation, City College President Vincent Boudreau and I made the difficult decision to request the assistance of the NYPD who entered the encampment area around 11:45 p.m. Arrest figures from the NYPD show that 172 people were arrested outside and inside City College throughout Tuesday. Of them, 104 or 60% were not affiliated with CUNY. Those figures align with what we had already noted at the encampment. 

When the first demonstrators arrived at City College and set up the encampment a week ago, we indicated that the encampment violated University policies but said it could stay in place as long as the protest remained peaceful.

During the days and nights that followed, my office and CCNY worked to minimize the presence of unaffiliated individuals at the encampment and mitigate a series of increasingly violent incidents that put students at the encampment, as well as public safety officers and other employees, at risk.

These incidents included a fire Sunday night at the Marshak Science Building caused by the use of a flare gun that brought FDNY to campus, a clash between public safety officers and demonstrators, and a troubling statement by the camp’s liaisons early on that it was not safe for even the president of the college to enter the encampment area.

The University notified organizers and demonstrators on Tuesday afternoon that the encampment needed to be dismantled on Wednesday in time for the start of classes; we further said that if that occurred, we would work with student leaders to identify an alternate location on the City College campus for protests to continue, in accordance with CUNY policies. Furthermore, we offered to keep the door open for ongoing dialogue regarding the demands of the demonstrations.

Classes are being held remotely at City College this week. I want to thank public safety from Central Office and CCNY, and officers who were deployed from other campuses, for their work keeping the campus safe over the past week amid growing tensions. Thanks also to the custodial team at CCNY. I also want to convey my appreciation to President Boudreau and his administrative team for their steady leadership.

Protocols for Demonstrators

As we return to campuses for the final stretch of the semester, I want to reaffirm that everyone in our community has a constitutional right to free speech and a right to protest peacefully, in accordance with CUNY’s policies. Tuesday night’s actions were taken in response to specific and repeated acts of violence and vandalism, not in response to peaceful protest.

CUNY’s policies are spelled out in the Rules and Regulations for the Maintenance of Public Order (the Henderson Rules). Rule No. 3, for example, specifies that the “Unauthorized occupancy of University/college facilities or blocking access to or from such areas is prohibited.” There are consequences in place for violating the Henderson Rules, ranging from disciplinary probation to expulsion and CUNY will enforce them as needed to protect every member of our community.

CUNY has been, and will remain, committed to ensuring that every CUNY student and faculty or staff member is safe from violence, intimidation and harassment.

I know the conflict in the Middle East will continue to have a palpable impact on our community. And that the next few weeks are naturally stressful for our students with final exams and, for some, the anticipation and anxiety that can accompany the otherwise happy aspects of graduation. Your well-being is paramount to us. We have counseling and related support services in place for all community members.

Finally, I ask for your continued cooperation and support, so that we can close out the academic year on a positive note. Our goal is to preserve everyone’s ability to attend classes, teach and work, and to maintain scheduled campus activities with minimal disruption. We also want to ensure that those graduating this year can enjoy commencement ceremonies and graduation activities with their classmates and families.

Five years ago this week, I had the great honor of becoming Chancellor. Although these past five years have presented many challenges, we have also accomplished many things working together as a community. Let us continue building a better CUNY and a better New York together, powered by our diversity, driven by our desire for excellence, and grounded in mutual respect.


Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, Ph.D.

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