Story behind funding cut at key CUNY research center draws attention

A key research center at the City University of New York is trying to figure out how to fill a funding gap after suffering a dramatic cut in this year's city budget. But it's the story behind that cut that is getting attention. NY1's Juan Manuel Benitez reports.

This year's Puerto Rican Day Parade was dominated by political controversy.

The parade's board decided to honor Puerto Rican nationalist leader Oscar López Rivera as a "freedom hero." 

Companies like Goya and politicians like Governor Andrew Cuomo boycotted the parade.

"For one person, he's an activist. For one person, he's a terrorist," Cuomo said.

Amid the controversy, the board's president, Lorraine Cortés Vázquez, admits having asked for public support to people like Edwin Meléndez, executive director of CUNY's influential Center for Puerto Rican Studies, also known as "Centro." That support never came. 

"I think the position of the director is the right one because Centro, at the end of the day, is an academic institution," said Harry Franqui-Rivera, former researcher with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. "And for Centro to establish its academic credentials, Centro must be impartial."

Weeks later, the City Council, led by López Rivera's friend and defender, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, cut Centro's annual public funding by almost 50 percent, leading people like Franqui-Rivera to believe there was a connection.

The Speaker's Office didn't answer our questions on this matter. It only released a statement indicating the Council added two new CUNY institutes to its Higher Education discretionary funding: one on Mexican studies and another on Haitian studies. Both received funding that equals the amount being cut from Centro's budget. 

Funds for Dominican Studies and Food Policy remain untouched.

"If there is a need to fund these centers, then the difference should have been split between Centro and the Dominican Studies program, or from another source. But it was not. Centro took the hit," said Gretchen Sierra-Zorita, former consultant with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. "This is why people are making this inference."

Meléndez and current Centro staffers declined to be interviewed. In a statement, he said its core services will continue unaffected, and indicated other funding sources will be identified.

Most of Centro's budget comes from the state. 

Activists and academics say Centro needs the funding now more than ever in order to continue its education and debate work at this time of crisis in Puerto Rico. 

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