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Special Report: Puerto Rico’s Eleven Campuses, One University, Many Strikes

Protesters at the University of Puerto Rico are a bunch of lazy students who use their Pell Grants to buy beer, cigarettes and coke. — Carlos Romero Barceló (governor of Puerto Rico 1976-1984), May 2010

Students from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) went on strike in April, and, soon after, 10 of the 11 campuses of a public system with more than 60,000 students were closed. “Once recintos, una universidad” (eleven campuses, one university) was the maxim students used to emphasize the concept of the UPR as a system unified by similar goals, aspirations and challenges. A national body was formed to lead and coordinate the protest throughout the island. For the first time, faculty from the entire system met to discuss the state of affairs at UPR and determine how best to support the strike. National and international figures have voiced their support, and the media from Puerto Rico and abroad have covered the university strike extensively. Repeated attempts by the government to portray strikers as communists failed.  

Higher education historians will study this strike thoroughly. It could well be one of the most significant strikes in the history of an institution that has experienced numerous episodes of student unrest since its founding in 1903. Although each strike had its unique characteristics, the literature suggests they all share three defining aspects: the colonial origin of the university, the efforts to democratize its governance and the demands for institutional autonomy.

Colonial Origin

The United States founded UPR in 1903, five years after it wrested Puerto Rico from Spain during the Spanish-American War. The university’s mission was to continue at the higher education level what the U.S. military forces initiated in 1898. The occupation of Puerto Rico produced resistance to the U.S. colonial enterprise, which can be found in each of the university conflicts since 1919.

In his study of colonialism, “Culture and Imperialism,” Dr. Edward W. Said states that: “The slow and often bitterly disputed recovery of geographical territory, which is at the heart of decolonization, is preceded as empire had been by the charting of cultural territory. After the period of ‘primary resistance,’ literally fighting against outside intrusion, there comes the period of secondary, that is, ideological resistance, when efforts are made to reconstitute a shattered community, to save or restore the sense and fact of community against all the pressures of the colonial system. …” 

The cost of UPR’s colonial origin and history of political control and intervention has been enormous. By the 1920s, UPR was a key instrument of U.S. rule and was also besieged by the Puerto Rican political forces participating in the colonial government.

Referring to the constant political intervention in university affairs, the first chancellor, Dr. Thomas E. Benner, complained in 1928 that such intervention evidences the government’s refusal “to leave in peace an institution to (which) such peace is essential.” This pattern of intervention led the Middle States Association (MSA) to deny accreditation to UPR in 1937. The university was accredited in 1946.

Governance and University Autonomy

Governance concerns power. Who is in charge? Who makes decisions? Who has a voice, and how loud is that voice? —Dr. Henry Rosovsky

Since UPR’s founding in 1903, the commonwealth has denied the university community anything more than a cursory role in institutional governance. Although publicly supporting the academic and fiscal autonomy of the university, the government historically has not shied away from imposing campuses and programs and manipulating the financing formula included in the university law.

Despite the appearance of transparency and rigor in the selection process of the university’s leadership, it is generally understood that the appointees will come from the ranks of the political party in power. According to news reports, the top aide to Gov. Luis Fortuño, Marcos Rodríguez-Emma, invited to his office two university trustees who had not yet decided which of the three finalists for president they would support. The two were allegedly asked to vote for Dr. José Ramón de la Torre, who shortly after was appointed president. These reports gained credence when one of the finalists, Dr. Jorge Sánchez, withdrew his candidacy and denounced outside political interference in the selection process. A leading newspaper in Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Día, wrote an editorial on Jan. 30 condemning such interference and stating that de la Torre’s presidency was on probation.

In his first significant step as president, de la Torre, without consulting the UPR community, successfully sought the approval by the board of trustees of Certification 98 (2009-2010, Feb. 20) — which declared a moratorium on tuition waivers for student-athletes and artists, students participating in honor programs, and students working as teaching and research assistants. This measure also negatively impacted the waivers available to employees, their spouses and dependents. This certification triggered a strike that lasted almost 60 days. 

Good Grief

In keeping with its history of unilateralism, the state first imposed de la Torre on the university, who in turn instituted policies with far-reaching consequences for those hopeful of a quality, affordable higher education. Upset with the unrest at UPR, Fortuño stated that public higher education was a privilege, not a right. Fortuño’s remark is a significant departure from the generally accepted view that Puerto Rico’s constitution has evolved to recognize postsecondary education as a right of its citizenry. 

The strike succeeded in making a compelling case for an affordable public higher education. Also, the student body came together to address their grievances and organized effectively to accomplish their goals and objectives. The profound social and economic crisis in Puerto Rico allowed their protest to resonate with the population at large. As a result, university officials reluctantly accepted a legally binding agreement facilitated by a court-appointed arbitrator to end the strike. Such agreement incorporated the following demands of the student body (Certification 131, 2009-2010):

—Tuition waivers will continue in its present form until the true state of university finances is determined.

— The board of trustees will release its financial statements.

— The implementation of a University Stabilization Quota would be postponed until the financial state of the UPR is ascertained. (Certification 146

    2009-2010, June 29)

— None of the campuses will be sold. (Certification 130 2009-2010, June 16)

— Strikers will not be subject to summary disciplinary actions.


Trouble on the Horizon

Soon after the strike ended, government leaders and the UPR board of trustees moved to rescind the agreements reached to end the strike. In violation of such agreements, a new fee has been announced for January 2011. To have absolute control of the UPR, the governing party legislated to increase the total of trustees from 13 to 17 members. The additional four members have already been appointed by the governor, who now appoints 14 of the 17 trustees. In a scathing editorial on June 28, El Nuevo Día blames the government for provoking the existing crisis at the university.

Finally, university and governmental authorities have claimed that the strike has jeopardized the university’s accreditation and threatened the federal funds available to UPR. Both U.S. education officials and MSA representatives have contradicted these allegations. In letters dated Oct. 28, 2009 and June 24, 2010 the MSA states that the crisis facing the institution is the result of UPR decisions that have resulted in deficient governance, leadership, compliance and oversight.

As in previous instances of student strikes, governmental and university officials will reorganize and put into practice the slogan “don’t get angry, get even.” This already started with the increase in the number of trustees, the announcement of a new fee for January 2011 and the initiation of disciplinary actions against student leaders. In addition, the political party in power will soon have appointed UPR’s entire executive leadership. According to news reports, the government will also seek a university law that better serves its interests. And, as in previous occasions, once the sectors involved recover from this crisis, a new one will develop. In the meantime, Puerto Rican public higher education will continue to suffer from its colonial origin, the lack of democratic governance and the absence of university autonomy.   

Dr. Pablo Navarro-Rivera is an associate professor at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the book Universidad de Puerto Rico: De control político a crisis permanente 1903-1952.

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