After more than 50 days of a sustained strike that suspended campus activities altogether, students at the University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras campus voted to end the protest on Monday. Classes are expected to begin again next week.
Students were protesting proposed budget cuts that many say would greatly impact the university’s ability to deliver on its mission. As Puerto Rico seeks to resolve its public debt of more than $70 billion, UPR’s government subsidy is on the chopping block.
The fiscal control board instated by Congress to rectify the island’s finances has proposed reducing the annual government subsidy to the university by $450 million in five years, representing a reduction of more than half of what it currently receives. Over the past four years, the university has received $833.9 million annually.
“The biggest cuts from the public budget are going to be on the shoulders of the university,” said Ana Matanzo Vicens, professor at the UPR School of Law.
To date, UPR has been the source of an affordable education for thousands of Puerto Ricans. It is regarded as a vibrant institution of public education on the island, contributing in a vital way to the Puerto Rican economy.
UPR’s budget would face significant reduction as early as next year. In the fiscal control board’s most recent budget proposal, UPR would see a $202 million cut next year. The university has few options with which make up the difference — it has an endowment of approximately $110 million and relatively limited alumni giving. Raising tuition would not solve the problem, particularly since projected fall enrollments are down in the wake of the turmoil.
“The public university’s budget as we know it up until now is going to be drastically transformed,” Matanzo said.
Rio Piedras is the largest campus within the UPR system, typically serving around 14,000 students. Located in the capital of San Juan, it has historically been the center of student protest movements. The most recent strike, which began at UPR Rio Piedras on March 28, soon spread to other campuses.
Up until Monday, UPR Rio Piedras was facing increasing pressure to reopen in time to allow students to finish out the semester. Top administrators quit last month after they were ordered by the court to reopen the Rio Piedras campus or else face jail time.
The university also faces a threat to its accreditation. On May 18, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education put eight of the system’s 11 campuses on probation.
Students voted 2,209 to 82 to end the strike. Organizers of the student movement said that they were committed to continuing the protest even as classes resumed.
Nevertheless, the ultimate fate of the university still hangs in the balance. “We’re actually about right where we started. It’s quite sad, really,” said Gilberto Dominguez, a law student at UPR Río Piedras and an elected member of the UPR Governing Board.
Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.