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The University of Puerto Rico: Looming Threats of Privatization After Hurricanes Irma and María

Photo by Solana Larsen | CC BY 2.0

Long before hurricanes Irma and María utterly devastated Puerto Rico, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), the most important public higher education institution on the Archipelago, was weathering a storm of its own: austerity.

Puerto Rico is currently drowning under the weight of a $74 billion debt, and $49 billion in pension obligations, the likes of which is a product of a decades-long recession, illegal bond issuances and trades, and an overly-advertised tax haven. The legal framework that made these practices possible was enacted by the US Congress, implementing a rationale of exceptionality, establishing Puerto Rico as an exception to the tax code of the US. This has lead many to argue that PR’s debt is inherently colonial.

To try to deal with PR’s financial crisis, the US Congress legislated PROMESA [1], which former President Barack Obama signed into law in 2016, and which, among many things, allowed for the creation and establishment of an oversight board and a process for restructuring debt [2]. And so, an unelected Financial Oversight and Management Board [3], or, as it’s referred to locally, La Junta de Control Fiscal or the Fiscal Control Board, was undemocratically imposed onto Puerto Rico, and an austerity campaign has characterized its reign.

The fatal blow of the violence of austerity has spared no public service institution, including the University of Puerto Rico. Draconian budget cuts, campus and academic program eliminations and consolidations, tuition spikes, payroll reductions, worsening adjunct professorship conditions, UPR was being primed for these and other cut-throat measures. Rumors regarding the privatization of Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority (PREPA) were/are making their rounds as well, just as the rising popularity of public-private partnerships, and given the “restructuring” and fiscal plans [4] UPR’s administration, the Fiscal Control Board and the central local government were concocting for the University, fear emerged that UPR could be heading in the same direction,

However, even though UPR found itself under blatant neoliberal attacks, a considerable portion of its student body and faculty were resisting these measures and fighting back, UPR’s recent student strike  a protagonist of this struggle.

But then hurricanes Irma and María hit the Archipelago. And even though their passage was temporary, the aftereffects and the socio-political chaos they set off will be long-lasting, recovery an arduous road.

The UPR campuses, all 11 of them, suffered considerable damages and losses. After hurricane María, UPR assessed more than $118 million in losses system-wide [7], UPR-Humacao registered as the campus that suffered the most devastation, having been the closest to the area through which the eye of the hurricane entered Puerto Rico. Between hurricanes Irma and María, all campuses were closed for almost a month to more than five weeks, losing a considerable portion of the semester.

But beyond, and because, of these quantifiable and calculable consequences, profounder, more insidious dangers lurk on the horizon. And UPR affiliates and allies have already started pointing them out.

“CAREFUL, while perhaps for some this is well-intentioned, initiatives to offer students in hurricane-affected areas in-state tuition in states such as Florida might also embolden further shock-doctrine-style shake ups at UPR. […] I understand the positive intention of these initiatives, but I think it would be naive to think that they couldn’t be used in a disastrous way for UPR[8]. [Note: This was a public Facebook post uploaded on September 29, and there have been many exchanges about this since].”

As professor Maritza Stanchich, from UPR-Río Piedras, pointed out above, invoking journalist Naomi Klein, after the passing of both hurricanes, the University of Puerto Rico is at a greater risk than before of falling victim to the perils of disaster capitalism, and of having pro-corporate measures characteristic of the shock-doctrine shoved down its throat. Before UPR had decided to re-open its campuses, a number of universities stateside, such as Tulane University [9]  and Brown University [10], and private universities in Puerto Rico, started hurricane-relief programs, offering students an opportunity to continue their academic semester and studies. Although these initiatives are well-meaning and helpful to a portion of UPR’s student body (often a privileged portion of the student body that can afford the related expenses, that can leave their families, that had internet access to find out about or apply to these programs, etc.), they’re simultaneously creating a problematic situation [11] for UPR as an institution.

The University of Puerto Rico had a difficult choice to make after hurricane María, the repercussions of which are yet to be seen: on the one hand, UPR could decide not to continue with the semester because proper recovery and reconstruction would require an extensive amount of time, but watch as a portion of its student body was snatched away by universities stateside and private universities and colleges on the island itself. On the other hand, UPR could decide to reopen (which it did)[12], but watch a portion of its student body leave anyways, due to the fact that the University hasn’t been fully and properly rehabilitated to serve its student body, faculty and staff (there are fungus infestations; power outages and non-potable water service; closed libraries and research centers; damaged classrooms, offices and public spaces; etc.), and that the reality of Puerto Rico is not compatible with the “normality” the University is trying to craft and establish; either of the decisions having serious repercussions.

And it is clear that the University was pinned between this rock and a hard place, not by the hurricanes (the hurricanes just exacerbated the situation at hand), but by years of corrupt and inept government administrations and a colonial debt that PR has been amassing for the past decades, followed by the imposition of the Fiscal Control Board, and the resulting measures coated in austerity, privatization and plunder. A student from UPR-Río Piedras, Verónica del Carmen, comments on this complication, and the possible resulting privatization, as well:

“I’m not registered at the university this semester, so I don’t have to go back on Monday. But I read you, I hear you, and I feel anxious, sad, nervous… But mostly, I feel pissed, because if I were registered I’d have to choose between working or studying. Between eating or taking the bus. I would probably be planning with friends which would be the shelter with water and the best space for us to go rest and “study”. I think of the possibilities and get even more pissed. Both the government and the university’s administration have more than enough excuses to continue the privatization of UPR and the access to education. Hurricane María’s passing paved the way for them to finish implementing their plans. Closing campuses, increasing the cost of tuition, cutting grants and financial aid, letting buildings and student residencies fall into ruin, in other words, for UPR to only be for those who can afford it.[13]

It’s an important and concerning situation to consider and address: how many students will be able to keep up with the pace UPR has established to try and finish the semester in time; how many students will be able to handle the “normality” the University is trying to impose within its walls, while outside, beyond UPR grounds, a colonial-humanitarian crisis is unfolding?

In recent news, UPR’s Governing Board emitted a radical decision that UPR-Mayagüez’s rector was quick to implement. Rector Wilma Santiago instructed that all deans should begin to elaborate plans which contemplate the substantial reduction of the number of required credits for all academic programs, and present curricular alternatives so as to offer two-year programs of study, hence, associate degrees.

“They’re taking advantage of the tragic moment the country is going through to neutralize any possible opposition to their anti-academic measures that intend to convert UPR into a training center for technical jobs,” Jorge Schmidt, professor at UPR-Mayagüez, remarks regarding the decision of UPR’s Governing Board, a resolution that would transform UPR’s role as a leading academic and research center; that implies the reduction of faculty and spending on teaching/research-based resources; that privileges profit over academic excellence; a clear tell-tale of privatization.

To make matters worse, primary and secondary public education in Puerto Rico are under threat of privatization as well [15], Julia Keleher, the Secretary of Education of Puerto Rico, and her team using the hurricanes as an excuse to execute this transition, looking to New Orleans post-Katrina as a model.

UPR is the the most important public higher education institution in PR; 46.1% [16] of the population on the Archipelago lives below the poverty line (and it’s likely to increase post-hurricane María, the rate potentially rising to 59.8%, according to a study conducted by The Census Information Center (CIC) of UPR-Cayey ), and economic accessibility is already a problem for too many studying at or wanting to attend UPR. If UPR succumbs to the underlying threats of privatization, an accessible education will no longer be a possibility for a considerable sector of the population, especially for underserved communities of disadvantaged socio-economic sectors. Many would also be forced to take on student loans, incurring on student debt and sparking a debt-crisis like the one ailing the United States and many other countries. Public education as we know it would cease to exist, and only those affluent enough to afford the commodity education would become would have access to higher education.

Local and international media coverage have been focusing on the privatization and questionable dealings regarding Puerto Rico’s Power Authority (PREPA), but the spotlight should be shared; the University of Puerto Rico’s pressing vulnerable state must gain visibility. As time goes by in this post-Irma and María era in Puerto Rico, it’ll be important to remember that UPR’s bureaucratic and administrative forces, the local central government and the Fiscal Control Board will gather around a table, potable water in cool pitchers, the air conditioner with a low energy efficiency ratio at full blast because they’ve had their power restored, and fiddle around with the future of the University of Puerto Rico.

Notes.

[1] https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/4900

[2]https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/23/business/dealbook/puerto-rico-fights-for-chapter-9-bankruptcy-in-supreme-court.html

[3] https://juntasupervision.pr.gov/index.php/en/home/

[4]https://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/locales/nota/lajuntadegobiernoapruebaelplanfiscaldelaupr-2345228/

[5] http://dialogoupr.com/comunidad-universitaria-reacciona-la-aprobacion-del-plan-fiscal/#more-2312

[6] http://caribbeanbusiness.com/upr-students-vote-to-end-two-month-strike/

[7]https://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/locales/nota/elhuracanmariamuestralovulnerabledelaupr-2371734/

[8]https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fmaritza.stanchich%2Fposts%2F10155777494584549&width=500%22

[9] http://fortune.com/2017/10/14/tulane-free-tuition-puerto-rico/

[10] https://news.brown.edu/articles/2017/10/puerto-rico

[11] http://dialogoupr.com/contraste-de-alegria-y-preocupacion-en-reinicio-de-clases-de-rio-piedras/

[12] Another reason for UPR’s reopening involved issues with Pell Grants.

[13] Note: For the purposes of this piece, this Facebook post was translated from Spanish to English. https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FVeronicaFigueroaHuertas512%2Fposts%2F10155756940155890&width=500

[14] Note: For the purposes of this piece, this quote was translated from Spanish to English. http://www.primerahora.com/noticias/gobierno-politica/nota/denuncianmonumentalcambioenlaupr-1254987/

[15]https://theintercept.com/2017/11/08/puerto-rico-schools-system-with-post-katrina-new-orleans-as-the-model/

[16] https://datausa.io/profile/geo/puerto-rico/

https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/4900

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/23/business/dealbook/puerto-rico-fights-for-chapter-9-bankruptcy-in-supreme-court.html

https://juntasupervision.pr.gov/index.php/en/home/

https://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/locales/nota/lajuntadegobiernoapruebaelplanfiscaldelaupr-2345228/

https://www.metro.pr/pr/noticias/2017/08/01/appu-rechaza-plan-fiscal-aprobado-la-junta-gobierno-la-upr.html

http://dialogoupr.com/comunidad-universitaria-reacciona-la-aprobacion-del-plan-fiscal/#more-2312

http://caribbeanbusiness.com/upr-students-vote-to-end-two-month-strike/

https://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/locales/nota/elhuracanmariamuestralovulnerabledelaupr-2371734/

http://fortune.com/2017/10/14/tulane-free-tuition-puerto-rico/

http://fortune.com/2017/10/14/tulane-free-tuition-puerto-rico/

https://news.brown.edu/articles/2017/10/puerto-rico

http://dialogoupr.com/contraste-de-alegria-y-preocupacion-en-reinicio-de-clases-de-rio-piedras/

http://www.primerahora.com/noticias/gobierno-politica/nota/denuncianmonumentalcambioenlaupr-1254987/

https://theintercept.com/2017/11/08/puerto-rico-schools-system-with-post-katrina-new-orleans-as-the-model/

https://datausa.io/profile/geo/puerto-rico/

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