An Open Letter to the University of Puerto Rico Administration, Faculty, and Students, and to All Concerned Public Officials

Dec 4, 2018
3:03 pm

Photo by Moebiusuibeom-en (LINK)

The Puerto Rican Studies Association (PRSA) is a national professional association, founded in 1992 in White Plains, New York. We are scholars, educators, public policy experts, community activists and students. Our work focuses on Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in the United States.

Our recently concluded 13th Biennial Conference, held at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, was devoted to the theme: “Navigating Insecurity: Crisis, Power, and Protest in Puerto Rican Communities.” At the conference a membership meeting authorized our Executive Council to write and issue a letter as a strong statement of support for the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). It is in this context that we approved the following statement.

We write to express our alarm at the draconian budget cuts being imposed on the University of Puerto Rico by the Fiscal Oversight Management Board (FOMB) with the acquiescence of government and university authorities. These cuts will endanger the future of the island’s premier institution of higher education.

The recently announced intention to close down the program of defined benefits of the UPR Retirement System (Plan de Retiro) and to freeze benefits accumulated by its participants will do major harm to our colleagues in the UPR. As you know, the immediate impact will be the drying up of a revenue stream for the system. Under the depressed economic situation in Puerto Rico, it is highly unlikely that current faculty will be able to switch to a voluntary contribution pension program, privately operated. Without a stable and supported faculty there is no vibrant university. Another austerity measure that the Fiscal Control Board wants to implement is to reduce the pensions of 8,800 retired public employees. Educators who have devoted decades of work in the classroom are seeing their futures jeopardized by misguided policies and malfeasance of politicians and finance speculators. Reducing such incomes hurts the retirees and feeds the downward spiral of the economy, since their jobs generate economic activity, especially in towns with smaller campuses.

While these measures would bring severe hardship to our colleagues, it disturbs us equally to see how they imperil the future of the UPR and indeed of Puerto Rico itself. Other aspects of current educational policy are deeply concerning to us. First, the cuts will jeopardize the institution’s accreditation, especially since the Middle States has expressed concern about the impact of the FOMB’s proposed restructuring on UPR’s status and finances. Second, increasing intervention of partisan interests in the public university, along with the FOMB’s reluctance to consider alternative proposals and fiscal plans undermine the UPR’s stability and effectiveness. The university has had at least seven (7) presidents in the last seven years; most of its chancellors, deans, and other executive positions were abruptly fired without an adequate transition process. Third, historically whenever the UPR has reduced the availability of space and course offerings, it is lower‐income students who tend to get left out, due to K‐12 disparities. Campus consolidation, as proposed in recent plans of the FOMB, has the effect of increasing income inequality in the society.

We find fault with the FOMB’s refusal to define and make clear financial commitments to funding the island’s essential services in the aftermath of the post‐Maria federal aid. This failure permits an anti‐democratic federal apparatus to prioritize bondholders over the average Puerto Rican that relies on essential services. The University of Puerto Rico should be understood as a provider of an essential service. It is incumbent upon the FOMB to make a clear commitment prioritizing adequate funding for the UPR (before and after the destruction wreaked by Hurricanes Irma and Maria). FOMB’s current stance has the effect of leaving the door open to use of public funds to privilege payment to bondholders who knowingly exploited federal and local colonial laws to profit at the expense of the average Puerto Rican resident.

Then there is the issue of discriminatory treatment from federal authorities. It is evident that Puerto Rico received significantly less post‐hurricane educational assistance than did states such as Louisiana and Mississippi. After hurricane María, the island was eligible to access $41 million for student support, of which only a fifth (or 8.2 million) was targeted for the UPR. Post‐Katrina’s two southern states had access to $190 million. These are unfair designations by the United States Department of Education. Other aid programs, such as work‐study have been severely diminished and the call for the elimination of the Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (SEOG), which go to low‐income college students further compromise the UPR system. These intended cost savings undercut the capacity of young people to invest in their human capital and will likely feed the brain drain of Puerto Ricans from the homeland.

The UPR is a fundamental resource in other ways. It is the source of more than two‐ thirds of scientific research in the island. It is a leading institution in graduating STEM students (curricula in science, technology, engineering and mathematics), compared to colleges and universities in the fifty states. This is clearly a strength area for the rebuilding of Puerto Rico as the island envisions its future. The university significantly contributes to the health of Puerto Ricans, especially the medically indigent. It manages three hospitals, a number of tertiary medical institutions, and researches conditions that affect a large proportion of the population. The UPR contributes to the safe‐keeping and promotion of the island’s cultural heritage and owns or manages various museums and archives. Finally, it enhances the educational access of disadvantaged populations through numerous outreach programs in schools and marginalized communities and runs a library system that is open to the general public.

Finally, there is an important aspect to the present situation related to Puerto Rican civil society. We believe that current efforts to undermine the fiscal integrity of the University of Puerto Rico, as well as that of its faculty, retirees, staff and student body, are a threat to the University’s ability to produce autonomous professionals, a primary source of intellectual and policy contributions to improving the quality of life of the average Puerto Rican. The UPR teaches and trains the bulk of professionals in Puerto Rico. Public institutions like the University of Puerto Rico should be independent spaces, free from the manipulations of politicians. The UPR should be strengthened, not weakened, if we are to re‐build Puerto Rico.

In conclusion, the Puerto Rican Studies Association (PRSA) vehemently protests the treatment of faculty, staff, retirees, and students at the University of Puerto Rico. We protest the systematic undermining of the UPR system. There is a need for more creative and less harmful solutions to the current crisis. The people cannot – and will not – tolerate “remedies” that only mask the general austerity supported by those truly responsible for the crisis.

Sincerely,

Sincerely,
William Velez
Emeritus, University of Wisconsin
Outgoing President, incoming Ad Hoc Council Member
velez@uwm.edu

Salvador Mercado
Professor, University of Denver
Incoming President, outgoing Vice President
Salvador.Mercado@du.edu

Charles Venator Santiago
Associate Professor, University of Connecticut
Vice President Elect, outgoing Treasurer
venator2@gmail.com

Aldo Lauria Santiago
Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick At‐large Council Member
aldo.lauria@gmail.com

Alessandra Rosa
Assistant Professor, Lynn University Outgoing At‐large Council Member
aless12@gmail.com

Andres Torres
Emeritus, Lehman College, CUNY At‐large Council Member
andres.torres1@lehman.cuny.edu

Aurora Santiago Ortiz
Graduate Student, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Incoming Graduate Student Representative
asantiagoort@umass.edu

Harry Franqui
Associate Professor, Bloomfield College Incoming Treasurer
harryfranquirivera@gmail.com

Ivonne Garcia
Associate Professor, Kenyon College Incoming At‐large Council Member
garciai@kenyon.edu

Joanna Camacho Escobar
Incoming Secretary
jmcamachoescobar@gmail.com

Lisa F. Jahn
Graduate Student, City University of New York Graduate Student Representative
lisa.f.jahn@gmail.com

Marisol Lebron
Assistant Professor, University of Texas, Austin At‐large Council Member
mlebron9@gmail.com

Nelia Olivencia
Emerita, University of Wisconsin Outgoing Secretary
olivencn@gmail.com

***

PRSA Mission Statement—PRSA.UConn.edu

PRSA is a non‐profit professional organization founded in 1992 that brings together hundreds of scholars, educators, public policy experts, community activists and students whose work focus on Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans in the United States, or both. PRSA members represent virtually all fields of research and teaching in the Humanities, Social Sciences and Arts, including Anthropology, Architecture, Art History, Demography, Economics, Educational Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, Music, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Public Administration, Social Work, Sociology, Studio Arts, Theater and Dance, and Urban Planning, among others.

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