Open Letter to the University of Puerto Rico

11/27/2018

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE UNIVERSITY OF PUERTO RICO ADMINISTRATION, FACULTY, AND STUDENTS, AND TO ALL CONCERNED PUBLIC OFFICIALS

Responses to incoming PRSA Vice President Charles Venator Santiago–venator2@gmail.com

 

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,

 

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

Postdoctoral Scholar, University of South Florida

Outgoing Communications Officer

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 Communications Officer

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

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PRSA Mission Statement—PRSA.UConn.edu

 

PRSA is a non-profit professional organization founded in 1992 that brings together 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, numbering several hundred, 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.