Puerto Rico’s University Is Paralyzed by Protests and Facing Huge Cuts

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A report by Frances Robles for the New York Times.

The gates of the University of Puerto Rico are chained shut and festooned with protest signs and students’ desks.

Facing jail time for failing to reopen a school that students have shut down for nearly two months, the university president quit on Tuesday — the second to do so this year. So many members of the board of trustees resigned that the board no longer has the quorum required to hire a new boss.

The accreditation of eight of the school’s 11 campuses was put on probation late last week, and next year’s admissions at the main Rio Piedras campus dropped 25 percent.

The University of Puerto Rico has been a consistent source of pride, a place that educates many of the island’s doctors, lawyers and engineers at a cost that makes it attainable even for people from the humblest backgrounds.

Now, the cascading financial crisis that forced Puerto Rico to declare a form of bankruptcy earlier this month also threatens to decimate its public university. The school receives 90 percent of its funding from a central government that cannot pay $123 billion in bond debt and pension obligations. A financial oversight board that runs Puerto Rico’s affairs has said the university’s budget needs to be sliced by about half. The crisis is both imperiling its future and pitting students against one another — those keeping the institution closed versus those eager to resume their studies.

University supporters say the cuts are jeopardizing an institution that helped Puerto Rico transform from an agrarian society dependent on sugar and tobacco into a modern middle-class society and whose graduates are essential to rescuing the island from its fiscal quagmire.

“The University of Puerto Rico was the most important cultural and social project that Puerto Rico had in the 20th century, and it was going to continue being so in the 21st century,” said Silvia Álvarez Curbelo, a historian who published an anthology about the history of the university. “I have been at the university for 30 years — I will retire next year — and I have seen many of these movements. This is the worst.

“Because in previous events like this, there wasn’t this feeling that everything is collapsing, and there’s no light at the end of any tunnel at all.”

The University of Puerto Rico was founded in 1903, mostly as a place to educate teachers. It now has nearly 60,000 students across 11 campuses, and is considered the cradle of Puerto Rico’s leftist thought. Known affectionately as “La Yupi,” U.P.R. offers 452 degree-based programs, including 40 at the doctorate level, a medical school and a law school.

But tuition is just $56 a credit, so a full course load costs less than $1,700 a year. At least half the students are dependent on federal Pell grants, meaning they pay no tuition at all, and even get a subsidy for living expenses.

In a desperate mission to raise revenue and cut costs, the administration drafted a plan to increase tuition based on a family’s ability to pay. Half the student body would see no increase, but the highest-earning parents, about a quarter of the student body, would see tuition more than double.

For some students, that was too much. “Zero cuts” and “zero tuition increases” became the mantra of the student body.

“The problem isn’t raising the tuition, it’s raising the tuition to pay bondholders,” said Loderay Bracero Marrero, an environmental science major who is a spokeswoman for the student committee. “If you tell me you are going to raise tuition so you can offer more courses, that’s different. These cuts are not to improve, they are to impoverish.”

The school’s chief financial officer, Norberto González, noted that many students pay far less for college than they did for high school.

He said the government had not been clear on how much the university would have to cut from its $900 million budget, but the figures bandied about in internal government documents — anywhere from $241 million to $512 million by 2026 — would be impossible to accomplish without gutting the university. Officials have already spent years cutting back on bonuses, raises and other academic expenses like books and conferences. The university proposed a plan that phases in more modest cuts, but the board of trustees rejected it.

“We are willing to right-size or downsize or whatever you want to call it,” Mr. González said. “The students’ requests are noble and all, but the university does not have the control over the majority of the things they are requesting.”

Dr. Carlos Pérez Díaz, an alumnus who was president of the board of trustees until his resignation Tuesday, said students should be protesting somewhere else, like maybe the governor’s mansion.

“I feel sad, frustrated,” Dr. Pérez said in an interview last week, before he stepped down. “It doesn’t matter what you try to do. You can offer something, but it’s not enough.”

The governor’s office has said that it agrees that the proposed cuts are too severe and that it hopes to reach a compromise with the fiscal board in New York.

Some campuses had already voted to lift the student strike. On Thursday night, the main campus voted to lift it when the university board of governors ratifies a compromise that would delay tuition increases for a year. But the board still has eight of 14 seats vacant, so ratification will not happen immediately.

A group of six law students had taken the university to court to force it to reopen. A judge sided with them, and began fining the university $1,000 a day. The school asked the police to help, but authorities have been unwilling to engage in a potentially violent clash with students.

Students stormed a board of trustees meeting, and a May 1 protest turned violent, so already lawmakers have submitted several new bills that would increase penalties on acts of disobedience.

“We see it as a kidnapping of a public institution,” said Anamar Menéndez, 36, one of the law students who sued to get classes to resume. “If the students want to strike, fine, let them strike, but the university has to offer its services.”

Carlos V. Villegas, 25, another plaintiff, said the students conflated the right to free speech with the right to take over a public building.

“People are confusing freedom of speech and vandalism,” he said.

But even some of the creditors are taken aback by the proposed cuts.

“I think there is little question that the cutbacks that are being proposed relative to the University of Puerto Rico are draconian,” said Nader Tavakoli, the former chief executive of Ambac Assurance, an insurer of Puerto Rican bonds.

Mr. Tavakoli said although students had a right to be upset, there had been too much emphasis on despair, which, like the deep university cuts and the strike itself could wind up having unintended consequences.

“That lack of aspiration, lack of hope, is going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “The numbers we are seeing — $280 million, $450 million — those are just too big. People need to sit in a room and have a dialogue to do this in a way that’s sensible and doesn’t completely change the nature of a public institution that has done a lot of good.”

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