Caribbean Universities in Crisis

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Senior university leaders in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and elsewhere in the Caribbean discuss the damage caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which destroyed buildings and displaced students. A report by Elizabeth Redden for Inside Higher Ed.

A little more than a week after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico at Category 4 strength, the extent of the damage to the University of Puerto Rico’s 11 campuses remains unclear. With telecommunications in the U.S. territory still knocked out, roads in places impassable and gasoline in short supply, Darrel Hillman, the university’s interim president, said a lack of communication between the campuses has been a problem.

It has also been difficult to communicate with the university’s approximately 60,000 students. “The only way that we can communicate with people will be by radio,” Hillman said.

The university’s most pressing need is electrical power. With power out across Puerto Rico, Hillman said that obtaining additional diesel to keep generators going is a priority. In particular, he said, the university needs diesel for generators to power the central student and employee information system and in order to continue to keep sensitive research-related infrastructure — including a building housing laboratory animals and refrigerators containing liquid gases that can explode at certain temperatures — appropriately cooled.

Power has been restored to the medical sciences campus and the university hospital, which is treating patients, though Hillman said Wednesday the power supply is fragile and has been going in and out. None of the 11 campuses, including the medical sciences campus, are open for classes, and Hillman said there’s no reopening date to announce as of yet. He hopes classes might restart within a month or six weeks — “that’s a very gross estimate” — and said it is possible students from the more badly hit campuses will need to be relocated to other campuses that sustained less damage. It appears, he said, that the university’s campuses in Arecibo and Humacao were hit the hardest.

Senior leaders at the University of Puerto Rico, the University of the Virgin Islands and the University of the West Indies all talked with Inside Higher Ed about the destruction caused by Hurricanes Maria and Irma when they swept through the Caribbean earlier this month. The storms damaged buildings, displaced students and promised to stress already strained budgets.

In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria came on top of a deep financial crisis that has implications for the island’s flagship public university. The University of Puerto Rico’s accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, put eight of the university’s 11 campuses on probation in May, partly due to concerns about finances and institutional resources.

Sarah Muir and Frances Negrón-Muntaner, co-chairs of a research group at Columbia University that has focused on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, said they would like to see a coordinated effort to support Puerto Rican higher education, similar to what happened in 2005 when other institutions took in students from New Orleans universities after Hurricane Katrina. In that case, many universities waived tuition for the displaced students who had already paid, keeping their tuition dollars at the New Orleans colleges.

“There is an emergency at the moment. There are displaced people; there is a danger that students will not complete their studies, that this will have long-term individual effects on people,” said Negrón-Muntaner, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia with a joint appointment in the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.

“But this also allows an opportunity — tragically — but it provides an opportunity to think about the inequities that have been inherent in the model of postsecondary education in Puerto Rico and other territories and also the lack of collaboration that exists by and large between American higher education institutions and Puerto Rican ones” — and to develop deeper linkages, Negrón-Muntaner said.

Some Florida colleges have agreed to offer in-state tuition to students from Puerto Rico who were displaced by Hurricane Maria, following a request from Governor Rick Scott. According to various news reports and announcements from colleges, Florida colleges offering in-state tuition to displaced Puerto Rican students include Broward CollegeHillsborough Community CollegeMiami Dade CollegePalm Beach State CollegeSeminole State College of Floridathe University of Central Florida and Valencia CollegeSt. Petersburg College said Thursday it would provide in-state tuition and waive its $40 admission fee for displaced students from Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Houston area, which sustained severe flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

The University of the Virgin Islands

The U.S. Virgin Islands were hit first by Irma, then Maria, both of which came through the U.S. territory at Category 5 strength. David Hall, the president of the University of the Virgin Islands, said the university’s students and staff have all been accounted for. “Physically, they are all safe. However, you can imagine the personal losses that they have suffered. Many have lost their homes and others have had their homes extremely damaged, and even those who are still living in their homes may not have power or a lot of other things that we have grown accustomed to,” Hall said. The university has started a relief fund, called UVI Rise, to raise money for students, faculty and staff affected by the hurricanes.

Hall said the university’s two campuses in St. Thomas and St. Croix sustained extensive physical damage. “These are rough estimates because adjusters are just coming in, but we estimate somewhere between $40 million and $60 million in damages to facilities on both of our campuses at this particular time,” Hall said.

“With Irma, our St. Thomas campus was severely damaged. I would say somewhere between 25 to 30 percent of our buildings were destroyed or damaged in such a way where they are uninhabitable. Our newest and premier residence hall was severely damaged, and we cannot put students back there. Our premier performing arts center, the Reichhold Center, which I will boastfully say was the best performing arts center in the Caribbean, was totally destroyed. We’ve had numerous other academic buildings and administrative buildings where the roofs came off, so those are not habitable.”

He continued, “Maria did not do as much damage on the physical structure, in regards to buildings — Irma had pretty much taken care of that — but it provided a lot of water damage on both campuses, and Maria had a more serious impact on our St. Croix campus. One of our new buildings, the research and technology park, has substantial damage, but portions of it that house our College of Science and Math we’re going to try to bring back online as soon as possible.”

Hall doesn’t expect insurance to cover the entire cost of rebuilding. But beyond the capital costs, he’s concerned about the operating budget. “This is a tremendous loss to our operating budget, in two ways,” he said. “Of course there are some students who have withdrawn and therefore we have to refund them their tuition monies. More importantly, we receive 50 percent of our funding from the local government, and the economy of the Virgin Islands has been severely damaged by this. So allotments that we would normally get from them have not been forthcoming. I anticipate that’s going to be a problem for a while, and yet we still need to operate. We still have to pay people; we still have to make sure that all of the things that are necessary for a university to function are in place. That is the place where I really hope that those looking upon this tragedy would be open to supporting the university so we can continue to provide the high-quality education that we have provided in the past.”

Hall said the university, which enrolls 2,400 students, many of whom commute to the institution, is working toward a goal of resuming classes Oct. 9. When classes do resume, UVI will be operating under certain constraints. Among them, it can’t count on students having internet access at home, and it won’t be able to hold night classes both because of a curfew and because much of its lighting was destroyed in the storm. The university is currently relying on generator power for its electricity.

“The Oct. 9 goal is an aggressive one, but we’re trying to be aggressive because our students are ready to get back into the classroom,” Hall said. “They want their educational dreams to go forward. Some of them are seniors and they want to graduate on time, and others who are not want to stay on track.”

Elsewhere in the Caribbean

The University of the West Indies, which has campuses and online learning centers across 17 Caribbean countries and territories, has suffered damage from hurricanes before. But with three of its locations currently inoperable — and the one in Dominica almost totally destroyed by Hurricane Maria — the situation it’s facing this fall is unprecedented.

“We have approximately 400 students who study with us online in Dominica, and in terms of those who would have participated in our ongoing continuing education courses, that could be another 600 students for the semester alone. We’re really looking at students being totally dislocated; there are no projections for electricity to be restored for the rest of this year,” said Luz M. Longsworth, the pro vice chancellor and principal of UWI’s Open Campus.

Longsworth said the university, using text messaging, has only managed to make connection with about 100 of its students on Dominica. On the one hand, that’s not many; on the other, she said, “It is remarkable that we’re even hearing from that many of our students. There is no electricity in the interior part of the island, and if they’ve lost electricity they wouldn’t have any phone charge, so many of them would have to physically come to us for us to tick off who we have heard from. We are quite hopeful that there isn’t any loss of life among our students, because that seems to be fairly well accounted for in terms of the names of the persons [who died], and none of those names have appeared on our list, but it is just the inability to communicate at this point in time, we’re assuming.”

Longsworth said the university’s 14 staff members in Dominica are accounted for. Though there is extensive water damage to the university site, and much equipment was damaged — some, it appears, was looted — one small building was left unharmed. “Our library is destroyed, but our librarian had carefully put away the books,” Longsworth said. “Right now they are OK, but we are anxious to get them into some waterproof containers so we can protect them from the moisture. The collections are one-of-a-kind collections on the history and culture of Dominica that you can find nowhere else.”

In addition to the site in Dominica, Longsworth said an online learning site in Anguilla is closed for classes: electricity has been restored, but not internet connectivity. Also closed is a site in Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, which is relying on generator power and currently being used for emergency relief efforts. Both the Anguilla and Tortola sites suffered minimal damage. And UWI’s three main physical campuses — which are located in Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago — have been spared the brunt of the hurricanes that swept through other parts of the Caribbean.

For online students who are displaced, Longsworth said they can pick up their studies wherever they find an internet connection. “In a sense we are hopeful that having a presence in 44 physical sites, 17 physical countries, and also having a presence in the clouds gives us a great deal of resilience in terms of being able to recover much more quickly than if we are teaching only face-to-face, let’s say, in Dominica,” she said.

Caribbean Medical Schools

The Caribbean islands are also home to a number of for-profit medical schools that largely teach American and Canadian students. Some of those campuses have also sustained damage and evacuated their students.

Ross University School of Medicine, which is located in storm-ravaged Dominica and owned by the U.S.-based for-profit education company Adtalem Global Education (formerly DeVry), reported Tuesday that it had completed evacuating all of its students who were on Dominica at the time Hurricane Maria hit. The university’s dean and chancellor, William F. Owen Jr., said in a message that Ross is working on a plan to resume its basic science program — which comprises the first two preclinical years of medical education — in an alternative location, to be determined (clinical training occurs at U.S. hospitals and has not been disrupted).

Owen said in a message on Ross’s website Wednesday that “in considering new potential sites of instruction, we are focused on identifying a location that will be conducive to intensive medical study; meet the rigorous academic expectations of our accreditors; support continued access to federal student loans; and nicely balance study and recreation.”

“We expect to communicate a decision soon from our list of options for a locale. There will be no classes for the next two weeks, so recuperate, refuel and bond with your loved ones,” Owen told students.

Another Adtalem-owned medical school, the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine, in St. Maarten, announced after Hurricane Irma hit the island that it would hold its fall semester classes at a location in the United Kingdom. The medical school initially announced plans to start classes at the U.K. location Sept. 29 — today — but in a statement Thursday Adtalem said the school is still “finalizing details” for the temporary relocation.

“AUC is working to secure all regulatory approvals to do so, and working to finalize an agreement with University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) to utilize UCLan’s teaching facilities and student support services. We are so pleased to partner with UCLan in this effort and we greatly appreciate their hospitality and assistance. While these final arrangements and approvals are still pending, AUC students have begun arriving in Preston to prepare for the planned start of classes,” the statement said.

Another Caribbean medical school, All Saints University, in Dominica, said in a message on its website that “evacuation of students is on course’ and that lectures for students from Dominica would resume Oct. 2 at the university’s other campus in in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

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