Here is an excerpt from an article by Ana Portnoy (Global Voices) who offers background information on the massive financial and political pressures hitting the University of Puerto Rico in the face of austerity and hurricane devastation and wonders about the survival of affordable education in post hurricane Puerto Rico:
[. . .] The Fiscal Control Board’s reign has been characterized by austerity, and the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) figures among the public institutions it has singled out for steep budget cuts, campus and academic program eliminations and consolidations, tuition spikes, and payroll reductions — recommendations that UPR’s administration and the local government seem largely intent on following. With rumors regarding the privatization of Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority (PREPA) making their rounds as well, fear emerged that UPR could eventually head in the same direction.
A considerable portion of UPR’s student body and faculty, however, were resisting these measures, a two-month-long student strike earlier this year an example of this struggle.
The hurricane ‘paved the way for them to finish implementing their plans’
But then hurricanes Irma and María hit the archipelago with tremendous force, and the UPR campuses, all 11 of them, suffered considerable damage. After hurricane María, UPR assessed more than $118 million in losses system-wide; 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.
Before UPR decided to reopen its campuses, a number of universities stateside, such as Tulane University and Brown University, as well as private universities in Puerto Rico, started hurricane-relief programs, offering students an opportunity to continue their academic semester and studies. When UPR finally reopened, campuses were still plagued by fungus infestations, power outages, non-potable water service, closed libraries and research centers, and damaged classrooms, offices and public spaces.
This combination of forces could represent a problem for UPR: it could lose a significant portion of its student body, and that could put UPR at greater risk than before of falling victim to what Canadian journalist Naomi Klein calls the shock doctrine: a “brutal tactic of using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock […] to push through radical pro-corporate measures”. Faculty members, like professor Maritza Stanchich from UPR-Río Piedras, argued as much on Facebook [. . .].
‘They’re taking advantage of the tragic moment’
Recently, UPR’s Governing Board instructed that all deans should review all academic programs with the intention of substantially reducing the number of required credits, and present curricular alternatives so as to offer two-year programs of study (associate degrees).
At UPR-Mayagüez, where the rector was quick to implement the board’s resolution, professor Jorge Schmidt and many other faculty members worry the decision prioritizes profit over academic excellence, and would debilitate UPR’s role as a leading academic and research center: “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.”
UPR is the most important public higher education institution in Puerto Rico. A total of 46.1% of the population lives below the poverty line (and the numbers will increase post-hurricane María), and economic accessibility is already a problem for many who study at or want to attend the University of Puerto Rico. If UPR is privatized, a considerable sector of the population may find that they no longer have access to an affordable education on the archipelago.