Social Protest and the Future of Higher Education in Puerto Rico

Hidden from the eyes of the world, the most intense struggle for democracy and public education since the 1960s is now under way in Puerto Rico. The outcome is uncertain.
By Victor M. Rodríguez

In 2010, in thirty states across the nation, students and faculty members protested for access to public education and against tuition and fee hikes. A common theme of the protests was the fear that rising tuition would effectively privatize public higher education, making it inaccessible to a broad segment of the nation’s youth. These protests were followed by massive demonstrations in early 2011 over the efforts of states like Wisconsin and Ohio—under the guise of cutting deficits—to limit the ability of labor unions to engage in collective bargaining.

Puerto Rico was not immune to these deficit-cutting policies; what was unique and terrifying was the government’s violent repression of faculty, staff, and student protests.

In April 2010, after gathering by the thousands in a massive assembly, students voted to strike to repudiate an $800 tuition increase, which amounted to a 50 percent hike. They occupied the largest campus of the University of Puerto Rico system, in Rio Piedras, for two months. At various points during this period, all but one of the system’s eleven campuses were closed. These protests won island-wide support from labor unions as well as religious, professional, and community organizations. This initial stage of the protests also led to an agreement with the UPR administration that included a postponement of the tuition increase. However, late in 2010, the UPR administration again decided to impose the $800 tuition fee increase, so the protests continued into 2011.

After a year of instability, the social conflict at the University of Puerto Rico is polarizing the island to such an extent that this US possession, which used to be heralded as a “showcase of democracy” during the Cold War ideological struggles, is now sliding into systematic civil and human rights violations. The University of Puerto Rico, for the first time in decades, is occupied by police. Political demonstrations are banned; summary expulsions of student leaders are common; and hundreds of students have been arrested, beaten, and at times sexually assaulted or tortured.

On February 9, 2011, riot police violently intervened in Rio Piedras because students were painting murals protesting the fee increase and the police presence on campus. The students were creating the murals in an area of campus where they are routinely allowed to do that. Not this time. Twenty-eight students were arrested, many were hurt, and chaos ensued when police used pepper gas and batons to arrest students and bystanders. The police violence was of such a magnitude that the faculty organization, the Puerto Rican Association of Professors, and the Brotherhood of Nonfaculty Employees called for a twenty-four-hour strike, which was later extended to seventy-two hours.

The university was closed. The president of the system, José Ramón de la Torre, after writing a letter requesting the removal of the police from the campus, announced that he was resigning. Nonetheless, the hostility to dissent did not end. Unlike in the protests over the curtailment of collective bargaining rights in Madison, the specialized units of the Puerto Rican police did not join the protesters; instead, they used excessive force against them. The prevailing attitude of government officials is best illustrated by a comment made by Marcos Rodríguez Emma, Governor Luis Fortuño’s chief of staff: “Sincerely, I would kick them [the students] out of the university and would fire the professors who allow themselves to be used.”

Social Movement or Permanent Crisis?

With the exception of the 2009 and 2010 student protests at University of California campuses in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Santa Cruz and the recent protests by students and faculty members of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, most in today’s academic community have not organized into a broad social movement to challenge the ideology underlying the restructuring of how public higher education is financed. Puerto Rico may be a significant exception. In some sense, as political scientist Laurel Weldon argues in her recent book When Protest Makes Policy, the social movement for public education in Puerto Rico has provided a voice for a segment of society that felt powerless while the government dismantled public higher education and created the basis for a seemingly permanent crisis.

Since its founding in 1903, the University of Puerto Rico has had to face the political intervention of the state. The university was organized during the period just after the US military government of Puerto Rico ended. The chancellor was provided with broad powers, and higher education became part of the “Americanization” process that was used with other racial minorities in the United States. The university was modeled on the system created for the education of African Americans and Native Americans during a period when social Darwinism permeated American culture and some political and educational leaders took a paternalistic view of the “natives” of newly acquired territories.

Unfortunately, this colonial legacy is still woven into the institutional norms and practices of the university. In fact, it was the government’s extensive intervention into university affairs—almost every chancellor was under the direct control of the governor—that led the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools to refuse to accredit the university in 1937 (accreditation was granted in 1946). The university’s colonial origin, its centralized administration, and the intrusion of partisan politics are the sources of most of the social conflicts that have pervaded the history of the institution. In 1942 and 1948, faculty, staff, and students protested political encroachment, leading to two major strikes that closed down the university. Throughout the 1960s and 1980s, university life was again punctuated by protests, calls for educational reform, and debates about whether fiscal autonomy might ensure the academic community a central role in governance.

While strikes and protests have been relatively common throughout the history of the university, three factors have converged today that together could either crush the hope for progressive educational reform or create the momentum for real reform in the not-too-distant future: first, the worst recession the island has experienced since the 1930s, one that began two years before the downturn on the mainland; second, the political intervention in university affairs by Puerto Rico’s Fortuño administration; and third, the use of force against protesters.

The protest movement’s efforts to link with other sectors of Puerto Rican society—especially environmental, community, and labor groups—and the resignation of the university leadership have elicited such deep-seated fear that the island’s government is using unconstitutional surveillance tactics. On December 19, 2010, the island’s superintendent of police, former FBI agent José Figueroa Sancha, admitted that police used video surveillance during the university protests. Later, in March 2011, the police approved a protocol for the videotaping of protests, despite a 1990s ruling of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court banning the use of unrestricted surveillance against political dissidents.

The University and the Governing Party

When this article went to press, Miguel Muñoz, former chancellor of the engineering campus in the western city of Mayagüez, was the interim president of the UPR system. While a process exists to name a permanent replacement, the faculty senates of four campuses in the university system have refused to participate in the search. The other four created search committees, yet two of them chose “none of the above”; only one, the Bayamon branch, has supported the interim president. In fact, even the engineering school in Mayagüez, where the interim president served as chancellor, did not participate in the search process.

Decades of politically partisan intervention in university affairs have fostered mistrust among faculty, staff, and students. Puerto Rico’s legislature expanded the number of trustees who govern the system so that lawmakers could name people loyal to the governing party. As a result of an electoral landslide in 2008, the legislature is now under the full control of the New Progressive Party (PNP), which is led by Governor Fortuño. (The system of government on the island does not allow for recalls, as in some states.)

The PNP, which is neither progressive nor new, has supported statehood for Puerto Rico since the party’s creation in 1968. It has used its almost unrestricted power to increase the number of judges on the island’s supreme court to solidify its control of the judiciary. The police force under José Figueroa Sancha, an appointee of Governor Fortuño, has been militarized, and a number of new units have been created, including the Unit for Tactical Operations and the Special Arrests Unit. Sancha also has increased the deployment of SWAT units with automatic weapons, and Tasers, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and shields have been used to quell student protests.

The US Department of Justice, in response to a December 20, 2010, request by the American Civil Liberties Union, is investigating the police of Puerto Rico. In January 2011, two high-ranking members of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division visited the island to investigate. The local civil liberties union and other organizations from Puerto Rico’s civil society expect that some form of consent decree will be implemented this year to curb the widespread violations of human and civil rights. The crisis led US Representative Luis Gutiérrez, a Democrat from Illinois who is of Puerto Rican descent, to denounce the violations in a session of Congress.

The protests quieted in spring 2011, however, after an incident in which Ana Guadalupe, chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, was attacked with water bottles and pushed by students. While she was unhurt, the incident divided supporters of the strike. Most of the student protests now are held through conferences, meetings with community leaders, and strategy sessions. The police remain on campus, but the local media have limited their coverage of student organizing. And even during the most active period of the protests, in spring 2010, coverage by media from the mainland was scant. The principal non–Puerto Rican outlets to report on the crisis were Al Jazeera and Tele Sur (of Venezuela). In order to break the silence, students in Puerto Rico, like their Egyptian counterparts, created media outlets of their own to tell the world what was happening in this US territory. The website Estudiantes de la UPR Informan (UPR Students Inform) and the radio station Radio Huelga (Radio Strike), managed and controlled by students, cover the events and promote dialogue about the issues.

Public Education and Economic Crisis

Hidden from the eyes of the world, and especially from the US public, the most intense struggle for democracy and public education since the 1960s is now under way on this island with 3.7 million inhabitants. “The epicenter of the struggle for the public university in Latin America is Puerto Rico,” said José Carlos Luque Brazán, a professor and researcher of political science and urban planning at the Autonomous University in Mexico City.

The academic community on the Rio Piedras campus has led the island-wide movement. Rio Piedras, which has twenty thousand students and one thousand faculty members, is a selective research-intensive university and the most prestigious institution of higher education in the Caribbean. Because of its selectivity, Rio Piedras also has the most creative and most persistent defenders of educational reform and of the expansion of public education.

Unfortunately, ideology is guiding the government’s response to the educational and social crisis at the university. Since his landslide election in 2008, Fortuño has implemented a series of neoliberal measures that have polarized the island’s population and increased economic inequality. Fortuño is the first Puerto Rican governor to be an avowed member of the national Republican Party, despite the fact that the GOP as such does not participate in Puerto Rican elections. Breaking his electoral promises, he has fired seventeen thousand public workers and reduced investments in social services and education. Puerto Rico, moreover, has one of the lowest labor participation rates in the world, a rate that has declined dramatically in recent years. In July 1999, 47.8 percent of working-age adults were in the labor force; by December 2010, the figure had dropped to 41.1 percent. In contrast, the labor participation rate on the US mainland in January 2011 was 64.2 percent.

In the meantime, efforts to privatize segments of public services—including education—are being made through what the government calls “public-private partnerships.” These are ways of providing the private sector with public assets without the risks involved in the private market. One proposed partnership (which faces strong citizen opposition) would involve building a gas pipeline through some of the most environmentally fragile areas of the island, close to population centers.

The privatization of higher education is another strategy to achieve the same objective. Since 1997, government funding for the University of Puerto Rico has been cut by $336 million. The 50 percent tuition hike was justified by the system’s budget deficit. This increase will mean that nearly ten thousand students will not be able to attend the university system as a whole. Further reductions in federal Pell Grants, which seem likely, will price more poor and middle-class students out of a college education.

Meanwhile, from 2001–02 to 2006–07, enrollment in private universities increased in Puerto Rico by 34 percent while enrollment in the public system declined by 10.7 percent. The quality of education in private colleges and universities is much lower than that in the UPR system. According to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System of the US Department of Education, six-year graduation rates in 2007–08 for private colleges and universities ranged between 18.15 and 45.3 percent. In comparison, graduation rates for the eleven campuses in the public system range between 36.4 and 61 percent.

If the government’s policy of cutting financial support for public education continues, a still more economically stratified system of education will develop. Since private universities are less selective, economically disadvantaged students are more likely to attend private universities than public ones. The burden of educating the island’s youth will continue to be shifted to private universities, which rely more on federal Pell Grants. By expanding the role of private universities, neoliberals are thus increasing the burden for US taxpayers.

Governor Fortuño’s poll numbers are very low, yet he is steadfast in supporting the repressive measures used against the university community. One reason behind his obstinacy may be that he is being courted by the national Republican Party as a way of attracting the Latino vote. Fortuño recently traveled to California to attend events sponsored by the Koch Brothers and the Heritage Foundation. At such venues, he asserts that he has established law and order in Puerto Rico. Most recently, on February 11, he spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference’s 2011 meeting in Washington, DC, where he touted his policies. Toeing the Tea Party line, he spoke about reducing government, improving bond ratings, and reducing the government’s structural deficit. (While it is true that Puerto Rico has a structural deficit of $3 billion, a tax cut for multinational corporations effected ten years ago cut the same amount, $3 billion, in general funds revenue from the island’s coffers.)

Sadly, although Puerto Rico’s bond ratings have increased somewhat (they are still considered risky), the island’s social fabric is collapsing. Dora Nevares, a UPR criminologist, had predicted in the 1990s that the strong-arm tactics of Pedro Roselló, the previous PNP governor, would lead to increased violence on the island. Then, Rosselló sent the National Guard and the police to raid public housing projects. The raids targeted the youth and stigmatized the poor as violent. Most of the one thousand murders committed last year on the island (which has a higher murder rate than any other state or territory) are committed by youths against other youths engaged in the drug trade. In the meantime, the population of the island, for the first time in modern history, has decreased. From 2000 to 2009, more than four hundred thousand Puerto Ricans migrated to the mainland. This is the highest number of emigrants since the great migration that followed World War II.

The University of Puerto Rico was placed on probation last year by the Middle States Association. Two of the main reasons cited were poor governance and poor financial management. The academic senate of the Rio Piedras campus submitted an addendum to the university report to Middle States that included an account of police brutality on that campus. When Chancellor Guadalupe refused to include the addendum in the report, the faculty sent it separately.

The students and their allies continue organizing and entering into dialogue with broader sectors of Puerto Rico’s civil society. While the US mainstream press may not cover these events, in some important sectors a sense is emerging that the government needs to reconsider its repressive actions. The only local English-language daily paper, the moderately conservative Daily Sun, editorialized on February 10, 2011, that “the indiscriminate aggression of police riot squads against students, who are exercising their constitutional rights in public areas without interfering with any academic or administrative activity, is a gross violation of their rights and an act comparable only to the acts of the dictatorships we all denounce and reject….We do not want this new order, neither for our university, the Capitol, La Fortaleza or our neighborhoods. We reject it with all our might; exercising our freedom of speech, or freedom of association, is not a crime.”

Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote something appropriate to this Puerto Rican moment. He described the fear of institutions that create thoughtful citizens capable of critical thinking: “They know the risk that they face when they let the imagination run through books, how seditious the fictions become when the reader explores the freedom that makes them possible and that in them is exercised, with the fear and the darkness that lurks in the real world.”

Víctor M. Rodríguez is professor of Chicano and Latino studies at California State University, Long Beach. He is the author of Latino Politics in the United States. His e-mail address is [email protected].