February 17, 2011
In Puerto Rico, Protests End Short Peace at University
By TAMAR LEWIN
SAN JUAN, P.R. — Months of unrest at the University of Puerto Rico seemed to be reaching a finale over the last 10 days. Scores of students were arrested or injured by riot police officers. Faculty and staff members held a two-day walkout. The president of the university resigned Friday, the police who had occupied campus were withdrawn Monday and an interim president arrived Tuesday.
But there were only three days of peace.
On Thursday morning, students blocked the stairs to classrooms in the social science department with trash cans and chairs, and also closed down the humanities department. At the social sciences building, students said only one professor had tried to get through the blockade.
The spark for the university’s problems was a budget cut that required students to pay a new $800 fee, increasing their costs by more than 50 percent.
“It is the same situation that many universities in the United States are facing,” said Miguel A. Muñoz, the interim president. “Our budget is about $1 billion, and we have been cut about $200 million. We need the $800 fee to cover the deficit, and our tuition is so low, $51 a credit, that it’s almost a gift.”
The tuition is indeed far lower than most other flagship public universities. But Puerto Rico is poorer than the mainland United States, and two-thirds of the students have incomes low enough to qualify for Pell grants.
As at many public universities elsewhere in the United States, students here worry that the new fiscal realities will restrict who can attend.
“This is a public university, and it should be accessible to everyone,” said Eduardo Galindez, a second-year student. “I work in the physics department, and I know some graduate students who couldn’t come back this semester because they couldn’t afford the fee.”
Student leaders estimate that at least 5,000 of the university’s students were not able to pay the fee this semester. And the administration acknowledges that there are now fewer than 54,000 students this semester, compared with about 60,000 last semester.
Dr. Muñoz, however, attributed the drop to instability, not the new fee. “As a parent, you don’t want to send your son, your daughter to a campus where you see so many protests, and police,” he said. Still, if there are threats to security and safety, he said he would not hesitate to bring back the police.
“A university is not a different place from the rest of Puerto Rico,” he said.
Protests may well flare up again. A general student assembly is scheduled for Tuesday, to discuss whether to call a further strike to protest the $800 fee, program cuts, and the unwillingness of the authorities to negotiate.
“We have to see if students will ratify a strike or not,” said Giovanni Roberto, one of the student protest leaders. “We know there are alternatives and we have proposed them, but we don’t have any power to get them to listen.”
But the students have flexed their muscles. A two-month strike last spring shut down the university’s 11 campuses. And since the current strike began in December — this time, largely at the main Rio Piedras campus in San Juan — people across the island have been riveted by television and YouTube videos of violent confrontations between students and the police.
Many students were outraged that the police had been called to the campus.
“Calling in the police, for the first time in 30 years, was one of the most rash decisions they could have made,” said René Vargas, a law student who represents the student body on the university board of trustees. “The university’s intransigence and refusal to talk to students has worsened the whole situation. The students presented a 200-page document suggesting alternatives and ways to increase revenues, and the trustees have not even been willing to look at it.”
Some students, like Liz Lebron, a freshman, said they thought the administration had been right to bring in the police, because some students were destroying property and stopping others from attending class.
Whether or not they approved of the police presence, many students said they found it frightening.
“I didn’t go to class when I saw the police because I was scared of getting hurt,” said Carmen Gonzalez, a senior majoring in English literature who supported the protesters. “On television I saw people getting hurt, and if you’re in class and you hear those police helicopters, you can’t concentrate.”
Many students complained about the university’s decision to put several academic programs, including Hispanic studies, “on pause,” meaning they are not accepting new undergraduates.
Some faculty members and students say that local politics have played a large role in the university’s problems.
Puerto Rico has its first Republican governor in decades, Luis G. Fortuño, a pro-statehood conservative who has cut the number of public employees by about 17,000. Last weekend, while the protesters were marching in the streets, Mr. Fortuño was in Washington as a featured speaker at the Conservative Political Action conference.
Even in the lull from protests early this week, students and faculty members alike said they had no illusion that the situation had been resolved.
“We still have a very volatile situation,” said Maritza Stanchich, an English professor who has supported the students. “This all started out over anger about the new fees that were being imposed, but the issues have expanded to the style of governance and the lack of negotiation.”
While it is hard to predict what will happen next, some students may be changing their approach.
“What a lot of people are saying, and I believe too, is that we should be thinking about a movement of protest now, not really a strike,” said Omar Oduardo, a Student Council representative who spent Thursday at the social sciences department lobby, discussing the situation.
“Maybe stopping classes is working against the movement,” he added, “and it’s time to go outside the university, to the legislature and the community, to work for change.”