This in-depth piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is on current struggles at the University of Puerto Rico. What a daunting task. The people themselves are doing the work of restoring the university and the island despite this daunting task. All so sad and tragic. The people's resolve is humbling and something to be admired. Thanks to Dr. Tony Baez for sharing.
January 05, 2018
San Juan, P.R.
You can still hear the salsa music, the car horns on crowded roads, the silent Ds that breeze through the Puerto Rican dialect. But you have to listen closely.
For months, the sounds of the Caribbean have been engulfed by the rattling roar of generators.
Almost four months after Hurricane Maria pummeled the island, about half of its residents do not have electricity, and most of the rest get power via boxy electric generators on wheels. Alone, one sounds like a giant lawnmower. A city full of them is a postapocalyptic whir. And as long as you can hear them, you can smell the diesel they burn.
At Vidy’s Cafe, about three blocks from the University of Puerto Rico’s flagship campus here, you hear the hum. You hear it at a greasy spoon a block away where three men named Fernando fry eggs and tostadas. And as you try to fall asleep, you hear it, too.
For nearly four months Lida Orta-Anés didn’t have a generator. Electricity still has not returned to her house in the mountains outside San Juan. Ms. Orta-Anés is a professor of environmental health at the Medical Sciences campus. She’s read research telling her that diesel-burning generators are carcinogens; she doesn’t think it’s a good idea to have so many of them running. The choice to live without one was her act of resistance against Puerto Rico’s new normal, where the cries of tree frogs are obliterated by humming machines. This isn’t how her island should sound.
Maria followed what many on the island now call its "first hurricane": the fiscal crisis. Puerto Rico is still in the throes of a nearly 12-year economic recession. Faulty bonds, tangled bureaucracy, and the end of federal tax breaks led the island’s economy to its breaking point.
The university has been struck by both hurricanes. Some of its campuses are practically in ruins, and it’s staring down a bleak mandate — to plan for a $300-million reduction in appropriations from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico over the next 10 years. And following the hurricane, Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló Nevares of Puerto Rico received an extension to submit a fiscal plan for, among other things, the university system, to the territory’s fiscal control board.
But if Puerto Rico as a whole is to recover from its state of crisis, it will do so on the back of the institution. On the island, as on the mainland, a college education is the only way to move up the socioeconomic ladder, and the only way to train the people who will create an economy that is based on more than service and tourism. For many Puerto Ricans, a college education translates to one thing: a degree from the University of Puerto Rico.
The institution is the practical and symbolic touchstone for an island seeking hope. But it’s ailing. The depth of Puerto Rico’s broader crisis — and the lack of aid from the mainland United States — have left the university waiting for support. So it has fallen to a loose network of volunteers within the university community to lift up both an institution and an island. People like Lida Orta-Anés.
When she was growing up in San Juan in the 1960s, Ms. Orta-Anés’s parents emphasized to her and her four siblings that going to college was "nonnegotiable." UPR was always her choice.
In fact, she watched both of her parents receive their degrees from the university. The year after Ms. Orta-Anés got her bachelor’s degree, her mother graduated with a teaching degree, the only one of her siblings to go to college. The rest of Ms. Orta-Anés’s aunts and uncles worked trade professions. They were TV technicians, plumbers — work her parents would probably have done if the university hadn’t offered them a different path. And many of her cousins were first-generation college students.
“Certain things that weren't there before are turning into the new normal. ... People are starting to get used to this.”Since its founding in 1903, the university has been imbued with the mission of producing working professionals like Ms. Orta-Anés’ parents, cousins, and herself. That focus took on renewed importance by the middle of the 20th century, when Puerto Rico’s economy had evolved from agrarian to industrialized, and needed a college-educated work force to feed companies like General Electric, the medical-supply company Electro-Biology Inc., and the pharmaceutical manufacturer Upjohn. Today the island still depends on this mission of social mobility. More than two-thirds of university students receive Pell Grants. Ask them what they would be doing if not for the university, and most will say they’d be working in service-industry jobs or trying to extend the part-time jobs they already have.
After Ms. Orta-Anés earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in planning, she had dreams that extended beyond the island. She wanted to be an ergonomist, and she needed to study industrial and organizational psychology, and the management of industrial engineering. But no graduate programs on the island met her specific need. So in 1984, she and her husband moved north — far north — to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. There she was an active member of a Puerto Rican student group that called themselves Los Exilados, the exiles.
Their plan was always to spend two years in Michigan, taking the required courses, and then move back to the island to finish their dissertations. But the couple couldn’t immediately find jobs in Puerto Rico.
They stayed in Michigan. Ms. Orta-Anés wrote safety language for federal policy, designed training to prevent musculoskeletal problems, like carpal-tunnel syndrome, and worked on trade advisory committees for the United Automobile Workers. She had two daughters. She bought a home. But every year, Ms. Orta-Anés and her husband looked for positions on the island.
To alleviate her homesickness, she made a biannual pilgrimage to the island every Christmas and summer break. Her mother sent recordings of Puerto Rican TV shows. Ms. Orta-Anés dreamed during the dark Michigan winters of her return.
Every summer, her daughters went to summer camps on the island. The family had a goal: to assimilate easily when their return came. "We emotionally have been working for that for the past 17 years," Ms. Orta-Anés said.
In 2000, her husband took a one-year sabbatical in Puerto Rico, where he later found a tenure-track position. The relocation was finally a reality.
Ms. Orta-Anés returned to an island undergoing an exodus. Between 2005 and 2015, the territory had a net loss of 446,000 residents to the mainland United States. Just a few years before, companies based there lost a key subsidy from the U.S. government, which immediately chilled the economy. Meanwhile the island relied more on bonds it issued to investors, even as it took on more and more debt.
By 2016, Puerto Rico was on the verge of a financial meltdown. The U.S. government stepped in to help restructure its debt. A university-system audit in 2015 raised flags about UPR’s heavy reliance on state funds, given the island’s financial troubles. With that came proposed cutbacks — including to the university system, which gets two-thirds of its revenue from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. It seemed tuition and fee increases were the only option to make up the difference. Ms. Orta-Anés was on the front lines of the opposition to that. In 2001, she’d scored a tenure-track position of her own at UPR. Two years later she joined the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors, an advocacy group akin to the American Association of University Professors.
Today she helps lead it, and her activism in the face of financial crises has made her a thorn in the administration’s side. In 2012, the National Science Foundation froze funds earmarked for the university’s central administration office and Mayagüez campus, citing mismanagement and missed deadlines. Ms. Orta-Anés went on the attack, saying the problems were caused by "terrible administration," and her association approved a resolution asking for the president’s resignation. In February she and colleagues held a news conference to oppose the Puerto Rico governor’s proposed cuts to the university’s 11-campus system, and affirming support for a student strike that had been protesting the cuts for nearly two months.
And though students get most of the attention when they spar with the powers that be — mass strikes are a mainstay of student protests — Ms. Orta-Anés is there, with plans for campus and island outreach, gathering more instructors to help the cause, and connecting activists.
"I just think that it’s unfair," Ms. Orta-Anés said of the budget cuts. "We’re here, and those responsible for the situation we are in right now should pay for it, not the students, not the faculty members."
The student strike finally exhausted itself in June, when the Humacao campus voted to end it. The financial outlook was still bleak, but the immediate crisis had passed.
Three months later, Hurricane Maria slammed into the island.