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Story Publication logo April 22, 2020

An Uphill Battle: University of Puerto Rico Students, Professors Respond to Severe Budget Cuts at Beloved Institution

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A sato (Puerto Rican street dog) gently takes a treat out of the hand of The SATO Project supporter Henry Friedman. Image by Jamie Holt. United States, 2019.
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Roberto Guzmán-Hernández has been a student at the University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras campus since 2015—a challenging few years to go to school there.

"The generation of students that entered my year… we have been pretty much through everything," Guzmán-Hernández said. "We had blackouts in 2015. We had the Fiscal Management Board in 2016, the hurricane in 2017. I think there was a dry-out in 2018, among other fiscal, austerity measures. And we're having earthquakes and more austerity measures in 2019. So, I know that we are prepared for anything."

Prepared, he said, because as the executive secretary of the National Student Confederation, Guzmán-Hernández is working with other young people to prevent the university itself from becoming the next disaster. With increasing financial pressures, many worry that this keystone institution may be damaged beyond repair.

"We're working the hardest that we can right now," he said.

With 11 campuses across the commonwealth, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) is the oldest higher education institution and largest public university system on the island. It offers 694 degree-leading and certification programs, including 40 doctorate programs, and houses 79 distinct research centers. The university is known for its top-tier engineering programs and is a selective, merit-based institution central to the education system of Puerto Rico.

Despite being a key channel for social mobility on the island, UPR has faced 40 percent in appropriation budget cuts since 2017. This means that the students and their families who are still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017, as well as the January 2020 6.4 magnitude earthquake and subsequent aftershocks, must now find the money to pay for steeply increased university tuition. Students and professors say that the severe budget cuts, tuition increases, and subsequent enrollment decline threaten the survival of the university and hinder the economic growth of the island.

Budget Cuts

The Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB), which was established by the 2016 U.S. Congress Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) in the wake of Puerto Rico's debt crisis, has demanded the university system slash costs by hundreds of millions of dollars. At the same time, tuition per credit hour has more than doubled since 2018, from $57 per credit hour in the 2018 fiscal year to $124 per credit hour in 2020, and it will increase to $157 by 2023.

The 2019-2024 FOMB-certified fiscal plan for UPR establishes a series of large reductions to the $879 million of government appropriations historically provided to the university. Following a $203 million cut and a $44 million cut in previous years, the amount of commonwealth subsidization supplied to finance UPR operations was reduced by $86 million in 2019, to about $501 million for the 2020 fiscal year.

By fiscal year 2022, supplied appropriations are projected to be almost under $400 million, 54 percent lower than the $879 million baseline amount.

While the tuition fees are low compared to the mainland U.S. standards, Efren Rivera Ramos, UPR law professor at the Rio Piedras campus, said that the economic positioning of Puerto Rico must be considered when examining the context in which tuition increases were implemented.

"The economic situation in Puerto Rico has worsened in general as the result of the debt... the very long recession that we've been experiencing for several years now," Rivera said. "There are the effects of hurricanes Irma and Maria. All of this has affected the economy, and this affects students. Tuition increases have come in the context of a general decline in the Puerto Rican economy and the ability of people to generate income."

As a result of sharp tuition increases and the decline of financial aid awards, Guzmán-Hernández said that the university's retention rate is suffering. He has friends and peers who have had to drop out of the university because they cannot afford it. He said that there have been cuts to all aspects of the university, including the library services, which hinders academic work, especially scientific research.

"I will be hopefully able to graduate in May, but I know that many of the people who should have been able will not be able to, and that is a very sad reality," Guzmán-Hernández said. "We don't see their faces in our classes, we don't see some of our favorite professors because they had to look for other opportunities."

Rivera underscores that these most recent cuts are only the latest of the blows to the university's finances. Even before 2016, the Puerto Rican government was making cuts to the UPR budget. He faults both the board and the government for not responding adequately to the unified disapproval from the faculty, students and staff. He said that the board-imposed fiscal plan tangibly impacts faculty members and their ability to soundly conduct research.

"It became worse after PROMESA," Rivera said. "The effects were very tactical and concrete. There has been a decreasing in the composition of the faculty and other university personnel. Those who have retired have not been replaced…We have not had pay raises; there is no money for sabbaticals or leave to do research for several years now."

Tangible Effects

James Seale-Collazo, an education professor who heads the Rio Piedras chapter of Associación Puertorriqueña de Professores Universitarios (APPU), said that the university is opting more frequently to hire part-time adjunct professors and is not extending tenure-track positions. Additionally, as outlined in the FOMB-approved fiscal plan, there have been consistent reductions to non-faculty personnel and subsequently staff and administrators are completing more work for the same pay, Seale-Collazo said.

"My colleagues are getting older," Seale-Collazo said. "The young generation of professors is not getting hired on tenure track, and increasingly, not even getting hired full-time. I have several friends who are impoverished because they're having to get these part-time little contracts, $2,043 per course per semester—and that's if you have a PhD."

The lack of financial assistance means graduate students are going elsewhere, said Seale-Collazo, which means that programming itself is under threat.

"That's a very serious problem," Seale-Collazo said. "I think the people that made those cuts didn't realize what they were doing. I think they expected undergraduate enrollment to drop more than graduate."

Guzmán-Hernández said that student life at UPR has changed significantly since 2015 when he began taking classes, particularly regarding the termination of specific academic programs and class offerings.

"We have significant loss of professors, significant closings of sections, that have made it pretty much impossible for one to graduate in normal four-year time, for any bachelor's degree," Guzmán-Hernández said.

Guzmán-Hernández said that the reduction of financial support for students is especially harmful to student life, causing individuals to have to work multiple minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) jobs at a time and subsequently become part-time students.

"The main problem with the budget cuts is that it has made student life inaccessible here," Guzmán-Hernández said. "The raises in tuition have pretty much tripled the cost that we used to have four or five years prior. And students are now having to take two jobs, three jobs, having to go from regular students to part time students or having to extend their graduation time in order to take as less classes as possible in order to be able to pay."

U.S. Census Bureau information available prior to the 2020 Census showed that 43.1 percent of Puerto Ricans live in poverty; this is more than three times the national rate. Students experience poverty across the UPR campuses.

"Students are going hungry," Seale-Collazo said. "There is a soup kitchen on campus."

Debating Rationale

Oversight board representatives, university professors, students, and other community members frequently debate the rationale of the cuts and targeting of the university.

University of Pennsylvania Law School professor David Skeel is one of the seven board members of the FOMB. Skeel outlined the board's goal of positioning the university to function more sustainably and said that adjustments in the wake of the debt crisis have had to be made across the commonwealth. According to Skeel, from the board's perspective, the Puerto Rican government cannot realistically continue to support UPR with around 70 percent of its funding as it had been, especially considering that that support is severely higher than the average 27 percent of state funding that mainland public universities receive.

"The goal is to put the subsidy from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico at a level that's sustainable for the commonwealth and at the same time to make sure that UPR has the funding it needs to continue to be the crown jewel that it is," Skeel said. "It is absolutely central to the island. So, I would say it's not so much that we're trying to make the funding equivalent to a mainland university, but to ultimately to reduce the gap a little bit… It's just a recognition that the percentage of funding UPR gets from the commonwealth is out of line with what the states do."

Seale-Collazo said that the mass budget cuts can be attributed to the ideological viewpoint of the oversight board.

"Ideologically, neo-liberals don't like free public education," Seale-Collazo said. "In neo-liberal economic thought, education is a private good; you get it, you should pay for it—there's no reason why the government should subsidize higher education. I don't think they're entirely convinced that the government should subsidize any education."

Seale-Collazo noted that the Mayagüez campus regularly produces world-renowned engineers who are consistently recruited to the mainland U.S. after graduation. In this way, Seale-Collazo recognized that an argument can be made that the people of Puerto Rico are subsidizing their education just to have the graduates leave the island. Additionally, he acknowledged the board's questioning of why the children of professionals pay the same tuition for a university education as working class families. Seale-Collazo proposed a potential solution and further said that the university was an easy target for the oversight board for economic and political reasons.

"I would personally favor having a low tuition, but with a proviso that you have to make a commitment to stay in Puerto Rico for a period of time," Seale-Collazo said. "One reason for the severe budget cuts is because it's ideological. One could argue that it is political as well… But there's also the fact that it was 10 percent of the budget. It was kind of low hanging fruit."

Ileana Fas served as Director of the Management and Budget Office of the Government of Puerto Rico in 2005 and 2006.

As a former electrical engineering student from the UPR Mayagüez campus, Fas said that the harsh attacks on the university are not justified and are out of line with the founding purpose of the institution of higher education. According to Fas, many of her classmates would not have been able to afford their UPR education if it cost what it does now, and had they not had access to the financial resources that the oversight board is now limiting.

"I saw firsthand how many of my classmates were the first people in their families to have a bachelor's degree," Fas said. "I know that all those people are the ones that at the time were the hope for their family to get out of the circle of poverty… This is the one place, in fact, where you get people out of poverty and you get them out of poverty because there are resources for them to go to school."

Fas stressed that UPR is extremely merit-based and that the students who are enrolled work hard and deserve to be there. She questioned why the board would take measures that would harm the ability of the university to attract the best students and said that the board has a difficult time truly understanding the position of Puerto Rican students because most of them were educated in the mainland U.S.

"Why would you focus on cutting that investment?" Fas said. "In my opinion, it's not a cost; it's not an expenditure. It's an investment. And I think that decreasing the investment in students, it comes from a life experience that is very different from the ones of the people that go to university."

It is generally acknowledged that the debt of the university does need attention. But, Fas asserted that those adjustments must not come at the expense of the stability of students and professors and their ability to achieve.

"Asking for efficiencies, asking for reengineering of process, there's just many things that are still not popular measures," Fas said, "But, as fiscal responsibility, they need to be imposed. But they don't have to hurt directly the two most important components of the university, which is the student and the professor. They shouldn't be the ones bearing all the burden of whatever fiscal decisions that haven't been as wise in the past for the university."

Morale

UPR is facing another scheduled $71 million budget cut for the 2020-2021 academic year. Guzmán-Hernández said that this would be a devastating blow and that he is concerned for the university's future.

"That is going to make the system financially inoperant," Guzmán-Hernández said. "We're supposed to go into deficit in May or June, when the fiscal year concludes. And if that budget cut happens, there may not be a University of Puerto Rico anymore, as we know it right now."

UPR is a symbol of hope for many young Puerto Ricans, and the vast cuts to the university's budget is harmful to their morale. Professors and students are disheartened by the government's insistence that the slashing of UPR's budget is inescapable, and by the potential looming closure of some of the smaller UPR campuses that would alienate certain sectors of the island from access to higher education.

"The government has shown no efforts, no intention to help us at all," Guzmán-Hernández said. "The governor Wanda Vázquez said that the budget cuts were inevitable, instead of trying to take it out of some other department, or any other place that you could take a budget cut from, they are trying to take it from the only public higher education system we have, and one of the best ones… We are dealing with things that should not be dealt with in an academic setting. In terms of the whole situation, the students have taken a lot of the baggage."

Advocacy Efforts

There are student and professor-led efforts to oppose the FOMB-certified fiscal plan. Across the board, UPR staff, professors and students are united in their stance, and according to Guzmán-Hernández, the general public has also shown an increase in support for UPR.

"We've gone in the past at various points to call out the budget cuts and try to get the higher administrative powers to stop them," Guzmán-Hernández said. "What we've been getting is a better response from the public. The Puerto Rican people in general didn't have such a good relationship with the university, but as the budget cuts have progressed and people from outside the university see that the center of education is at risk of being completely destroyed, they are starting to take interest from time to time."

Rivera said that there has been very active advocacy for the past several years. Calling for the restoration of university funds, student and professor organizations have presented to the oversight board, spoken out publicly and lobbied Congress.

Among student efforts to convince lawmakers to support UPR and take notice of the crisis, on January 24 the National Student Confederation sent a letter to representative and chairman of the Natural Resources Committee Raúl Grijalva, endorsing an amendment to the PROMESA law that would declare UPR as an essential service and secure funding of at least $800 million yearly.

Professor-run organizations like APPU are fighting loss of university funding at both the national and local levels. Seale-Collazo said that APPU sees itself as a union and, in addition to lobbying Congress, continuously meets with the president of UPR to assert demands for change. Although, according to Seale-Collazo, appealing to the top UPR officials is ultimately of little reward since they were all appointed by the current government.

"Right now, the battles we are fighting are the big one to defend the university and its budget and larger than that, to try to get rid of PROMESA," Seale-Collazo said. "More locally, we have a fight, including a lawsuit in federal court to protect and defend the retirement system that university employees have, in which the FOMB has targeted along with the university... At the same time, we're fighting another battle to try and get better wages for adjunct professors… So those basically are three battles at this point. I can't say we're doing very well in any of them, but that is just the way things are. We're hoping that in the long-run we'll be able to make some headway."

Today's Reality

UPR has long been acclaimed for its central role in fostering social mobility, as historically, 68 percent of students have received Pell Grants. Professors proclaim that the increases in tuition and cuts to funding are making the university less accessible to students and will hinder research efforts, ultimately affecting economic growth and prosperity in Puerto Rico, as knowledge development is crucial to societal advancement.

"The university for many decades historically has been a place for social mobility and for economic growth in Puerto Rico," Rivera said. "To the extent that the university is affected, as students find it more difficult to access the university, this will definitely have an effect on economic development in Puerto Rico in the long run... The general conditions pervading in the university do affect the conditions with that research has to be done. Research and the generation of knowledge is very important for economic development in any society today."

When Guzmán-Hernández was interviewed in January in the wake of the 6.4 magnitude earthquake and hundreds of aftershocks in the south, he said students were unsure about how to continue at UPR while their families were suffering, perhaps without electricity or water. They also were concerned about yet another, even larger earthquake and whether they would be able to complete their education.

"It is a very tense mental state right now," Guzmán-Hernández said. "It is really hard because we have a lot of students who come from those areas that are affected, and they stayed because their houses were safer here near the university rather than staying in their primary residence."

As of March 24, the university adopted distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 11,500 courses, which make up 95 percent of UPR's offerings, have been reconfigured to an online platform to accommodate social distancing.

The online class system has revealed inequalities among students and is quite problematic, according to Guzmán-Hernández. He said that online classes are not feasible for all students, as not everyone has the necessary resources and technology to complete their courses. He added that some professors do not have the needed cameras and audio equipment to successfully execute online classes, and that most courses have been relying on institutional servers.

Guzmán-Hernández commented that the effects of PROMESA are seen in all facets of UPR life.

"You see the effects of budget cuts from the most silly things to the big things like firing of professors and the closing of sections," Guzmán-Hernández said. "But even the silly things, for example, there wasn't toilet paper in the bathroom. It might seem like a silly thing, but that is at the extent of the reality that is so harsh, and it is something that has taken a huge toll on the university functioning. From lack of toilet paper to closing of sections to people having to drop out, that is our reality right now."

Despite the glaring uphill battle that the professors and students face, in their efforts to combat the implications of PROMESA, the university community said that they continue to fight in small ways such as sending letters to Congressional representatives to lobby their support for amendments to PROMESA. Students and professors say that remaining silent is simply not an option.

"We get enraged when we see how poorly our government is operating," Seale-Collazo said. "It's really shameful; I am ashamed of it. But we have to fight because if we don't fight it, it's only going to be worse… If you let these people, they will possibly leave you without a university. There are some very extreme voices, and that's what we're up against. We really have no rational choice but to resist. But it's worrying because there is very little hope in sight… It is very uphill. It's a very big and heavy steamroller we're trying to put pebbles in the way of."

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