The UPR Fiasco

by John Marino

May 6, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The month-long exercise in futility that was the strike at the University of Puerto Rico should be brought to a close with the resumption of classes on Friday.

The strike illustrates how the interests of a small group are too often put ahead of the will of the great majority in Puerto Rico. And it shows how the governing administration in charge of the massive bureaucracy of the commonwealth government too often falls short in providing effective leadership.

A group of no more than 2,000 students was allowed to shut down the UPR for nearly a month, throwing into disarray the lives of more than 20,000 students studying there, not to mention the hundreds of professors, clerical and maintenance workers who labor there. Class work and final exams were miserably delayed, and the administration is still scrambling to find a site for graduation. One of two summer sessions has been canceled.

During the shutdown, the campus was vandalized, buildings marred by graffiti and computers stolen, while some $90 million in research projects were put at risk as the administration allowed a gang of students to control access to the campus.

The strike was sparked by a modest tuition increase, aimed at bridging a $24 million budget deficit. The 33 percent hike amounted to a $10 increase per credit hour for undergraduate student, boosting the annual cost of a full course load to $1,200 from $900.

Because some 61 percent of students are Pell Grant recipients, federal education grants of as much as $4,050 annually more than cover the cost of the tuition increase. The administration has said it would increase its own student aid program to ensure tuition remained affordable to all.

The total cost of the strike has yet to be estimated by the closed-lipped UPR administration, which has given a whole new meaning to the "ivory tower" concept since allowing this strike to take place. Indications are that costs could easily rise to $12 million, half the amount of funds the tuition increase was meant to raise. The San Juan Star reported Thursday that lost payroll costs on the main campus alone topped $11 million.

What's worse is that the tuition hike issue that prompted the strike is being left to fester throughout the summer, meaning the administration could be faced with another strike threat when classes are set to resume in August.

The agreement ending a strike calls for the administration to form a committee, with student and professor representatives, to search for alternatives to the tuition increase. If an alternative is found, García Padilla said the administration would consider scrapping the increase. But if an alternative is not found, the increase would go into effect in the August semester. That might prompt militant student groups to spark another shutdown.

There were a plethora of bad moves all around before and during the strike.

The tuition hike was announced in a late night press release following a UPR Board of Trustees meeting.

The university community found out about the hike -- like the rest of Puerto Rico -- through the media. This was a huge blunder on the part of UPR President Antonio García Padilla for at least two reasons. The first is that a call to strike by more radical students was a given, and officials should have been prepared with a strategy to attempt to stop it. Its knee-jerk decision to shut down campus only worked to embolden striking students.

The second reason is with a general fiscal crisis in government, and everything from the price of water to excise taxes set to increase, the UPR president had a very good case to make that a tuition increase was needed after holding down the cost to a fixed rate over the last 13 years.

The UPR, like most college campuses, is filled with a diversity of opinion. In discussions with students and professors, there are many divergent points of view about the strike, but there's one thing everybody seems to agree on -- the UPR administration badly mishandled the situation.

Not only didn't it discuss the need for the hike thoroughly enough beforehand, it immediately shut down the campus after a small group of students announced the strike. If officials did not see what was coming, they were perhaps the only ones in Puerto Rico who did not.

Of course, Gov. Acevedo Vilá did not help. Citing the concept of "university autonomy," the governor urged all sides to come to an agreement to reopen the university as soon as possible, but he declined to suggest a pathway out of the quagmire, or even opine on the UPR decision to increase tuition.

This "hands off" approach was disastrously co-opted by the UPR administration, which said little during the shutdown except to exhort students to return to class.

García Padilla did not act even after a student meeting aimed at voting to end the strike was disrupted by militant pro-strike minority, which caused a melee to stop the voting from taking place. The UPR administration failed to provide the necessary conditions for a student vote to be held where students could freely call an end to the strike. Since then, it legitimized the pro-strike group by reaching an agreement to end the strike with it, rather than the more representative General Student Council.

In the end, it was the federal court that restored order at the UPR. It was only after a group of researchers filed suit to get an order allowing them unfettered access to their projects that the UPR administration reached an agreement with striking students to ensure that happened.

The worse news is that the UPR saga may not have ended. Here's hoping everyone studies up this summer on the many lessons this fiasco has for all.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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