THE CHRONICLE: Protests highlight growing divide on Puerto Rican college campuses

April 13, 2012
Alejandro Bolívar

In the midst of a battered economy, Puerto Rican college campuses have been battlegrounds of differing ideologies, a Puerto Rican scholar said Thursday.

Maritza Stanchich, associate professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, discussed the challenges facing the UPR system following budget cuts in a lecture titled “A University Besieged: The Stakes in Puerto Rico.” She noted that the UPR system, the Caribbean’s largest institution of higher learning and a source of pride for Puerto Ricans, faces major difficulties and faltering financial support from the local government. UPR schools recently became the sites of a sustained popular protest against government cutbacks.

“UPR has with some regularity been the place where such watershed moments have occurred,” Stanchich said.

As a public institution, UPR is largely dependant on government funding. The Puerto Rican economy, however, has been in decline since 2008. To alleviate the situation, political leaders turned to budget cuts and increased tuition across the university system.

In May 2010, 10 of UPR’s 11 regional campuses shut down to protest the Puerto Rican government’s budget cuts affecting higher education. Students occupied the campuses for two months until the university administration met their demands. These protests were marred by violence between demonstrators and police. A second phase of the strike began a few months later when Gov. Luis Fortuño implemented an $800 tuition increase.

The first stage of the protests had widespread support across the political spectrum, but the second stage was composed of mostly militant leftists, Stanchich said.

Michaeline Crichlow, associate professor of sociology and African and African-American studies, noted that most strikes in the Caribbean are swiftly contained, but the demonstrations in Puerto Rico were an unusual example of struggles linked to mass public discontent.

Through the use of technology and social media, specific instances of violence on campus reached wide audiences, Stanchich said. Police physically assaulted many students, prompting intervention from the American Civil Liberties Union and the United States Department of Justice. Stanchich called the student movement’s active opposition to police forces heroic.

After The Huffington Post covered the incidences of violence, U.S. newspapers like The Miami Herald and The New York Times sent correspondents to Puerto Rico. Articles about the demonstrations were translated and published on websites in countries like Croatia and Pakistan.

“While the UPR crisis was at first ignored by U.S. and international media, because my articles in The Huffington Post helped draw attention… I maintained an immediacy of how this news played outside of Puerto Rico,” she noted. “Sadly, U.S. media didn’t care until there was bloodshed.”

The 65,000-student system has seen admissions drop by 10,000 since the implementation of the $800 increase—a sum that is about a month’s salary for the average Puerto Rican. This drop meant fewer course offerings, widespread layoffs of contingent staff and professors serving first-year students being reassigned elsewhere in the system, Stanchich said.

Additionally, faculty salaries—including her own—have been frozen for the last three years. The stakes at UPR reflected those of other U.S. institutions like the University of California system, she noted.

Political interests are key for fueling the current situation at the university, Stanchich said. The government employed contradictory cuts, reducing funds for certain institutions while leaving ones that serve the interests of the ruling party intact, she added.

As a solution to the conflict, Stanchich proposed all-around cuts instead of cuts with political motivations, as well as stronger connections to the UPR alumni network. She noted that many protests related to a different mindset in Puerto Rico about the cost of higher education, which is significantly lower compared to tuition in the rest of the U.S.

Claudia Milian, Andrew W. Mellon assistant professor of romance studies, said she enjoyed Stanchich’s explanations of the different ambiguities of Puerto Rico.

“It shows how much we know and do not know about the University of Puerto Rico and higher education in the Island,” Milian said. “[The event was] simply brilliant.”