Eleven Campuses, One University, Many Strikes: The Two-Month-Long Student Strike That Shuttered 10 of 11 University of Puerto Rico Campuses This Year Has Been Settled, but the Underlying Issues That Contributed to the Unrest Are Far from Resolved

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Protesters at the University of Puerto Rico are a bunch of lazy students who use their Pell Grants to buy beer, cigarettes and coke.

--Carlos Romero Barcelo (governor of Puerto Rico 1976-1984), May 2010

Students from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) went on strike in April, and, soon after, 10 of the 11 campuses of a public system with more than 60,000 students were closed. "Once recintos, una universidad" (eleven campuses, one university) was the maxim students used to emphasize the concept of the UPR as a system unified by similar goals, aspirations and challenges. A national body was formed to lead and coordinate the protest throughout the island. For the first time, faculty from the entire system met to discuss the state of affairs at UPR and determine how best to support the strike. National and international figures have voiced their support, and the media from Puerto Rico and abroad have covered the university strike extensively. Repeated attempts by the government to portray strikers as communists have failed.

Higher education historians will study this strike thoroughly. It could well be one of the most significant strikes in the history of an institution that has experienced numerous episodes of student unrest since its founding in 1903. Although each strike had its unique characteristics, the literature suggests they all share three defining aspects: the colonial origin of the university, the efforts to democratize its governance and the demands for institutional autonomy.

Colonial Origin

The United States founded UPR in 1903, five years after it wrested Puerto Rico from Spain during the Spanish-American War. The university's mission was to continue at the higher education level that the U.S. military forces initiated in 1898. The occupation of Puerto Rico produced resistance to the U.S. colonial enterprise, which can be found in each of the university conflicts since 1919.

In his study of colonialism, "Culture and Imperialism," Dr. Edward W. Said states that:

"The slow and often bitterly disputed recovery of geographical territory, which is at the heart of decolonization, is preceded as empire had been by the charting of cultural territory. After the period of 'primary resistance,' literally fighting against outside intrusion, there comes the period of secondary, that is, ideological resistance, when efforts are made to reconstitute a shattered community, to save or restore the sense and fact of community against all the pressures of the colonial system ..."

The cost of UPR's colonial origin and history of political control and intervention has been enormous. By the 1920s, UPR was a key instrument of U.S. rule and was also besieged by the Puerto Rican political forces participating in the colonial government.

Referring to the constant political intervention in university affairs, the first chancellor, Dr. Thomas E. Benner, complained in 1928 that such intervention evidences the government's refusal "to leave in peace an institution to (which) such peace is essential." This pattern of intervention led the Middle States Association (MSA) to deny accreditation to UPR in 1937. The university was accredited in 1946.

Governance and University Autonomy

Governance concerns power. Who is in charge? Who makes decisions? Who has a voice, and how loud is that voice?--Henry Rosovsky

Since UPR's founding in 1903, the commonwealth has denied the university community anything more than a cursory role in institutional governance. Although publicly supporting the academic and fiscal autonomy of the university, the government historically has not shied away from imposing campuses and programs and manipulating the financing formula included in the university law.

Despite the appearance of transparency and rigor in the selection process of the university's leadership, it is generally understood that the appointees will come from the ranks of the political party in power. …