Do not delay the appointment of the UPR president any longer
By José M. Saldaña
It has been more than a week since the interviews with the candidates for the presidency of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) by the members of the institution’s governing board concluded. The candidates did their best to project their image and give their best answers to the questions they were asked.
After each of the candidates had published an extensive plan or program of their vision for the UPR in which, in most cases, generalities, praises, grandiloquent and pompous words toward the institution abounded, it was necessary to carry out the interviews to truly assess the specific intentions and the potential ability to carry out the difficult task. From the information I have received, only one of the candidates stood out in those interviews.
As I have mentioned in countless writings on the subject, the UPR (a state university) is immersed not only in a fiscal crisis of great magnitude in a bankrupt territory, but also for decades in an ideological crisis of equal magnitude because a climate of constant conflict has been created in it, of strikes and disturbances that threaten its viability as a relevant, creditable institution.
We also know that there is in the institution great indifference, inefficiency and waste of resources not only fiscal, physical and human, but also in terms of a large number of academic programs that have not been updated in a long time, that do not have the relevance they had at the time they were created, but still persist. There are also duplicate programs in the different campuses with little or no demand from students who perceive that they have no relevance with respect to the world into which they must integrate upon graduation.
In short, to be as prestigious as it was in the past, UPR has to be completely reviewed both administratively and academically. It will have to become more self-sufficient and relevant. That is the existential challenge that the Financial Oversight and Management Board has made clear to the current university administration. Now, the current temporary administration has done nothing in that direction and we do not anticipate that it will. The reason is simple: they prefer the nefarious but comfortable status of more of the same.
In a recent article that I published entitled “The New President of the University,” I pointed out that given the current circumstances of the country and the institution, the most important characteristics that in my opinion this person should have are: possessing and mastering managerial and administrative skills; being a good fundraiser; having a thorough knowledge of the current fiscal and ideological university problems; and more than anything, have a strong character, possess great courage and the necessary shell (carapacho) to make the unpopular decisions that will have to be made so as to lead the institution, without fearing criticism and consequences.
In summary, the selection of a new president should not be viewed by the governing board as a prize for the completion of a university career. An environment of limitations, of great turmoil in the institutional climate and of constant conflict will test the character, or lack thereof, of this person. Intense and long hours of heavy and overwhelming work for seven days a week await the new president, without any recognition beyond that which his or her conscience offers through the satisfaction that comes with a job well done.
Long interims in institutions are harmful. In the first place, they prevent important substantive decisions from being made because interim leadership lacks the necessary institutional support. Second, they lend themselves to agendas of internal sabotage of the organization being carried out by those who feel that a person with whom they disagree will be appointed. Thirdly, they lend themselves to the fact that, if there is more than one candidate for the position in question, smear campaigns based on harmful rumors are carried out against the leading candidate by the candidate least likely to be selected.
This is precisely what is happening now in the race for the UPR presidency. Smear campaigns are being led by some who support the candidacy of UPR Río Piedras Campus Chancellor Luis Ferrao Delgado -- a candidate who has proven to be totally inadequate for the realities of an institution that is at the worst moment in its history.
Like other members of the university community, I know that the former chancellor of the UPR Cayey Campus, Dr. Juan Varona Echeandía -- unfortunately convicted of misuse of public funds during the exercise of his chancellorship, for which he was dismissed from the institution for life -- is sending false, low-level and libelous messages through emails to several members of the governing board. Among those messages, Varona alleges that another candidate, Dr. Carlos Andújar Rojas, will be fined by the Ethics Office for a complaint filed there. This allegation made by Varona is a false and desperate attempt to support Ferrao’s candidacy for the presidency of the institution, because there is no complaint against Andújar in the portal of the Ethics Office or its portal of ongoing research.
It is alleged by members of the governing board that in another part of his communications, Varona, in an act of possible political file-keeping, sent a list of the names of officials, members of Andújar’s team at the UPR Arecibo Campus, with their respective political affiliations. This is to point out that Andújar should not be appointed because he appointed people of all political affiliations to administrative positions instead of limiting those appointments to pro-statehooders. This act of political file-keeping constitutes a violation of Article 167 of the Criminal Code of Puerto Rico (illegal collection of personal information). Here it is necessary to point out that Varona is one of the leaders of a New Progressive Party-affiliated organization called Fuerza Universitaria Estadista, which supports Ferrao and which, according to another of its leaders, was approached by Ferrao asking for partisan political support in his aspiration to be UPR president.
The new president should be appointed as soon as possible because in addition to all these vicious campaigns and instances of low-handedness, we have been informed that there are people within the current central administration who are not doing anything to give the new president a healthy administrative organization, but quite the opposite. Whoever is responsible for the next decision to be made by the governing board will indicate if the university sinks or is saved.
José M. Saldaña, DMD, MPH, is a former president of the University of Puerto Rico.