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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Transcending UPR’s (political) revolving door

By Jorge L. Giovannetti-Torres

Special to The STAR

Earlier this month, The San Juan Daily Star’s weekend edition included two stories on the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in one day. When other media outlets only cover “strikes” or scandals in the institution, such attention is welcome.

However, the two articles remained within the same revolving door that precludes a transformation in both the UPR and the discussion about its future. With that future in serious jeopardy and the UPR presidential search on wheels, it is imperative to think outside that revolving door and move beyond the usual terms of discussion.

The STAR’s first article reported on the statements of Dr. Herman Cestero Aguilar, a retired plastic surgeon, and member of the UPR Governing Board. This coverage is important because other news organizations rarely report on what Board members are up to. Now, at least we know -- and cringe at -- what one of them thinks, without presenting any evidence for his claims. Dr. Cestero Aguilar repeats fear-mongering stereotypes about the UPR, leaving the discussion within the same revolving door.

To begin, Dr. Cestero Aguilar mentions “vultures,” “few good potatoes” and “rotten ones” without naming them. He does not specify which are the “socialist practices” taking place within an institution he oversees and confuses socialism with the political clientelism at the helm of the UPR. As a member of the UPR governing board, he owes us more precision. Perhaps he is right in stating that the “board of governors is not doing what it should do to deal with UPR’s problems.” If after more than a year on the board, he can only make imprecise and unsupported statements, he is not doing his job and is part of the problem.

Dr. Cestero Aguilar then made a hurtful generalization for those struggling inside the university. For him, UPR professors are “lazy” people overtaken by “incompetence” who “vegetate” for 25 years after they achieve tenure.

First, according to data from the Monitoring and Analysis Unit of Scientific Production in Puerto Rico, from 1999 to 2020 UPR has been responsible for 68.13% of Puerto Rico’s scientific production. Considering the attrition of recent years (for which academic managers are responsible), this rate of academic production does not suggest a lazy faculty. If there are lazy people at UPR, they are the administrators who have done nothing to create a more enabling environment for academic production, to retain and attract new scholars. UPR’s position above other universities is thus achieved despite those lazy and visionless administrators.

Second, and directly to Dr. Cestero Aguilar’s allegation about professors who “vegetate” after tenure, some cross-disciplinary examples from the Río Piedras campus are relevant. Dr. Javier Rodríguez from the School of Business Administration published four articles during his first five years and has 29 post-tenure articles. Dr. Mitch Aide from Natural Sciences published eight articles during his tenure period and has more than 100 articles in the 20 years that followed. In the humanities, Dr. María del Carmen Baerga had 11 publications before tenure and 16 after, including a book and an article in the gold standard journal for Latin American historians. Dr. Loretta Collins has 10 publications before tenure and 23 after, including two award-winning books. Clearly, Dr. Cestero Aguilar’s generalization is reprehensible.

The STAR’s second article on UPR’s presidential race also remained in the same revolving door. This is because all the candidates mentioned have been part of UPR’s status quo or have been incapable of bringing the much-needed change. But also, the article keeps the discussion of UPR in the realm of politics and does not move to the landscape of knowledge production and education where it belongs.

First, in reporting on the support for Río Piedras Chancellor Dr. Luis Ferrao’s bid for the presidency, the article explicitly names New Progressive Party politicians who allegedly support him. One could argue that such bold reporting is good because partisan influence is now shamelessly transparent. But the discussion remains in the political realm by stating that the only opposition to Dr. Ferrao is based on “his handling of the recent UPR strike.” First, the strike says nothing of his track record as a university (mis)manager and his colossal failure in transforming the institution, attracting funds, or strengthening the research environment. Second, if the handling of a political conflict within UPR is the measure of track record for a presidential candidate, we are missing the point of what UPR is about. We remain discussing the university as a place where strikes happen regularly, and not as the place responsible for nearly 70% of the island’s scientific production.

As the process to select a new UPR president takes off this month, the institution faces unspeakable challenges: unprecedented budget cuts and government neglect from outside, and administrative inertia and low morale from inside. If we really aspire to survive the current crisis with a state university that fulfills its national role, we need to discuss the university for what it is: a place of knowledge production. If we really want the UPR to be viable and vibrant, we need to embrace its transformation in the right direction and with nonpartisan leadership, not with those who have proven their failure and are stuck in a revolving door.

Jorge L. Giovannetti-Torres is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus. He is also the coordinator of the Social Science & Caribbean Archive and co-director of the Tepoztlán Institute for the Transnational History of the Americas at UPRRP.

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