www.ambiente.us MARCH | MARZO 2011
OPEd | Puerto Rican Students protest rise in tuition fee
By Carlos T Mock, MD
Months of unrest at the University of Puerto Rico seemed to be reaching a finale.
Scores of students were arrested or injured by riot police officers. Faculty and
staff members held a two-day walkout. The president of the university resigned,
the police who had occupied campus were withdrawn and an interim president
But there were only three days of peace.
On the morning of February 17, students blocked the stairs to classrooms in the
social science department with trash cans and chairs, and also closed down the
humanities department. At the social sciences building, students said only one
professor had tried to get through the blockade.
The spark for the university’s problems was a budget cut that required students
to pay a new $800 fee, increasing their costs by more than 50 percent.
“It is the same situation that many universities in the United States are facing,”
said Miguel A. Muñoz, the interim president. “Our budget is about $1 billion, and
we have been cut about $200 million. We need the $800 fee to cover the deficit,
and our tuition is so low, $51 a credit, that it’s almost a gift.”
The tuition is indeed far lower than most other flagship public universities. But
Puerto Rico is poorer than the mainland United States, and two-thirds of the
students have incomes low enough to qualify for Pell grants.
As at many public universities elsewhere in the United States, students here
worry that the new fiscal realities will restrict who can attend.
academic programs, including Hispanic studies, “on pause,” meaning they are not accepting
Some faculty members and students say that local politics have played a large role in the
Puerto Rico has its first Republican governor in decades, Luis G. Fortuño, a pro-statehood
conservative who has cut the number of public employees by about 17,000. Last weekend, while
the protesters were marching in the streets, Mr. Fortuño was in Washington as a featured
speaker at the Conservative Political Action conference. Even in the lull from protests early this
week, students and faculty members alike said they had no illusion that the situation had been
“We still have a very volatile situation,” said Maritza Stanchich, an English professor who has
supported the students. “This all started out over anger about the new fees that were being
imposed, but the issues have expanded to the style of governance and the lack of negotiation.”
While it is hard to predict what will happen next, some students may be changing their approach.
“What a lot of people are saying, and I believe too, is that we should be thinking about a
movement of protest now, not really a strike,” said Omar Oduardo, a Student Council
representative who spent Thursday at the social sciences department lobby, discussing the
“Maybe stopping classes is working against the movement,” he added, “and it’s time to go
outside the university, to the legislature and the community, to work for change.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Mock has published four books with Floricanto Press, Berklety, CA. His articles have
appeared on publications like The Chicago Tribune and several gay and lesbian newspapers.
He was inducted in The Chicago GLBT Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at: www.
CLICK HERE for more Carlos T. Mock
Copyright 2011 © AMBIENTE MAGAZINE. Do not reproduce without citing this source
Student leaders estimate that at least 5,000 of the university’s students were not
able to pay the fee this semester. And the administration acknowledges that there
are now fewer than 54,000 students this semester, compared with about 60,000
But the students have flexed their muscles. A two-month strike last spring shut
down the university’s 11 campuses. And since the current strike began in
December — this time, largely at the main Rio Piedras campus in San Juan —
people across the island have been riveted by television and YouTube videos of
violent confrontations between students and the police.
Many students were outraged that the police had been called to the campus.
“Calling in the police, for the first time in 30 years, was one of the most rash
decisions they could have made,” said René Vargas, a law student who represents
the student body on the university board of trustees. “The university’s intransigence
and refusal to talk to students has worsened the whole situation. The students
presented a 200-page document suggesting alternatives and ways to increase
revenues, and the trustees have not even been willing to look at it.”
Whether or not they approved of the police presence, many students said they
found it frightening.
“I didn’t go to class when I saw the police because I was scared of getting hurt,”
said Carmen Gonzalez, a senior majoring in English literature who supported the
protesters. “On television I saw people getting hurt, and if you’re in class and you
hear those police helicopters, you can’t concentrate.”
Some students are rethinking their protest approach. “Maybe stopping classes is
working against the movement,” one said.
Many students complained about the university’s decision to put several