12/22/2010 10:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Welcome Change of Approach to University Strikes

AP Photo/El Nuevo Dia, J. Ismael Fernandez Reyes

A few days ago in this blog space, my colleague, Dr. Maritza Stanchich, posted an overview of yet another student strike at the University of Puerto Rico. Her viewpoint is clearly pro-strike and runs counter to the opinions of many University of Puerto Rico faculty, students, and employees. Allow me to present a different viewpoint of the same conflict.

The standard mechanism for student strikes at the University of Puerto Rico is to forcibly deny everybody else at the institution their rights to study, to teach, to work, and to do research. This mechanism is illegal on many levels. It denies others their basic civil rights. It violates University of Puerto Rico student regulations that clearly state students have no right to impede academic activities. It flies in the face of the university's Non-Confrontation Policy that says no groups or individuals have the right to impede academic or administrative activities.

Student strikes are not protected under Puerto Rico's laws because students do not have an employee-employer relationship with the university. In the numerous legal actions brought by the University of Puerto Rico in the Superior Court, and, most recently, before the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, the courts have ruled that student strikes are, in fact, illegal and are not a valid exercise of freedom of speech. The courts have ordered student strikers to cease and desist from their actions. For 25 years, the illegality of the strikes at every level has not led the university to be proactive about maintaining access to the campus. In the current case and as a part of the Open University Policy, the University of Puerto Rico administration has taken action by bringing in the state police to assure free access to the campus and to guarantee the rights of those who want to continue offering classes, taking classes, and doing their jobs.

During my 23+ years of employment at UPR, I have repeatedly been denied free access to my laboratory and my office, my places of work, by whichever group that chooses to violate my civil rights as a pressure point for their cause. In my younger assistant professor years, I just jumped the fence to go to work and avoid controversy. More recently, I have begun to fight for my rights. In 2005, ten professors (I was one) sued the university to guarantee our access to our laboratories. After winning a preliminary injunction in federal court, we settled our case with the university when the board of trustees emitted a certification guaranteeing that all campuses would be open, regardless of strikes. In the 62-day strike earlier this year, I was physically threatened, pushed, spit upon, and insulted by groups who tried to deny me access, but I insisted on my rights.

Contrary to what Dr. Stanchich portrays as a peaceful movement, this type of abuse and violence is routine during strikes at the University of Puerto Rico. Numerous student strikers hide their identities by covering their faces with hoods and masks, and they carry weapons, such as metal tubes, sticks with nails in them, baseball bats, and slingshots with lead pellets. Just last week, in an effort to disrupt normal activity and create terror, hooded students threw smoke bombs into classrooms filled with students. Following such incidents, and unlike prior occasions when such intimidation occurred, Puerto Rico police are now present, and they have ably maintained campus access for all university employees and students. For many years, I have waited for the university or the government of Puerto Rico to defend my civil rights. This is the first time they have done so. In that sense, I am very satisfied with the actions taken by the university administration.

Over the last 30 years, the Río Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico has been moving towards becoming a first-rate research institution. It is beginning to succeed. According to the National Science Foundation's latest data, 24% of Hispanics in the United States who obtain a PhD in Science, Mathematics or Engineering, passed through the University of Puerto Rico for some part of their education. The UPR-Río Piedras Strategic Plan, Vision 2016 -- endorsed by all campus academic and administrative bodies -- asserts the importance of research, knowledge creation, and scholarly activity. In keeping with that objective, the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras has grown its existing graduate programs, created new doctoral offerings, and expanded its external funding profile with federal agencies.

As required for research institutions, the university has a contractual obligation and responsibility to comply with federal and state laws governing research and laboratory operations, including the safe stewardship of highly specialized equipment, dangerous chemicals, and human and animal research. The university has acted correctly in bringing in the appropriate level of security to safeguard not only the interests of the institution and its constituents, but of the general public as well.

Many of the recent UPR student conflicts have received national and even international attention. As a result, my stateside colleagues invariably have many questions. I always try to carefully explain the issues. Inevitably, I get the following question: "How much do students at the University of Puerto Rico pay for tuition and fees?" My answer: $1200-$1500, depending on the number of credits. Per semester? No, per year. At that point, the discussion usually ends in disbelief because they cannot believe (1) how low the tuition and fees are, and (2) how it possibly can be an issue, given the cost of higher education everywhere else, including other institutions in Puerto Rico.

When we add to the equation the multiple sources of financial assistance available to UPR students, e.g. Pell Grants, student loans, etc., it should be clear that the issue of resources is not the primary reason for the student conflict. Of course, it goes without saying no one wants to increase the costs of education. Moreover, I fully understand some UPR students have difficulty paying the current modest tuition and will have even greater problems meeting the new $400 per semester fee. For that very reason, the government has created several special scholarship funds totaling more than $30 million dollars to address the needs of that sector.

With the awarding of over 300,000 degrees, the University of Puerto Rico has distinguished itself over the last 100+ years. UPR alumni from a wide range of academic disciplines have brought honor to the institution through their service to Puerto Rico and to the nation. Yet, today the institution is on the brink of losing its Middle States Commission on Higher Education accreditation and being de-certified for U.S. Department of Education Title IV funds.

The current situation at the University of Puerto Rico threatens not only the present and the future of the institution, but also the past. Alumni may soon find themselves with a degree from a non-existent university. I, personally, am proud to be an integral part of a public research institution that has made a difference in so many students' lives. It would be a great tragedy to lose such a successful institution because a small minority cannot accept the will of the majority and the economic realities of the times. The time to put politics aside, analyze the real data, and reach the conclusion that serves the greater good has arrived.

Brad R. Weiner is Professor of Chemistry and Dean of the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras.

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