- A University BesiegedInitial Impressions of a Student Strike
A widely supported student strike shut down ten of eleven campuses of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR)—which then had 65,000 students and 12,000 employees, including 5,000 professors— for two months last April, May, and June. That strike ended with an accord since broken by the administration, with only one gain remaining: the restitution of canceled tuition waivers, enjoyed broadly by students in sports, bands, honors programs. But the accord also promised to negotiate a new $400 fee, postponed its imposition at the time, and also guaranteed no summary suspensions of student strike leaders. Instead, Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood and Republican governor, Luis Fortuño, fast-tracked four new appointments to the Board of Trustees to do his bidding; his chief of staff publicly called the accords “nothing but paper,” and both publicly vowed to kick out leftists from the UPR. An $800 student fee was announced for January, to be $400 thereafter, though no one can say for how long. Amid growing unrest, a few government-scholarship and work-study programs were announced. Those who recognize the parallels to the University of California in the 1960s and 1970s, where then governor Ronald Reagan instituted [End Page 233] fees to destroy the social mission of that premiere institution, suspect the student aid is meant to ease the impact not of the $800 but of the fee as an instrument to privatize the institution in the long term. Students called a strike in a student assembly that made quorum, though some question the legitimacy of the assemblies in part because a majority of the student body, including politically moderate sectors, doesn’t widely participate. The night before the renewed strike was to begin in December, with just three other campuses also staging walkouts this time, the administration demolished gates to the main Río Piedras campus and hired a private firm, Capitol Security, for $1.5 million instead of using its own unionized campus security guards. A former high-ranking police and fire department official now at the firm hired youth through the youth division at the office of the mayor of Loíza, an economically marginalized Afro-Puerto Rican community that has in past years been subjected to systematic police brutality, according to the local chapter of the ACLU and community leaders there. The young men, who received little screening or training, were given “Security” T-shirts, told they would get paid twenty dollars per hour for working a rock concert, and were brought to the university’s most volatile political conflict in thirty years. In the ensuing photos they appear lost; community leaders said many didn’t know where they were. In the next ensuing nights, they intimidated student protestors with sticks and pipes in a scenario perhaps not seen since the dockworkers’ strike of the 1940s here. Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court, recently stacked with appointees of Governor Fortuño, ruled that protests on the half-square-mile campus were illegal. Chancellor Ana R. Guadalupe prohibited any assembly at all on campus for a month, and the prohibition was later extended to three months. Professors received coercive memos and read and heard press statements from upper administrators, at times daily, threatening disciplinary action and docked pay unless they regularly reported that all classes were being held inside appointed classrooms. It started to feel asphyxiating, metaphorically reminiscent of Ricardo Piglia’s Southern Cone dictatorship novel, Respiración artificial. A march from the state capitol to the historic La Fortaleza governor’s mansion drew at least ten thousand. [End Page 234]
One has to imagine the multitudes, as seen in reports in the press and internet in London and Italy and Greece and Dublin and the Philippines and Croatia and California and elsewhere: online student movements internationally call for worldwide student mobilizing in March 2011 in defense of public higher education. One has to conjure this international dimension for morale, because the grim fact at this stage of the student struggle is that, while the social relations made possible by twenty-to-one student/teacher ratios are on the...