The Caribbean is a small place. I mean not if you're trying to swim it but geographically the countries are small. At one point the best University in the Caribbean was in Cuba. People went there to study pretty much any advanced degree.
The University of Puerto Rico opened up at the beginning of last century. At the beginning through enlightened leadership it became a premier institution. My grandfather who graduated from the UPR had a tiny class of around 200 students. He was always ever so proud of his university. My grandfather, played guitar, recited Shakespeare from memory, read French for fun, and had a rather extensive workbench, which I'm told he used a lot when younger. A very educated scholar, he was typical of the university's first years.
However since them the UPR has become (all pardon me) a joke, a shadow of it's former self. Both physically and spiritually it has become a factory of students cranking out people in a quantity is more important that quality way.
I don't mean that there isn't talent there. Or that every aspect of the University is in decline, but as an institution, it's just as rigorous as a high-school, and a bad high school at that.
I still remember showing up at 4am an August morning with my friend Rodolfo to try and get all his classes on his schedule. Leaving at 2pm defeated having gotten most but not all on the schedule. A month later I returned to Princeton University where I was able to register pretty flawlessly online. This of course was ages ago, when the internet was still barely used in Puerto Rico. But not much has changed. Recently I saw on the newspaper that the Senate was investigating putting a hotel in the natural preserve of Mona Island, yet matters of great importance to the development of PR like internet connectivity languished. Recently my dad sent me an FCC report showing how bad connectivity is in PR and asking for more federal money.
Enough with this. It's time Puerto Rico started being first in dealing with it's problems. From that learned helplessness there is nothing to learn. Yet this is one of the main things that is taught at the UPR: helplessness.
I've been bitching for ages that PR needs to foster entrepreneurship. And what I mean by that is not business classes but getting away from that learned helplessness. Putting the power into people and giving them the tools to avoid needless frustration.
I remember when I was in college asking my friends on the UPR system what was they last book they read. I'd rather frequently get "what? for school?" And I'd clarify, no for pleasure. The blank look that followed said a lot.
The University has lost it's mission. It's focused on how to teach x-number of students but not on it's mission as an educational institution. Is it okay to graduate people that are half literate? Is it okay to be a remedial advanced HS for the country? Is it okay for it to produce more of the same rather than lead in producing more of what's coming? Is it okay to sacrifice academic rigor to appease students?
This year's strike at the University cause a flood in my dad's Interamerican Univeristy. Students were fleeing the instability of the UPR for the more expensive but stable private University. I wish I could say that strikes were the exception, but during my 4 years in Princeton the UPR had more than one strike. One was because the new proposed parking lot would charge money for the convenience of close parking. (Can you imagine... the horror...)
This ridiculousness, strike friendly, incompetent, helpless and frustrating culture is what has not only been allowed to fester in the UPR but actually encouraged to grow. Last year's strike was, I believe, necessary for the Government's play towards taking control of the supposedly independent University was obvious. But the students demands included no raises in tuition. On a school that's so cheap as the UPR, raising tuition is necessary to preserve academic rigor, yet the students like the institution believe the function is to server the social need for university graduates, and to produce them as some sort of right of the population. To stamp them out like caps on a bottles in a beer factory. This is just plain wrong.
The same way that mandatory education's purpose is not to get you a job (that's an ancillary benefit) but to create knowledgeable discerning citizens able to vote judiciously and able to preserve democracy as a system (for the price of the democracy's distributed power is an educated populace). The university's job can't be to just stamp out graduates. It can't be just a knowledge transmission station, but a knowledge seeking haven.
Furthering the periphery of knowledge, excellence, broadening of horizons, and enterprising spirit. These are missions for a University.
It's telling that Jaime Benítez one of the early Directors of the University was described as "emprendedor" or enterprising. This enterprising spirit is conspicuously absent from the current culture in Puerto Rico. Reading a book should not just be for school, it should be for yourself too.
The UPR is an enviable position. Many Puerto Rican scholars would like to teach in it at a high-level. With no University in Latin America in the top 200 schools of the world (I think I read this in the NY times but I don't have the reference right now) it could if it wanted to be one of the best Universities of the Caribbean, and possibly Latin America.
Like Jaime Benítez said: "el principal objetivo de esta universidad debe ser hacer hombres libres en su espíritu, hombres que no rindan la potencialidad creadora de su alma a nada de este mundo" The primary objective of this university should be to make men free in their essence, men that do not surrender the creative potential of their souls for nothing in this world.
That should be the mission of the University. A mission lost and forgotten at present. If the UPR finds it's mission, everything else will follow.