The precarious status of adjunct faculty at the University of Puerto Rico is a microcosm for the broader issues faced by the island.
The summer 2019 rebellion in Puerto Rico that forced former governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign and reconfigured the country’s political will and imagination also put the archipelago in the uncommon position of being relevant to the US and international press. This coverage has frequently discussed — with good reason — the horizontal collective, creative, and diverse nature of the popular organization and execution of the protests. But these discussions have not delved sufficiently into the historical school of political dissidence, artistic protest, and democratic organization located in the interior of the archipelago, at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR).
In the recent political context, the 2016 approval of the PROMESA law enabled a new form of US imperialism: the imposition of the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB), known locally as “the Junta.” The board’s central goals are to hand Puerto Rico over to markets and to pay off bondholders without even brokering an audit of the debt. In other words, the body aims to more clearly adapt the country to neoliberal capitalism. Since 2016, the leading voices in the resistance against PROMESA and the Junta have been those within UPR — above all, the student movement — as well as activist collectives that formed at UPR or otherwise connect their development to the institution. For that reason, the summer rebellion was in part a result of this trajectory of struggle from UPR.
That’s also why, for those of us who carry traces of UPR in our lives or who continue to be involved in its operation, it never has come as a surprise that the colonial powers of the Puerto Rican government, its accomplices in the university administration, and the unfettered interests of the dominant economic regime have reacted with particular cruelty. Recurring student mobilizations at UPR — most recently in the strikes of 2010, 2011, and 2017 — managed to create local and, to a certain extent, international awareness of how various administrative and government measures and decisions have threatened accessible public education. However, the scenario is radically different for teaching staff. Despite the work of certain organizations such as the Association of UPR Professors (APPU) and PROTESTAmos, there is no tradition of a “teachers’ movement” at the institution. Therefore, the real condition of adjunct teachers —“fixed term,” “temporary,” or “on contract” — at UPR is unknown to many, and the measures that make their lives precarious could be promoted more vigorously in a political environment with scant opposition.
A Mere Headcount?
Teach, research, create, publish, organize events, complete peer reviews, act as mentors, direct thesis and research projects, present at academic events in and outside the country, prepare new courses each semester, hold weekly office hours, mark assignments and exams, receive contract notice days (or the day before) the start of the new semester, sign contracts after the semester is underway, receive the first paycheck of the semester only after weeks of work . . . These are just some of the examples of the working conditions that the University of Puerto Rico demands — sometimes explicitly, other times indirectly — of its adjunct faculty. They are also obvious examples that can be named and, in some cases, quantified, but do not encapsulate the multiplicity of onerous effects this has on the lives, bodies, and futures of the youngest generations of the country.
These are some of those effects, which, despite their subtlety, are no less crudely real. Us adjunct professors must offer courses in various institutions at the same time in order to make ends meet. We are obligated to fulfill the expectation of participating in administrative processes so that we “strengthen our CV,” “show our face,” or because “if not, maybe they won’t hire me next semester.” We receive poverty wages for the same or more work than our colleagues with permanent positions, while we can’t get sick because we don’t have health plans (even for full-time positions, coverage doesn’t extend to the periods of the year with no contract). We also can’t grow old because we don’t have retirement contributions. To underline the irony of our situation, if we want there to be any kind of positive change, we are also responsible for investigating, documenting, disclosing, and resisting everything that happens to us.
In the technocrats’ Excel spreadsheets, all of the above amounts to a mere headcount of adjunct employees that must be reduced, according to the dictates of neoliberalism. In the bodies of adjunct faculty members, this is how the precarious conditions manifest in our lives, worsened by the conditions that the country as a whole faces today.
“Property Of, but Not Part of”
The situation of adjuncts is a microcosm of Puerto Rico: “property of, but not part of.” After the US military invasion in 1898, that formulation of political status — the ruse of “unincorporated territory,” which is colonial without naming it as such — was created and legally legitimized through various US Supreme Court cases between 1901 and 1922 that, together, are known as the Casos Insulares. In this sense, the adjunct professor or worker is a person of the deepest puertorriqueñidad, or Puerto Rican identity. However, large sectors of society in the Puerto Rican archipelago continue to be unaware of these conditions of labor exploitation, and in some cases, intimidation and wage theft that adjuncts experience. The same unawareness applies to the extensive and wide-ranging effects these conditions entail.
At UPR, which is Puerto Rico’s largest institution of public higher education and research and historically has served as a motor of social mobilization and transformation, more than a thousand regular teaching positions have been “frozen” in the past ten years. Freezing positions has been a response to the promotion of “precautionary measures” in 2009 under former UPR president Antonio García Padilla. Ten years ago, that document already identified that the institution was facing a fiscal “crisis” and should take precautionary cost-saving measures. Far from being alleviated, the UPR “crisis” seems to have only become permanent. In the past ten years, in addition to the ongoing freezing of positions, there has also been a dramatic increase — though varied by campus and academic program — in unfair and undignified temporary contracts.
In this landscape of short-term “crisis management” and long-term colonial-capitalist exploitation of the archipelago, we also face the contemporary intensification of neoliberal austerity measures as the only recipe to treat all that ails Puerto Rico. Since the imposition of the Junta in 2016, which enjoyed the support and complicity of the political leadership in Puerto Rico and the administration of UPR, the university has been under the board’s control. In tune with the demands of the Junta, the measures taken by the local government and university administrators consist, among others, of dramatic cuts to public investment in the institution (presently, more than half the budget), including cuts to tuition waivers, personnel, labor rights, academic programs, employer contributions to medical plans (from $600 to $350 per month), and pensions of UPR’s previously solvent Retirement System. The aim is to convert the latter, which is based on a model of defined benefits, into a system of defined contributions, “respond[ing] to an ideological resolution of the Fiscal Control Board to impose the same model on all retirement systems of public institutions of Puerto Rico, regardless of their level of solvency,” according to the Center for Investigative Journalism.
At the same time, costs of tuition and fees have increased dramatically, thereby enclosing student access to higher education in Puerto Rico. We know that at the beginning of this year, for example, UPR’s Río Piedras campus cancelled 1,400 students’ enrollment for failure to pay. Though not quantified, the decrease in full-time contracts and increase in part-time contracts has also come to light. Many of these part-time contracts are for ten or eleven credits, just one or two credits shy of the number required for a full-time contract. This has been achieved due to the makeup of groups with more than the traditional thirty students and through an additional compensation mechanism for teachers with regular positions.
Taken together, these measures indicate the Junta and the local leadership’s desire to shrink UPR, which in real terms means making it elite and transforming it into a mirror of private goods and services corporations, as has been happening for decades across the continental United States. Ana Lydia Vega, UPR professor and writer, has rightly noted that “the conversion of the university of the people into a college exclusively for wealthy youths would put the very notion of public education in danger.”
Therefore, as part of the global capitalist trend of capturing the university under the for-profit banner — a phenomenon documented by, among others, Bousquet (2008), Newfield (2008), Arsenyuk and Koerner (2009), and Moten and Harney (2013) — there’s an effort to commodify and devour every last gut of life, even when it comes to abstract goods such as critical thought, creative imagination, and sociopolitical, philosophical, and historical reflection.
In present-day Puerto Rico — among the innumerable individuals and teachers’ organizations, unions, and student groups that have denounced and opposed this situation — a few groups and actions stand out, including the 2017 student strike; the work of the self-convened collective PROTESTAmos; the investigative journalism of Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI) of Puerto Rico; the work of the renowned Puerto Rican economist José Caraball Cueto; the investigation by Rima Brusi (“For a public, accessible, feminist university,” an unpublished conference held in April 2018 at UPR-Río Piedras) about private interests benefitting from the weakening of UPR; and the recent column, “When Disaster Capitalism Comes for the University of Puerto Rico,” by Yarimar Bonilla, Rima Brusi, and Isar Godreau.
Education by Attrition
However, one austerity measure being imposed under the radar is particularly deadly due to its silent nature and its capacity to produce scandalous, broad, and wide-ranging effects. In tune with the adjunct puertorriqueñidad — increasingly precarious, abandoned, and taken for dead — today we face so-called attrition. The word has made its way into the corporate world from military parlance, where it refers to wearing down the enemy through continuous attacks on the sources of new soldiers, materials, and weapons. In the labor context, as any quick search reveals, it refers to gradually reducing the size of the labor force through not replacing personnel lost to retirement or resignation. In other words, slow but sure death, part of what Ulrich Beck calls the “world risk society.”
To offer a concrete example, the Department of Humanities at UPR’s Mayagüez campus (RUM), where I have worked as a fixed-term teacher since 2013, has lost more than twenty regular teaching positions in the last ten years (a rate of two positions annually), mostly as a result of not replacing instructors who have resigned or retired. In the semester that just began, the forty teaching positions remaining are distributed among twelve contract instructors and twenty-eight with regular positions. These statistics will only get worse in the coming years as administrators execute the planned whittling-down that has been explicitly earmarked in the UPR Revised Fiscal Plan. The April 5, 2018 version of that document proposes turning the elimination of positions into not only a measure explicitly aimed at “cost-savings” and “thinning the administrative structure,” but also into the largest cuts out of five categories. Of five personnel categories, the headcount of temporary employees will feel 25 percent of the cuts each year for the next three years, compared with 0 percent in two other categories (Federal Funds Personnel and Faculty Personnel) and 2 percent in the remaining two categories (Faculty-Administrative Personnel and Non-Faculty). The most recent version of the UPR Fiscal Plan, dated April 5, 2019 and thoroughly summarized in the newspaper El Nuevo Día, indicates, “UPR has experienced a more aggressive attrition ramp up than UPR and FOMB expected,” and therefore “total payroll and related cost is aligned with FOMB.”
According to data that director Eduardo Berríos Torres presented to the RUM Academic Senate in April 2018, UPR’s Retirement Trust projects 1,572 eliminated positions in three years, dramatically accelerating the ongoing process of eliminating positions that we have seen since 2009. Meanwhile, as CPI documented in its recent investigation “Measures by the Junta provoke an avalanche of retirements at UPR,” there has been a dramatic increase in retirements from the UPR System, as was expected — and has been publicly condemned — since the Junta’s austerity measures began to be imposed. Since the approval of PROMESA in 2016, pension requests at UPR have increased 53 percent, while in 2019 alone, 500 people so far have requested their retirement benefits “before the end of the current fiscal year next June 30 .” The UPR Retirement System is unsustainable by design, so it is virtually impossible to keep afloat with more and more pensions to cover, without the contributions of an estimated $37 million “saved” in salaries during the last decades and $73.6 million projected to be “saved” in salaries between 2019 and 2023 through planned attrition.
On the other hand, as Cátedra notes, “the majority of temporary contracts are women,” which confirms “what experts call the feminization of poverty.” For example, the sample that responded to Profile and Labor Situation of Fixed-Term Instructors at UPR-RUM (2008–9 to 2016–17), a study conducted by the Lxs sin plaza working group of the PROTESTAmos collective, which I was part of, confirmed this tendency at RUM. Of twenty-one people that responded, fourteen identified as women, versus seven as men. Of these same twenty-one people, twelve also indicated that they were the primary economic providers for their households.
Thus, the young generation of professionals, academics, and intellectuals of the country now faces an even more dramatic scenario. The trend in recent years at UPR to increase temporary contracts in lieu of announcing regular positions will stop not because it will start investment as it should in dignified and just working conditions, but rather because it will stop contracting. These will be, in effect, de facto firings. And if those colonial creatures who are fired look toward the imperial north to migrate in search of dignified work, they will only find the tragic results of an experiment in austerity in education that has been developing for much longer in the United States. The Chronicle of Higher Education has described it as a “ticking bomb,” and it’s a process UPR seeks to imitate.
If all the above were not enough, in January 2019 the Middle States Commission for Higher Education (MSCHR) placed UPR’s eleven campuses on “show cause” — a measure the accreditation agency takes when an accredited institution does not fulfill one or more of the Commission’s policy areas — precisely because the aforementioned austerity policies, as well as the administrative inefficiency at UPR, threaten its capacity to fulfill MSCHR standard VI (Planning, Resources, and Institutional Improvement). As part of the process to address the show cause, among other things, the agency has demanded the campuses explain who they can continue their academic offerings and research work in light of the planned cutbacks to the teaching workforce. Current UPR president, Jorge Haddock, has insisted that UPR will counteract the cutbacks by increasing proposals to acquire external funds by 30 percent. But, as Brusi and Godreau argue, this possibility, hazardous and uncertain in itself, becomes even more doubtful without sufficiently resourced instructors with regular positions who can submit such proposals and continue the research work UPR has traditionally upheld. MSCHR was not convinced in March of this year, and consequently it extended the show cause. Although eventually the accreditation agency removed the show cause designation for the UPR System in June, the president of the Commission, Margaret M. McMenamin said, “The Commission understands that while the institutions are now in compliance, this is not the end but the beginning. The institutions, in collaboration with the system, need to address their sustainability into the future.”
Defending Public Education
In the face of this situation, since 2017 various groups have led a campaign to investigate, highlight, and mobilize around the conditions of contract instructors. Some examples of these efforts include: the creation in 2017 of the National Coordination of Contract Teachers (CoNaD); the celebration of the First National Plenary of Contract Teachers (May 26, 2017 in Río Piedras); the organization and circulation of conferences, statements, and interviews in various print, radio, and television media outlets; and the investigation and completion of analytical works and concrete proposals to address the contract situation.
At the same time, we have coordinated multiple political-activist actions, among which the following stand out: Cartera pelá, a demonstration by contract teachers at UPR-RUM and the delivery of the contract dossier to the campus administration in June 2017, as well as the #MásPlazasUPR campaign, which included visuals on social media and various university spaces. We have also led circumstantial struggles around particular situations in the different UPR campuses, such as opposing the extension of contracts without pay, benefits, or medical plans after the 2017 student strike, and later, after Hurricane Maria in September 2017, as well as the fight against unjust dismissals, humiliating conditions, and institutional abuses as part of the contracting process.
Nevertheless, our efforts systematically fall on deaf ears of the believers in fundamentalist capitalism that engulfs the world today. If we are not successful in unifying local and international efforts to end the planned cutbacks and dismantling of UPR, the dead will continue to pile up before the altar of capitalism. The teaching workforce will continue to be reduced, which is also to say the intellectual, investigative, and creative workforce of our country. Will a university that is increasingly shrunken, precarious, inaccessible to the majority, and aging be able to fulfill its mission? Will it be able to offer quality education? Will it be able to remain current and respond to the immense challenges of the country? Will it be able to continue forging futures, being an agent of change, and being a leader in offering the resources and knowledge necessary for a just recovery of Puerto Rico in the wake of the 2017 hurricanes? Will it be able to connect with youths? Will it be able to give reasons for them to stay in Puerto Rico?
As much as we may be committed to the country, to UPR, to accessible quality public education, and to the common good, the bloodthirsty design of austerity not only whittles down the numbers of teaching staff, but it also erodes innovation, continuous improvement in the quality of education, the capacity to attract and offer accessible education to impoverished youth, diversification of knowledge and faculty, and the commitment to the university as a public project — more urgent than ever for a society facing a serious fiscal crisis. One day they’ll tell us, as has been said to many academic programs at UPR, that we are no longer “relevant” in the twenty-first century because we don’t recruit and graduate enough students, publish enough, attract enough money, and all kinds of shortcomings that, intrinsically, don’t mean anything. In an economically bankrupt Puerto Rico — no longer politically and imaginatively bankrupt, as we demonstrated this summer — we live keeping the idea that another future is possible alive, which is the same as saying keeping public education alive, recognized as the most valuable good of any society and ultimately impossible to commodify. No doubt the committed crowds in the streets in 2019 taught us these lessons.
Written by Beatriz Llenín Figueroa