The University of (UPR) was the first formal university entity founded in Puerto Rico. It was created by the Law of March 12, 1903. It began operating on a farm in Río Piedras with an enrollment of 273 students. Its academic predecessor was the Island Normal School, which had been founded in 1900 specifically to educate teachers in the English language to help the process of Americanization on the Island.
Throughout its history, the UPR has been instrumental in the preparation of many professions and the social and economic development of Puerto Rico. Today, it consists of 11 campuses that are located in Río Piedras, Mayagüez, Humacao, Carolina, Bayamón, Cayey, Ponce, Arecibo, Utuado and Aguadilla. There is also the Medical Sciences Campus in Río Piedras.
The origins of the University date back to 1899 when the Island Public Education Board offered $15,000 a year to a town that would invest a similar amount to create a normal school. Fajardo accepted and founded the Island Normal School in 1900. Its purpose was to educate teachers. Enrollment was limited to 20 students and the faculty consisted of 5 professors. Due to the difficulty of traveling to Fajardo from various points on the island, the Board decided to move the school to Río Piedras.
The Normal School was established in a rented building on a farm called La Convalecencia, the former summer home of Spanish governors. 50 acres of land were acquired for the construction of a building that would later house the institution. In 1907, the first group of students graduated.
Growth of the University
With funds and land granted by the Morrill-Nelson Act for the establishment of schools of agriculture, sciences and engineering, the College of Agriculture was established in 1912 in Mayagüez. In 1912, its name changed to the College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (CAAM). After the university reform of 1966, it came to be called the Mayagüez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico. At the Río Piedras campus, other departments beyond the Normal School were established gradually. The Liberal Arts Department (today, the School of Humanities) was founded in 1910, the Law Department and the Pharmacy Department (today the School of Law and School of Pharmacy) were founded in 1913. The same year, University High School was founded to provide supervised practice for students at the Normal School.
During the 1920s, the University continued expanding physically and developing its academic offerings. The University Law was approved in 1923, making it an administratively independent entity from the Department of Education and establishing a Board of Trustees and the post of rector. In 1926, the Business Administration College was established in Río Piedras and the School of Tropical Medicine in San Juan; in 1927, the first graduate program, a master in arts with a concentration in Spanish Studies, was created.
In 1931, Carlos Chardón was appointed rector of the University of Puerto Rico, becoming the first Puerto Rican to hold the position. From 1937 to 1939, the tower at the Río Piedras campus was built and it has served as a general emblem of the university system. Its cost was estimated at $275,000. It was named for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president of the United States. Roosevelt created the New Deal policy to alleviate the crisis of the Great Depression and that provided funds for the new building at the University.
The architects responsible for the design were Rafael Carmoega, a Puerto Rican, and William Schimmelpfenning, from the United States. The tower is 174 feet tall with a façade formed by four pedestals with the emblems of the main colleges of that era: Law, Education, Arts and Sciences, and Pharmacy.
In 1939, this symbol of the UPR was complemented with a carillon with 25 tubular bells, located inside the tower. The carillon has played classical and popular music by composers such as Rafael Hernández and Agustín Lara, among others, as well as national anthems of the nations of the Americas, including La Borinqueña. It also marks the hour, important for the entire university community. Its interior decoration includes classical molding and renaissance motifs. An enormous clock is on all four sides. In her book “The Architecture of the University of Puerto Rico,” professor María Luisa Moreno describes the main architectural transformations of the first university in Puerto Rico. In 1938, playwright Francisco Arriví wrote the lyrics to the University hymn and the director of the chorus, Augusto Rodríguez, wrote the music.
During the 1940s, Puerto Rican society experienced an accelerated change. Economic development brought about the transformation of a rural society whose population depended on agriculture to an urban society dependent mainly on manufacturing. Factories in urban areas replaced agriculture as the main source of jobs for the population. The University became a key part of this process of change. In 1942, the University Reform Law was approved, which created a Higher Education Council that replaced the Board of Trustees as the administrative body and specified new roles for the rector, who would have greater control over the direction of the institution. The same year, the Council appointed Jaime Benítez as rector.
During his incumbency, educational reforms were implemented and new research centers were established, such as the Institute for Caribbean Studies and the Center for Social Research, as well as new schools: Humanities, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, General Studies and others. Also created were graduate programs such as the Schools of Medicine, Dentistry and Planning. In 1941, the Student Council was created. Under the administration of Benítez, the education philosophy was aimed at a Western vision of the culture in the style of the main universities in the United States. This aspect has been criticized for decades by professors and students, who have argued for a focus that is more Puerto Rican and Latin American.
In 1946, the University was accredited for the first time by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, an entity that sets quality standards in the United States. Two years later, the first university strike erupted after nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos was prevented from giving a speech at the Theater and after the expulsion of some students for replacing the U.S. flag in front of the tower with the Puerto Rican flag. Students considered both actions a violation of their rights of free expression and held a student assembly on April 12 that declared a strike. After several confrontations with the police and the closure of the campus, the Student Council was eliminated, 24 students were expelled and a new article was added to the regulations that prohibited appearances at the college of controversial speakers.
The School of Medicine was founded in 1950. In the same decade, the School of Sciences at the CAAM became the School of Arts and Sciences and the Nuclear Center was created. Additionally, as part of a push for modernization, research proliferated on social, economic, demographic and political aspects of Puerto Rican society through work being done at the Social Research Center on the Río Piedras campus.
Logo of the 2010 UPR strike.
In the 1960s, new graduate programs were begun at the Río Piedras campus. These included master’s degrees in Biology, Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry in the School of Natural Sciences; History and English in the School of Humanities; Education Management and Supervision, Secondary Education and Orientation and Guidance in the School of Education; and Economics and Psychology in the School of Social Sciences. Master’s programs were also begun in the new Graduate Schools of Library Science and Planning. The School of Architecture was created in Río Piedras in 1966 and the Graduate School of Business Administration in 1968. Doctoral degrees in Spanish Studies (School of Humanities) and Chemistry (School of Natural Sciences) were begun in Río Piedras in 1963 and 1968, respectively.
The University as microcosm
The 1960s were marked by social, economic and political changes, both in Puerto Rico and in the rest of the world. The University once again showed it was a microcosm of Puerto Rican society, as well as being aware of international events and repercussions. A large part of the student population and professors urged a university reform that would make changes in the administration, as well as education, particularly in the “house of studies” concept put into practice by Jaime Benítez, which was based on a Western and universalist vision, putting regional and national concerns on a secondary level.
A series of protests erupted. Finally, Law No. 1 of 1966 was approved, which restructured the University into a system in which three campuses – Río Piedras, Mayagüez and Medical Sciences – would be managed under a single president. The system would keep growing –Arecibo, Cayey and Humacao (1967), Ponce (1969), Bayamón (1971), Aguadilla (1972), Carolina (1973) and Utuado (1978). Also established was a University Board with representation for the campuses and regional colleges and the name of the governing board was changed to the Higher Education Council. Students had a voice, but no vote, in the Academic Senate and in the schools.
The 1960s was also witness to opposition from many university students to the political situation in Puerto Rico, the presence of the R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officers Training Corps) at the Río Piedras campus since 1919, the military draft and the Vietnam War. In March of 1970, once again, students marched and protested. The situation culminated with the death on March 4 of student Antonia Martínez Lagares, caused by a shot fired by the police.
The university system continued to grow during the 1970s. Improvements were made to buildings and graduate courses were increased to include master’s degrees in Counseling and Rehabilitation in the School of Social Sciences, in Translation and Comparative Literature in the School of Humanities and Home Economics in the School of Education. In 1979, Radio Universidad, WRTU-FM, began broadcasting from the Río Piedras campus.
In September of 1981, another strike erupted at the UPR. The main cause was the increase in the cost of tuition, along with governmental intervention. In a sociological analysis of the strike, several professors concluded that “university conflicts are a reflection of the fundamental social struggles and inequalities that are found in the foundation of society and the power apparatus that rules it” (Luis Nieves Falcón and others). In this case, the cost per credit hour rose from $5 to $15. There were numerous and serious confrontations between students and professors and the police force and SWAT team. The strike lasted until January of 1982.
Policy of Non-Confrontation
The adversarial experience of the beginning of the 1980s, among other factors, led to the development of a Policy of Non-Confrontation (PNC) under the administration of the rector of the UPR in Río Piedras, Juan R. Fernández, between 1985 and 1992. Since that time, several certifications from the Academic Senate have affirmed university autonomy and the PNC. The first, Certification #81 of 1985-1986, created the Security Coordinating Board, through which the policy was structured.
The PNC stated that university issues and conflicts would be resolved internally through dialogue, prohibiting the police or SWAT team from entering the campuses, and it defended university autonomy. On February 9, 2005, a new strike was declared for July, and they were reminded of the “Non-Confrontation Institutional Policy” (Circular #42, 2004-2005). Over the years, this policy has been through many changes, the most recent as part of Certification # 62 of the 2020-2021 academic year, approved in February of 2021. In that document, the principle of “Non-Confrontation” was replaced with “Coexistence,” so the university administration in 2021 refers to the “Institutional Policy on Coexistence.”
Strikes and walkouts (1991-1992, 2005, 2010, 2017)
The University is historically a large mirror that reflects, confronts, debates and proposes solutions to the various conflicts of Puerto Rican society, as well as its academic problems. This dynamic is an inherent part of the meaning of what a university is, as a space for research and the creation of knowledge. Being a space for debate, personal development and growth is part of the course of many universities internationally.
In the last twenty years, there has been a lot of debate within the University of Puerto Rico about budget cuts at the institution, increased costs of tuition, attacks on university autonomy, university reforms, the privatization of public services, and other topics whose effects go beyond the immediate university community because the entity’s offerings are extended to the general public. Remember that the university is in charge of hospitals and maintains the registry of seismic activity in the Puerto Rico Seismic Network, which was transferred to the UPR in Mayagüez in 1987, along with other services. The research, education and dissemination of information throughout Puerto Rico are central to its many undergraduate and graduate programs.
On June 24, 1991, the university administration proposed a series of scaled increases to take effect from August of 1991 to 1994. For example, an undergraduate course would cost $30 per credit in the 1992-1993 academic year. However, pressure from the General Council of Students and other sectors of non-teaching employees led to identification of other sources of funds the following year. “On June 23, 1992, it was reported that the Puerto Rico Senate had approved a bill that would increase by .33% the budgetary formula of 9% that was used to assign funds to the UPR” (Bravo Vick and Ramos Rodríguez, p. 159, p.171). This was the result of multiple assemblies that led to stoppages and strikes in 1991 and 1992.
In 1993, Law No. 186 of August 7 of that year, the roles of the Higher Education Council were redistributed and the government’s functions were assigned to a new Board of Trustees. In 1998, Law No. 186 of August 7 of that year was approved, which required the Board of Trustees to gradually give autonomy to the regional campuses, thus creating a university system of eleven autonomous units. The same year, Governor Pedro Rosselló removed $40 million in funding for the University.
In 2003, the institution celebrated its centennial while facing many financial challenges that continue to hamper it. In 2005, there was a strike to protest another tuition increase. Similarly, the students and other sectors declared a new strike in 2010 against the imposition of a new fee, the proposed elimination of the tuition exemption for exceptional skills or sports, and other budget cuts, after the elimination of $40 million in funding by the administration of Governor Rosselló. On that occasion, 10 of the 11 campuses went on strike. The Medical Sciences Campus had partial protests.
On April 6, 2017, students, teaching and non-teaching personnel joined again to highlight the negative effect of new cuts. The elimination of $450 million from the UPR budget, approved by the Financial Management and Oversight Board, better known as the Fiscal Control Board, led to the strike that lasted until June of that year. They rejected the decisions of the Board created by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) approved by the United States Congress in 2016 to deal with the issue of the public debt. Protesters also insisted on an audit of the debt and the recognition of the University of Puerto Rico as the most important economic project on the Island.
In 2021, the University continued facing the economic crisis criticized in the latest strikes. Tuition costs since 2017 have surpassed $130 per undergraduate credit, not including laboratory fees and other services that have also risen in cost. Students, professors, administrative and maintenance employees have been affected by the limited number of permanent positions, contributing to the deterioration of services, at the same time that the university Retirement System is undermined because no more employees are hired to contribute to it.
Alfaro Pérez, Luis D. “Las huelgas más destacadas de la UPR”. Pulso Estudiantil, 16 de noviembre de 2019. https://pulsoestudiantil.com/las-huelgas-mas-destacadas-de-la-upr/. https://pulsoestudiantil.com/ Retrieved 5/3/2021.
Curbelo Álvarez, Sylvia y Carmen Raffucci, editoras. “Frente a La Torre: ensayos del centenario de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1903-2003”. Río Piedras: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 2005.
“Historia de la Universidad de Puerto Rico”. Centenario de la UPR. https://www.upr.edu/historia/. Retrieved 5/3/2021.
Metro Puerto Rico. “Empleados de la UPR objetan cambios en el Sistema de Retiro de la UPR”. 31 de marzo de 2020. https://www.metro.pr/pr/noticias/2020/03/31/empleados-de-la-upr-objetan-cambios-al-sistema-de-retiro.html. Retrieved 5/3/2021.
Moreno, María Luisa. “La arquitectura de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Río Piedras”. Río Piedras: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 2000.
Nieves Falcón, Luis; Ineke Cunningham, Israel Rivera, Francisco Torres, Hiram Amundaray. “Huelga y sociedad. Análisis de los sucesos en la UPR, 1981-1982”. Río Piedras: Editorial Edil, 1982.
Ramos Rodríguez, Isabel, Milagros Bravo Vick, Carmen Acevedo Rivera, Luz Dary Serrano Abreo, Diana Rivera Viera. “Lucha y conciliación en la Universidad: Contexto, desarrollo y proyección de la Política de No Confrontación”. San juan: Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas, 2008.
Santana Miranda, Sadot. “JCF advierte que sistema de retiro de la UPR necesita reformas”. 31 de marzo de 2020. Metro Puerto Rico. https://www.metro.pr/pr/noticias/2020/03/31/jcf-advierte-sistema-de-retiro-de-la-upr-necesita-reformas.html. Retrieved 5/3/2021.
Silva Gotay, Samuel. “Huelgas, protestas de ayer y de hoy: una mirada a la Historia”. Claridad, El Periódico de la Nación Puertorriqueña, 28 mayo 2010. Retrieved 5/3/2021.
Sojo Ramos, Norma I. “Historia del RUM”. Comité de Celebración del Centenario, Mayagüez. http://centenario.uprm.edu/historia.html. Retrieved 7/3/2021.
“Una mirada a las primeras décadas de la Universidad”. https://www.uprrp.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Una-mirada-30-low.pdf Río Piedras: Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Río Piedras, 2005.
Published: September 12, 2014
Revision: Dr. Lizette Cabrera Salcedo, November 3, 2021