The Senate has for its consideration a positive report supporting the approval of a bill that would shift the “international marketing” of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) to a private nonprofit foundation — which the college created in 2017 — that will receive at least $5 million annually from the depleted Puerto Rico General Fund to get the work done.

The report, delivered June 14, which recommends the approval of Senate Bill 1068, was based solely on an explanatory memorandum by UPR President Luis A. Ferrao. The measure did not go to public hearings, nor did it include the opinion of the university community or the public.

The bill, filed in October 2022 by Popular Democratic Party (PPD, in Spanish) senators Juan Zaragoza Gómez, Elizabeth Rosa Vélez, Rosamar Trujillo Plumey, Ramón Ruiz Nieves and Albert Torres Berríos, wants the University of Puerto Rico Foundation Inc., registered in the Department of State in 2017 by former UPR President Celeste Freytes, to oversee the visibility abroad of Puerto Rico’s main educational center. The idea is similar to the one that paved the way for the Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) with the approval of the Act to Promote Puerto Rico as a tourist destination.

Originally, the bill proposed the creation of a corporation independent of the UPR, but Ferrao, who positively recommended the measure,  proposed to the Senate’s Committee on Education, Tourism and Culture, to delegate those powers to the University of Puerto Rico Foundation Inc. Ferrao also suggested the budget allocation for its operation.

The goal of the initiative is to recruit students outside of Puerto Rico to counteract the decline in enrollment. This strategy is described in the Explanatory Memorandum as a “new tool” to “launch policies and strategies for the UPR’s development and growth” in the face of the difficult fiscal panorama.

Bill surprises professors

The Puerto Rican Association of University Professors (APPU, in Spanish) said the bill tries to reinvent the wheel since there are already programs to this effect. 

The UPR has the Office of International Affairs, Student Exchange, and Academic Collaboration Agreements. It operates as a liaison for the vice presidencies, organizes offices and dependencies so that they respond with an agenda aimed at the internationalization of the UPR and manages protocols for international admissions to the institution, among other tasks.

María del Mar Rosa Rodríguez, president of Puerto Rican Association of University Professors.
Photo by José M. Encarnación Martínez | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

The APPU believes the proposal will result in wasting the few resources available by commissioning private efforts.

“If there is a real interest from the Legislature [in helping the UPR], it would allocate that money — restricted for that purpose — within the university budget. But that isn’t the intention, it is to subsidize this whole new structure that’s going to require salaries, more hiring,” said  Rodríguez.

“There’s nothing wrong with bringing students from abroad, but it must go hand in hand with efforts to meet the needs of Puerto Rican students. There is talk of investing in a mechanism to attract students from abroad, and on the other hand, we have students here without dorms, with facilities that are still abandoned,” said students leader Adrián Maldonado, from the UPR Law School.

“We already have offices with staff that can do this. It’s a matter of focus, of prioritizing other instrumentalities. There are some internal tools that have been weakened by the university’s economic reality and, unfortunately, they aren’t working to bring back what they have let drop by choosing this same route of subcontracting and improvisation,” Maldonado pointed out.

APPU members said they were taken by surprise by both the move and the bill’s positive report released in June.

“This came down suddenly, while we have been lobbying for the budget. It comes down and no one sees it. In the middle of the debate about how much money we’re going to allocate to the UPR. Is it $500 million,  more or less than $500 [million]. During this situation, now we’re talking about $5 million that will go elsewhere,” the APPU president questioned. “It’s annoying because it doesn’t address the main problem, which is budgetary. Looking for students from abroad doesn’t fix the local reality, it doesn’t fix the tuition increases, that our students, mainly the most economically needy, don’t have access to the UPR as they should,” she added.

Professor Anilyn Díaz, from the UPR in Arecibo, questioned the methodology on which the analysis of the legislative measure was based.

“The only indicator used [for the analysis of this bill] is population decline. That’s all. They forget the budget cuts and the increase in enrollment [costs], which are two elements that have limited admission, mainly for that population of students for whom we are the main educational option, but who don’t have the resources to pay for the increases in tuition,” she stressed.

When it rains, it pours 

The professors aren’t the only ones unaware of the bill being considered in the Senate. None of the professors or students contacted by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) familiar with the processes related to academic experiences abroad or with the recruitment of international students knew of this measure.

Even the coordinators of the UPR’s internationalization program, with whom the CPI spoke, did not know about the bill.

“I am completely unaware of this bill,” said Professor Jazmina Román, of the UPR Humacao and director of the internationalization program at that campus for the past nine years. “We are a group of coordinators, and we meet once a month. Our last meeting was on the third Friday of May and important issues such as agreements for the program were discussed, but nothing was discussed about this,” she assured.

“The goal of our offices is that our students have the opportunity to have academic mobility in these institutions [outside Puerto Rico],” explained Román, adding that in the case of Río Piedras, Mayagüez and Medical Sciences campuses they already have mechanisms to bring graduate students to study in Puerto Rico.

An example of what Román described is the Assistant Dean of International Relations (DARI, in Spanish) of the Río Piedras campus, which provides services to international students, exchange students, and professors. Its two main missions are to advance the international agenda of the Río Piedras campus and facilitate the mobility of its students.

DARI has been managing educational and cultural exchange opportunities for years with universities in America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. In fact, both Río Piedras and Mayagüez are part of the National Student Exchange Program (NSE), which brings together nearly 200 universities and colleges from the United States, Canada, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. The UPR receives students from the United States, Canada, France, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Asia, and South American countries, who already select the institution as a study destination to complete an academic degree.

The APPU representative in the UPR-Arecibo, Anilyn Díaz, with recording secretary, Nydia Chéverez Rodríguez.
Photo by José M. Encarnación Martínez | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Among the provisions of the bill, whose focus is limited to demographic aspects, it is stated that “the Foundation may contract the services of external organizations with sufficient expertise to achieve marketing efforts outside of Puerto Rico.” The elements that define this “sufficient expertise” are not detailed. In addition, it seeks to “establish the logistics of recruitment, orientation, and management of the students from the time they are outside of Puerto Rico and until they finish their studies at the university.” It is not explained how.

The University of Puerto Rico Foundation Inc. is the product of Certificación 25 (2015-2016), with which the UPR Governing Board authorized the president to establish the Foundation “with the goal of facilitating getting resources for the institution through donations by companies and individuals and for other related purposes.” The Foundation, registered in the Department of State by then-president Freytes in January 2017, is tax-exempt from 2020.

According to financial reports filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service as an exempt organization, in 2021 the Foundation received a $500,000 donation from Bank of America, to provide scholarships and academic training to “minority students” interested in careers related to banking. No other donations have been reported.

The University of Puerto Rico Foundation Inc.’s board of directors comprises its chairwoman, Angelique Sina, who in turn appears as president of Friends of Puerto Rico, another nonprofit organization based in Washington DC, and incorporated in the Puerto Rico Department of State in 2019. Hermán Cestero, member of the UPR Governing Board, appears as treasurer, while Margarita Méndez Escudero, director of the UPR Development and Alumni Office, appears as secretary. This board of directors will be responsible for appointing an executive director for an undisclosed amount of money and will be free to appoint other officers as necessary “for efficient operation,” according to the bill.

Director Angelique Sina is listed as a donor to the Pedro Pierluisi Committee (with $900 in cash) and to the Friends of Julio Roldán Committee (with a $1,000 check). No political donations by the other two members of the Board are registered in the Electoral Comptroller’s Office.

Angelique Sina is the chairwoman of the University of Puerto Rico Foundation Inc.’s board of directors.
Photo taken from Friends of Puerto Rico

Since 2013, the UPR Governing Board, after an amendment to the UPR Act, has the power to authorize the creation of subsidiaries or affiliated corporations that render services to the university community. The last economic report that the Foundation rendered to the Department of State corresponds to 2020, when it did not report having income or expenses. The organization requested an extension to submit the 2021 and 2022 reports and they are not yet available.

If the bill is approved, the Foundation must submit a report to the UPR president, the Governor, the Legislature, and its Board of Directors before December 1 of each year. It must include a description of operations and achievements, an evaluation of progress, methods to implement and finance operations, as well as an annual audit by an independent public accountant.

The CPI contacted Senate President José Luis Dalmau Santiago to find out if the bill will be presented in the remainder of the Legislative Session through June 30, but he did not respond.