Q&A with Professor Jorge L. Giovannetti-Torres

Q&A with Professor Jorge L. Giovannetti-Torres

Published on August 16, 2021 / Leer en español

Center for a New Economy

Jorge L. Giovannetti-Torres has worked at the University of Puerto Rico in RĂ­o Piedras (UPRRP) for 20 years where he chaired the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and served as Assistant Dean of Research. For more than a decade, he has written over thirty opinion columns on the UPR.

A former British Academy scholar, his visiting academic appointments included London Metropolitan University, Princeton University, and New York University. He is a collective member of the Tepoztlán Institute for the Transnational History of the Americas.

Starting this year, he will Coordinate the Social Science & Caribbean Archive at the Institute of Caribbean Studies of the UPRRP. He was Book Review editor of Caribbean Studies for one decade and is currently a member of the editorial board of New West Indian Guide.

His latest book, Black British Migrants in Cuba: Race, Labor, and Empire in the Twentieth-Century Caribbean, 1898-1948 was published by Cambridge University Press (2018), and received the Sterling Stuckey Award from the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD).

Questions & Answers

Click each question to read its answer.

Jorge Giovannetti Torres (JGT): The UPR as an institution has been damaged both by budget cuts and by external and internal policies, including a deficient administration that has been incapable of thinking and executing out of the box. It must be said that the inadequate management at the UPR predates the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB). However, the deficiencies have been magnified by the recent excessive and questionable budget cuts that have been imposed on the institution. As a matter of fact, the budget reductions – imposed on an institution whose administration is slow in executing and adapting to changing times – have, for practical purposes, created an institutional paralysis at the UPR.

Concretely, the UPR now has fewer administrative employees; gradually, many administrative and service tasks have fallen on professors and researchers. There is demoralization among the faculty because the institution does not prioritize them as scholars and researchers. The net result is that, if a professor must perform the administrative tasks of those who are no longer part of the system, and must at the same time teach courses overloaded with students, she or he will no longer have time for research. If there is no time for research, she or he cannot publish competitively. If she or he cannot publish, the professor will not have the wherewithal to attract the three elements the UPR most needs at this moment: prestige, external funding, and students. In other words, if the UPR does not value and capitalize on its faculty, it will not be able to excel in those aspects that could solve its problems. The unfair freeze on promotions has also contributed to this climate of demoralization. This affects the competitiveness of faculty members, who will remain in the same rank no matter their efforts. The merit principle has simply evaporated.

JGT:    The budget cuts were extreme. It is almost impossible not to relate them to a particular misguided animosity against the UPR.  The UPR was seen as a political entity (for example, as a locus of protests) with total disregard for its main role as an institution that creates knowledge. The university’s management should have educated governmental authorities in this aspect in order to mitigate the effects of austerity policies that sprung from distorted ideas about the UPR.

The lack of imagination of the university’s top management to adequately manage this crisis has been abundant. In Río Piedras, for example, this was related to the fact that the people in leadership positions did not have the credentials or the knowledge to conduct and nurture a research university. They might have had other types of credentials, but not the ones the campus needed. There seems to be a correlation between having an academic management post at the university and a curriculum vitae that lacks both research substance and academic global reach. You cannot ask managers with such deficiencies to restructure or reinvent a research university in the current context. We have seen the results: narrow notions of what a flagship campus should be, substituting the academic offer with short and professional courses geared towards certificate degrees, and considering research as something that pertains only to the natural sciences.

The UPR needs to attract funding in two areas: external grants and philanthropy. This will not solve all its problems due to the tardiness with which we would be entering these two areas, but it could be done. Both elements require adequate leadership, and that precisely is what the University currently lacks. Philanthropy requires capitalizing on the academic staff and on the strengths of the institution, something the UPR has not done. It also requires the flexibilization of administrative systems and donation guidelines and the empowerment of units. A leader must inspire trust and foster action, and this requires much more than simply going to TV or radio shows to ask for donations. A dean, a chancellor, must seduce donors, but without a solid campus with which to stir their imagination, the battle is half lost. For example, projects focused on salvaging the island’s archaeological patrimony (like the ones developed by the Utuado campus), or research projects focused on energy and environmental matters (such as the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Littorals or the National Energy and Sustainability Institute) could attract donors and foundations interested in these topics.

External funding could also be capitalized on by empowering professors to devote time to request fellowships and grants. This implies enhancing the academic and research aspects of the university, something that, unfortunately, has not been done. In Río Piedras there are regulations (the Academic Senate’s Certification 95) that govern academic assignments for graduate faculty and that facilitate precisely this, but they have yet to be implemented. At this point, the challenge faced is even bigger: first, because we have already lost many high-caliber professors, and second, because we have not adequately recruited professors at different levels who can bring external funding. This is a huge challenge because you need to do two things that do not actually complement each other well: first, make drastic and quick decisions, and second, generate trust and an institutional sense of belonging.

JGT:    It is not possible to generate efficiencies without restructuring the UPR system. You need to ask yourself which decisional bodies and positions are necessary and in which units. A small campus might not need assistant deans or specific managerial posts. At the same time, the Central Administration should not replicate curricular evaluation processes that are already being made by individual campuses. Moreover, the UPR never initiated a process of reclassifying non-teaching personnel or updating their tasks.

The UPR System was not restructured, either by former President Jorge Haddock or by the campus Chancellors. Public discussion about this topic was limited to closing or “selling” campuses, ideas that invariably generate resistance. Campuses can be rethought, redistributing tasks, adjusting curriculums, reformulating their purpose. In a Caribbean context, the University of the West Indies, for example, does not have a complete campus on each island. It has smaller units with specific objectives. Can we do this with Utuado and Aguadilla? You could create protocols to share teaching staff between campuses in a coordinated matter, or transfer professors according to the strength of each campus. Say, if Humacao and Mayagüez have programs on environmental matters, professors that research those topics could be transferred to those campuses. If Río Piedras excels at the Humanities, you can attract professors from other campuses that excel at research and that publish in order to further strengthen those departments. In exchange, professors in Río Piedras who have strong teaching skills could be moved to smaller campuses. Unfortunately, not even Río Piedras has developed such a protocol nor displayed the political will to transfer faculty between its own colleges. Old patterns of clientelism and mobility through access-to-power connections have been used, rather than a rational process of identifying and rearranging resources following a coordinated academic agenda for the campuses.

In terms of planning, a campus like Río Piedras cannot continue programming its academic offer on a semester-by-semester basis. This would be unacceptable in any university in the United States, where professors know in advance which course they will teach next year, if they will perform X or Y administrative duty, and when they are due for a sabbatical leave. Faculty who are able to plan their academic career produce better. This benefits the campus in many areas, including the retention of professors. A professor who can visualize a future in the institution has no need to search for options outside the system, and a student that sees a professor with a stable career and engaging in long-term projects will feel attracted to that professor’s graduate program. Planning must also include adjunct contingent faculty, on which the system currently relies so much. They are hired mostly on a semester-by-semester basis through an unacceptable and even humiliating bureaucratic process, which includes handing in government documents that could be easily obtained by the UPR virtually and through inter-agency agreements.

JGT:    To qualify the question, rather than political party interests, it has been party politics as such that have affected the UPR’s adequate development. It is difficult to identify a specific academic agenda within local political parties for the UPR. What is easily discerned within each electoral cycle is the blatant control of the institution by the winning party appointing protegees and supporters and distributing contracts to suppliers. That sort of control has nothing to do with a university-focused or academic agenda. In some cases, it manifests an ideological disdain for the university. It is no different than what party politics actually do in other government agencies.

This dynamic obviously affects the capacity of the institution to shape an agenda in an autonomous way. Even though the powers-that-be claim to respect the university’s autonomy, a political change in the country implies, automatically, a change at the helm of the university, even though the “four-year” university cuatrienio actually starts a year after the electoral cuatrienio. No university is able to execute a work plan if its leadership is interrupted every four years, with no internal and independent protocols or structure to give continuity to the plan.

Although I cannot say that my academic interests have been affected by the lack of autonomy at the university, I can affirm that they have not been incentivized or fostered. Nobody has told me what to research or teach or what I can say or not, and I have been vocal about my positions without fear of reprisals (of which there have been some).  No colleague of mine has complained that the lack of autonomy has not allowed him to teach or research this or that topic. Now, institutional instability generated by political swings does limit the sustainability of more and better spaces for teaching and research. In other words, it might not produce obstacles to academic or research freedom, but does curtail the development of spaces that foster the academic staff’s development to its full potential. The interest of maintaining or obtaining power at the top of the UPR affects the development of an agenda focused on the institution’s base.

Clearly, there is a need for reform at the UPR. This reform must rely on those who are within the university and are knowledgeable of higher education. However, to think that reform from within will be totally devoid of political or ideological influence is naive.  First, it must be understood that a state university has to respond in one way or another to the State and the taxpayers who make it possible. The link, however, should not be partisan, but rather, governmental in terms of a national agenda (a distinction which might draw laughter in Puerto Rico, but which is important to highlight).  Second, internally, people in the university must learn not to accept the logic of the “four-year” university cuatrienios, must not facilitate politized change, nor be a silent accomplice that waits for the next electoral cycle. The UPR must be a space for knowledge creation through research, teaching, and open debate of ideas, without responding to an ideological or political agenda. Third, the university must attract other types of interests: citizens, corporations, donors, small businesses, international organizations, regional partners, municipios. If other and diverse types of interests grow around the UPR, it would be more difficult for political partisanship to capture the institution. Finally, attracting more external funds (through research and philanthropy) will reduce the dependence on local government funds and, thus, on those petty politicians that manage public funds like personal checkbooks.

JGT:    The UPR should have a central role in shaping our country in many ways. It should be the primary referent in public policy and social discussions, from global warming or crime, to economic and socio-cultural development. This must not be taken lightly, as has recently happened with some “professors” who have made a career in media and public discussion and end up being radio talking-heads. To achieve such a role, the UPR must promote, push, and facilitate proactively the development of its own intellectuals. In some universities in the United States, for example, professors participate in workshops on how to intervene in public debates and how to engage with the media. The media also has the responsibility of discerning between the professor who researches and is actually an expert on X topic and the professor who is willing to talk about that topic.  Finally, the Government must be able to access the UPR in a transparent manner to consult and become informed on matters of public interest.

The question about how to reconstitute the UPR is a really dramatic one, and this is no exaggeration. The blow to the institution’s budget perpetrated by the FOMB is a reality that cannot be ignored. True, the FOMB could have dealt the UPR a less severe blow, but the lack of action by university leaders in confronting the situation was truly an act of negligence, a dereliction of duty. Now that we are about to face yet another change in leadership at the UPR, the challenge is that whoever is named President (and Chancellors) will need to make drastic and fast decisions. The UPR has never been characterized as being an agile institution in terms of its processes. Besides, there is much resistance to change within the institution. But now there is no other option but to make adjustments. Now, those changes must neither be simplistic nor myopic. They must capitalize on the prestige and the strengths of the UPR. We must remember that the UPR is responsible for 70% of the scientific output in the country, which is no small feat. The international reach of the UPR is another one of its strengths.  For example, the Arecibo campus has developed a successful program in Iberoamerican Studies, and Río Piedras has established initiatives with the University of Kassel in Germany, the University of Graz in Austria, and the Tepoztlán Institute for the Transnational History of the Americas.

The UPR needs many reforms and not necessarily in the order I will list them. First, there must be a rigorous evaluation of processes focused on facilitating administrative procedures, including digitalization. No one in the institutional base will confirm the claims by the Central Administration about progress in this area.  Second, the administrative and decision-making structure of the small campuses must be reduced. Third, there must be a healthy integration both between campuses and within campuses, rearranging academic resources according to strengths. For example, X discipline could be concentrated in Z Campus and all the solid resources in that discipline should be moved accordingly.  That type of movement has been made easy by the virtual tools that have sprung up during the pandemic. Fourth, there has to be a strict supervision of teaching and non-teaching staff. This requires firm leadership and entails giving preeminence to the merit system. Fifth, reform is needed in the governing norms for the faculty. This requires assessing how many professors there are in each rank; succession plans were crafted many years ago but were never implemented. Once you have that data, you will know where we are in terms of faculty resources and in which areas and levels recruitment is needed. That strategic recruitment process requires that existing rules be made more flexible, including salary scales (following merit principles), the capacity to recruit in diverse ranks and posts, the capacity to engage in multi-annual contracts for adjunct faculty, and dignified and planned procedures to recruit them on a yearly basis. The way I see it, the UPR right now is not appealing enough to attract international professors for permanent posts; it has also lost its capacity to attract professors on a contract basis. Finally – and this is related to the above – there is a need to increase the capacity of the UPR to attract international students. The officials in charge of this effort must have a solid and respected scholarly record, with proven experience at the international level and with sufficient dynamism to attract and retain a diverse global student population.