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The devastation caused by hurricane María is still palpable in the Humacao campus, the most affected by the cyclone, where the student routine has also undergone major changes after September 20. (GFR Media)
The devastation caused by hurricane María is still palpable in the Humacao campus, the most affected by the cyclone, where the student routine has also undergone major changes after September 20. (GFR Media)

A month after classes started at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), a good part of the rooms in the Humacao campus remain empty. Leaks on the roof, lack of panels and damage to the floors force students and teachers to work and study under tents located in the common areas of the campus.

The devastation caused by hurricane María is still palpable in the Humacao campus, the most affected by the cyclone, where the student routine has also undergone major changes after September 20. There is still no power and they operate with seven electric generators. The library - which for some university students represents its only access to a computer and a printer - remains closed.

"We understand that they have made their efforts, that it is an emergency and that, in all, work has been done so that students can take their classes," said Yafreisy Sánchez Garay, who is studying a bachelor in Social Action Research.

At the Cayey campus, the students' commitment to continue their studies is palpable.

There, only part of the buildings have electricity and there are clases only until 5:00 p.m., so some courses are now offered on Saturdays.

"There is a lot of mold in the classrooms and there are ceilings that have fell," said Valerie Ríos Rivera, a first-year student from the Department of Chemistry, who lives in Comerío and travels 45 minutes to the Cayeyan campus daily.

According to Nelimar Cruz, a second-year student of Natural Sciences, although at first the teachers took into consideration the emergency that students were going through, many of them are still without electricity or water in their homes, now they have returned to the normal rhythm of classes.

"There are many people who were doing well in classes and now they are not. I it has become uphill for me too. Many students have dropped out, many have left Puerto Rico. I can tell you that more than seven students have left per classroom in the classes I am taking; the majority has gone to the United States, to other universities," Cruz said.

The damage suffered by the structure of the 11 campus of the UPR, as well as the Central Administration, have been preliminarily estimated at $ 119 million, according to a report prepared by the Office of the President in early November. The figure could increase, acknowledged the acting president of the UPR, Darrel Hillman.

Ten of the 11 campuses have power - only Humacao continues to operate with electric generators - and all have drinking water service, said Hillman.

"Thanks to the actions of many people - employees, deans, registrar - who have had empathy with the students, who have taken on the task of interviewing the students to see how we can make the courses more flexible, thanks to all that it has been achieved that this university began to teach in record time. Six weeks after the devastation we havebeen through, the university is on track," Hillman said in a recent interview.

Likewise, the Central Administration of the university reported that 2.7 percent of the students, equivalent to 1,561 students, have dropped out this semester. However, the president acknowledged that this figure could be higher by the end of the semester.

For example, of the total enrollment of the Humacao campus, only six students left, according to the official statistics of the administration. But the acting dean of Student Affairs of the campus, José Antonio Baldaguez, acknowledged that some of the young people did not complete the formal procedure and simply did not return.

"There are students who left because their families went away. In other cases, they have identified accomodation, family or friends that welcome them so they can finish their studies, "he explained.

A full work schedule  

But while mitigating the destruction of structures and green areas, the State University faces multiple administrative and academic challenges.

A new fiscal plan should be worked out by February, the accreditations granted by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education of eight campus will continue on probation until at least March and the finances of the institution will now have to adjust to a future with fewer students.

Representatives from Middle States visited the eight campuses on probation -Arecibo, Bayamón, Carolina, Cayey, Humacao, Ponce, Río Piedras and Utuado- in September. And although the expressions made in that visit and that the draft of the report delivered later favored the elimination of the probation, it did not materialize due to the passage of Hurricane Maria, assured the acting president.

I called to see what the detail was and everything is due to the hurricane... Therefore, they did ask us to deliver a post Hurricane Maria report on December 1, which should have the detail of the effects that Maria had over the campuses, what has been done, what is the new academic calendar," noted Hillman, who also said that these reports were requested to the 11 campus and not just the eight on probation.

Therefore, it is expected that the accreditation of the UPR will be an issue of discussion at the next meeting of the Middle States Plenary, scheduled for March.

It was also assumed that the search for a president for the institution was already in its final stage. According to the calendar worked in August, the appointment of the next university leader would have materialized around December 18.

However, the nomination period, which ended on October 31, was interrupted by the passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, acknowledged the Vice President of the Governing Board, Zoraida Buxó.

Now, the Governing Board of the UPR determined that it will receive nominations for potential candidates until January 31, 2018, said Buxó, who is part of the Search and Consultation Committee of the Governing Board. In accordance with the new work plan, the Committee will deliver the files of the candidates to the academic senates of each campus and these will have until March 12 to submit reports with their recommendations. For March 23, the Search and Consultation Committee of the Governing Board of the university system must submit its report to the governing body, so that it may designate the next university president.

If this new work schedule is fulfilled, the State University would have been looking for a president for more than a year.

Right now, there are five candidates nominated since the process started at the beginning of the year. Without giving details about new candidates, Buxó exhorted those who submitted documents to aspire to the presidency to communicate with the offices of the Governing Board to ensure they had received them.

Economic challenges

In addition, at the beginning of the month, the Oversight Board requested the UPR -as well as the central government and other public corporations- to deliver a revised fiscal plan in February that takes into account the new reality it faces after the passage of Hurricane Maria

But, more than a revised fiscal plan, the state university works on a "new creature," Hillman said.

"You can say that the fiscal plan we have is a mold. The mold is already made, we are not starting from scratch, it is a matter of making some modifications in the areas that are in need of an adjustment to the reality we face after the hurricane," Hillman said.

The consolidated budget of the UPR for the current fiscal year goes up to $ 1,345 billion, of which $ 631 million comes from the General Fund allocated by a formula established by law. The central government sends these funds through monthly transfers.

Hillman assured that, in spite of the challenges that the Treasury faces due to the loss of income after Maria, deposits to the university has not been affected.

"They have remained as calculated. We continue with the $ 55 million a month," said Hillman.

Reporters Leysa Caro and Marga Parés collaborated on this story.

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