Educator, thinker, essayist and orator. Benítez was a leading administrator and played an important role in Puerto Rican higher education. In 1942, he became rector of the University of Puerto Rico. Under his direction, important university reforms took place and departments, schools, and graduate and professional programs were created. From 1931 on, his life was linked to the public university.
Jaime Benítez Rexach was born in 1908 on the island municipality of Vieques. His parents were Luis Benítez Longpré and Cándida Rexach Dueño. At an early age, because of the deaths of his parents, he went to live with relatives in the municipality of Juncos. He later moved to Santurce, where he studied at the Luchetti, Labra and Central High Schools, which were the public secondary schools of that time where the future professionals and leaders of the island were formed. Later, Benítez studied at the Columbia University Law School and passed the Bar Exam to practice in the District of Columbia and in Puerto Rico. Although he earned a law degree, he never practiced law.
In 1931, then-rector of the University of Puerto Rico, Carlos Chardón, invited him to join the university as a Political Science instructor. In 1939, he earned a masters degree in Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. In 1942, the recently created University of Puerto Rico Council of Higher Education named Jaime Benítez the rector of the Río Piedras campus. Benítez was one of the supporters of the university reform of the 1940s and the reformist educational philosophy that would come to be symbolized by the concept of the university as a “house of study.”
Benítez’s educational reform project was based on the ideas of two thinkers. The first was the liberal philosophy of Spanish scholar José Ortega y Gasset, who proposed that the role of the university, in addition to creating professionals and promoting research, was to provide students with the means for understanding and involving themselves in their surroundings. The second was the pedagogy proposed by United States educator Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago. He argued that the university should focus on research and the search for truth, and to achieve that, it was necessary to give the faculty freedom and separate them from the politics of university affairs.
Among the reforms to the university system established by Jaime Benítez were the establishment of Spanish as the preferred language of teaching in the university; granting scholarships to economically disadvantaged students; sending students to universities in the United States on scholarships to prepare them as educators; creating new research centers, such as the Institute for Caribbean Studies, as well as the reorganization of the University into Schools. As part of the latter, the Schools of Humanities, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences were formed, among others. Graduate programs were also created, along with the Schools of Medicine, Dentistry and Planning.
The Department of General Studies was also established under his direction (1943), along with a curricular requirement that all students had to take courses from the department. The objective was to expose students to the basic disciplines of universal knowledge, such as philosophy, the physical sciences, biology, social sciences and the humanities. The department became the School of General Studies in 1945.
Benítez was also a proponent of opening the university’s doors to professors from other countries. Among the renowned academics who came to the university at that time were Juan Ramón Jiménez, Zenobia Camprubí, Jorge Enjuto, Pablo Casals, Cristóbal Ruiz and Pedro Salinas, exiles from the Spanish Civil War.
Between the time of his appointment as rector and the end of the 1940s, Benítez had to face conflicts typical of a university growing by giant leaps. The era was also characterized by architectural development that attracted figures such as Henry Klumb, who designed buildings for the university. The academic side was not without conflict, either, because of the need to define the faculty’s autonomy and the limits of their freedom, which was one of the pillars of reform.
Later, in 1966, a new reform law was approved, the University of Puerto Rico Law, the purpose of which was to reorganize the university so that it had a central administration, regional campuses, university colleges and regional colleges. The law also reaffirmed the university’s autonomy. Jaime Benítez was chosen as president of the new system and was given the task of implementing the changes stipulated in the law. He held the post until 1971.
Jaime Benítez also played a role in political life in Puerto Rico. He was an active member of the Popular Democratic Party, participated in the Constituent Convention that wrote the Constitution for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (1951) and chaired the committee that created the Bill of Rights. In 1972, he was elected Resident Commissioner under the administration of Popular Democratic Party Governor Rafael Hernández Colón.
During his term in office, he was a member of the Education and Labor committees and he submitted various bills that sought to provide financial aid for students. He ran for election again in 1976, but he was not elected. From 1980 to 1986, he taught classes at Inter-American University and later at American University.
Benítez was a prolific prose writer and orator, particularly on the topics of educational reform and philosophy. His concerns were reflected in the articles he published in newspapers such as El Mundo and magazines such as Índice, Ámbito and Puerto Rico. He was also the founder and director of the magazine La Torre, the University of Puerto Rico literary journal. Among his writings are Teorías políticas y filosóficas de José Ortega y Gasset (1939), Educación y Democracia en Puerto Rico (1947), La escuela y los problemas sociales y económicos de Puerto Rico (1947), Apuntes para una ética del maestro (1948), Signo y Misión de nuestra Universidad (1954), La universidad del futuro; informe del rector al Consejo Superior de Enseñanza de Puerto Rico (1954), Valores y problemas de la Universidad de Puerto Rico (1954), La casa de estudios: Sobre la libertad y el orden en la Universidad (1963), El problema humano de la emigración (1955), Sobre el futuro cultural y político de Puerto Rico (1966), Veinticinco años de dirección universitaria (1967) and Consideraciones sobre Educación General (1981).
He received honorary degrees from the University of the West Indies, Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, the Catholic University of Puerto Rico and New York University, among others. He was a member of various organizations, including the International Committee for the Celebration of the Fifth Centennial of the Discovery of America in 1992, as well as the Puerto Rican Academy of Language, the Puerto Rican Academy of the Arts and Sciences, and the Association of Caribbean Universities. Benítez was recognized as Humanist of the Year 1986 from the Puerto Rican National Endowment form Humanities.
Jaime Benítez died on May 30, 2001.
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Benítez, Margarita. “Biografía: Jaime Benítez Rexach”. Biblioteca Digital Puertorriqueña. Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Río Piedras, s.f. On line. 17 noviembre 2009.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: February 10, 2010.
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