One recourse the government in power has for subverting a law without overturning it is to promote another that contradicts it. Sometimes, a law that is based on consensus principles becomes a tradition that is difficult, if not impossible, to overturn. When political power embraces political ideologies that contradict this tradition, the alternative to facing the political cost of overturning the law is to subvert it in practice, usually through the approval of other laws and executive orders. Such a case occurred recently at the University of Puerto Rico.

Current law establishes that the state has to assign the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) 9.6% of its annual revenues. The basis of this law, approved by Governor Roberto Sánchez Vilella (1963-1969), is that the state has the social obligation to invest in a public institution of higher learning, to create and maintain a state university, without which no modern society can prosper. The objective of the formula is to protect the institution – the most important one in Puerto Rico – from fiscal manipulation by politicians. This gives it real operational autonomy, free of political patronage or party and ideological struggles. The assignment of funds from the government is essential for the university to be able to effectively and freely perform its academic and educational role.

Recently, however, when an administration came to power that did not value the public investment in the state university, in a national university, but rather considered the assignment of funds to the institution as an unnecessary expense that should be reduced, the strategy, instead of overturning the law, was to change the criteria for calculating the basis of government revenues to which the percentage would be applied. In this way, the true contribution by the state to the university was reduced without having to change the formula established by law. It should be noted that this political strategy has been used by the two main political parties, first with the approval of the use and sales tax (IVU for its Spanish acronym) during the Popular Democratic Party (PPD for its Spanish acronym) administration under Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá (2005-2008) and later with Law 7, approved by the administration of Luis Fortuño (2009- 2012). In both cases, state revenues were excluded from the basis to which the formula was applied. It should be clarified, however, that while the PPD made efforts to compensate for the loss of income through other means, the Fortuño administration insisted on reducing the fiscal transfer from the state to UPR.

In other words, while the government announced that it had complied with the law that established a formula of 9.6%, in reality it had arranged to reduce the University of Puerto Rico’s budget, thus destabilizing its operations and weakening its autonomy.

World consensus about the social role of universities in modern societies proposes two essential conditions: financial support from the state and a guarantee that the work of the universities be done in an environment that allows freedom of thought and action. This second factor, unthinkable without the first, is only possible when the institution also remains beyond the reach of political, religious and social powers and excludes politicians from its governing structure. The modern university, especially in liberal societies, incorporates the idea that its institutional responsibility includes producing original thought on a rigorous ethical foundation, which implies constant questioning of the current body of knowledge without influence from political and intellectual authorities. An example: empirical and theoretical research in the pure sciences, without utilitarian purposes, is considered essential for advancing scientific knowledge and is a role only the university can fulfill. Utilitarian education seen only as a transfer of the knowledge needed for the labor market, along with technological research tied to corporate entities, are activities that are secondary and marginal to higher education and apart from the university’s central mission.

The university reform of 1966 took into consideration the idea of institutional autonomy by establishing the automatic state financing formula for our national university. In doing so, it protected the university from the natural impulse of the political power structures to want to control all social institutions through manipulation of state support. Sánchez Vilella clearly understood that the independence of the university’s work required a guarantee of a formal distance from the state’s authority.

It is important to understand with this example that the government of a modern, constitutional and democratic country has an obligation to support cultural and intellectual activities that are not profitable under commercial criteria but are essential for the progress of the country and humanity. For this cultural and intellectual work to yield fruit, it is also needed the creative energy found in truly independent working spaces that are not restrained by an external authority. The task is not easy and is like walking a minefield, especially when the authoritarian mentality blooms in the political environment and takes over the institutions of political power.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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