The emblematic tower

The emblematic tower

The University of Puerto Rico was the first university founded in Puerto Rico. Throughout its history, the university has played a fundamental role in forming the island’s professional and intellectual class. Today, it consists of 11 campuses located around the island.

The university’s origins date to 1899 when the Island Board of Public Education offered $15,000 a year to any town that would invest a matching amount in creating a normal school. Fajardo accepted the proposal and the Normal Industrial School was founded in 1900 for the purpose of training teachers. Enrollment was limited to 20 students and the faculty consisted of five professors. Because of the difficulty of traveling to Fajardo from other parts of the island, the Board decided to move the school to Río Piedras, which was more accessible, because the main roads and the train passed through that municipality.

The Normal School was established in a rented building on a farm called La Convalecencia, the former summer estate of the Spanish governors. Fifty acres of land was acquired for the construction of a building that would later be home to the institution. The Law of March 12, 1903, officially created the University of Puerto Rico and transferred the Normal School to the new facilities. In 1907, the first class of students graduated.

In 1911, the College of Agriculture was established in Mayaguez with funds and land granted by the Morrill-Nelson Law, which established schools of agriculture, science and engineering. Its name was changed in 1912 to the College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts. Meanwhile, other departments were established in Río Piedras, such as the Liberal Arts College (1910) and the Law Department and Pharmacy Department (both in 1913). The University High School was founded in 1918 to provide supervised practice for students at the Normal School.

During the 1920s, the University continued to expand and develop. In 1923, the University Law was approved, making the university an administrative entity independent of the Island Education Department and establishing a Board of Trustees and the post of rector. In 1925, a law was passed giving the university educational independence. The following year, the College of Business Administration was established in Río Piedras and the School of Tropical Medicine was established in San Juan. In 1927, the first graduate program, a Masters of Arts in Spanish Studies, was created.

In 1931, Carlos Chardón was named rector of the University of Puerto Rico, becoming the first Puerto Rican to occupy that post. Meanwhile, the federal government assigned more funds for research and for the construction of buildings both in Río Piedras and in Mayagüez. Among the construction projects was the area known as the quadrangle, which includes the general library named José M. Lázaro in 1968, the Biology building know as Dr. Julio García Díaz, the one for Education called Eugenio María de Hostos, Liberals Arts named Antonio S. Pedreira, the theater and the emblematic tower. In 1938, Francisco Arriví wrote the lyrics to the University hymn and Augusto Rodríguez wrote the music.

During the 1940s, Puerto Rican society experienced a rapid change from a rural and agricultural society to a modern, industrialized one. The university was also part of this process of change. In 1942, the University Reform Law was approved, creating the Higher Education Council to replace the Board of Trustees as the university’s governing body and specifying the new functions of the rector, which had more authority in the administration of the institution. That same year, the Council named Jaime Benítez rector.

During his time in the post, educational reforms were implemented and the university established new centers, such as the Institute of Caribbean Studies and the Center for Social Research, new schools — Humanities, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, General Studies, etc. — and graduate programs, such as the schools of Medicine, Dentistry and Planning. In 1941 the Student Council was also created. The educational philosophy was Westernized, which was criticized by members of the faculty and students who wanted a more Puerto Rican vision.

In 1946, the university received accreditation from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. Two years later, the first strike broke out at the university after nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos was prohibited from giving a speech at the Theater and after the expulsion of some students for replacing the United States flag in front of the tower with the Puerto Rican flag. The students considered both acts to be violations of the right to free speech, so a student assembly was held on April 12 and a strike was declared. After various confrontations with the police and the closure of the campus, the Student Council was eliminated, 24 students were expelled and an article was added to the Student Regulations prohibiting controversial speakers from entering the campus.

In 1950, the School of Medicine (1950) was founded. The School of Sciences became the School of Arts and Sciences and the Nuclear Center was created. Research on social, economic, demographic and political aspects of Puerto Rican society proliferated through the work done at the Center for Social Research, as part of the desire for modernization.

UPR 2010 strike logo

UPR 2010 strike logo

New graduate programs were begun in the 1960s and were recognized by the Higher Education Council. These included masters programs in Biology, Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry in the School of Natural Sciences; History and English in the School of Humanities; Educational Administration and Management, Secondary Education and Orientation and Counseling in the School of Education; and Economics and Psychology in the School of Social Sciences. Masters programs were begun in the new Graduate Schools of Library Technology and Planning. The School of Architecture was created in 1966 and the Graduate School of Business Administration followed in 1968. Doctoral programs were created in Spanish Studies in the School of Humanities in 1963 and Chemistry in the School of Natural Sciences in 1968.

The decade was also marked by social, economic and political changes, both in Puerto Rico and around the world. Many of the students and faculty lobbied for a university reform that would bring changes to the administration, as well as educational changes, particularly in relation to the “house of studies” concept implemented by Jaime Benítez that was based on a Western and universalist vision, putting regional and national perspectives on a secondary level.

A series of protests and strikes broke out. Finally, Law No. 1 of 1966 was approved and restructured the university into a system of three campuses – Río Piedras, Mayagüez and Medical Sciences – that would be administered under a single president, and regional colleges would be created – Arecibo, Cayey and Humacao (1967), Ponce (1969), Bayamón (1971), Aguadilla (1972), Carolina (1973) and Utuado (1978). A University Board, with representation for the campuses and the regional colleges, was established, and the name of the governing board was changed to the Higher Education Council. Students would have a voice, but no vote, in the Academic Senate and in the schools.

The university system continued to grow during the 1970s. Structures were improved and graduate programs were expanded to include masters programs in Counseling and Rehabilitation in the School of Social Sciences, in Translation and Comparative Literature in the School of Humanities and Home Economics in the School of Education. In 1979, radio broadcasts began from the Río Piedras campus on WRTU-FM.

Many university students opposed the ruling political regime, the presence of R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officer Training Corps) on the Río Piedras campus, and obligatory military service in the Vietnam War. Once again, these events culminated in confrontations between students and the authorities. The situation peaked in 1970 with the death of a student, Antonia Martínez, at the hands of police. This incident prompted the establishment of the Policy of not confrontation, which stated that the university issues and conflicts would be resolved internally through dialogue, debate of ideas, creative discussion. Also this policy prohibited the entry of the police or the task force to the campus and defending the autonomy of universities. It also prohibited the use of military uniforms by students of the ROTC in the campus. Eleven years later, a strike broke out at Río Piedras over the high cost of tuition and again there were acts of repression against the strikers. The campus was closed for five months.

Despite these incidents, the university system continued to grow in size and enrollment. The number of graduate programs in the campuses and regional colleges also increased. In 1993, Law No. 186 of August 7 of that year redistributed the functions of the Higher Education Council and assigned duties of the government to a new Board of Trustees. In 1998, a law was passed directing the Board of Trustees to gradually give autonomy to the regional colleges, thus creating a university system of eleven autonomous units. That same year, to finance the Educational Opportunities Law, Governor Pedro Rosselló took $40 million in funding away from the university.

The centennial of the University of Puerto Rico was celebrated in 2003. Today, more than 5,000 professors and researchers work in the UPR system, which has an enrollment of more than 62,000 students.

In 2010 was declared another strike over the introduction of a special fee, the possible elimination of tuition waiver for exceptional skills or sports, among other proposed budget cuts to remedy the ailing economy university, after cutting $ 40 million. The strike, which lasted 60 days, was characterized by being the first that can close the eleven campuses of the UPR system.


Curbelo Alvarez, Sylvia. Frente a La Torre: ensayos del centenario de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1903-2003. San Juan, P. R.: La Editorial, Universidad de Puerto Rico, 2005. Impreso.

“El Recinto de Río Piedras, Historia”. Catálogo Graduado, Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Río Piedras, s.f. Web. 28 junio 2010.

“Historia”. Portal Universidad de Puerto Rico, s. f. Web. 28 junio 2010.

“Historia de la Universidad de Puerto Rico”. Centenario de UPR, 2002. Web. 28 junio 2010.

Silva Gotay, Samuel. “Huelgas, protestas de ayer y de hoy: una mirada a la Historia”. Claridad, El Periódico de la Nación Puertorriqueña 28 mayo 2010. Web. 28 junio 2010.

Una mirada a las primeras décadas de la Universidad.
 Río Piedras, P. R.: Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Río Piedras, 2005. Impreso.


Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 12, 2014.

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