About fifteen years ago, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez was excited about its future. They had just received news that a third NSF CAREER Award has been given to one of their new faculty. At the time, the UPR system had only 5 CAREER Awards, 4 of them in Mayagüez and 3 in ECE. And one of those three was a PECASE Award (Presidential Award, highest honor for a young investigator). Those three faculty, coupled with a lot of other young (and others not so young) faculty held an incredible promise for the future of the department. Many other CAREER awards followed. The future looked so good that the department even took a full page add celebrating the young careers of their first three CAREER awardees. The department went on to have the highest research portfolio on campus (outside of larger research centers) and one of the highest in the whole UPR system.
Then, it happened. The UPR as it has always been, was once again invaded by local Puerto Rican politics. In 5 years at Mayagüez, the campus had 4 Chancellors (i.e., campus president). The turn over in positions from Chancellor, to Deans, to Department heads was so regular, that it was a common joke to ask "who is the Dean this week?" The situation continued to deteriorate. Recently on the press there was an article about the sanctions imposed by NSF to the UPR system after an investigation of misuse of federal funds. The UPR system cancelled the Presidential Fellowships that paid the graduate studies in the US to future UPR faculty. And the faculty at their several campus continuef to either fight for their academic lives or simply hang up the boxing gloves and move on to a better (bitter?) future.
And that my friends is the biggest crime in Puerto Rico. Yeah, I know, we have a high murder rate. We have an even bigger misappropriation and misuse of funds in the government. We have an infrastructure that is crumbling in front of our eyes... But the biggest crime is the way the Government has interrupted (and continues to interrupt) the future of the UPR system. The continued attack on academic freedoms, the continued meddling with research funding, the revolving door that is the administrative positions at all levels (including all the way down to the department heads) is all done in the name of the dirty local politics.
I might exaggerate a bit here, but I think that is the worst crime committed in our history. See, professors (and teachers alike) create the future generation of our little island. They train, inspire, and educate our future citizens. At the university, they do research that makes our intellect be known world wide. We are very proud of our athletes that reach the highest sphere in their sports but forget that scientists and engineers do the same as faculty and researchers at our own institutions. But when the UPR system and the local politics block their path, they interrupt the future of our own society. The government (or at least the UPR administration) compromises the future of our island in exchange for 4 more years of being in a position of power. And note that I am not referring to just the current administration (though that has been one of the worst offenders). I say this also about previous administrations. They all sell their souls for four more years.
Three recent events prompted me to write this. First, the news about the misuse of NSF funds. Second, my participation at the VALHEN Encuentro 2013 where I met a professor that was denied admissions at the UPR Medical School and she had to take her 2nd choice for graduate school, John Hopkins University (we all should have such great 2nd choices). And finally, news of recent job changes for those three young NSF CAREER awardees.
The story of the last 15 years in ECE is evidence of what could have been. Some of those professors have gone to fight all kinds of crazy injustices. Those of you on the island, remember all the craziness about a professor from Mayaguez that was trying to get elected to the "Junta de Gobierno de la AEE" and faced all kinds of crazy allegations (all false). He is still one of the professors in that department. Others have gone one to fight the government in every crazy new project, and you often hear them in radio interviews. Others have taken jobs in industry. Many have stayed in UPRM and are doing great things in spite of work environment that is oppressive and provides no support for their day to day activities. Several have gone to be strong advocates for diversity and advancement of women in Engineering and Sciences.
And the three CAREER awardees you ask? One is has recently been named Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs at California State University, Fullerton, another one is a Chair of the ECE department at UTEP, and the third is an Associate Department Head for Graduate Studies of a CS department. Unfortunately, none of them works in Puerto Rico anymore.
Posted on 10/16/2012