UPR Circus, NSF Edition

By: Francisco Morales Carbonell

          Welcome to the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Circus! Administrated by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, it has a new act. In 2010 it brought you the student strike (in an effort to save tuition waivers and stall tuition increases). This time the circus brings you the National Science Foundation (NSF) act. Watch how UPR President Dr. Miguel Muñoz juggles with the budget of the institution that molds the future of this country.

      Let’s explain in more detail. According to its website, the NSF is an independent agency created by Congress in 1950 to promote the progress of science, advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare. It also funds approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted in US universities, including the UPR.

       NSF used to provide $33 million from federal funds to support scientific research in the UPR until the suspensions of the funds on April 23rd, 2012. This way Dr. Miguel Muñoz started his juggling act with the NSF funds.

          The suspension left 21 research projects of the UPR at Mayagüez and five projects from the Resource Center for Science and Engineering (RCSE) without funds to continue. In this move the UPR lost around $20 million.

          But what caused this suspension? According to a letter sent by the NSF on 2012, the UPR administration has not addressed adequately statements made by the NSF since 2010 and it did not inform the students or activate a Corrective Action Plan that the NSF requested until the funds were already suspended. Thereby, the UPR did not fulfill the most important elements of the plan, which, according to [name source],  related to the implementation of federal regulations governing payments to researchers and the establishment of an appropriate system for time reports and effort spend on projects. Thus, the UPR is tightrope walking and if it falls the injury will harm the institution and also the future of our country.

          At present, the UPR is at risk of being debarred, which could exclude the institution of receiving other federal funds such as those from the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) grants, the work and study program, the ARMY, the NAVY, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy and other. Most of these agencies have very similar evaluation methods and if the UPR ends their relationship with the NSF because of this problem it is likely that those agencies follow them.

          Students have tried to rise to the occasion by organizing marches, protests and informational sessions. Most of them have been highly concurred but one that mattered the most wasn’t. The UPRM student assembly celebrated on March 19th, 2013 wasn’t successful as the absence of most of the students was highly noticeable; causing it to have no real value as the quorum was not reached. Out of 11,283 students, only 681 students attended, just over half of the quorum needed in order to be a regulatory sovereign assembly. At the end, the assembly was used it to inform the students about the situation but still was a disappointing outcome.

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Graph representing the attendance of the student assembly at UPRM on March 19.

          The CGE (General Student Council) hasn’t had the chance to meet after the student assembly. The reason for this is that they are waiting for a bill submitted by the Gov. Alejandro García Padilla to dissolve the Board of Trustees and make a new Governing Board. David Bartolomei, undergraduate student of computer engineering and academic senator of the engineering faculty said: “This is our best chance, by changing the board of trustees, the president and the whole administrative staff, which are the ones to blame for this, must change.”

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The student assembly on March 19, which did not reach quorum.

          “I don’t see transparency in this matter. We have not been told the whole story”, said Dr. Nayda Santiago, assistant professor of computer engineering at UPRM where she is conducting two research projects with NSF funds. “NSF must have strong information because they are not an agency that is characterized by the persecution”.

        Santiago has been doing research in UPRM since 1991 and is currently working on the development of libraries in the CUDA platform for hyper spectral image analysis, in particular for detection of cancer cells where she mentors seven students. Her second project in the development of the Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions (CAHSI) where she works with 10 students.

          The NSF controversy has already affected Dr. Santiago’s research projects. “I couldn’t participate in the CAHSI project. We had to send a letter explaining the situation.” But not only her research projects have been affected but her job could soon also be affected. “This could jeopardize my job, because there is no university without students.” This is in reference to the fact that scholarships could be lost by extension if the NSF funds are taken away. “Just imagine the UPRM if the students that need grants like the FASFA to study have to drop out.” Dr. Santiago said “it’s a safe assumption that the enrollment will be reduced dramatically”.

          Most people accused Dr. Miguel Muñoz of the NSF polemic as he did not implement the Corrective Action Plan that the NSF asked for in order to fix this irregularities. Students and professors have asked for his resignation after these mistakes but to no avail. He is still the president of the institution. According to El Nuevo Día on March, 2013 he signed three checks of $50,000 each to a scammer who called him and posed as Secretary for Public Affairs Jorge Colberg Toro. The checks were cancelled before the scammer could cash them but he still signed them without any confirmation that the person who called was indeed Jorge Colberg Toro. Perhaps he wanted to upgrade his juggling act.

          The NSF had planned to visit the institution on April, 2013 but now they decided to cancel the visit, as they planned to arrive unannounced to make the evaluation. We don’t know when they will visit, but until then all we can do is watch how Dr. Miguel Muñoz keeps juggling with the budget while the UPR and the future of Puerto Rico is suspended in the air in a tightrope walk.

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