Puerto Rico’s Post-Maria Crisis: An Opportunity to Transform the Higher Education System for Sustainable Development and Innovation

Old San Juan's Blue Brick Roads by vxla through Flickr Commons

Puerto Rico’s recovery after the catastrophic events caused by Hurricane Maria in September 2017 requires a sustained and large-scale strategy that engages multiple sectors, the political establishment, and the residents of the Island. Given that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, it also requires a bipartisan commitment from the United States Congress to rebuild its future. A clear strategic public re-investment plan that is grounded on a new vision for a stronger economic future for Puerto Rico is needed. Any long-term strategy must include a commitment of the local political and civic leadership to reinvent approaches to development and to forge a vision that builds on local capacity, is grounded on existing resources available within the Island’s higher education system, capitalizes on the natural resources of the Island, and invests in people and communities. Puerto Rico needs policy advisors and lobbyists to aggressively marshal the policies and resources for comprehensive recovery and transformative development of the island. Entrepreneurs in all sectors can leverage public and private funding needed for transformational initiatives.

The higher education sector represents an important resource and an absolute requirement to advance Puerto Rico towards a new paradigm for economic and social development. Higher education can position itself to contribute in a leading way to address these unprecedented challenges in the history of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico can capitalize on its entrepreneurial spirit, tax incentives, natural resources, and geography to make it an attractive launching pad for opportunity and innovation.

This approach includes placing Puerto Rico in a competitive condition within the global economy. This requires local leadership to integrate into its plan for recovery the concept of “globalization,” based on the integration of global and local political economic factors into a strategy for development and change (Swyngedouw, 1997).

There are untapped opportunities for investments in tourism, agriculture, emerging industries, pharma and federally regulated ventures. There are also new opportunities for carving a vision for development that focuses on people- and place-based strategies. These strategies can be grounded on reciprocal and well-aligned multisector partnerships, with higher education at the forefront as the engine for knowledge creation and knowledge transfeThe four elements highlighted in the figure below set the context for redefining the role of higher education in propelling a new economic model for Puerto Rico and provide the foundation for the recommendations provided below. The conceptual growth plan anchoring this report focuses on 5 strategic economic sectors—tourism, emerging industries, agriculture, pharma and entrepreneurship. The Higher Education sector depends on the viability for developing these strategic economic sectors and the feasibility for such development depends on how well the Higher Education sector connects with them. The following diagram offers a combined depiction of this reciprocal relationship:

Diagram 1:Higher Education and the Economic Investment Opportunities.

The survival of Puerto Rico’s economy is intimately tied to the sustainability and strengthening of the higher education system. The University of Puerto Rico is regarded as one of the best universities in the Western Hemisphere with a ranking of 33 from the SCIMAGO Institute Ranking and is ranked 15 in Latin America and the Caribbean (SCIMAGO Institute, 2017). A number of the private institutions, such as the Inter-American University, also ranks well in the region. Colleges and universities have a determining stake on how Puerto Rico aligns its resources and which opportunities are chosen to create a new paradigm for development and to ignite economic revitalization as a core element in their missions. This vision is essential for economic revival and for attracting private investment.

Core areas for higher education
There are four core areas of endeavor for higher education: 1) knowledge creation, 2) knowledge transfer, 3) community revitalization, and 4) education (Shaffer & Wright, 2010). These areas set the context for redefining the role of higher education in propelling a new economic model for Puerto Rico and in providing the foundation for the recommendations provided below.
The conceptual growth plan anchors on 4 four strategic economic sectors—tourism, agriculture, manufacturing, and selected services. (The Higher Education sector depends on the viability for developing these strategic economic sectors and the feasibility for such development depends on how well the Higher Education sector connects with them.

Higher education and economic investment opportunities
Innovation and the capacity to connect new ideas to practice is at the core of the work of higher education institutions and is a key for a thriving economic model. Puerto Rico’s economic, social and political conditions have changed. We need an economic model based on global competitiveness and collaboration. Therefore, new solutions are needed to meet an entirely new set of challenges and to capitalize on new opportunities.

1) Puerto Rico Higher Education System can anchor community development through people- and place-based strategies.
As anchor institutions, universities have the capacity and capital to rebuild adjacent communities through investments in education, its workforce, real estate and the physical landscape.

Universities are hubs for learning and social engagement for local residents and businesses that build social capital and connect people to the mainstream society. Faculty and students can work directly with communities on asset-based projects to benefit the residents and neighborhoods, through transforming community spaces into businesses, and repurposing communities and educational corridors.
In cities and towns where universities are located throughout the island, the university leaders, faculty, and students can take an active role in uniting residents in shared meaning, learning and dialogue about the future of their communities. University personnel can serve as facilitators of knowledge to elicit and implement ideas that move the community forward, particularly around rebuilding a pre-K-12 education system aligned with Higher Education, improving value of property, real estate development and developing sustainable systems of energy and water utilization, and identifying methods for small business development and microenterprises.

2) Universities as a place for access, affordability, quality, accountability, and innovation.
Higher education enrollment outcomes in Puerto Rico reflect poorly on the education investment that has already been made. Because increased demand for higher education has not been matched by increased levels of funding, the quality of higher education in Puerto Rico has been compromised. Higher education systems in Puerto Rico are in need of renewal and its resources need to be strengthened and aligned to the current economic needs of Puerto Rico as well as to the demands from the global community.

The system needs to be structured to capitalize on the diversity of strengths of the various institutions, both public and private. A Higher Education Consortium should be in place to facilitate this process. Puerto Rico needs to adopt a new strategic, targeted and differentiated approach to increase enrollment at all levels of the higher education pipeline – undergraduate as well as postgraduate study. It needs to strengthen the quality of teaching and learning in higher education institutions by increasing the qualifications of faculty, producing at least double the number of masters and doctoral graduates, and retaining the best talent within the universities.
A new vision for the higher education sector needs to address two key elements: the first is to strengthen governance, leadership and management, and introduce management information systems to improve the effectiveness of higher education planning and expenditure; and, the second is to strengthen scholarship through interdisciplinary practice and collaboration for innovation.

The concept of internationalizing academia should be a strategic element to raise the level of talent as well as income. This can be done by promoting, marketing and aggressively recruiting international students to study in Puerto Rico. These students pay a higher tuition rate and cover their costs. Furthermore, partnerships with universities in the US mainland and with other countries should be forged to allow for joint academic offerings.

At the core of these strategies is the crafting of a growth strategy that is inclusive of international student participation in higher education and a marketing effort that sends a consistent message that Puerto Rico welcomes international students, as well as the development of post-study work opportunities for international student graduates.

We understand that international students contribute more than $30.5 billion to the US economy. There are academic areas for which Puerto Rican institutions have strong foundations with affiliated research centers. Therefore, these should be areas of focus for attracting more students from foreign countries (Zong & Batalova, 2016; Ruiz, 2014).

3) Universities as partners with choice K-12 Schools.
Higher education can be a catalyst for transforming the way in which preK-12 education is delivered in Puerto Rico in a variety of ways, including working with the Department of Education in restructuring and decentralizing the department, governance and structure of schools.

The recent call by Governor Ricardo Rossello to establish K-12 charter public schools on the island is a promising initiative to decentralize bureaucracy and establish greater opportunities for choice. This is a great opportunity for higher education and secondary education to ensure that children have a new educational model to college beginning in the stages of early childhood development. With human, social, political, and physical capital, universities can garner influence and resources to affect systems of education for children and families in all of the years of schooling. In order to secure the future of higher education in Puerto Rico, universities must ensure that the pipeline of early learning to college is readily flowing.

Higher education is also an important resource in transforming teachers and school leadership preparation. Teachers and principals are at the core of good schooling and hold the keys for transferring teaching and learning. Puerto Rico has an opportunity to adopt programs that place education students in classrooms as part of the required teaching clinical experiences under the supervision of talented faculty and outstanding teacher mentors. Teacher Residencies like the Boston Residencies could serve as models for replication.

4) University as incubators of innovation and startup capital
Higher Education institutions can play a paramount role in advancing innovation through new technologies, new processes, new products, and new ideas that can be catalysts for rebuilding the local economy and for connecting Puerto Rico to the global economy.
University faculty and talented students can leverage their strengths in knowledge creation to generate economic benefits. Attracting transfers and two-year students is critical. The higher education sector can support the private sector through knowledge transfer that is deployed through worker training, capacity building for management, incubating startup businesses and development of industrial parks and small business incubators.

The University needs to welcome innovators and entrepreneurs into co-working spaces where they can connect on ideas, build business plans, and access startup capital to implement their projects. Universities can embrace models of university innovation centers, such as Pennovation at the University of Pennsylvania or Cornell Tech at Cornell University, where tracts of land and old factory spaces have become tech centers and incubators for new businesses and technology.

With open spaces indoors and outdoors, creative minds unite to design solutions to the challenges of our times, including poverty and climate change. Firms and individuals interested in investing in startup companies can be provided funds for these innovations to test, implement, and scale.

There are a number of initiatives already in place that should be sustained and expanded. The Puerto Rico Science, Technology, and Research Trust (The Trust) (https://prsciencetrust.org/ ) is a leader in fostering startup companies, entrepreneurial endeavors, and groundbreaking scientific research throughout Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, with a vast network of partnerships and access to capital.
The Trust has formalized partnerships with some universities but could expand its resources to undergraduate and graduate students for channeling a pipeline of talent directly from the university. Further expansion into the university ecosystem can open doors and new avenues for student and faculty ingenuity and creativity that will drive the science and technology agenda on the island.

The Puerto Rico Techno Economic Corridor (http://www.prteconline.com/ ) on the West Coast of the island partners with the universities there to build opportunities for business and technology incubation. Capitalizing and investing in these resources is paramount to building a culture of innovation on the island to develop, test, and implement new ideas to create new businesses, sources of wealth and to solve social problems in education, health, and the environment.

5) Universities as research enterprises
Higher education should partner with government and the private sector in Puerto Rico to create business clusters, industrial parks, and build on the concept of “knowledge economies.” Four areas of development are at the core of facilitating this transformative change in the role of the university: 1) attracting and retaining a cadre of talented and prominent faculty; 2) engaging university leadership that can think “outside the box” to conceive a university as an anchor for building the future trajectory of the country; 3) the physical infrastructure needed for research and development, such as labs, research parks, and classrooms; and 4) flexibility to facilitate an environment that frees up the university to commercialize research outcomes.

This approach needs to encompass collaboration among all institutions of higher education and therefore, a country-wide mechanism for collaboration and sharing needs to be in place. The Research Triangle Park in North Carolina is one of the leading factors driving North Carolina’s economy. It was founded by three universities – NC State, Duke, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an effort to promote education, research and industry collaboration.

Today, this joint effort is the largest research park in the United States and serves as a case study for how to tap on universities as a propellant of jobs and new industries that are aligned to the state’s economy. Closely affiliated is North Carolina’s Centennial Campus (https://centennial.ncsu.edu/) located within the NC State Campus and offering a mix of services, including academic classrooms, labs and classrooms along with space for corporate and government tenants, residential and food service facilities, a lake, a golf course and a middle public school.

This innovative university-based effort has attracted a number of corporations, including: RedHat, MeadWestvaco, Juniper Networks and Pathfinder Pharmaceuticals. Georgia also offers a good model with the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) (http://gra.org/), spearheaded by the Governor and launched as a strategy to retain industry in the state and attract new investments. The key factor in these examples is that government intervened directly to leverage their creation and the universities incorporated them into their growth strategy.

6) Universities as networks of technology and distance learning
Given the decline in human capital from universities both prior to and after Hurricane Maria, universities should invest in technological infrastructure that capitalizes and utilizes cloud computing and networks that allow students and faculty from different campuses, states, and global sites to connect with each other digitally.

Since Puerto Rico is isolated geographically, distance learning becomes an opportunity for Latin American Spanish-speaking countries and Caribbean islands to compete for students. In addition, public transportation is often a hindrance for local students to travel throughout the island, therefore new opportunities for distance learning can be leveraged.

Faculty from one campus could use technology to send their lectures to students at other campuses. This allows greater access of expert knowledge and information across a wider swath of the population. Faculty and students can collaborate on projects together throughout the island to share resources and build coalitions for stronger advocacy programs to change public and economic policy that will improve their social conditions.

The Ana G. Mendez University Online program is the first online distance learning program in Puerto Rico with Master’s Courses in Human Resources, Agribusiness, and Marketing Sales in Management, amongst others. The Inter-American University has a plethora of online programs as well in Computer Science and Business. While online programs are beneficial for students with limited time and resources to attend full-time and in-person programs, universities can boost their levels of technological access, and generate a source of income to advance collaboration amongst students throughout the world.

Universities can foster a network infrastructure that harnesses new technologies in cloud computing and digital learning that sparks new opportunities for students and faculty to work together virtually to conduct research, design new products, and challenge public policy. After Hurricane Maria, the University of Sagrado Corazon employed Dynamic Campus, a Texas based company, to rebuild its tech infrastructure from cables on the ground to cloud computing to store academic and financial management systems so that students could return to classes immediately (Schaffhausser, 2017).

This action highlights new investment opportunities for cloud computing so universities, and other institutions, can withstand large-scale damages from future natural disasters, and offer cheaper, and more protected administrative and management systems.

7) Universities as global centers of excellence.
Colleges and universities are important assets that can help Puerto Rico actively participate in the knowledge economy. One way the Island can build on these assets is to foster partnerships between private industry and higher-education institutions.
These partnerships tend to offer localized economic benefits by increasing economic activity associated with the creation, development, and commercialization of new products or processes.

The government of Puerto Rico, along with the university and non- profit sector, should establish a center of excellence focusing on the development of globally important technologies by providing seed funding and incentivizing industry investments.

8) Universities as workforce development centers.
The higher education sector must be able to adapt and customize its educational range to the needs of the country. Employers are increasingly warning of widening gaps between skills that are in demand and those that are available, highlighting a need to foster more technical talent if countries want to remain competitive.

There is a considerable skills mismatch between university graduates and the needs of employers in most economies. Without adequate modifications to education and training systems, the gap between supply and demand is projected to grow significantly. To address this, it will be critical to re-align global talent pipelines with market demand (WEF, 2017).

Island universities need to assess their teaching and learning focus and priorities to ensure that they can align the role of knowledge creation through research and technology transfer with that of knowledge transfer through education and human resource development. Workforce development is crucial and in the spirit of developing a cohesive higher education sector, the role of the junior colleges need to be revisited as they should play an important role in training and developing 2-year programs that lead to certificates and that prepare students to enter the workforce.

Academic program development needs to be aligned to the needs of industry and business to ensure that training leads to jobs and that companies can get the human capital that is necessary to thrive and be competitive in the business sector. Training programs should be consolidated into a single entity to ensure alignment and usefulness.

9) Universities as generators of revenue and capital.
The best universities depend on more than just students for their revenue. They develop endowments, chairs, contracts, patents, and products.

Over the past five years, The Trust, in partnership with the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and the Puerto Rico Department of Economic Development (DDEC by its Spanish acronym) managed to have 20 patents for the UPR with another 41 applications in process.
Though encouraging, these results are not enough.

Universities on the Island need to cultivate and attract new sources of revenue, donors, and innovations to be able to generate new income to become self-sufficient. They need to be growing and diversifying their revenue. The future of universities depends on their ability to replicate and sustain themselves throughout history. The role of the Boards of Governors must focus on putting together an action plan for fundraising and controlling administrative spending. Trustees have a unique vantage point and responsibility to investigate cost, and to compare them against similar or peer institutions. They need to increase financial transparency, invest and allocate scarce resources responsibly, in a highly competitive education landscape.

Moving forward.
Puerto Rico’s higher education system needs to make strategic choices about what and who they want to be and serve, what to provide, who to partner with, and how much to change. The outcome of these choices will lead to greater recognition from community, donors, employers, and students. Puerto Rico needs to regenerate a new vision that builds on local capacity to rebuild the Island’s higher education system, capitalize on the natural resources and invests in people and communities as a priority. An investment in human capital must be an essential in order for social transformation to occur.

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