In September 2017, on the heels of Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria tore through the Caribbean, with devastating consequences. As Elizabeth Redden reported for Inside Higher Ed, in Puerto Rico alone, Hurricane Maria forced the closure of eleven universities that serve 60,000 students. As Redden reported, senior leaders at the University of Puerto Rico, as well as the University of the Virgin Islands and the University of the West Indies were struggling with “damaged buildings, displaced students and … stress [to] already strained budgets.”
Repairs at two campuses in the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. Croix, are expected to cost between $40-60 million. The University of the Virgin Island’s president, David Hall, said that Irma destroyed or made uninhabitable 25-30 percent of the St. Thomas campus’s buildings, including its newest residence hall and the performing arts center. Beyond physical damage to the schools, the homes of many students’ families were destroyed or damaged, adding further challenges to their returning to school. Some students have even withdrawn, expecting that they cannot afford to continue to pay for their education.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner, who co-chairs a research group at Columbia University that has focused on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, described the emergency as also, tragically, an opportunity “to think about the inequities that have been inherent in the model of postsecondary education in Puerto Rico and other territories.” Noting a historic lack of collaboration between American higher education institutions and Puerto Rican ones, Redden reported that a number of colleges in Florida are offering in-state tuition to students from Puerto Rico displaced by Hurricane Maria.
The efforts of Caribbean higher educational institutions and their students to recover from the hurricanes take place against the backdrop of intense financial strain on national budgets. In August 2017, the Virgin Islands announced a new fiscal plan that cut funding for education by $10 million, as Ernice Gilbert reported for the Virgin Islands Consortium. Budget cuts have led the resignation of over 80 teachers in the Virgin Islands. As Gilbert reported, “The department has relied heavily on its substitute teacher pool to fill a widening gap. This problem is not projected to improve because D.O.E. simply cannot compete with mainland jurisdictions offering more appealing packages to educators.” In Puerto Rico, the nation’s debt has led to the closure of over 170 schools.
Corporate media coverage of the hurricanes has understandably focused on the immediate task of rebuilding infrastructure. But this coverage has tended to focus on Puerto Rico, to the neglect of other Caribbean nations, including the Virgin Islands and West Indies. Corporate news coverage has put little to no emphasis on the impact of the hurricanes on educational institutions in these countries.
Elizabeth Redden, “Caribbean Universities in Crisis,” Inside Higher Ed, September 29, 2017, www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/09/29/caribbean-universities-deal-damage-hurricanes-irma-maria.
Ernice Gilbert, “USVI Education Crisis: Over 80 Teachers Resign During 2016-17 School Year; 151 Teaching Vacancies Available,” Virgin Islands Consortium, August 21, 2017, http://viconsortium.com/featured/usvi-education-crisis/.
Student Researchers: Logan Dion, Katherine Lyons, Blair Maclin (University of Massachusetts Amherst)
Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)