Puerto Rican faculty ask Fenves to extend aid after Hurricane Maria

Jenan Taha

Seven Puerto Rican faculty members sent a letter to President Gregory Fenves asking the University to provide support to universities on the island impacted by Hurricane Maria.

The open letter, available on the College of Liberal Arts’ website, states that the hurricane “has tragically plunged the island into a nightmarish, worst-case scenario” and encourages UT to mobilize and offer immediate help. The letter said the University could provide donations such as lab equipment and textbooks, as well as allow students at affected universities to take their courses at UT.

César Salgado, an associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese who signed the letter, said it is important to recognize issues affecting the sizable Puerto Rican community.

“Acknowledging their plight is something that should be extended to Puerto Ricans as American citizens and as people,” said Salgado, a Puerto Rico native. “To make any sort of gesture to colleagues or students in the Puerto Rican university system, anything that could be feasible, we encourage that.”

The letter was sent on Sept. 28, but the University has yet to openly respond. Media relations director J.B. Bird said in an email that the administration is looking at ways to feasibly support Puerto Rican students.

“There are some constraints on what the University can do unilaterally since costs like tuition are regulated by rules and state laws,” Bird said. “What we can say for sure at this point is that for students impacted by the storm in Puerto Rico, UT will consider academic accommodations for those who seek them.”

Salgado said when he heard about Maria, he knew it would only worsen damage caused previously by Hurricane Irma.

“Having a Category 4 hurricane like Maria ravage the island, we knew it would compound the complications, and it would make the whole infrastructure of the country collapse,” Salgado said. “We had a foreboding sense that we would be confronting a catastrophe.”

Salgado said his family on the island has been heavily impacted following Maria’s landfall on Sept. 20.

Luis Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work, is one of seven signers of the letter. Zayas said seeing images of the devastation, including one of his old high school under water, made him want to give as much material and emotional support as he could. 

“Rivers were going through streets … The levels of water are to the roofs,” Zayas said. “It’s saddening to see. Everybody has been affected. It’s gone across social class and region — everyone’s felt it.”

Zayas said he understands the University’s choice to immediately respond to other disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Harvey this year because of their close proximity, but said it is still important to support Puerto Ricans. 

“Puerto Rico isn’t going to be up and running any time soon so there is time for the University to provide some support,” Zayas said.

Salgado said he feels the U.S. has been slow to respond to the disaster, and he will continue to advocate for relief efforts.

“We will keep Puerto Rico in the headlines so we can make sure Puerto Ricans can get the help they need and that people don’t forget,” Salgado said. “The situation is urgent.”