Resilience: Surviving, Stabilizing, and Rebuilding in Times of Trouble
By: Rafael Ramírez Rivera, Acting President Inter American University of Puerto Rico
Institutional resilience is “the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare, respond, and adapt to ever-increasing changes and sudden disruptions in order to survive and thrive”, according to the UK Board of Institutional Standards. They have summarized the process in three keywords: surviving, stabilizing, and rebuilding.
First of all, it is important to state that Puerto Rico has been dealing with immigration problems since year 2000. US Census Bureau published its 2020 report and indicated that between years 2000 and 2020, Puerto Rico lost more than 700,000 citizens. Also, that the birth rate in Puerto Rico presently is lesser than the death rate (and that has been the same for the last three years).
This means that many of the young well-educated people who could be part of our workforce have left the Island, and are currently living in the States or other countries. While we have a population of about 3.2M, the Puerto Rican diaspora in the US is about 5.5M.
As many of you can imagine, Puerto Rico’s three top recent challenges were:
1- hurricanes Irma, María, and Fiona, between the period of 2017–2022;
2- the earthquakes that began in December 2019, and on January 7, 2020 we had a 6.4 magnitude earthquake which lasted 37 seconds; and
3- the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first two challenges are the product of nature in which the results were total devastation, including the loss of homes, schools, workplaces, agriculture, power, water, and even human beings. On the time they took place, I was the chancellor of the Inter American University of Puerto Rico Arecibo Campus, and we literally needed to reinvent ourselves in order to respond our community’s needs.
Utilizing the aforementioned framework of the UK Board of Institutional Standards:
- Surviving meant our will to continue living with the available resources, reinventing possibilities, sharing what one has with a sense of generosity and brotherhood.
- Stabilizing involved joining efforts to get closer to normality again such as: cleaning, conditioning our homes and workplaces, establishing communication with our employees and students and finding ways to do things differently.
- Rebuilding meant rearranging resources, using all our aid available, becoming a help and distribution center for food, water and other basic needs, as well as supporting the university community through spiritual and psychological help, so necessary for mental health. Even as providing internet services, laundry, and beauty parlor for our students and employees.
The third challenge was the COVID-19 pandemic, which threatened the health of the general population and made us face an unexpected scenario, which had not been seen in Puerto Rico since the case of the Spanish flu in 1918, when our university was barely 6 years old. This was exactly 102 years ago.
Nowadays, the Inter American University of Puerto Rico has new and different challenges, since we have to respond for the offering of more than 300 license and accredited academic programs from associate to doctoral degrees. Of those, 77 programs were fully online education programs.
So, surviving at that point was isolating, through lockdowns, and then through social distancing, and using disinfectants, until finally vaccines came along. Stabilizing and rebuilding were processes that entailed rethinking the way in which our courses were offered, accelerating the offerings of distance education, obtaining all the applicable technology for the University to function through cyberspace, training the faculty and non-teaching staff, and guiding students on the new virtual classroom.
On my recent participation in the Excelencia in Education’s webinar Institutional Resilience in Puerto Rico: A First Look at Efforts by Puerto Rican HSIs, I was asked to highlight two efforts that reinforced our continuing mission of access to a quality education for students during this time of crisis or resilience.
Challenges were many and constant. But if I had to summarize them in just two, I would classify them into demographic challenges and financial challenges:
1- Demographic refers to the variety of people that make up our University community: people of different ages, with different levels of education, with different socioeconomic realities, who live in different communities and geographic areas, have or do not have access to electricity and internet, have been more or less affected by natural phenomena or by the pandemic.
2- Financial challenges encompass a whole new range of needs, some of which could not even be anticipated and are therefore not included in a budget or proposal. Even when federal aid began to be received, a structure for the allocation and designation of funds had to be complying within record time to meet real needs, and to guarantee the proper management of these aids.
I should point out that for Hurricane María and for the earthquakes in the southwest area, our facilities became collection and distribution centers for basic needs. For many students and employees, we were their refuge, and also their reference on the road to the rehabilitation of the country, and the restoration of normality.
Something similar could be said of the pandemic, only this time we had to reinvent our operations and procedures, each of us from home, relying much more on technology, with the uncertainty of what could ultimately happen with COVID-19, and heading our way to a so call “new normality”, although we sensed that nothing will ever be exactly the same as before.
In both circumstances, there were two aspects that cannot be left out:
1- First, the solidarity of the Boricua diaspora, whose concerted efforts promoted the recovery of Puerto Rico.
2- Second, that the services our students received were provided by employees and professors of our institution, who were also going through the same crisis. It was not about external and privilege entities helping us, it was always about brothers and sisters, colleagues and coworkers who were going through the same critical circumstances, and they surpass their losses and their anguish, to serve and help other.
As you can conclude, mental, emotional and spiritual services were also part of our agenda to safeguard the mental health of our community, terribly affected by the impact of these ongoing crises.
What can institutions in the mainland US could learn from the efforts of resilience of institutions in Puerto Rico?
Crisis scenarios can be different and require different responses from us. But there are four words that can help us take advantage of what happened in Puerto Rico, and apply it to the future: anticipation, preparedness, flexibility, and collaboration.
1- Anticipation, which leads us to review all our risks and the emergency management plan at the institutional level.
2- Preparedness, an inventory of internal and external resources, including contacts, finances, emergency funds, communication plan, specialist-advisors (many of them may be members of our own faculty), that could guide us to manage and overcome even the worst-case scenario.
3- Flexibility, ability to quickly modify plans, admits new situations or ideas, and implement new ways of acting.
4- Collaboration, joint and fluid work between the campuses, between the institution and governmental authorities, private companies, and NGOs.
As part of this meditation proposed by Excelencia in Education’s webinar, we had to share what are the top two areas where we would invest in case we receive a new funding? Faced it with such a possibility, our two areas would be the following:
1- We would all be tempted to support the neediest talented students with a scholarship to help them complete their studies. Presently, Inter American University of Puerto Rico provides 5% of the operational budget for institutional scholarship.
2- In addition, we would give priority to sustainable agricultural projects, such as the ones that are being developed in the Barranquitas and Guayama campuses. We would like to extend this incentive to the rest of the campuses because it works in favor of our food security, a need that is very much at risk in the 21st century of Puerto Rico.
Let me put this into context. During hurricane María, the agriculture of Puerto Rico was terribly affected. The Barranquitas Campus provided more than 30,000 plantain seeds and guiding information to farmers for free. A real fact about agriculture in Puerto Rico are that 85% of the food we need is imported, since it is not produced in Puerto Rico. Our economy, formally agrarian, evolved first from manufacturing, and later toward technology, leaving behind a vital aspect of the survival of an island population, which will not be able to sustain itself in the midst of an international crisis if it does not even produce what it needs to eat.
In conclusion, beyond this aspiration to food security, this kind of project foster love for the land, and the attachment to the served community, which could have the effect of discouraging “brain drain”, which is nothing different from the exodus of our students and professionals to the United States or to foreign countries.
It is obvious that there are no unique or infallible factors when it comes to institutional resilience. Each situation is different and will require different approaches and solutions. But there is certainly a lot of sensitivity and creativity to apply in each case if you want to survive, stabilize and rebuild.