Partnerships between Higher Education Institutions in Puerto Rico

by Carlie Derouin

As a graduate student studying international and comparative education, specifically interested in the internationalization of higher education, our research trip to Puerto Rico was an excellent opportunity to learn more about partnerships between higher education institutions. While not technically an international partnership, the partnership between the University of Minnesota and the University of Puerto Rico (UPR)-Mayaguez and their work with local community organizations in Puerto Rico demonstrated a few important lessons for intercultural partnership work in the era of globalization. Throughout the course, I had the opportunity with peers to think critically about the role higher education institutions can play in disaster relief, specifically in terms of Puerto Rico’s energy transition but also in a broader global context, and about how to approach partnerships between different universities and organizations in an ethical manner.

Before the trip, our class met several times in November and December to contextualize the work we would be doing in Puerto Rico. One of the first meetings was a lecture by UPR professors Cecilio Ortiz García and Marla Pérez Lugo. Their public lecture, offered by the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture in the Decentered Center lecture series, “A New Ethic for University/Community Engagement in a Climate Change Era” gave our class a brief background on the challenges Puerto Rico faced in the year following Hurricane Maria due to the electrical grid failure and lengthy reconstruction period (during which some parts of the island went without power for nearly a year). However, their lecture was focused on ethical considerations for universities, as they highlighted lessons that arose from watching a multitude of U.S. mainland universities come to Puerto Rico to aid in the disaster response. Their lecture helped us to begin thinking about our own roles while down in Puerto Rico. How can we (university faculty or students) engage with Puerto Rican organizations and experts responsibly and respectfully? How can higher education institutions participate in partnerships (with community organizations and other local universities) in an ethical manner, especially in vulnerable regions after disaster? There were several themes that arose in the various lectures and discussions our group participated in that begin to answer these questions.

Jonathan Castillo Polanco talking with UMN students (Carlie Derouin, Emma Fiala and Garret Burnham) after his presentation.

Jonathan Castillo Polanco talking with UMN students (Carlie Derouin, Emma Fiala and Garret Burnham) after his presentation.

One recurring theme we heard during the two weeks in Puerto Rico was the importance of reciprocity in community and university relationships. This idea was expressed differently by individuals, but it was brought up frequently. Jonathan Castillo Polanco, UPR public health student and INESI researcher, was among the first speakers of our trip to discuss the issue overtly. He had important perspectives to share with individuals coming into Puerto Rico to complete research after the hurricane, sharing his frustration with giving his energy and time for interviews without seeing research or results returned to help communities. Anais Roque, a Puerto Rican student at Arizona State University, shared similar perspectives from her research on the role of social capital in post-disaster rebuilding and resiliency in two Puerto Rican communities; she experienced wariness from community members as an outsider coming to interview individuals, and noted that those community members expressed frustration with academics that treated their communities like a lab.

Underlying the message from these individuals is a call for university (both local and outside universities) faculty, staff, and students coming to vulnerable communities after disasters to reflect critically on their motivations and practices, and the benefits of their research. As one of the doctoral students we met with at UPR Mayaguez, Juan Felipe Patarroyo Montenegro, put it, there is a call here to engage in research that is not “selfish,” and instead engage in research that is given back to communities in ways that those same communities (and possibly other similar communities) can utilize and benefit from. It was a sentiment also shared by Angel Echevarria, another Puerto Rican student who shared with our group his questioning on why we (students) do the research we do, and reflections on if those reasons are tied to individual reasons or to a collective benefit. This is something our UMN instructors were and are thinking about. Our group’s public blog provides one example for ways in which research can be shared with a broader audience. Another strategy we participated in was a community workshop held in Vieques with Footprint, a Minnesota nonprofit working on a solar installation for the Emergency Management Office of Vieques, our group, and many members of the community and other Puerto Rican organizations. Yet these are just two examples, and this is an area that could be further explored. How can universities ensure the research they do can be utilized in the participating communities?

When establishing partnerships and connections in a community, there are also a few tools found in the growing field of higher education and community engagement and participatory research. One of our course readings delved into “Community Impact Statement (CIS),” a tool that evolved from a research partnership between the University of Minnesota and the Phillips Neighborhood Healthy Housing Collaborative (which existed from 1993-2003) (Gust & Jordan, 2006). The community impact statement was proposed as a tool to be used to create the foundation for equitable partnerships. A collaborative process in which groups work together to answer key questions about the partnership, including but not limited to identifying commonalities and differences and setting ground rules, CIS both specifies partnership guidelines while exemplifying the collaborative work that should take place. Gust & Jordan also share in the article a reference to individuals’ distrust of the University’s tendency to view community residents as “desirable research subjects” (2006, p. 156). The referenced experience of residents in the local Minneapolis neighborhood directly links back to the aforementioned lecture by Cecilio Ortiz García and Marla Pérez Lugo, in which they discussed the problem with institutions/organizations coming to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and referring to Puerto Rico as a “lab” and “blank slate.” Thus, one part of the answer to the question of how to engage in this type of research work ethically involves empathy and collaboration with research participants as individuals, recognizing that the research impacts and involves them, and is not something simply enacted on passive participants.

Robert Rabin, general manager in  Radio Vieques , sharing Vieques’s colonial history at the beginning of the workshop with Footprint

Robert Rabin, general manager in Radio Vieques, sharing Vieques’s colonial history at the beginning of the workshop with Footprint

Another theme related to ethics and the role of universities in disaster response that frequently came up in our meetings was the importance of local knowledge and an emphasis on how essential understanding the context of a community is when engaging in energy transition research. The importance of context was expressed at two different levels. The first level was the broader national/state context. Presenters frequently emphasized the importance of the colonial history of Puerto Rico and its subsequent power relationship with the mainland United States. The power differential between Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S. is important to acknowledge when trying to understand Puerto Rico’s current political and economic status. It is also important context in the field of higher education. The work done by universities in post-disaster communities occurs in the context of a global higher education system in which knowledge and research flows are unequal, with what constitutes research and knowledge largely dominated by prominent U.S. universities (Marginson, 2008). Acknowledging this dynamic is important for U.S. mainland universities, to acknowledge and establish strategies to navigate the power difference so that local expertise and perspectives are included. Only then can effective research and solutions be completed. When organizations and individuals attempt to help without inviting local voices to share needs, aid can be inefficient, but more importantly, can also be harmful. This is evidenced by a story one of the Marvel Marchand architects shared with a few members of our group after their presentation; some people wanting to help Puerto Ricans sent donated goods after the hurricane. While some of these goods were helpful immediately, in the weeks following the hurricane, the surplus of donated items made it difficult for local store owners to get back on their feet, as individuals were inundated with certain items to the point that many people were trying to give them away to others. While this example is not specifically related to aid provided by a higher education institution specifically, it is an important lesson.

The importance of including local knowledge and lived experience in disaster response leads to a second level for discussing the relevance of context to research projects (on energy transition or other societal challenges); context also matters at the local level. Marcel Castro-Sitiriche, a professor of Electrical Engineering at UPR Mayaguez, shared an especially poignant remark related to the importance both of local context and understanding your own positionality as a researcher when working with communities. As we met with local experts across Puerto Rico, it was clear that bottom up approaches to resilience and disaster preparedness, namely community solar micro-grids, provided a large number of benefits to different communities across the island. Listening to the numerous successful small-scale solar projects, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that community solar microgrids are the best answer. Yet Marcel stressed the importance of local context for this solution, noting that it does not work in all communities, and furthermore, that often individuals promoting community solar solutions did not themselves have to coordinate extensively with neighbors to receive basic utilities. In his talk with us, he instead frequently referred to collaboration and facilitation: “We are not imposing a path but facilitating.” It was an important addition to the dialogue all week concerning the socio-technical nature of Puerto Rico’s energy problem.

University of Minnesota students at the UPR Microgrid lab with Juan Felipe Patarroyo Montenegro, UPRM PhD student, and Professor Marcel Castro-Sitiriche.

University of Minnesota students at the UPR Microgrid lab with Juan Felipe Patarroyo Montenegro, UPRM PhD student, and Professor Marcel Castro-Sitiriche.

Universities engaging with post-disaster communities to provide response and reconstruction support is not unique to Puerto Rico. Increasingly, across the world, universities are lending their expertise to these efforts. For example, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 numerous universities structured initiatives and service learning experiences to help affected communities (Johnson & Hoovler, 2015). One of the course instructors, Megan Voorhees, also shared during the course trip her own experience in determining how UC Berkeley and its students could aid in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, with one of the prominent needs local organizations expressing was a long-term commitment. On the other side of the world, Tohuku University was a key leader in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, helping with both immediate response and the reconstruction of the region after the disaster through a variety of projects and research (Aoki & Ito, 2014). Thus, the University of Minnesota’s partnership with Puerto Rico and the lessons learned through the course are important in the global context for higher education institutions to strive to support communities and aid with disaster response. The longevity of the UPR and UMN partnership (with next activities including Puerto Rican experts and students visiting Minnesota for a May term course) will hopefully allow for the continued development of ways in which universities can equitably partner with communities and each other to produce innovative research and solutions. The RISE network is another exciting initiative that will build on partnership work and university engagement. As Professor Cecilio Ortiz García mentioned to me over one of our earlier dinners, we have a lot we can learn from each other. The work lies ahead in intentional efforts and strategies for ethical research and engagement strategies, so that this learning can flourish.



Aoki, T., & Ito, K. (2014). What is the role of universities in disaster response, recovery, and rehabilitation? Focusing on our disaster victim identification project. Communications Magazine, IEEE, 52(3), 30-37.

Gust, S. A., & Jordan, C. (2006). The community impact statement: A prenuptial agreement for community-campus partnerships. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 11(2), 155-169.

Johnson, A., & Hoovler, D. (2015). Service-learning and disaster recovery. In W. J. Jacob, S. E. Sutin, J. C. Weidman, & J. L. Yeager (Eds.), Community engagement in higher education: Policy reforms and practice (41-49). Rotterdam: Sense.

Marginson, S. (2008). Global field and global imagining: Bourdieu and worldwide higher education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 29(3), 303-315.