Troubles escalate at Ecuador’s dream research university | Science

Yachay Tech University, launched in 2014, drew faculty from around the world to its brand new campus.

MEDIOS PÚBLICOS EP/FLICKR CC BY-SA

It was supposed to become Ecuador’s dream research university—an international hub for science and higher education, able to recruit top talent from around the world. Instead, 6-year-old Yachay Tech University, nestled in the mountains 2 hours north of Quito, has long been mired in conflicts. Now, Ecuador’s economic woes and shifting politics have stirred new turmoil that threatens the university’s drive for “independent” status, which would allow it to run its own affairs.

The past year, dozens of professors were fired or left because of salary reductions or alleged mistreatment, and those who remain have had to work extra shifts. The departures have left students struggling to enroll in courses or find thesis advisers, they say. On 13 October, Ecuador’s Higher Education Council (CES) ordered the university to file a “clear and accurate report” within 10 days answering complaints and inquiries from two professors and a group of students. They allege the university’s administration has violated professors’ rights and made long-term decisions with little transparency.

The turmoil—which follows a previous spate of firings in 2017—comes at a sensitive time. In Ecuador, new universities are established by the government but must go through a process called institutionalization, which includes awarding tenure to some faculty and democratically electing university leadership. Given the current chaos, Yachay Tech will almost certainly miss the 31 December deadline for doing so, sources say.

Many blame the problems on mathematician Hermann Mena, who became university president in August 2019. “He is breaking everything apart,” says Juan Lobos Martin, a Spanish materials scientist who came to Yachay when it opened in 2014 after completing a postdoc at the University of Pittsburgh. “We’ve lost a lot of professors who have a lot of experience and teach very well.”

Mena rejects the criticism. In an interview with Science, he said seven professors were justifiably fired; the others left because of salary cuts he had to make after Ecuador’s government cut Yachay Tech’s annual budget by 12%, or $1.8 million, creating a “very dramatic” financial situation. Administrative staff’s salaries, including his own, have been cut as well, Mena says, and the school has reined in unjustified travel and other expenses he deemed inappropriate. “Everything we have done has been strictly by law,” he says.

Then-Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa launched Yachay Tech in 2014, along with three other universities, as part of an effort to boost the country’s higher education system. It hired faculty from around the world, and its brand-new campus hosts the country’s most powerful supercomputer. Just last year, Nature Index ranked Yachay Tech first in Ecuador for original research output. But from the start, the university was beset by conflicts about its course that nine different presidents have been unable to solve.

Institutionalization has created fresh trouble. As part of the process, the university granted some 55 professors tenure starting in October 2018. But in March 2019, Ecuador’s Secretariat of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation (Senescyt) suddenly froze the process after Mena, then a faculty member, and others claimed it was tainted by conflicts of interest. Senescyt ousted two presidents in the next 5 months and eventually elevated Mena to the top job.

Since then, Yachay Tech administrative officials with little or no scientific training have re-evaluated current professors based on their CVs and recent output, university researchers say. Some saw their salary cut by up to 40%. “The process is not transparent,” says Si Amar Dahoumane, a former biotechnology researcher at Yachay Tech. “Professors were not involved.” The university pressured those already promised tenure to sign away that right, says Lobos Martin, who himself was promised tenure on 1 March 2019. He says he refused to give in and has since lost his salary.

Right now, we have many problems and no information from the authorities.

Diana Estefanía López Ramos, Yachay Tech University Student Association

Foreigners, originally the majority of the teaching staff, bore the brunt of the scrutiny. More than 80% of the estimated 44 professors who left Yachay Tech since Mena took office are foreigners, faculty say, and of the few replacement hires, most are Ecuadorians. Computer scientist Israel Pineda, who is Ecuadorian, is dismayed the university fired its translator and appears to have given up on its ambition to teach in English. “All of our major presence right now is in Spanish,” Pineda says. “The university has to be international. Otherwise, we go right back to the traditional system that we have here” in Ecuador.

Some say politics plays a role. Ecuador’s current government appears not to have a strong interest in supporting the legacy of Correa, a leftist who poured money into social programs such as health and education, or in his dream of an international flagship institution. “Yachay started as a political university and that is the problem,” says Lobos Martin, who suspects the current government might let the university run itself into the ground. But others say Correa’s vision for Yachay Tech is just not sustainable given Ecuador’s shaky economy, which was facing challenges even before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Senescyt did not make its director, Agustín Albán Maldonado, available for an interview. A spokesperson for the agency emailed Science that Yachay Tech had made little progress toward autonomy until mid-2019, when Senescyt started to help the university. Senescyt is now working with Yachay Tech to create guidelines for moving the tenuring and institutionalization processes forward, according to the email.

It’s not clear what will happen if the university misses the 31 December deadline, but some students worry about Yachay Tech’s survival. “It’s one of the few universities, if not the only one, that trains scientists,” says Diana Estefanía López Ramos, a biomedical engineering student and president of the Student Association. “Right now, we have many problems and no information from the authorities.” Mena’s critics hope the CES inquiry will uncover some answers—and push Mena to rethink his decisions.

Mena acknowledges that “it seems that communication has not been the best,” and says misinformation is circulating. His team will make key documents public soon, he says, and this week, the university posted a video about the controversies surrounding the tenuring process online. Mena says he still has confidence in the school’s future. “The point is that Yachay is not a project anymore, we are a university,” he says. “And the idea is to make it sustainable.”

*Correction, 23 October, 2:30 p.m.: A previous version of this article implied that Spyridon Agathos was removed from his position as president of Yachay Tech at the time Senescyt froze the tenuring process. Agathos stepped into the position when the process was frozen and was asked to step down a few months later.

Kent

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