The university's origins date to 1899 when the Island Board of Public Education offered $15,000 a year to any town that would invest a matching amount in creating a normal school. Fajardo accepted the proposal and the Normal Industrial School was founded in 1900 for the purpose of training teachers. Enrollment was limited to 20 students and the faculty consisted of five professors. Because of the difficulty of traveling to Fajardo from other parts of the island, the Board decided to move the school to Río Piedras, which was more accessible, because the main roads and the train passed through that municipality.
The Normal School was established in a rented building on a farm called La Convalecencia, the former summer estate of the Spanish governors. Fifty acres of land was acquired for the construction of a building that would later be home to the institution. The Law of March 12, 1903, officially created the University of Puerto Rico and transferred the Normal School to the new facilities. In 1907, the first class of students graduated.
In 1911, the College of Agriculture was established in Mayaguez with funds and land granted by the Morrill-Nelson Law, which established schools of agriculture, science and engineering. Its name was changed in 1912 to the College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts. Meanwhile, other departments were established in Río Piedras, such as the Liberal Arts College (1910) and the Law Department and Pharmacy Department (both in 1913). The University High School was founded in 1918 to provide supervised practice for students at the Normal School.
During the 1920s, the University continued to expand and develop. In 1923, the University Law was approved, making the university an administrative entity independent of the Island Education Department and establishing a Board of TrusteesBoard of Trustees: A board that governs the state university, whose functions are to: (1) Representing the public interest, ensuring the fulfillment of the mission and objectives of the University, and the respective laws, regulations, and norms. (2) Establish general university policy, informing the university community of the process. The Board is constituted by thirteen members of the community appointed by the governor, one faculty member, and one student elected by the members. and the post of rector. In 1925, a law was passed giving the university educational independence. The following year, the College of Business Administration was established in Río Piedras and the School of Tropical Medicine was established in San Juan. In 1927, the first graduate program, a Masters of Arts in Spanish Studies, was created.
In 1931, Carlos Chardón was named rector of the University of Puerto Rico, becoming the first Puerto Rican to occupy that post. Meanwhile, the federal government assigned more funds for research and for the construction of buildings both in Río Piedras and in Mayagüez. Among the construction projects was the area known as the quadrangle, which includes the general library named José M. Lázaro in 1968, the Biology building know as Dr. Julio García Díaz, the one for Education called Eugenio María de Hostos, Liberals Arts named Antonio S. Pedreira, the theater and the emblematic tower. In 1938, Francisco Arriví wrote the lyrics to the University hymn and Augusto Rodríguez wrote the music.
During the 1940s, Puerto Rican society experienced a rapid change from a rural and agricultural society to a modern, industrialized one. The university was also part of this process of change. In 1942, the University Reform Law was approved, creating the Higher Education Council to replace the Board of Trustees as the university's governing body and specifying the new functions of the rector, which had more authority in the administration of the institution. That same year, the Council named Jaime Benítez rector.
During his time in the post, educational reforms were implemented and the university established new centers, such as the Institute of Caribbean Studies and the Center for Social Research, new schools — Humanities, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, General Studies, etc. — and graduate programs, such as the schools of Medicine, Dentistry and Planning. In 1941 the Student Council was also created. The educational philosophy was Westernized, which was criticized by members of the faculty and students who wanted a more Puerto Rican vision.
In 1946, the university received accreditation from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. Two years later, the first strike broke out at the university after nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos was prohibited from giving a speech at the Theater and after the expulsion of some students for replacing the United States flag in front of the tower with the Puerto Rican flag. The students considered both acts to be violations of the right to free speech, so a student assembly was held on April 12 and a strike was declared. After various confrontations with the police and the closure of the campus, the Student Council was eliminated, 24 students were expelled and an article was added to the Student Regulations prohibiting controversial speakers from entering the campus.
In 1950, the School of Medicine (1950) was founded. The School of Sciences became the School of Arts and Sciences and the Nuclear Center was created. Research on social, economic, demographic and political aspects of Puerto Rican society proliferated through the work done at the Center for Social Research, as part of the desire for modernization.
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