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Troubles escalate at Ecuador's young research university


It was supposed to become Ecuador's dream research university—an international hub for science and higher education, nestled in a new campus in the mountains 2 hours north of Quito. Instead, 6-year-old Yachay Tech University 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. 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. The turmoil 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 has been at Yachay Tech from its start. “We've lost a lot of professors who have a lot of experience and teach very well.” But Mena rejects those criticisms. 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 slashed Yachay Tech's annual budget by 12%, or $1.8 million. Administrative staff 's salaries, including his own, have been cut as well, Mena says. “Everything we have done has been strictly by law.” Yachay Tech, ranked first in Ecuador for original research output by Nature Index last year, has been beset by conflicts about its course almost from the start in 2014 ( Science , 28 July 2017, p. [340][1]). Mena is already the ninth president. 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 the sitting president and 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.” 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 that 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. Some say politics plays a role. Yachay Tech was launched by then-Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, a leftist who poured money into health and education; the current government appears to take little interest in his legacy, faculty members say. Senescyt's head, Agustín Albán Maldonado, did not respond to multiple interview requests. It's not clear what will happen if the university misses the 31 December deadline, but some students worry about the university's survival. “Right now, we have many problems and no information from the authorities,” says Diana Estefanía López Ramos, a biomedical engineering student and president of the Student Association. 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 (22 October 2020): This article has been updated to note that Hermann Mena is the ninth president of Yachay Tech. [1]:

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