Q&A: Scholar from Puerto Rico discusses research project with UChicago faculty

Initiative supported faculty, students, artists affected by hurricanes

Hurricane Maria caused more than $35 million in damage last fall to the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez—a blow that closed the campus for two months and the library for almost a year.

When the campus reopened, faculty including Evaluz Cotto-Quijano put aside their research to help students make up academic work under difficult circumstances, often without reliable electricity.

Cotto-Quijano was among the 19 faculty, students and artists from Puerto Rico who took advantage of a University of Chicago initiative to support those affected by Hurricanes Maria and Irma. She spent her residency at the University of Chicago’s Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge from June through August, and collaborated with UChicago faculty on a research project on Puerto Rican cooperative credit unions.

UChicago News recently spoke with Cotto-Quijano, an associate professor in the College of Business Administration, about her experience at UChicago.

What did you work on and accomplish while at the University of Chicago?

I focused on studying theoretical frameworks for my research. The opportunity to discuss my ideas and concerns with the University of Chicago faculty was instrumental to gain a clear understanding of the theoretical framework I should use. Also, having access to your libraries—the D’Angelo Law Library particularly—allowed me to consult sources that will not be available to me in Puerto Rico.

In addition, I prepared a presentation for the 25th Annual Conference of the Multinational Finance Society that was conducted in Budapest, Hungary in June.

I also recorded an interview for the “Worldview” program at WBEZ radio, a “New Dawn” podcast with Prof. Michael C. Dawson, and the Stigler Center Pro-Market blog published my essay on the relationship between the triple tax exemption on Puerto Rico’s bonds and the debt crisis.

With whom did you collaborate at the University?

Prof. Kimberly Kay Hoang, associate professor of sociology, was my mentor at the University of Chicago. Her support and encouragement opened numerous doors and opportunities for me.

Having the opportunity to discuss my research project with both Prof. Luigi Zingales and Prof. Dawson also unveiled avenues of research I have not contemplated before. 

Tell us about your research on credit unions, and their significance to Puerto Rican society, particularly following the hurricanes.

Puerto Rican cooperative credit unions are chartered under Puerto Rico law. They serve low-income people, but have been gaining market share from FDIC-insured banks located in Puerto Rico. And they were the first depository institutions that opened for service after Hurricane Maria in the fall of 2017. 

In 2016, Congress and President Obama passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, known as PROMESA, which allowed the island government to enter a bankruptcy-like restructuring of its debt. This statute places the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico in charge of handling Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. Even though the PROMESA Oversight Board was not granted banking supervisory powers, it has assumed financial and operational control of the Puerto Rico cooperative credit unions deposit insurer (known as COSSEC), the Puerto Rico cooperative credit unions’ banking supervisor. My research focuses on explaining this contradiction. 

Where does your research go from here?

The PROMESA Oversight Board’s executive director recently announced that the Board aims to reconfigure the Puerto Rican banking sector by reducing the number of cooperative credit unions. I expect my research would aid in the effort to maintain the capital of the people of Puerto Rico in those institutions. 

How have the hurricanes and their aftermath otherwise influenced your work?

Hurricane Maria and the slow reconstruction effort are taking a toll on the University of Puerto Rico. The Oversight Board is demanding the implementation of measures aimed at both shrinking academic programs and services, and sharply increasing tuition and other costs at the University of Puerto Rico.  The core of our mission to serve the people of Puerto Rico is under threat. In light of these unique circumstances, I have become more actively involved in the strategic defense of public higher education in Puerto Rico.

Can you tell us about your students and what they face in pursuing their studies?

Our students face significant challenges due to mainly housing- and job-related problems. Many houses have not been reconstructed due to delays in the disbursement of FEMA aid or the payment of insurance claims. The long delay in reestablishing electrical power caused many businesses to remain closed for months or never reopen, further limiting the availability of jobs.  

How has your life beyond your work changed?

The west coast of the island, where I live, was the least affected. But like all people who live in Puerto Rico, I face frequent power outages. Another lasting effect of the hurricane is the over 100 percent increase in insurance premiums and, in some cases, the unavailability of some coverage. Ironically, the weakened state of the property and casualty insurance sector in Puerto Rico has delayed reconstruction efforts and impedes adequate preparation for the present and upcoming hurricane seasons.