Originally: College in a Country That Struggles to Survive

Wilson Jean Jr.’s eyes flash with excitement as he describes the heady months when he and other student leaders orchestrated the downfall of Haiti’s former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

They led giant marches through the capital against Mr. Aristide, whose perceived meddling in university affairs triggered two years of anti-government protests. They braved police gunfire and tear gas. And they poured into the streets in celebration after Mr. Aristide fled into exile in February 2004.

But a year later, that euphoria has been replaced by something more familiar: the struggle for mere survival.

“Ask me how I eat every day,” says Mr. Jean, a twenty-six-year-old sociology major at the State University of Haiti. Like many of the more than ten thousand students at the country’s main institution of higher education, he comes from a family where just getting enough to eat is a daily battle. His parents?both of whom are illiterate?make a few dollars a day selling scrap metal on the street. So Mr. Jean was forced to drop out of school for several years to help support his younger siblings. He has no money for books and can barely afford photocopies, the main source of reading material for most students.

But he is not complaining. “You have to learn from the poverty and misery to see how you’ll fight against it,” he says.

Meanwhile, life in the classroom goes on, with broken equipment, poorly paid teachers, and a curriculum that seems lifted out of 1950s France.

With an annual per capita income of just $425, Haiti is by far the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. More than two-thirds of adults lack steady employment. Life expectancy is forty-nine years. Half of this Caribbean country’s eight million people are illiterate.

For many poor Haitians, the State University, which is free, represents their one shot at a better life. A college degree is a prerequisite for government jobs, usually the only professional positions available to poor Haitians. College graduates also have a better chance of getting visas to work or study in the United States and Canada. As a result, competition for seats at the State University is fierce. Nearly 10,000 students vied for 2,000 new places last year, according to the university’s rector, Pierre Marie Paquiot. (The university, whose different departments are scattered on campuses around the capital and in several other cities, is so disorganized that administrators gave widely varying enrollment figures; estimates of total enrollment ranged from 10,000 to 15,000 students.)

“It’s a huge privilege to be able to study in Haiti,” says Rachelle Elien, 26, a communications major, as she hangs out with friends in the trash-strewn courtyard of the university’s humanities campus.

The campus, in the heart of the capital, has the look of an untended farmyard. Chickens roam freely under groves of banana trees. The “cafeteria,” a dusty patch of ground under a plastic tarp, offers plates of rice and beans for 70 cents to those who can afford them.

But the campus is an oasis compared with the city outside, where vendors spill into the traffic-choked streets, mountains of rotting garbage block intersections, and armed street gangs terrorize residents.

Ousting Mr. Aristide

The campus is also a bastion of political activism. It was here that students devised creative ways to topple Mr. Aristide, such as staging mock funerals for the president.

More than a decade after sweeping to power with a landslide victory in 1990, Mr. Aristide remains Haiti’s most divisive figure. Now in exile in South Africa, he is reportedly plotting to return. His supporters, mostly uneducated slum residents, see him as a champion of the poor, while his detractors, largely middle-class Haitians and intellectuals, view him as a corrupt autocrat who used populist rhetoric to disguise his thirst for power.

Many students felt betrayed by Mr. Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, whose election was supposed to mark a new era of democracy after decades of dictatorship and who had vowed to take radical steps to fight poverty.

Critics say Mr. Aristide squandered that historic opportunity by becoming mired in power struggles. A military coup forced him to spend most of his first term in exile. He was later barred by the Constitution from seeking re-election until 2000, when he returned to power in elections tarred by allegations of fraud and with a much smaller base of support.

Rather than build social programs, Mr. Aristide moved to silence his critics, particularly the students, who responded by throwing themselves into the anti-government movement with particular zeal.

In return, they became the target of Mr. Aristide’s supporters, who saw the students as elitist troublemakers. On December 5, 2003, an armed mob shouting “Aristide for king” raided the humanities campus, wounding several dozen students and ransacking the main administration building, according to witnesses. When Mr. Paquiot, the rector, tried to intervene on the students’ behalf, thugs broke his kneecaps with iron bars.

‘December Massacre’

Today the so-called December massacre is memorialized in the graffiti that cover the faculty building’s crumbling concrete walls and in the bullet holes in the gate, which students have circled in blood-red paint.

“Aristide wanted to control everything in the country, and he was controlling almost everything except the State University of Haiti,” says Mr. Paquiot, a soft-spoken mathematician who opposed the Aristide government. “He had to control the poor people, and also the people who can think.”

The simmering tensions between Mr. Aristide and the students erupted in July 2002, when the federal education minister, Marie Carmel Paul-Austin, sacked Mr. Paquiot. Arguing that the rector’s four-year term had expired, she appointed a replacement who was more sympathetic to Mr. Aristide.

But students responded with huge protests at what they saw as an invasion of the university’s autonomy, prompting the interim rector to resign five months later. The university council held elections in 2003, when Mr. Paquiot was overwhelmingly chosen for another term.

By then, however, the anti-government protests had spread nationwide, eventually triggering an armed rebellion against Mr. Aristide.

“In any poor country, the state university is very important,” says Mr. Paquiot, sitting in his shabby, heavily guarded office here. “It gives the country most of its professionals, 90 percent of its doctors, engineers, lawyers, deputies, congressmen, and presidents, the people who are the leaders in this country.”

The State University plays a particularly important role in Haiti, given the dearth of options for higher education. The first private universities opened their doors in the late 1980s. But most students cannot afford to pay the $1,500 annual tuition at the University of Notre Dame and Quiskeya University, the premier private institutions.

In fact, for most Haitians, just coming up with money for books and supplies is a major challenge.

Julien Sainvil, another sociology major at the State University, demonstrates how he plans to fulfill the week’s homework assignments by pouring out the contents of his red vinyl backpack. They include: a history textbook borrowed from a friend; another textbook that he bought for $2 on the street, from money he makes tutoring young children; and a tattered notebook, which he shares with his cousin. (Mr. Sainvil writes in the last of the notebook’s three sections.)

“There is no economic planning for students,” Mr. Sainvil says. “They just take it day by day.”

The same might be said for the university itself. Its annual budget of $7.4-million is barely enough to cover salaries for its 800 professors, of whom just 60 are full-time, according to Mr. Paquiot. The little money for equipment and maintenance comes from donations, such as a $200,000 grant in October from the Taiwanese government.

Most of the international aid agencies in Haiti are more concerned with combating hunger and violence than with supporting higher education. So administrators must work even harder to convince potential donors that their money will go to good use. Mr. Paquiot plans to use the grant from Taiwan to buy computers and to outfit a science laboratory that will be shared among departments. But he acknowledges that he needs millions of dollars more to equip the other labs and buy library books for each of the university’s eleven faculties.

He also hopes to expand the graduate programs. Currently, there are about a hundred master’s-degree students, who are pursuing degrees in population studies, development, and computer science. The university offers no Ph.D. programs, but does have a medical school, whose students receive valuable clinical practice treating the many health problems of local residents.

“It’s not a real university,” says Jean Claude Bajeux, a prominent political analyst who has a Ph.D. in romance literature from Princeton University. “There are no libraries or labs. The concept of a university professor doesn’t even exist here. It’s like a side job.”

With the few full-time professors earning a meager $1,000 a month, the university has trouble finding instructors at all, particularly in areas like medicine and science. Most of the country’s graduates have left the country for Canada and the United States, where they earn more than ten times as much. The brain drain is particularly acute at the medical school. Of the seventy students who finish their internships each year, sixty leave the country, according to administrators.

“Most people who study here want to leave, because there is no future for young people in Haiti,” says Richard Gaston, a sixth-year student, as he tends to patients at a government eye clinic. “People go to medical school so they will have a chance to leave. That’s why they apply.”

Students on the Front Lines

Ironically, the acute shortage of doctors in Haiti is part of the reason why its medical-school graduates are so well regarded in the United States and Canada. During their final year of school, the students are thrust onto the front lines of the chaotic University Hospital, where they treat everything from gunshot wounds to AIDS. They also see diseases that have largely disappeared from the developed world, such as leprosy and lymphatic filariasis, a gruesome sickness that causes elephantiasis of the limbs and genitals. As the country’s main public medical center, the hospital is technically free. But patients are expected to buy all necessary supplies, such as suture material and bandages. Those who cannot pay for the supplies will not receive treatment. The eye clinic, one of the best-equipped areas of the hospital, lacks gloves, antibiotics, even disinfectant. So Mr. Gaston brings his own supplies, as well as maintaining a stock of sample antibiotics from pharmaceutical companies to give poor patients. But those efforts are often insufficient.

“Every day I see patients I can’t help,” he says. He glances uneasily at a young woman with a grotesquely swollen face who is lying on a concrete bench outside the eye clinic. She moans softly, as blood gushes freely from her nose. “I can’t say, Go somewhere else, because there is nowhere else to go,” he says. “The person will just stay there until either they get the antibiotic or die.”

Mr. Gaston gives the example of a thirteen-year-old boy with kidney failure. Since the hospital’s sole dialysis machine was broken, the boy waited three days for treatment. He died one hour before the machine was finally fixed.

The shortage of money also shows in the facilities at the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy. “Just look at this place. It’s depressing,” says Fritz de la Fuente, the faculty’s assistant dean. He walks down a hallway with peeling yellow paint, past a chemistry lab with 1960s microscopes, many of which are missing parts. The equipment was donated by the U.S. government in 1970.

Other academics fault what they view as the university’s outdated curriculum.

“Here, education is just about copying examples from abroad,” says Ary Regis, dean of students at the Humanities Faculty. “It’s almost impossible to apply what they learn here.” He notes that most professors assign textbooks on sociology or history imported from other countries ? primarily France and Canada ? rather than incorporating material from Haiti itself.

Queuing Up for a Ticket Out

Despite such concerns, the university has no shortage of applicants, who view a college education as their only escape from poverty. Most will be disappointed. While the number of high-school graduates has grown from about 15,000 in the 1980s to 40,000 last year, the university’s enrollment has risen by only a few thousand, says Guy Serge Pompilus, a prominent Haitian mathematician at the university who has worked with the World Bank on education reform.

Even taking into account the private universities, the total number of available spots for first-year students last year was about 4,000, he says. Of the 36,000 high-school graduates who failed to gain admission to a college or university last year, a few thousand traveled abroad to study. Most end up at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo, in the neighboring Dominican Republic, where the cost of living is even lower than in Port-au-Prince. But many others have no choice but to keep applying in Haiti.

“You have something building up,” Mr. Pompilus says of the growing frustration. “And it’s going to burst if we don’t do something about it.”

Reform Attempts

The problem has its roots in a failed education reform effort of the late 1970s. Bowing to international pressure, the country’s former dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, embarked on a program designed to make education more accessible to the impoverished masses. Previously, the only Haitians to attend high school or college were the children of professionals who had studied in France. But with the population explosion of the 1960s and 1970s, a growing number of Haitians moved to the cities to find work. And for the first time, they began sending their children to school.

Mr. Duvalier appointed Joseph Bernard, a Haitian who had worked with UNESCO in Africa, to head up his reform project. At first, the signs were promising. The government passed a law in 1979 that made Creole the main language of instruction at the primary level, rather than French, the country’s other official language, which is spoken fluently by only 10 percent of the population. A year later, Haiti’s parliament passed the Education Reform Law, which, among other things, sought to create a new education system that would serve the goal of development.

But neither law was ever fully enforced. Nor did the government provide funds to help expand the public education system, says Guy Alexandre, an academic and former diplomat who was involved in the reform project. Instead, he says, Mr. Duvalier worked to sabotage the program, which he saw as a threat to his power.

Since then, there have been no genuine efforts at education reform in Haiti.

In the face of so many obstacles, many Haitians stubbornly hang on to hope. “The crisis is an opportunity for higher education in Haiti,” says Mr. Pompilus, the mathematician. He is optimistic that at least some of Haiti’s two million exiles will decide to return home following Mr. Aristide’s departure. “All it takes are a few thousand professionals, and we can start training people here,” he says.

Mr. Pompilus, who spent nine years as a technical adviser to the World Bank in Chad and Niger, argues that there are many retired Haitians living in Africa who would relish the opportunity to come home. “Can we reverse this trend?” he says. “Yes, we can.”

Others say the university itself should play a more active role in promoting development, by training its students to work on the problems of developing nations. And while students still often see a college degree as a ticket out of Haiti, that may be changing in the wake of the protest movement, with many students?like Mr. Jean, whose activism helped bring about Mr. Aristide’s downfall?saying they hope to stay and help rebuild the country.

“As a poor university, it should be the catalyst for the transformation of society,” says Mr. Jean. He tugs on his khaki beret, excited at the thought. Even against such odds, he believes change is possible.

He has seen it happen before.