But perhaps no symbol of Rio's decline is more troubling and emotional for Rio residents than the recent closure of UERJ, the State University of Rio de Janeiro, a beacon of educational mobility for Brazil as well as a major employer and provider of social services for Rio.
On July 31, an official announcement was made that the university's 30,000 students need not show up to class that day: in fact, they could clear their calendars for the whole year because class has been canceled for an indeterminate amount of time. According to the statement, there is simply not enough money to keep the university open, and the situation has reached an “insupportable level.”
In truth, the university has been limping along for some time now. For many people linked to UERJ, the school's closure did not come as a complete surprise. “Nobody is happy with the decision to cancel the school year,” UERJ professor of politics Maurício Santoro said, “but there is a general feeling that it is a necessary decision because there is no other way to go on.”
As Santoro pointed out, the state of Rio de Janeiro is facing “the worst financial crisis of its history.” The university was already bailed out once last year, by the federal government on the eve of the Olympics. But the bailout was a “bandage, not a fix,” Santoro said. This year, a strike over late pay derailed the academic calendar, and now the university hasn't paid its professors in four months. The now-canceled semester that was supposed to start this month was originally scheduled for March.
Yet even as the state’s flagship university is in dire straits, Rio’s governor offered up a million-dollar contract last week for a six-seat private jet, fueling anger among those whose lives have been upturned by UERJ's closure.
Leandro Pimentel, a professor of photography at UERJ, notes the situation began deteriorating a year ago, when the state was late on paying the salaries of the janitorial staff, and then the professors. Despite not receiving his salary, Pimentel continued teaching under increasingly difficult conditions.
“I was in a situation where the projector wouldn't work so I'd have to move to another room, but the lights wouldn't work there so we'd move to another,” he recalled. “It ended up being an improvised kind of thing, which is not how it should be.”
Pimentel earns a side income via consulting work, which keeps him afloat for the time being. But many professors ended up in more dire straits, missing rent payments or worse.
Images of esteemed professors with sterling résumés standing at Rio traffic intersections begging for money went viral on Brazilian social media. Advertisements in the city's paper promoted donation events where citizens could donate canned goods to unpaid professors. “I ended up feeling ridiculous complaining about not having a projector when other professors were having to ask for food donations,” Pimentel said. “My minimum expectations became a luxury.”
Beatriz Serapião Lucchetti, a sociology graduate student at UERJ, said “the last salary I got was in May.” Rio's financial problems also mean Lucchetti is not receiving her salary from her job with the state’s Culture Secretariat.
“My job is dependent on my finishing this course,” she said. “And now with the job market as it is during this economic crisis, the whole situation becomes really difficult, almost impossible.” She said she plans to move back in with her family in the Rio suburb of Niterói and try to study from home.
But many of UERJ's students are not as lucky as Lucchetti. UERJ has the reputation for being not only one of the best universities in the country, but also the school that has done the most to address educational inequality in Rio. It was the first Brazilian institution to establish quotas for students from different ethnic backgrounds, a system that transformed the country’s education system.
“A huge amount of students at UERJ are here thanks to scholarships,” Pimentel said. For that reason, the university's closure is deeply symbolic for the city and its population. Pimentel said when many scholarship students stopped receiving funds because of the fiscal crisis, some professors went on strike, refusing to teach if it meant only teaching to the students who could afford to be there.
The closure does not only affect professors and students. UERJ’s heavily-used hospital is located in one of Rio's most populous and needy areas.
For Lucchetti and others, the future is now a waiting game. Maybe the school will open in January, she said. Maybe some state money will reappear, but maybe not. In conversations about UERJ with professors and researchers and students these days, the refrain rings the same: “não tem previsão” — “There is no forecast.”