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Ecuador’s ‘Silicon Valley of Latin America’ faces reality check from economic and political pressures

By Emiliano Rodríguez Mega

Paola Ayala knew it was a gamble to dial down her physics research at the University of Vienna in May 2015 and spend most of her time at Yachay Tech University, a nascent institution in rural northern Ecuador backed with an estimated $1 billion in government funding. But the allure of the grand experiment to create a world-class research university in the Andes was overpowering. Ayala, the first Ecuadorian woman to get a Ph.D. in physics, was eager to return home as the school’s new dean of physical sciences and nanotechnology. “I wanted to help change my country,” she says.

The Yachay Tech campus in Urcuquí.

Ayala’s run in Ecuador didn’t last long. Last month, Yachay Tech fired her and five other scientists in leadership positions, including Chancellor Catherine Rigsby, a geologist recruited from East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. Ecuador’s struggling economy may have played some role; the university in a June 22 statement said that the terminations were part of an austerity plan meant to trim $2 million in expenses. But the ousted academics say they are victims of shifting national priorities and a personality conflict with Yachay Tech’s new rector, the university’s top position.

The acrimonious dispute comes at what everybody involved agrees is a moment of truth for Yachay Tech. Ecuador’s former president, Rafael Correa, launched the institution in 2013 as part of a bid to transform the nation’s economy from one reliant on exports of oil and other commodities to one that generates its own innovations. The government began erecting a sprawling campus in Yachay, coined the “City of Knowledge,” three hours north of Quito, Ecuador’s capital, in Urcuquí, and the nascent venture wooed overseas faculty with competitive salaries.

At its launch, Correa boldly predicted that Yachay Tech and the City of Knowledge, would become Latin America’s Silicon Valley.

Since then, oil prices have plummeted and Ecuador’s new government, which came to power in May, does not appear to share Correa’s vision for Yachay, which means “knowledge” in kichwa, the local language. Tensions rose in recent months as Yachay Tech’s rector, Carlos Castillo-Chavez, derided the university’s overall research output. Faculty members pushed back, charging that administrators and Yachay EP, the public company that runs the university and surrounding science city, failed to live up to promises of support for their work. Laboratories are still works in progress, and scientists say they lack equipment and materials. Ayala and others accuse Castillo-Chavez of steering the institution away from its original concept of a research powerhouse and toward a more typical university that emphasizes teaching.

Yachay Tech Rector Carlos Castillo-Chavez

Castillo-Chavez, a prominent Mexico-born mathematical biologist who retains a position at Arizona State University in Tempe, expressed his disillusionment with Yachay Tech days after arriving on the campus last May. Despite “tremendous working conditions for the faculty,” he wrote in a June 4 email to Ayala and other senior scientists that Science obtained, he had found “limited productivity and almost zero efforts to bring [in] extramural funding.” Most of Yachay Tech’s professors are overpaid and would “not be hired at most research universities in the USA,” he asserted. “This is not the environment that I expected.”

Yachay Tech, he further wrote, must “embrace the national educational policies, which demand access, more students, reduced costs, and institutional collaboration.” In its statement on the firings, the university also noted plans to vastly boost enrollment, aiming to increase the student body fivefold, to 5,000, over the next four years.

“We went from feeling like we were at the top of the world to complete despair,” says Paul Baker, who was Yachay Tech’s dean of geological sciences until he was fired last month. (He has since returned to his previous institution, Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.) In a June 20 email to Castillo-Chavez, Ayala stated that she was “ready to tighten the budget.” And she challenged the rector to “be that person we were waiting for [for] months. The leader who can take care of the politics.”

But evidently the die had already been cast. On June 20, Yachay Tech dismissed Ayala, Baker, and four colleagues. In later media reports, Castillo-Chavez criticized the dismissed researchers for not teaching (Baker and others say they were never asked to teach) and for excessive travel. (They say Castillo-Chavez had approved their travel.) After Baker questioned the qualifications of his successor as dean, Castillo-Chavez emailed Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth what Baker saw as a threat to his visa. “We are in the process of reporting his behavior to the appropriate immigration authorities of Ecuador,” the rector wrote.

Castillo-Chavez did not respond to emails from Science, and a Yachay Tech spokesperson stated that the rector would not comment further. In a 27 June report in Ecuador’s El Telégrafo newspaper, Castillo-Chavez stated that to save money, junior professors at Yachay Tech would serve as temporary deans for one to three years. The austerity plan, he told El Telégrafo, would not include a reduction of his own Yachay Tech income — $18,126 per month, or triple former President Correa’s government salary in 2015 — because his “family needs” required his full salary. He is also continuing to work half time as a regents professor at Arizona State and co-directing the Simon A. Levin Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center, for which he is drawing a salary of $122,069 a year.

The turmoil at Yachay Tech has not subsided. On July 13, the department of human resources sent an email to employees spelling out how to tender their resignations if they wish to quit. “For me, all hope is lost. Academic freedom no longer exists at Yachay Tech,” one professor who asked to remain anonymous told Science. “Like many others, I am finding my fastest way to move on and leave this broken institution behind me.”

If Yachay Tech unravels, some fear that science in Ecuador will suffer a severe setback. “The way that we were treated was abhorrent, but all that is eclipsed by the missed opportunities of a whole country,” says Vladimiro Mujica, former dean of chemical sciences and engineering who was also fired last month and has relocated to Arizona State. “As an Ecuadorian myself, it makes me feel terrible,” says Ayala, who has returned to Vienna. “We will have to wait at least 100 years until someone else risks investing in a similar project, once people have forgotten about all of this mess,” she says.
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Emiliano Rodríguez Mega is a science journalist based in Mexico City.

22 thoughts on “Ecuador’s ‘Silicon Valley of Latin America’ faces reality check from economic and political pressures

  1. These people forgot that Ecuador is an agricultural based country, a research institute for increasing agricultural output would have made more sense…. While the demand for oil subsides there will always be a demand for food!

  2. I would love to read more about this unfolding story.

    I spent two months working at the new National University of Education, another of the four new universities President Correa inaugurated during his presidency. Ecuador needs such model universities – where faculty do internationally recognized research funded by external grants and train doctoral students to meet world class standards – to raise the aspirations and achievements of those at the other universities in the country. Many of these are very good –
    but they do not operate the way the top universities do in the rest of the world.

    My sense is that the normative expectations for Yachay were neither fully and effectively communicated throughout the faculties, nor backed up by appropriate levels of seed funding and research infrastructure to achieve these goals. My colleagues at UNAE who had visited Yachay reported that for whatever inevitable difficulties we may have experienced in getting up to speed, Yachay was ten times more troubled.

    As I read this article, my first sense is that Rector Castillo-Chavez should be dismissed immediately. A new dean should then slow down the admission rate and prepare the faculty remaining to regroup. While sending selected future leaders abroad for post doctoral training would be useful – if they remain in close touch and return frequently to give workshops and involve their faculty colleagues in research efforts – it would be more cost-effective to bring research leaders to Ecuador for short term appointments as faculty trainers.

    The worst possible solution would be to make these new universities “teaching institutions” – that is, to abandon the aim of creating research universities – because that would stand in the way of the goal – building up world-class research capabilities for Ecuador.

  3. Interesting article … would appreciate follow-up to this and the other universities. In his justification for his salaries, Castillo-Chavez becomes a target for scrutiny.

  4. “The austerity plan, he told El Telégrafo, would not include a
    reduction of his own Yachay Tech income — $18,126 per month because his
    “family needs” required his full salary. He is also continuing to work half time at
    Arizona State for which he is drawing a
    salary of $122,069 a year.”

    So Arizona State government pays this guy $10,172 a month to work half time for them and the Ecuadorian government pays him $18,126 per month to work in Ecuador half time. If he is worth 10K a month in the States half time then dosen’t that make him worth about 3K a month here for half time considering the difference in wages??? Ecuador is paying this guy $8,000 more a month then they needed to to hire him and six times more than they probably should be and that’s assuming Arizona State is not paying him more than he is worth.

    Its a good thing he and his family are able to keep earning the income of $28,298 a month becuase earning anything less than $339,576 a year would pose a real hardship to them. Its hard to imagine them even being able to put food on the table consideirng such meager pay works out to only $930 a day.

      1. The following may help to answer that question: Minimum wage is $375 a month (many Ecuadorians work under the table and earn a lot less than that but that’s another story for another day). Police officers make relativly huge incomes ranging from 3x minimum wage as a cops minimum entry level wage and going up to about 14x minimum wage for the highest ranking captains or whatever they are. Correas presidential salary, assuming this article is accurate was 16x the minimum wage. Since the presidency and police positions are full time jobs we have to double Castillo-Chavez’s salary for comparison purposes since he only works half time. Therefore he is effectively making 96x the minimum. If having a foriegner to blame for the failure of this billion dollar project is more valueble to Ecuador’s government that the work of 96 street cleaners then maybe he is earning his pay but after over a year nobody, not even Castillo-Chavez, claims he has achieved any results whatsoever.

        1. Clearly you don’t have a clue how markets determine the value of professionals in academics.

          Kobe Bryant was paid $25,000,000 in his last year of play. That’s essentially a part time job because the NBA season runs from October to May. By your reasoning, Bryant was earning >6,000 times what a street sweeper in Ecuador earns and as a jealous whiner about what other people are paid, I know you begrudge him what the market says he’s worth. In this regard, you are like every other statist that thinks you should be able to determine what every person should be paid instead of letting the market determine that.

          Fortunately, Correa, in spite of the fact that he was a statist as well, realized he would never attract top academic professionals by offering them berger approved salaries. In this one case, Correa was able to subordinate his ego to achieve the goal at hand——- building a world class research facility. Top administrators in other academic institutions earn FAR more than Castillo-Chavez earns.

          https://www.higheredjobs.com/salary/salaryDisplay.cfm?SurveyID=22

          http://www.kstatecollegian.com/2016/09/28/administrators-and-deans-earn-highest-salaries/

          1. I don’t agree with overspending when its taxpayer money; the billion dollars spent on this project was probably stolen from the I.E.S.S. I would be more than happy for him to make even more money if it were tied to real world results. Working only half time shows a complete lack of dedication on his part and on the part of the government. Some people are indeed worth a lot more than others but 96x the minimum wage with no results borders on theft. Your desperate attempt to try to justify this makes me wonder if you might be some washed out academic who thinks they should be paid large sums of money for their theoretical knowledge even though they could not fight their way out of a paper bag and have not produced anything of value.

            As a computer person I realize more than most how badly a project like this is needed but just throwing money at the problem does not work. This project is attracting people who want a cushy job due to high wages not people who really want to innovate or create anything. You can’t find the next Edison or Tesla by throwing money at people with a lot of letters after their name and no experience in the real world. Tesla, Edison, The
            Wright Brothers, etc., etc. ad nauseam were all able to create useful inventions of incalculable
            value without receiving 96x the starting pay of unskilled laborers or anywhere near it.

            After spending a Billion dollars on Ecuador’s version of Silicon Valley I still hear the words “No hay sistema” or their equivalent at least once a week. The last time was two days ago when a lady told me “se fue la sistema”.

            1. Berger whines this: ” Your desperate attempt to try to justify this makes me wonder if you might be some washed out academic who thinks they should be paid large sums of money for their theoretical knowledge even though they could not fight their way out of a paper bag and have not produced anything of
              value.”

              Interesting speculation from a pathetic person who knows absolutely nothing about me. It can be no more than a personal attack trying to bait me to descend to his level and defend myself over this ridiculous charge. I won’t take the bait.

              What I will do is debunk the substance of berger’s claim that Castillo-Chavez, the
              Director of The City of Knowledge is overpaid. Realizing that berger has the attention span of a canary, I will keep it simple for him and limit my references because I realize he is too ideologically in love with his already held beliefs to actually read the references. It is clear he didn’t read the references I provided that prove my point that Castillo-Chavez is actually modestly paid for the work he does. This time, I’ll give just one example to make this point and if berger
              continues to deflect, I will just ignore him in the future.

              Mary Beckerle serves as Huntsman
              Cancer Institute’s CEO and director. It is a position directly comparable to that held by Castillo-Chavez. In fact, the organization Castillo-Chavez oversees is slightly larger than the Huntsman Cancer
              Institute. Castillo-Chavez’s compensation is $217,512 per year. Dr.
              Beckerle’s compensation is $688,195 as just a professor at the University of Utah and an another $250,000 for her additional responsibilities with the Cancer Institute. Here is proof that I’m not just making that up:

              http://www.utahsright.com/salaries.php?city=all&query=Mary+Beckerle

              http://www.sltrib.com/home/5215605-155/huntsman-expects-feud-with-u-over

              “Vivian Lee, Beckerle’s former boss will retain a $1.025 million salary over the next year…”

              Proof here:

              http://www.sltrib.com/home/5258043-155/u-disputes-huntsman-says-school-doesnt

              CONCLUSIONS:

              1. Market forces determine the worth, thus the compensation of academic professionals.

              2. If Castillo-Chavez worked elsewhere, he could probably earn more than he does in his current position.

              3. Jealous people who feel they should be able to tell the market what the value of a mans compensation should be will never change reality.

              4. If Correa’s noble dream of making Yachay a World Class Institution is to come true, market rates of compensation will have to be paid to attract World Class administrators and scientists.

              5. Castillo-Chavez is modestly compensated for a man in his position based on what the market currently pays people of similar education and experience.

              6. Castillo-Chavez is fairly compensated

              1. 1. Market forces? Castillo-Chavez holds two government jobs. Governments have a tendancy to overpay since it is always other peoples’ money that they are spending.

                2. I wish you would read the original post before comenting. Castillo-Chavez does work somewhere else and no he does not make more than in Ecuador in fact he only makes 56% of what Ecuador’s government is willing to pay him.

                3. True but I am not jealous nor did I ever say what Castillo-Chavez should be paid. Again this is a government univeristy and what it chooses to pay him does not necesarily have anything to do with market rates or even what other government universities are willing to pay him; as you would know had you been paying attention.

                4. He is not a world class administrator. World class administrators don’t fire other people so they don’t have to take a salary cut. World class administrators work full time and are truly dedicated; they are’nt part time people who come in to make a quick buck and are ready to quit after a year of limited effort does not produce the results they desired. World class administrators take responsibility rather than blaming others.

                5. If by “market” you mean how much of other peoples’ money a government is willing to pay then he is overpaid here based on his $10,126 salary in Arizona.

                6. In point 5 you just said he was modestly compensated but now you are saying he is faily compensated which is it?

        2. The salary isn’t based on the minimum wage in Ecuador. It’s based on the peer wage in the international market, the amount necessary to entice qualified people to come here in the first place. Academia is a global marketplace, something a libertarian like yourself should appreciate. The most qualified Ecuadorians (I know several) are doing research in the US and Europe because they are thinking about the the long-term benefit to themselves and their family. The reason rich countries have all the best universities is because they pluck the best and brightest from the entire world through better salaries. Yachay is an attempt to create a top 100 university. As it stands now, there isn’t a single top 100 university anywhere in Latin America. Most of that comes down to how much they are willing to pay the top academics. It’s a long-term project, a generation if you want to be honest. You aren’t going to get there comparing the salaries to those of a laborer in any given country.

          1. Absolutely spot on by faulkner, but please, somebody PLEASE tell faulkner that berger IS NOT A LIBERTARIAN

          2. The reason I make such a big deal about how many times more than minimum wage a given job pays is so that expats have a clearer understanding of the relative value of that money.

            Is being $164,000 in debt a problem? That depends; if a person earns $10 an hour then yes but if it’s a country that is in debt $164,000 then no. Its ok to pay somebody 96x the minimum wage if they are worth it but it
            is important to understand the relative value of their wage not just the
            absolute value.

            I agree that fixing the education problem in Ecuador is a long term project. I also support Yachay as Correa originally presented it in his many speeches and ramblings that I saw on TV when he used to talk about creating a center for innovation.

            However there is nothing innovative about mindlessly throwing money at problems. Based on what I am seeing now it looks like the original idea has devolved into an elaborate facade, a billion dollar movie set designed primarily to impress people with very little substance or dedication behind it. As you learn more about the culture you’ll realize that in Ecuador it’s all about appearances.

            1. Saying money has been spent “mindlessly” from reading news stories only shows how easy it is to manipulate public opinion.

      1. Please read my comments to Michael Berger directly above. Castillo-Chavez is not over paid.

  5. This is one of the saddest stories I have read in a long time. In my opinion, the greatest thing Correa ever did for our country was to fund and develop education and the crown jewel of this was Yachay City of Knowledge. It was a bold and brave plan and I hope for the sake of the country that it doesn’t degenerate completely.

    In my decades in academic medical research I have seen similar things unfold at many institutions. When money dries up at any institution, the people that made those institutions great just pack their bags and go elsewhere.

    There is always a demand for brilliance and moving a man and his family is far easier than building a research lab and the institution to support it. Moreover, it is easier for the individual to move than to fight the politics and try to change things.

    I think that most readers unfamiliar with academic turf wars would be surprised to know how common these battles are. It seems that at the root of many of these situations, the drying up of funding is the catalyst for the wars to erupt. How sad for our country.

  6. I certainly agree with your take on location. Maybe Correa had a “Field of Dreams” take on that; “Build it and they will come…”

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