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Jaime Benítez Rexach
Jaime Benítez Rexach

Jaime Benítez Rexach (October 29, 1908 – May 30, 2001) was a Puerto Rican author, academic and politician. He was the longest serving chancellor and the first president of the University of Puerto Rico.

Early life

Jaime Benítez Rexach was born on Vieques, a small island about twenty miles off the shore of mainland Puerto Rico, to Luis Benítez and Candida Rexach. Among his ancestors were the noted Puerto Rican poets María Bibiana Benítez, Alejandrina Benítez de Gautier, and José Gautier Benítez.[1] The original name on his birth certificate reads "Jaime Jacinto". His mother died when he was seven years old, and his father died a year later. It fell to his older sister, who lived in San Juan, to raise him and his siblings. Benítez attended local public schools. In 1926 he left the island to attend Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he received an LL.B. degree in 1930 and an LL.M. in 1931. That same year he passed the District of Columbia bar examination and returned to Puerto Rico. He earned an M.A. at the University of Chicago in 1938.[1]


In 1931 Benítez began a career in education at the University of Puerto Rico that spanned four decades: he was associate professor of social and political sciences (1931–1942), chancellor of its main campus in Río Piedras (1942–1966). In 1948, during his tenure as chancellor, the university's pro-independence student body invited nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos to the Río Piedras campus as a guest speaker. Benítez did not permit Albizu access to the campus. As a result, the students protested and went on strike. The university was temporarily shut down and the leaders of the strike expelled from the university.[2] As chancellor, Benítez also attracted many distinguished scholars and artists who had left Spain after its civil war, including Nobel Prize-winning poet Juan Ramón Jiménez and Catalan cellist Pablo Casals. In 1966, Benítez became the first president of the University, position in which he served until 1971. When Benítez began teaching, the university had five thousand students; by the time he left, the number of students at the university increased to forty thousand under his leadership.[1]

Benítez published numerous articles, essays, and books. He was the author of a number of books that concern the university system, including Junto a la Torre—Jornadas de un programa universitario (1963); Ética y estilo de la universidad (1964); La universidad del futuro (1964); and Sobre el futuro cultural y político de Puerto Rico (1965). From 1956 to 1971 he was the director and a contributor to La Torre, the University of Puerto Rico literary review. He maintained an active role in numerous national and international organizations: he was a member of the United States National Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) from 1948 to 1954, and attended the UNESCO conventions in Paris, France (1950) and Havana, Cuba (1952); he was a member of the Constitutional Convention of Puerto Rico, for which he was drafted while attending an UNESCO meeting, and the chairman of the Drafting Committee on the Bill of Rights from 1951–52.[3] In 1956, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[4] He served as president of the National Association of State Universities from 1957–58.

A close associate of the political leader Luis Muñoz Marín, who became Puerto Rico's first elected governor in 1949 and helped achieve a locally drafted Constitution in 1952, Benítez was part of the Constitutional Convention and collaborated in the drafting of the Bill of Human Rights included in the new Constitution, which recognized citizens' social and economic rights as well as their human rights, as well as the initial draft of the Constitution's Preamble. The two fell out in 1957, however, when Muñoz declared his "loss of confidence" in Benítez and accused him of using his university position to build a rival political movement to his own Popular Democratic Party, or PDP. Benítez won a vote of confidence in the Council on Higher Education by one vote. They were publicly reconciled before the 1960 elections, although the relationship remained rocky throughout the 1960s.[1]

In 1966, the university statutes were changed again to permit greater political activity on the campus and Benítez was effectively kicked upstairs to the new and less powerful post of university president, which he gave up in 1971 due to political pressures under the first non-PDP administration since the 1930s.

In 1972, he was elected Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico for a four-year term. In the U.S. House of Representatives he was assigned to the Committee on Education and Labor, an important committee assignment for a man who cared deeply about education and who had an interest in social and labor conditions in Puerto Rico. In the 94th Congress, Benítez introduced legislation to extend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to Puerto Rico. He showed interest in the affairs of U.S. territories, sponsoring legislation to allow American Samoa to elect a governor and lieutenant governor, and supporting the authorization of a loan to the Virgin Islands Government.[3]

While in Congress he was a strong advocate of the current status of Puerto Rico, which he felt was preferable to statehood or independence. A bill to enhance Puerto Rico's relationship with the U.S., HR 11,200, died in committee. After an unsuccessful reelection bid, Benítez returned to Puerto Rico. He taught at the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico (IAU) from 1980 to 1986. He was a professor of government at the American College in Bayamón, Puerto Rico.[3]

On September 8, 2008, the IAU unveiled the publication of a biography of Benítez, edited by former San Juan mayor Héctor Luis Acevedo, at a ceremony hosted by Senate of Puerto Rico president Kenneth McClintock at the Puerto Rico Capitol Building, with Benítez's daughter, Margarita Benítez, in attendance. The activity was followed by the opening of an exhibition of photographs of Benítez, open to all Capitol visitors.


He died on May 30, 2001. He was survived by his wife, the former Lulu Martínez; two daughters, Clotilde and Margarita, and a son, Jaime. Jaime Benítez Rexach was interred at Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery in San Juan, Puerto Rico.[5]

See also

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