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A chancellor body and soul

If we are afraid to embrace the world radically, provide practical solutions to the problems that face society, and wrestle with the political and moral dilemmas of our day, how can we keep the university whole and fully alive? The search for the new leadership of the University of the Philippines in Manila, Los Baños and the Visayas is drawing to a close, and we must, therefore, be on guard.

In choosing a chancellor, do we scroll down a checklist of individual achievements, tick our boxes and go, or do we rather formulate equations after which, factoring in one individual’s education, experience and vision, random and variable criteria transmute into qualities that we can prize in so far as they contribute to the collective effort of the academic community in achieving wider ends?

I have been tasked to chair the search process at UP Visayas, and I think the aim and the spirit of a search is to discover the unique points in which the ability of each aspirant no less than the potential of the university converge to break pathways for new scientific discoveries and expand the mind of society.

But unlike the logical certainty to which a mathematical equation lends itself, our process moves around human glimmerings over the history of the university and the signs of the times. What may some of these be?

The first consideration, I believe, is to understand the office of reading, writing and thinking without which education becomes fancy. These are the elemental exercises of every discipline and they require an ecosystem in which spaces are open, transparent and interlocked seamlessly. In the same way that we are able to muse freely, we must be able to walk safely, securely, and yet remain in wonder and awe of creation from the places of our study and reflection.

The new chancellor must have a sensibility to creating spaces. He or she must be able to understand that if intellectual debate is to flourish, form and substance are two sides of the same coin. This naturally springs from an understanding of the principles of dialogue, the love of equality, and a sense of appreciation that any issue comes into focus only when light is thrown not just from any angle. The chancellor must be wise in generating resources and using them to build as well as to restore edifices from an ethos that connects to the environment and the physical universe.

Imagine the classrooms, the halls, the courtyards and the playing fields, the laboratories and the theaters where we experiment with science and art: Are they equipped to meet the needs of knowledge exchange and innovation in the digital age, and do our students and researchers have ready and equitable access to them?

The second is the ability to see, feel and nurture the gift of genius that brings life to scholarship and pushes knowledge across and above disciplinary frontiers. The university is a creative workforce and therefore thrives on mobility and dynamic interaction. A robust analysis of the mechanisms that promote and measure the quality of work bridging university research to the world and back is long overdue. The university is in society and decay sets in when the terms of engagement are taken for granted.

This means that we must have fresh incentives to enable more faculty members to collaborate not only between departments and divisions and across colleges and campuses but also with government agencies, emerging industries and other institutions of higher learning. More importantly, however, these networks can only find greater strength and inspiration in an undivided house where, in the words of our serving chancellor, the leader must hold the family together like “a father or a mother,” and, I believe, exude the warmth and honesty we seek in his or her company.

Finally, a chancellor must be exemplary in his or her commitment to virtue, which, Hannah Arendt recalls for us, is twofold: Following Montesquieu and before him the Greeks, it is a promise to excellence—“to always strive to do your best and to be the best of all”—and following Machiavelli, it is an exercise of freedom—“the excellence with which man answers the opportunities the world opens up before him in the guise of fortuna.” To my mind, there is no substitute for this ideal of principled action because it is only via this media that the highest office of the university can lead toward a certain purpose.

UP first opened its doors in Iloilo in 1947, pioneering in the country what was then called an integrated curriculum, covering and balancing the principal fields of the humanities and the social and natural sciences. When intimations to grant its autonomy began, the consensus was to complement UP Los Baños in addressing comprehensively national food security not only from land but this time also from the sea.

I think that our new chancellor must hence always remember that our eight constituent units in Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao form one body. If one fails, we lose a limb. On the other hand, the country and UP embody one soul: It is the Filipino people and their dreams to be educated, prosperous and free. Into the hands of the future chancellor, we commend more than our name.

Dr. Kevin H.R. Villanueva is UP associate professor in international politics. He has been appointed by UP president Danilo Concepcion as chair of the 2017 search committee for the new UP Visayas chancellor. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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