Filipinos may strike their breast for their short memory and notorious ?ningas cogon? attitude, negative traits that hamper their efforts at unity and authentic nation-building; but they don?t have to look far for inspiring examples of visionary enterprise, sense of mission and commitment to it, along with resilience, tenacity, and sheer staying power. This week the University of Santo Tomas formally starts its year-long celebration of its 400th anniversary as Asia?s oldest university, and whether one is an alumnus or not, one must join in the thanksgiving for, as UST Rector Magnificus Fr. Rolando V. de la Rosa, O.P., put it, UST has indeed been a ?gift? to the Philippine nation.
It is a gift because for a people unsure about their national identity and bereft of institutions to reflect their worth and pride as a people, UST has been a paragon of institution-building. Older than the Philippine republic and practically the oldest institution in the country after the Roman Catholic Church, UST is the alma mater of the founders of the Philippine nation (Jose Burgos, Jose Rizal, Apolinario Mabini, Emilio Jacinto, Felipe Agoncillo and nearly all the framers of the Malolos Constitution) as well as of four presidents (Manuel L. Quezon, Sergio Osmeña, Jose P. Laurel and Diosdado Macapagal), and of patriots and nationalists (Claro M. Recto and Fernando Ma. Guerrero), several Supreme Court chief justices, jurists and lawmakers.
UST was founded by the intrepid Dominican order. The small seed that was to become UST was sown on the death-bed of the third archbishop of Manila, the Dominican friar Miguel de Benavides who, before dying in 1605, bequeathed his personal library and his meager personal fortune of 1,500 Spanish pesos for the establishment of a college-seminary for the training of priests. It was only five years later that his Dominican confreres were able to gather enough extra donors and start the college.
Starting as a school for the sacred sciences, UST later branched out to the civil disciplines so much so that today, UST sports proudly all of the superlative titles as far as age is concerned?oldest law school, oldest medical school, oldest school of pharmacy and of other health sciences, oldest journalism school.
Of course, it has become a cliché to call UST ?older than Harvard,? a tag invented not by the Dominicans but by the American governor-general, Cameron Forbes who wanted to measure every Spanish-bred institution in the Philippines based on Anglo-American yardsticks.
Some critics pigeonhole UST as a Spanish colonial relic that hasn?t kept up with the times. But even the Jesuit American historian John Schumacher has noted that the quality of education provided by UST in the Spanish period was comparable to that of Europe, else how could Rizal and the other Filipinos who continued their studies there have adjusted very well to the European curriculum? Else how could UST have given the Church the Dominican theologian Ceferino Gonzales, who became cardinal-archbishop of Toledo and primate of the Spanish church, and who became the adviser of Pope Leo XIII in the universal revival of Thomism in the late 19th century? Else how could UST have provided Europe the Dominican thinkers Norberto Prado and Francisco Marin Sola, who occupied one after the other the theology chair of the University of Fribourg and who became top theologians of the first half of the 20th century?
Moreover, while Harvard is heavily subsidized, UST is not. In fact, it has not historically received any subsidy?not from the Spanish monarchy or colonial establishment, not from the Americans, and not from the Philippine republic. Despite all this, UST is, according to the Professional Regulation Commission, the best performing private school in licensure exams and the biggest provider of Filipino professionals. Among private schools, too, it has the highest number of programs declared as Centers of Excellence and Centers of Development by the Commission on Higher Education.
Amid the vicissitudes of history, UST has forged on, with its overriding vision of Christian humanism and Thomist optimism, which looks at nature and everything as vehicles and bases of grace. But when one looks today at UST?s sprawling campus in Manila?with its classic earthquake-proof Main Building, its two hospitals, one of which is the biggest private charity hospital in the country, and its magnificent art-deco church?one comes into contact with a sight not Thomistic, but Augustinian: it is the vision of the City of God on earth. It is a vision that all Filipinos should aspire to.
Happy birthday, Uste!