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Second Opinion

Anatomy of an award

/ 05:26 AM January 25, 2018

The outrage over Mocha Uson being given a “government service” award by the University of Santo Tomas Alumni Association is to be expected, considering how she has become the bête noire of many disaffected Filipinos — a symbol of what’s wrong in the government. UST’s Central Student Council said it best: A “purveyor of politically motivated propaganda” and an “avid spreader and citer of fake news” does not “embody the ideals of a real Thomasian.”

In response, the alumni association downplayed the award’s significance, saying — to the chagrin of other awardees — that it was more of a “recognition” than an award. UST itself has distanced itself from it, and some of its alumni returned their own awards in protest. In the end, Uson returned the award, lamenting the “bullying” she has received.

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This episode is certainly noteworthy in its own right, but it is actually just one of many instances in which an academic institution — or a related entity — bestowed an honor on a then- or now-controversial figure. Jinggoy Estrada, for instance, received a similar “good governance” award from the University of the Philippines Alumni Association in 2013. Beyond the country, we have many other examples, like Aung San Suu Kyi receiving the “Freedom of Oxford” in 1997; the award would be rescinded 20 years later.

Aside from giving awards, universities can also honor individuals by naming a building (or even an entire institution) after them — and this too, can be a source of controversy. When the name of UP Diliman’s College of Business Administration was changed to Cesar E.A. Virata School of Business in 2013, many objected to a UP college being named after the dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ erstwhile prime minister and long-time finance minister, his contributions to the college notwithstanding.

Finally, universities can also confer honorary doctorates — and once again, these awards can precipitate acrimonious debate, or at least raise eyebrows. Manny Pacquiao is actually an honorary doctor of humanities — a title given him by Cebu’s Southwestern University in 2009. Surely one has to wonder how someone who quotes the Bible to defend extrajudicial killings can receive such a lofty distinction, but his doctorate nonetheless became the basis of his being given the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Philippine Army’s reserve force.

President Duterte himself was on the verge of being made an honorary doctor of laws by UP just last year, but the plan, apparently approved by the Board of Regents, caused an uproar, and in any case the President declined the award. Some defended it as a customary honor for Philippine presidents — both Macoy and P-Noy were previous recipients — but the students would have none of it, calling the prospective awardee “unworthy of any distinction.”

How do we make sense of such awards and their significance? Using the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, we can think of them as a form of “academic capital” that awardees can use to boost their status or legitimize their positions. We saw this in action when Harry Roque trumpeted Uson’s award, saying it “validates that her appointment was for good reasons.”

Meanwhile, for the award-giving institutions, academic capital can be exchanged for political capital (i.e., closer relationships with people in power), financial capital (i.e., getting a donation or higher budget), or even just symbolic capital (i.e., prestige of being associated with a famous person). Thus it would not be hard to imagine a scenario in which a Catholic institution gives an award to a senator who is a staunch opponent of the Reproductive Health Law, a state college naming a building after the mayor who lobbied for it, or a university conferring a doctorate on a celebrity commencement speaker.

Of course, universities also risk losing social capital — that is, the support and goodwill of their communities and the public at large — if they or their affiliates award someone deemed unworthy or undeserving. Because they, too, are holders of their alma mater’s academic capital, alumni and students have a special interest in fighting for their school’s good name.

Hence the outrage in an episode which I hope would end with lessons learned, not just by those involved, but also by all academic institutions.

Comments to gideon.lasco@gmail.com

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TAGS: academic awards, Gideon Lasco, Mocha Uson, Second Opinion, Thomasian Alumni Award, USTAAI
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