A good school needs the best and brightest teachers. But for the school to excel, it also needs good academic administrators.
There are often few takers for these posts; many of our search processes for administrators in UP will have only one candidate or, in one recent case, no candidates at all!
Professors beg off, because becoming an administrator means you have to give up, or at least reduce, teaching, research and consultancies—work that is far more enjoyable, and financially rewarding.
More than finances though, professors beg off from serving as administrators because they know how hard and thankless the job can be. Besides tending to academic affairs, you end up being an accountant, auditor, housekeeper, mediator. Throw in marriage counselor. I sometimes joke that you have to become a linguist as well, because you have to learn the jargon of the disciplines under your jurisdiction.
I was therefore elated two years ago when Perry Ong, one of our most outstanding faculty members and a respected scientist specializing in wildlife conservation and biodiversity, ran for the dean of our College of Science.
Because he was such a good scientist, Perry was in demand, with agencies actually going to him offering him grants. He seemed to have projects all throughout the Philippines; last week I was in Bohol, and people mentioned he had directed an environmental project in Maribojoc.
I did wonder if he might have too much on his plate, but knew that with so many research projects, surely he must be a good accountant, auditor, housekeeper… you get it.
Besides, Perry also had administrative experience as a previous director of the Institute of Biology, which includes eight institutes, two interdepartmental programs and two affiliated units.
I was right about my intuition. As dean, Perry had students’ welfare foremost in his mind, quick to find new needs, but also quick with solutions. For example, we’ve had 24/7 study centers for students during midterms and finals, and one time I challenged the deans to put up their own. He did that and went further, finding donors to give electric vehicles to shuttle the students.
Together with passion and commitment, that kind of proactive work ethic is so needed for a leader, more so in an academic institution. That was Perry, to the point of becoming obsessive at times. “Makulit” in Filipino, in its positive sense.
As an institute director in 2010, when his close friend and fellow biologist Leonard Co was killed “accidentally” by the military while doing fieldwork, Perry coordinated the wake and officiated at eulogies delivered across three days and three nights, speaking occasionally about their visions of serving people through science.
Perry was a visionary, always quick to come up with acronyms to explain his thoughts, such as how people could work together “to change MAPs—mindsets, attitudes and practices—and bridge GAPs (goals, aspirations, passions).”
He spoke plainly, “translating” science for lay people and for the man and woman on the street. He loved words, picking up newly minted ones like “coopetition,” a combination of cooperation and competition, which he said was particularly important in academic environments. Educators and researchers can be very individualistic, competing with each other, but ultimately, Perry believed, you also needed to cooperate.
The concept seems to have first been used in the business world, where competitors help each for mutual benefit. Although the term comes from business, I am sure Perry thought more about it in terms of biology and nature, where species do indeed use coopetition all the time, benefiting not only each other but their natural habitat.
When he ran for dean, his clarion call was BLISS Philippines: Building the Leading Institution in Science in the Service of the Philippines.
At his affirmation ceremony as dean, he announced he had appointed associate deans with titles that reflected his vision of a journey. He had an associate dean for Mentoring, Academic Programs and Advancement (Mapa); Facilities and Resource Management (FARM); Research, Innovation, Development and Enterprise (RIDE); and, finally, Student, Alumni and Public Affairs (Sapa).
He said: “Ngayon puwede na tayong mag-ride ng sapa at sundan ang mapa papunta sa farm (Now we can ride along the creeks [we have a lot of them in UP Diliman], guided by our map, to the farm).”
Yes, yes, a bit of a stretch, but the acronyms were memorable, and you have to give Perry credit for reinventing the roles of associate deans beyond drab traditional titles.
There’s much more to remember about Perry, who left us on March 2, aged 58.
During our last executive committee meeting a few days after his death, I asked my colleagues for a few moments of silence to remember him, but cut it short: “Perry would have been uncomfortable with us being quiet for so long.”
I could almost hear him laughing.
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