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Running a university

/ 04:40 AM November 15, 2019

Some of my friends were teasing me about the University of the Philippines-University of Santo Tomas playoffs in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines as “Church vs State.”

The “State” lost, as you already know.

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But you’d be surprised to know there’s much Church-State interaction in the way a university is run—or, to use the fancier term, in its governance.

From newspaper reports, and two ANC “Headstart” interviews with Karen Davila, you may be aware of the tensions right now over the recent appointments of deans in UP Diliman, which, together with other faculty, I have been protesting because the processes run counter to what is prescribed by administrative documents, previous Board of Regents resolutions and, finally, no less than a law, the UP Charter of 2008, where a provision states that “the Dean shall be elected by the Board upon nomination of the President of the University and recommendation of the Chancellor of the constituent university, following a process of consultation with the constituents of the college based on standards and guidelines set by the Board.”

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Regents behind what we feel are political appointments have said they did not violate any rule, that the law only says who nominates and who recommends but that, ultimately, the regents have the power to choose who they want.

That argument is such a convenient misreading of the Charter, throwing out all the processes that are mentioned in the UP Charter.

This is not a battle between the UP Board of Regents and UP Diliman, or between that Board and myself. This is a matter of maintaining standards for higher learning, and I am pleased to say there are good men (and one woman) among the regents who are in solidarity with the academic community on how we should run a university.

The search processes in UP took years to develop. Before 1976, the Board of Regents and the UP president were the only ones who had the power to select and appoint our academic leaders. Then we had forward-looking presidents, from Onofre Corpuz onward to Emerlinda Roman, who each introduced changes to produce the system we have today, emphasizing consultation and collegiality, and asserting the primacy of academic qualifications.

UP can be proud of having these processes, perhaps the most participatory and democratic among universities in the country. In Diliman, these processes are used to select 81 department chairs and institute directors, as well as 18 deans who form the bulk of the Executive Committee.

Governance, especially in a university, cannot be reduced to the exercise of power over people. Governance is people coming together to make decisions based on shared values and norms, some more participatory than others.

This does not mean agreement on all matters. In the last year, there were cases where the Board of Regents chose candidates not recommended by UP Diliman, but we accepted them anyway because the newly appointed deans were at least academically qualified. It’s a different matter when academic qualifications are shunted aside. We are, after all—and I wonder why we have to remind people about this—a university.

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Governance is difficult because different institutions have different needs; yet you’d be surprised at how much common ground there is between “Church” and “State” when it comes to university governance.

I was asked, amid the current turmoil, what I thought of choosing deans using the Catholic Church’s system of a conclave of cardinals choosing the Pope. Sure, I said, smiling, then make its members take vows of poverty, obedience and chastity.

Now I wouldn’t mind learning from the synodal processes of the Catholic Church, where each bishop is, in principle, independent of the other. Our deans in UP are somewhat similar, coming together monthly for meetings (like a synod) as peers to make important academic and administrative decisions, and respecting each other’s autonomy.

More than this synodal principle, secular UP follows the tradition of European universities set up by the Catholic Church starting in the 12th century. Significantly, the first one, the University of Bologna, was established with an assurance that all “traveling scholars” would be assured safe passage, a principle expanded to the idea of academic freedom, where a university is a safe place for scholars to pursue knowledge and teaching, protected from interference by politicians as well as by religious leaders, who were then very powerful.

Governance boils down to processes guided by principles and values. At UP, we want academically and administratively competent deans. In addition, from search committees, I have learned that our faculty and students want deans with integrity, a caring heart, a passion for teaching and research. I fear we stand the risk now of losing on those “utak” and “puso” qualities we seek for our leaders.

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