Leadership and presence (1) | Inquirer Opinion
Gray Matters

Leadership and presence (1)

When former president Emmanuel V. Soriano passed away last April 22, I found myself grieving, in the sense of missing a close friend. The grief lingers even today.

Yet the strange thing is that our paths had not crossed in a major way. In the years he was president, from 1979 to 1981, I had already graduated from University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman and was doing my master’s in the United States. During the years I taught at UP, which extends to this day, and some 20 years as an administrator, including as UP Diliman’s chancellor for six years, we never had official meetings or consultations together.


About two weeks ago, I told myself I’d pay homage to him through my column because I felt he was one of our—not just UP’s but the nation’s—greatest leaders.

My problem was that I realized I knew very little about his official life. I vaguely knew of some of his accomplishments, mainly when older faculty and staff would cite his memos to guide us with some important decisions. In academic jargon, you could say his administrative documents were canonical, a term taken from the Catholic and Protestant churches that spell out procedures, rules, and laws.


Then I thought of Rosario “Chari” Lucero, who has been laboring on “A History of the University of the Philippines,” many of the chapters written by her while providing research and editorial work for contributions from other stellar writers.

The chapters in history are divided according to UP’s presidents. The first two volumes have been released, available from UP Press (including through Shopee) but the finished volumes only reach 1975. The chapter on Soriano will be in the third volume, which is almost ready for publication.

I emailed Chari asking her if she would allow me a sneak preview of that chapter and she graciously said yes right away. I was startled when I got the emailed copy because the chapter was all of 123 pages but it was a riveting read, appropriate for a man who accomplished so much.

I learned Soriano was executive vice president to the previous president, OD Corpuz, which made him “little president,” so it was not surprising he accomplished so much for UP, by way of new infrastructure and establishing new units. There was UP Iloilo, UP Davao (which became UP Mindanao), and the School of Health Sciences (formerly Institute of Health Sciences), a stepladder program that allows barangay-nominated scholars to study medicine by “installments,” picking up a certificate in community health work, a BS in Nursing, and finally a Doctor of Medicine degree, with service leaves in between to work in their communities.

From his early days as UP president, Soriano made himself highly visible. Chari Lucero writes: “He sat down with small groups of faculty, students, and staff to discuss policies and grievances; made house calls on as many colleges and units as he could reach; and traveled to the regions to converse with alumni.

“A month after his oath-taking, he would initiate weekly meetings with groups of about twenty members of faculty and staff for hour-long, freewheeling conversations that he called the Coffee Hour. In these get-togethers, Soriano would learn firsthand from the participants what their needs were so that he could design the university’s plans, policies, and programs to meet these needs. His staff drew up the weekly list of 20 guests from the rolls of the academic and administrative personnel, the priority being the units that had heretofore been least represented at central administration.

“The rhythm of the Coffee Hour having been established in a month, Soriano next turned his attention to the campus residents, starting with Pook Diego Silang (Area 1) …”


At the time of Soriano’s passing, UP was caught in the turbulence that came after the Board of Regents’ appointments for a new UP president and UP Diliman chancellor. I’ve heard debates going back and forth about the ideal president and chancellor, emphasizing advanced academic degrees and experience as administrators, even militancy, but I have not heard references to the importance of academic leaders being able to listen, and to be in touch, to be present, on the ground, with people and with communities.

More next week on how President Soriano established this vital presence in UP.


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