Passion For Reason

Institutional vs individual academic freedom

A Jewish rabbi asked why “bad things happen to good people,” and wrote a book to help him find the answer (Harold Kushner, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”). Filipinos can likewise ask why a bad thing happened to Jesse Robredo, a good man and outstanding public servant, but we can find our peace best in remembering him by embracing the many causes and reforms he dreamt for our nation.

If there is any consolation, it is that, unlike the prophet recognized save in his own country, Robredo was honored even in life and received genuine accolades in the course of his political career, e.g., most prominently, the Ramon Magsaysay Award and, most endearingly, the repeated mandate of the people of Naga, their sustained confidence and, we now see, their warm affection. To paraphrase the Bard, we are assured that “the good [that he has done is] not interred with his bones.”


If there is any wonderment, it is that, three years already into his tenure at the helm of the Department of the Interior and Local Government, he had not been confirmed as its chief by the Commission on Appointments. In other words, if a coterie of politicians can hold hostage the appointment of a ranking Cabinet secretary of no mean credentials like Robredo, there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we do things. It is not as if they were sitting on the appointment of an upstart with nothing to show but political connections. It is not as if they were dealing with a career bureaucrat who hadn’t survived the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics. The 1987 Constitution subjected our high government officers to congressional confirmation. It was supposed to serve as a democratic check on presidential appointees but it has evolved as a mere arena for horse-trading among “trapos.”

Indeed, we so easily forget that in 2009 when the presidential derby was just shaping up, Robredo’s name came up as one possible “presidentiable.” I wrote, under the title “Desperately seeking the non-trapo,” that in order to escape the “old game of musical chairs among traditional politicians,” some groups have listed “alternative” politicians, among them Robredo, who combine the idealist’s tenacity to dream and the politician’s sense of what is possible.


The universal outpouring of praise and the high state honors for the late Jesse Robredo should warm the hearts of the family he left behind but, for his wife and children, that is no substitute for the sound of his voice and the joy of his presence. To them I send condolences, and wish them fortitude in this season of grief.

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The bishops have thrown the gauntlet at the Ateneo de Manila professors who have signed a statement in support of reproductive rights. The bishops direct their challenge to schools, warning that they can “strip a school of its affiliation with the Church” if they “teach anything contrary to the official teaching of the Church.”

The Ateneo president replied that the university does not support the passage of the Reproductive Health bill and that it differs with the 192 faculty signatories of the pro-RH statement. Ateneo’s carefully worded statement concluded by “ask[ing] all those who are engaged in the Christian formation of our students to ensure that the Catholic position on this matter continues to be taught in our classes, as we have always done.”

The website of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines mentions one example of a school that had been recently penalized—the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru—because some of its policies were “not compatible with the discipline and morals of the Church.” Perhaps it should have also mentioned that the Georgetown University law school has a fellowship that funds students who intern with the litigation office of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and whose faculty and students have served as prochoice advocates.

I have long warned about the dark side of academic freedom. We generally try to insulate our universities from outside pressure coming from the government agencies. But that merely shows one side of the equation—that is, “institutional academic freedom” enjoyed by all schools of higher learning.

In the situation before us, the bishops pose no threat to the institutional freedom of Ateneo. The bishops are not part of the state, and the worst they can threaten is to withhold a school’s bona fides as a Catholic institution. That threat works only with schools for whom that certification matters. (Contrast that to this: Imagine that the CBCP makes that same threat to the University of the Philippines.) In other words, both the threat and the response are internal to a religion, left to its own believers to work out among themselves.


The real problem is when the school, acting on that religious belief, curtails the other aspect of academic freedom—namely, the individual freedom of its faculty members to speak on matters within their area of expertise and authority. If any disciplinary action is taken against faculty members who speak their minds and the school tries to immunize that decision from outside review, then we have a clash between the institutional academic freedom of the school (saying it is entitled to define its own institutional mission) and the individual academic freedom of its faculty (who are entitled to the mantle of constitutional protection when they speak as scholars).

A Facebook post, apparently from someone within the Loyola campus, said that the stance of Ateneo shows that it is more a Catholic and less a true university. Therein lies the irony here. The Constitution protects academic freedom only for schools of “higher learning.” One earns that protection only by acting like a true university. Let us support the brave 192 signatories.

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TAGS: academic freedom, ATENEO, commission on appointments, Good Governance, jesse robredo, politics, Raul C. Pangalangan, Reproductive Health Bill
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