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A school’s and family’s story

/ 01:05 AM February 01, 2015

It’s amazing how much of an emotional connection can be made between students and a school.

Even years after leaving the campus and setting off on life and career trajectories often far from the life they knew when the world consisted of classrooms, the cafeteria and the playground, former students find themselves drawn, time and again, to their old stomping grounds. Maybe this explains why, invariably, posts on my Facebook news page consist of school and class reunions, with some of the participants dressed in replicas of their old uniforms and posed proudly in front of the school building.

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But if alumni feel that strongly for a place where they studied, learned, made friends and grew up, imagine how it is for other members of the community—faculty, personnel, and especially the administration. More so if that administration consists of family members of the school owners and founders, for whom running the school is not a mere family business but a legacy, a commitment to one’s forebears and descendants.

Imagine how it must feel, then, to be a Benitez these days. Family members dominate the board of directors of Philippine Women’s University, currently chaired by former Sen. Helena Benitez who recently turned 100 years old. The current university president is Dr. Jose Francisco Benitez, who was an academic with the University of Washington in Seattle and was a year away from attaining tenure when called home to Manila by the family to help set aright a crisis facing PWU.

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“Who can say no to Tita Helen?” the youthful-looking Dr. Benitez said with a shrug when asked why he ultimately left Seattle to take up the post of PWU president.

The story is far more complicated than it would seem for an outsider, and as media reports have it, involves not just an educational establishment but real estate and corporate interests as well, and the story of a family.

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PWU was founded in 1919 by seven women described as “prominent members of then Manila’s social elite”—Clara Aragon, Concepcion Aragon, Francisca Tirona Benitez, Paz Marquez Benitez, Carolina Ocampo Palma, Mercedes Rivera and Socorro Marquez Zaballero. Assisting the group was Jose Abad Santos, then a prominent lawyer, who drafted the university’s papers. Abad Santos would later be appointed the fifth chief justice of the Philippines and would be executed by the Japanese when he refused to cooperate with them. In his honor, PWU named its preschool and elementary branch, renowned for its pioneering approach to early childhood education, after him. The school is now known as Jose Abad Santos Memorial School, most commonly called JASMS.

From the beginning, the university (the school attained this status in 1932, 13 years after its founding) aimed to provide a “more Americanized” education for young Filipino women to enable them to take a more active part in nation-building. But it is a coeducational institution today.

Francisca Tirona Benitez served as university president for 45 years (her husband Conrado served as the founder and first dean of the University of the Philippines’ College of Business Administration) and through the years Benitez family members have served PWU in various capacities, including Conrado and Francisca’s daughter Helena. Indeed, when Lyca Benitez Brown, now director of the PWU ComArts Media Center, talked with her “Tita Helen” about its current difficulties, the former senator remarked: “When I go to heaven and meet my parents there, the first thing they will ask me is if I did all I could to save the university.”

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That is a question in the back of the minds of the Benitez family members sitting in PWU’s board.

Most recent news reports tell of a boardroom battle between the Benitezes and businessman Eusebio Tanco over control of PWU and Unlad, a property management company that would own the real estate assets of PWU since the university is a nonstock, nonprofit entity.

Though the dispute between the two parties has returned to the “status quo” prevailing before the dust-up, key issues remain to be resolved. At root is the resistance being raised by parents, the academic community, and the Benitezes over Tanco’s plan to convert the property along Edsa on which JASMS stands, into a mixed-use commercial and residential development, in partnership with Ayala Land.

Under the plan, JASMS’ once-sprawling property would be reduced to a multistory building surrounded by condominiums and a shopping center, which parents and alumni oppose.

Tanco sits in the board by virtue of a cash infusion which retired PWU’s debt with Banco de Oro and a promised investment to allow the university to upgrade its facilities and course offerings. He has also been given a free hand to manage PWU’s financial affairs, appointing the chief operating officer and finance director (who recently resigned).

Looking back, Dr. Benitez traced the beginnings of PWU’s financial quagmire to the 1990s when his father, Jolly, who was PWU president at that time, sought sources of “nontuition” revenue for the university. The loan he took out from BDO was to finance the redevelopment of the JASMS property and to purchase a lot in Cavite for the possible relocation of the school. But then the Asian financial crisis hit and PWU not only lost the purchased lot but also had to service a heavy debt burden.

Initially coming in to help save PWU—he also owns STI, an educational institution that began as an IT training facility—Tanco, it seems, has been drawn by PWU’s real estate holdings to propel himself into big-time property development. Nothing wrong with that, except when it interferes with PWU’s original mission: To provide quality education and build the next generation of nation-builders.

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TAGS: Ayala Land, Carolina Ocampo Palma, Clara Aragon, Concepcion Aragon, Conrado Benitez, Eusebio Tanco, Francisca Tirona Benitez, Helena Benitez, JASMS, Jolly Benitez, jose abad santos, Jose Abad Santos Memorial School, Jose Francisco Benitez, Lyca Benitez Brown, Mercedes Rivera, Paz Marquez Benitez, Philippine Women's University, Socorro Marquez Zaballero
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