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Teaching compassion

I RARELY accept overseas invitations but just could not turn this one down, for the 5th Asian Universities Forum organized by Seoul National University and held last week.  The reason was its theme: “Educating Future Leaders with Compassion and Social Responsibility.”

“Social responsibility” is a term that has come into vogue in many disciplines, but “compassion” is much less discussed, except maybe in abstract terms as part of a study of religions, especially Buddhism. And the idea of compassion as part of a university education is almost radical, and for it to be the theme of a meeting of presidents, chancellors and rectors almost unthinkable.  Even more striking was, all the universities at the Seoul meeting were secular and state-run.

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The meeting reflects growing recognition of the need for compassion for its being as important as technical knowledge and competence in developing future leaders at home and in the world.

A few days after returning from that meeting, I got a complaint from a parent about she and her son being bullied and insulted by a former faculty at our university. This was not the first complaint of that kind that I had received but, coming right after the Seoul meeting on compassion, it got me thinking of some of the issues raised among the university officials.

We pride ourselves in universities with strict admissions.  In UP we repeat statistics like mantras of admission rates: one out of six applicants make it into UP.  We tell them you are not just bright, but brighter. (Some in UP will go further and say brightest among the bright, but I worry about the boasting bringing usog, a folk illness, to our students.)

Redefining excellence

But my years as an administrator convince me that all that intelligence, all that talent, becomes empty when it is not accompanied by compassion.  Just this morning, as I was beginning to write a column about a totally different topic, I got an e-mail from a mother lamenting how she and her son had been bullied and insulted by a retired university faculty.  I helped her to solve her son’s problem, but kept thinking about compassion, or its lack thereof.

Outright meanness and maliciousness are serious problems, and there I try to understand where people are coming from: family problems, work pressure, even perhaps personality disorders.  But I worry as well about how the strong competitiveness in academic environments can erode compassion.

In Seoul, I talked about how obsessed we have become with international university rankings, based on such metrics as numbers of publications produced by the faculty, number of international faculty, number of international students, even internet bandwidth and this vague thing called reputation.

I asked if perhaps we need additional metrics for excellence.  In particular I proposed looking at indicators of inclusive development, measured by changes in the percentage of students who come from underprivileged classes or sectors (for example, indigenous peoples, people with disabilities), the types of scholarships and financial assistance offered to them, even if we want to play the international enrollment game, the number of students who come from countries poorer than us.

Less quantifiable would be the support programs we have to help students overcome economic, social and physical handicaps, from special facilities to tutorial programs.

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Compassion is a difficult word to define, with cultural variations. It is a cardinal Judeo-Christian value, sometimes equated with charity. But I look at compassion from a Filipino lens and the word “pagmamalasakit” as one that involves solidarity in facing and overcoming hardship. In Buddhist contexts, compassion is associated with wisdom, the ability to help others but going beyond pity. It comes close to the Latin roots of a communal effort, toward a passionate commitment.

I was struck by the presentation of Pipop Udorn, vice rector for academic affairs of Thammasat University—one of the three best universities (the other two being Chulalongkorn and Mahidol) in Thailand—which has entrance exams that do not just emphasize academics but also such domains as “modern world literacy,” logical and critical thinking, commitment to democracy and justice, and communication skills. Once a student is admitted to Thammasat, there are ways to have him continue with “self-development.”

I thought of how their program reflects Thammasat’s own commitment to compassion, as well becoming a venue for students to develop compassion and other soft skills that will make them leaders.

Engaging the world

Compassion’s contribution to leadership may sound lofty but it’s really very practical.  You cannot have leaders who don’t even know there is a world outside of the campus, or home.  Professor Pipop flashed a cartoon showing a young person in front of a computer screen that read “Facebook.”  At the door were people staring in and the caption read, “I am trying to add more friends.”  A second cartoon had the same picture with the caption, “I am trying to add more friends.”

Compassion does not end with awareness. There has to be the willingness to engage that world, to empathize. Later today, I attended a university awarding ceremony, a new one we just created this year, recognizing excellence in extension services. This is aligning UP with our mandate, which covers teaching, research and public service.  We’ve had awards for the first two domains, but not a separate tribute for extension, which tends to be seen by universities as extracurricular.

Starting this year we’re allowing faculty to claim credit loads for extension work, with some clear criteria. We’re not referring to dole-out activities. Instead, we want to recognize extension work that has longer term goals to uplift people’s lives and, again, helping people to help themselves.

We gave citations to Project Noah, which monitors and provides early warnings for natural disasters.  We also cited DZUP, a radio station where UP faculty and students are given allotted time slots to link the academe to real world problems. The awards went to various educational initiatives: Project Kapnayan  to make chemistry a more pleasant learning experience (with T-shirts that read “Try to be part of the solution), math and science materials from the National Institute for Science and Mathematics Education Development, three projects from the Sentro ng Wikang Filipino to promote Filipino, and translations of foreign literature to Filipino.

I particularly liked the Asian Institute of Tourism’s Buklod Bohol, where faculty and students went to Bohol after the big earthquake there, to work with communities to retell their stories and rebuild their lives.  The other project that especially impressed me was the Geography Field School of the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, where again faculty and students work with local government units to help in collecting data that can be used for development planning.  That field school has worked in Albay, Quezon, Ilocos Norte, Benguet, Antique and Camarines Norte.

These were the winning projects but I know of many more that could have been awarded. Together, they are redefining what extension is—and the word compassion, making it part of university life and, I hope as the students graduate, our national life.

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