UP: coping with perpetual penury

I have studied, taught, and lived in the University of the Philippines for the last 36 years, and I cannot remember a time when UP was not in bad need of money.  A book on UP’s first 75 years notes that the creation of the State University, first proposed in 1904, could not be realized because the money needed to operate it was not available. The UP was finally established in 1908, yet the bill that created it could not provide “a budgetary allocation commensurate to the scale of the tasks that the university was expected to accomplish.”  It was enough that a beginning could be made.

Interestingly, most buildings in UP are still constructed on this basis — what little money is available is used to lay the foundations.  When the funds run out, all activity suddenly ceases.  Some buildings, like the university theater, lie half-finished for about a decade, awaiting the generosity of some sentimental alumni.

Mercifully,  instruction in the main campuses is not undertaken in this manner.  UP’s budget may fluctuate from year to year, but inadequate funds have never prevented courses from being offered nor students from being allowed to finish.  The deterioration of facilities, much like the breakdown in faculty and employee morale arising from low salaries,  tends to be slow and insidious.  People learn to adjust to austere conditions, and, in the process, lower  their own expectations. Many leave quietly , while others find extra work elsewhere.

From time to time, the entire university marches to Congress to demand an increase in appropriations or greater autonomy in the utilization of its budget.   UP’s chronic dependency on the national government places the institution in a particularly vulnerable position in its relationship with politicians.  That is why UP’s history reads like a record of how a learning institution has heroically attempted to play its role as the nation’s conscience while remaining its most persistent mendicant.

UP’s presidents tend to make their mark not so much by their intellectual styles but by their approach to fund-raising.  Its first president, the American Murray Bartlett was hopelessly dependent on national government appropriation to run the university.  It was Ignacio Villamor, the Filipino who succeeded him, who first  proposed the idea of a permanent fund to be built from a percentage of land taxes.  It was turned down.

Guy Potter Benton who took over from Villamor picked up the idea of a real estate tax and combined this with the notion of a grant of public lands  from which the university could earn supplementary income. But the property owners in the legislature rejected both ideas.

It was the great Rafael Palma, president from 1923 to 1933, who successfully maneuvered to secure a land grant for UP as part of a permanent endowment, but the original request of 200,000 hectares was whittled down by an unsympathetic Congress to an insignificant 10,000 hectares.   And in return, Palma had to promise that for 10 years he would not ask for an increase in the annual appropriation for the university.  To make both ends meet, he increased tuition, froze the hiring of new faculty, campaigned for donations from the alumni, and reduced his own salary.

Under Carlos P. Romulo, fund-raising was elevated into an art.  At the onset of his presidency in 1962, a finance committee he created proposed 9 ways of generating funds for UP.  Among these were: investing idle funds in the financial market, developing portions of the Diliman campus into industrial or commercial centers, increasing tuition, building more dormitories and expanding the UP food service. None however proved to be as successful as his fund-raising sorties abroad.   Romulo’s record was equaled only by Edgardo Angara, who, in 1982, raised more than P80 million from the alumni for a faculty development fund.

We will never know why the development of portions of the Quezon City campus into commercial centers, now the center-piece of President Emil Javier’s fund-raising efforts,  did not merit much attention under Romulo or any of the other presidents.  But, under Javier, UP is bent on commercializing about 100 hectares of the Diliman campus in order to augment its budget.  By the sheer magnitude of the land involved, it is a decision without precedent.  It is bound to be controversial.

The concept of a university, with all the lofty ideals it exemplifies, is not exactly friendly to the idea of a commercial transaction guided purely by economic gain.   Shopping malls are icons of consumerism of the most excessive kind.  As sites of frenzied commerce, they are the exact antithesis of a university, the sanctuary of the mind. Under the

Javier plan, UP will lease for 75 years its property across Commonwealth Avenue to a joint venture corporation that will develop a high-density area consisting of high-rise condos and shopping complexes.   It would be as if Ateneo, in exchange for billions, gave up its entire Katipunan frontage to make way for a Gokongwei, a Henry Sy or an Ayala mall.

The environmental and social costs of this project not only to UP but to the surrounding communities have not been fully estimated. The Diliman campus is probably the last open space of its size in all of Metro Manila.  With its arboretum, a 13-hectare patch of forest, the campus remains the last functioning lung of this choking metropolis. It is a dilemma worth pondering: how long can the university subsidize its ideals while ignoring the merchants at the gate?


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