Wanted: a president for UP

At this time of the year, once every six years, the University of the Philippines embarks on a quiet and dignified search for a new president.  The search process goes through the phases of inviting nominations, requiring vision papers, interviewing nominees, and consulting with various sectors of the university.  The information gathered is synthesized and presented to the UP Board of Regents, which then elects the new president.

The president of the University of the Philippines is not appointed by Malacanang.  Neither is he/she chosen by popular vote of the faculty and staff.  The appointment is made solely by the Board of Regents, a procedure enshrined in UP’s charter, a testament to institutional autonomy.

Yet, no one who knows UP buys this fiction.  Most certainly do presidents of the republic directly or indirectly influence the selection of a UP president.  This is made possible by the fact that five of the regents are chosen by Malacanang and are logically expected to defer to the authority that placed them there.  The board is chaired by the head of the Commission on Higher Education, also an appointee of the president.  Moreover, the heads of the Senate and House committees on education, both ex-officio members of the board, may well be members of the president’s political party.  In practice, therefore, rare is the UP president who would make it to the position without the blessings of the country’s president.

The faculty, alumni and the students are represented in the board by their respective regents.  But even if they pooled their votes and joined forces, their combined votes would not be enough to determine policy or to elect a president.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  On the contrary, there is virtue in the fact that a public university like UP must periodically account for itself to the community that supports it.  The composition of the Board of Regents, which includes a majority of voices from the larger society, is one way of ensuring that.

I have the privilege of serving as the faculty regent this year, when the university must choose a new leader.  It is a crucial time in the life of the university, and we cannot afford not to choose well.  Asked, after delivering the commencement speech, if he had anyone in mind as next UP president, President Estrada said he would abide by the faculty’s choice.  It is a wise answer.  Unfortunately the faculty as a whole does not vote.  And I, as the elected faculty representative in the board, have only one vote.

But I intend to make that vote count by insisting that for once UP choose somebody who is committed to the transformation of our society, rather than to the mindless reproduction of its obsolete and dysfunctional hierarchies.  At the threshold of a new century, UP needs an experimentalist visionary with a concrete idea of the type of graduate that the university must produce so that our country may begin to move away from the institutional rut in which it finds itself.

UP’s graduates must be those equipped with the power of insight and action, who can function like prophets in their own society, in the words of Roberto Unger, “agents relatively unmoored from inherited hierarchies and divisions, classes and communities.”  They should be citizens possessed with the wisdom to “organize public conversation and collective choice”, and committed to the view that the nation must continuously move forward, unburdened by its past.

The function of a premier university like UP has to go beyond the conventional goals of training professionals, producing technically usable knowledge, and lending assistance to communities by extension work.  A university for the future must consciously strive to form imaginative and innovative individuals who, having transcended their own personal contexts by their education, are capable of “coordinating the macropolitics of institutions with the micropolitics of personal relations.”  These are individuals who invent their own identities.  With no attachment to class, race, or family wealth, their sole commitment is to democracy, equal opportunity, and change.

All too often, elite universities become the reproductive mechanisms of an obsolete social order.  They perpetuate inherited privilege rather than nullify it.  Despite its reputation as a university of the people, the UP has not been an exception.  It has become a university for the privileged classes not solely by the type of students it admits, but especially by the type of students it graduates.  This cannot be cured by simply democratizing admissions through regional quotas; the content and organization of a UP education no less need to be reimagined.

There has been a tendency to think that UP’s main problem is financial, and that therefore its president must be one who is especially adept at soliciting endowments.  The university can certainly use additional resources; the salaries of its faculty and staff, for one, can stand some upgrading.  But I would argue that this is not its most important problem.   UP’s main problem is how to transform itself so that it never ceases to be an agent of societal change.

Guardians of order and continuity will naturally oppose this concept. They want universities to be graveyards of conformity.  Thus the first thing they look for in a UP president is political acceptability and the ability to keep academe acquiescent.  Such qualities have no value in the 21st century.  What UP requires at this time is a president with moral courage, a lot of hope, and a transformative imagination.


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