Choosing the next UP president

Choosing a president for the University of thePhilippines, the country’s national university, is a complex process.  The UP Charter provides that the president of UP is to be chosen by its Board of Regents.  But, many assume that the regents’ vote merely formalizes a choice made by the president in Malacanang. The general public regards this as just right: the UP after all is a State institution, funded by the people’s taxes, and invested with a crucial role in the nation’s development.  Others believe that the university, if it is to properly carry out its tasks, must be shielded from direct political interference by entrusting the selection process to the regents.

Efforts to democratize not just the selection process for the presidency but the governance of the institution itself have long marked the history of the university. One of the earliest concessions to participatory governance was the appointment of a student regent picked by the students themselves. Today, of the eleven regents who constitute UP’s highest governing body, four are chosen by the faculty, students, staff, and alumni, respectively. Six come from government, namely: two from Congress, and four directly chosen by the country’s president – the head of the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd), who sits as ex-officio co-chair of the board, and three others expressly appointed as UP regents.  The 11th member is the incumbent president of the university.  This distribution has made it difficult, though not impossible, for Malacanang to dictate its choice of the UP president.

But, there’s another layer in the process that, in a curious way, can affect the outcome.  While the final decision is made by the regents, the nominees must face the university community in a series of public forums to explain their vision for the university, their view of the challenges it faces, and their concrete plan for addressing its persistent problems.  This is really the most difficult part of the whole process even if it has no formal bearing on how the regents will vote.  A UP president who intends to govern effectively has to earn the respect of this highly contentious community.

No one enters this exacting and potentially embarrassing vetting ritual unless one is driven by a compelling vocation, ambition, or madness, or all of these.  The university community is a demanding constituency.  It’s not enough that a president knows how to manage a complex institution, it is equally important that she or he has outstanding credentials highly valued in an academic community. It’s not enough that one can inspire a community of scholars, it is equally important that she or he knows how to engage the many sectors of society that rely on the consistency of the university’s performance, and, how to raise money for the university’s growing needs.  Apart from intelligence, a UP president has to have a lot of patience, courage, self-confidence, graciousness, and a great sense of humor.

By the time the regents sit down to vote in the coming weeks, this year’s eleven nominees for the UP presidency, all worthy individuals in their own way, will have visited almost all the constituent units comprising the UP System – from Cordillera to Mindanao. The next president of the university will assume office in early February next year, when the six-year term of incumbent President Emerlinda Roman, UP’s first woman president, ends.

One way to think of the immense challenges that the UP president confronts is by imagining UP as an institution that needs to relate to three distinct systems with differing expectations. The first is Philippine society as a whole.  Because of its history, UP plays a unique role in the nation’s life. Beyond being a producer of highly-qualified professionals and scholars, the university is looked up to as a source of national directions.  Its leadership in national agenda-setting is expected, and its voice is especially sought in moments of crisis.  The university’s societal function is to point the way and help prepare the nation for the future.

But UP won’t survive unless it is able to maintain its relevance to the other spheres of society that rely on its regular performance as an institution of higher learning.  These include the families that send their children to UP for professional education, the government that allots public funds to support its operations, the business community that expects to be supplied with highly-trained graduates, etc. These expectations often proceed from a narrow view of what a university does, yet they are always expressed in urgent tones.  Managing these expectations without appearing to be unresponsive is one of the biggest challenges that a publicly-funded university has to face.

But there is a third system to which the university has to relate: itself.  The task of a university is the production and transfer of knowledge.  The pursuit of this task creates necessities that form the daily preoccupation of academe.  Research must follow a set of theoretical and methodological protocols that are recognized by other centers of learning worldwide. Instruction has to be carried out following a set of standards and curricula that are comparable to the best in the world.

In short, the university has to justify itself in its own eyes before it can be of any use to society.  In this process of reflection, the only ethic it recognizes is excellence.  It is the armor it wears when it must defend the autonomy and integrity of the knowledge enterprise against forces that seek to control it.