The price of autonomy

Universities in the modern world have been able to host some of the most pathbreaking advances in knowledge by providing an environment in which independent thinkers may pursue intellectual work without fear.  But developing this capacity is not the easiest thing in the world. Universities need enormous amounts of resources that cannot be met by student fees alone.

Inevitably, they must turn for support to two sources of funds that have figured prominently in the phenomenal growth of institutions of higher learning: the government and the private sector.  This situation at once confronts the university with the delicate problem of ensuring that its academic autonomy—and the exercise of its own voice in public affairs—is not unduly impaired by the expectations of its benefactors.

As abruptly as it may have come, businessman Manuel V. Pangilinan’s recent announcement of his “complete and final disengagement” from Ateneo de Manila University is classic in this regard. MVP has taken issue with the statements Ateneo and the Jesuits have issued on two controversial topics: the reproductive health bill and mining.

MVP’s dismay is understandable.  The Jesuits have recently come out with “talking points” that define the moral principles they believe ought to guide reflection and discussion of the mining industry in the country.  Pangilinan, who heads Philex, the country’s largest mining company, thinks that the Jesuits, through this paper, have taken an anti-mining position that is diametrically opposed to his convictions as a businessman and as a Filipino.  Earlier, the Jesuits also expressed support for the Catholic bishops’ rejection of the RH bill, effectively distancing themselves from the statement issued by a group of Ateneo professors. MVP supports the RH bill.

He says his relationship with Ateneo has been made untenable by these two basic differences. Of the two concerns, however, the Jesuit paper on mining appears to be the breaking point.  “I must say that I am extremely distressed and saddened by this recent event.  And in the context of two other gruesome incidents (i.e., plagiarism and the first mining blow-up) in the recent past, I believe we have come to the irretrievable point where it is best and appropriate to draw the line in the sand, to conclude that we have little or no common interest, and to say that I’d look like a fool helping an institution which opposes my conviction diametrically and unequivocally (‘non-negotiable’).”

The fallout from this breakup is considerable.  It has prompted the resignation of Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, former president of Ateneo, from the board of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT), the flagship of the MVP group of companies. It also presages the withdrawal of MVP’s generous support for the Ateneo basketball team at the end of the current season. He has severed all ties with the Ateneo board of trustees, of which he was chair for many years. This means that the buildings he donated in the past—the MVP Center for Student Leadership and the Rizal Library—will be the last.

It would be surprising if the Ateneo Jesuits did not see this coming.  A textual analysis of the documents that MVP disagrees with would show the immense nuancing that went into their crafting.  These documents express an institutional position that brooks no misunderstanding, yet they are careful not to alienate coworkers and partners within and outside the university.

On the RH issue, Ateneo president Fr. Jose Ramon T. Villarin issued a statement that expresses Ateneo’s support for the Catholic bishops’ position (consistent with its identity as a Catholic school), yet pays homage to the sentiments that led to the contrary position taken by its faculty.  In a previous column I wrote on this issue, I offered the view that it was not necessary for the Jesuits to issue a statement repudiating the RH bill in the name of Ateneo, since the professors themselves had made clear they were not speaking for the entire institution.

On the mining issue, we note that it is not Ateneo as a university that is speaking through the document.  The Jesuit Paper, “The Golden Mean in Mining: Talking Points,” that MVP finds unacceptable was issued by the Society of Jesus Social Apostolate (SJSA).  It was delivered to MVP not by the Ateneo president but by Fr. Jose Magadia, the head of the Philippine Province.

This fine distinction may not mean much to MVP, but it is crucial to the institutional differentiation that lies at the heart of this balancing act. The “talking points” offered by the Jesuit Paper identifies the “non-negotiable” moral and social values relevant to assessing mining operations in the Philippines, and are addressed to “members of its network and (for) other like-minded organizations and individuals.”  Ateneo is a part of this network, but, as a university, it has an existence that is separate from the religious congregation that owns and administers it. By withdrawing his support for Ateneo, MVP is penalizing the entire institution for the “sins” of the fathers.

But, even if it was Ateneo itself that had issued the paper, a responsible mining firm with a robust social conscience would not have quickly taken offense.  Indeed, the paper raised hard issues, and MVP might have felt directly alluded to in the following sentence: “Thus, we have to ask hard questions about our financial and other relationships with mining companies, environmental organizations and others who have a strong stake in mining issues.”  But that is addressed to every stakeholder in dialogue—a plea for sobriety and transparency, rather than an implied denunciation of anyone.