What’s in a name?

Whatever it was that motivated our colleagues and students at the University of the Philippines College of Business Administration to name their college—the academic program itself, and not just the building—after their esteemed alumnus and former dean, Cesar E.A. Virata, I am quite sure it had nothing to do with the pledge of an endowment. Though he has rich and powerful friends, Virata himself has kept a low profile and is known to live modestly. But, more important, as far as I know, UP does not confer honor in exchange for money.

The reason for this unprecedented way of honoring a living person by a college in the UP System could be nothing more than a sincere desire to recognize the contributions of a man who nurtured the college and quietly supported the university during those difficult times when it needed an ally in government. It is a fairly common practice abroad where naming rights are routinely given to show appreciation for a large endowment. While I’m certain the amiable Virata did not ask for this recognition, none of these reasons adequately justifies naming a school in a national university after him.

First, as former senator Rene Saguisag reminds us, there is a law against naming public buildings and infrastructure after living persons. Second, while UP has named some of its buildings—like Malcolm Hall, Benitez Hall, and Palma Hall—after deceased persons, there is no existing college or unit in the university that is named after anybody, living or dead. In that regard, the renaming of the UP College of Business Administration into the Cesar E.A. Virata School of Business is precedent-setting.

I first heard about this shortly before this year’s commencement exercises, and I didn’t believe it. Since it concerns an academic program, I was sure it would have to pass through the University Council, where it would definitely be debated, voted upon, and, as a matter of principle, resolutely rejected. But, as it turned out, the decision was made at the college level and, without going through the University Council, was consummated by the Board of Regents at its meeting on April 12, 2013.

It is not as if UP had done nothing to recognize the man. The university had previously honored Virata, prime minister and finance minister in the Marcos administration, by giving him the doctor of laws degree (honoris causa) in 1976.  Even if this was done at the height of martial law, I do not recall that it elicited any comment or controversy in the academic community, unlike the conferment of the doctor of humanities degree on Imelda Marcos.  The general impression about Virata then was that he was among the most decent in the Marcos Cabinet. He was not known to have taken advantage of his position in the corrupt dictatorship, and so he had no reason to flee the country when the regime collapsed.

But, the issues at stake here go beyond personal decency. Cesar Virata was the face of a modern technocracy in the service of a repressive regime that removed public issues from the realm of political debate, and treated them as though they were nothing more than technical problems. Contrary to the image they project, technocrats are not apolitical. They are very much implicated in the political programs of the governments they serve. Thus, they cannot claim political blindness or neutrality.

By naming its school of business after a Marcos technocrat, UP is, in effect, signaling that it aims to produce graduates who, even as they excel as problem-solvers in their respective fields, can be trusted to put their political consciences on hold while they do their work.

Of course, to other people, public servants like Virata are patriots. In their view, it was not the rulers that they cared about so much as the nation itself. Unlike the opportunists who left the Marcos regime as soon as they sensed that the ship of state was about to sink, the truly professional civil servants steadfastly remained at their posts and did what needed to be done. They did not wish to exacerbate the crisis of the state by resigning. They did not want to compound the injury on the society by abandoning the state at its most critical moment. This is an arguable perspective, but I am not sure that Cabinet members who are political appointees can seek refuge in it.

Had it been submitted to the UP Diliman University Council, the issue would have provided the occasion to bring out the competing value standpoints from which a decision as seemingly innocuous as naming a school can be viewed. There is nothing trivial about assigning names to institutions.  Indeed, it is an old problem.

“This has given the greatest trouble and still does to realize that what things are called is incomparably more important than what they are,” wrote Nietzsche in The Gay Science. “The reputation, name, and appearance, the usual measure and weight of a thing, what it counts for—originally almost always wrong and arbitrary, thrown over things like a dress and altogether foreign to their nature and even to their skin—all this grows from generation unto generation, merely because people believe in it, until it gradually grows to be part of the thing and turns into its very body.”  I am told that when this matter was submitted to the student body of the college, the only question the students asked was: “Who is Virata?”  They can be forgiven for not knowing, but not the faculty.

Nothing can be more alien to a UP education than technocratic subservience. At UP, we value excellence in all fields of knowledge. But more than that, we are taught to value wisdom and political sensibility, and the courage of one’s convictions.