Grieving for the UP Faculty Center

THOUGH IT is far from being an iconic structure, it is difficult to find another place in the University of the Philippines Diliman campus that is quite like the Faculty Center. Until it was gutted by fire last Friday morning, the FC, or Bulwagang Rizal, was the single biggest structure in the university to house faculty offices.  Its occupants, across generations, referred to it with pride and humor as the densest concentration of brainpower in the country.

As a venue for forums, debates, lectures, seminars, and symposia, there was nothing like its circular conference hall. Occupying two floors on its east wing, this academic venue epitomized everything that a university stands for: reasoned argument, fearless commitment to truth, respect for contrary views, high-mindedness, passionate scholarship, and the life of the mind.

But, it was the faculty cubicles that served as the sanctuary for everything that UP academics valued. This is where they retreated and spent long hours resting and reflecting, after they were done with their daily work as teachers. This is where they kept their most precious tools and memorabilia as academics—their books, journals, and notes, their personal papers and official documents, their laptops, their priceless collections of artwork, souvenirs, CDs and photographs, their favorite working chairs and desks, etc. In short, their entire support system for an active life as members of an academic community.

The fireman who placed the damage from the fire at P3 million saw only what was least valuable about the faculty center—its physical structure. To be able to say that, one would have to speak from a total ignorance of the rich and irreplaceable intellectual culture and intangible memories the building held.

During martial law, it was not unusual for the FC’s cramped cubicles to double as transient dormitories—safe harbors for comrades on the run. The military raided these rooms at the onset of the Marcos dictatorship, searching for activists and subversive materials. Yet, we clung to the belief that academic freedom would shield these intellectual cloisters from any form of state inspection and censorship. In the midst of martial law, it was here where we opened the first office and library of the Third World Studies Program, a center dedicated to the study of global imperialism, Third World dictatorships, and social movements.

At a time when one could be arrested for merely having coffee with a small group of kindred spirits, the FC became the hub of irrepressible conversation. Every political detainee newly released from Marcos’ prisons found an instant community in this building. Here, they were greeted not just with warm embraces, but also, quite often, with research assistantships to tide them over while they pondered their future.

This is where I grew up as an academic.

Returning from graduate studies abroad in the early 1970s to do fieldwork, I was assigned Room 3084 on the third floor, where my department, Sociology, shared spaces with Psychology, Political Science, Anthropology, Philosophy and Speech and Theater Arts. I worked in this same room for more than 40 years until my retirement as a full professor in 2011.

By coincidence, my department moved to a new building that same year. There, the rooms were spacious and well lit, had built-in bookshelves, quiet air-conditioners, and tall ceilings.  It was the perfect nook for an emeritus professor, but I sensed something missing—the patina of past conviviality. Long after the entire department had moved to its new location, I would sometimes absentmindedly park my car behind the FC, climb three flights of stairs, and stand before the door of my old room, fumbling for the keys. Habits die hard, particularly when they are born out of deep feelings of reverence for a place that had been a part of your life.

On that fateful Friday, I couldn’t resist taking a final look at the venerable lady even before the last fire truck had left. Faint smoke was still seeping from its sides. Where my third floor room had been, there was now only a patch of sky. The whole roof had collapsed.

I remember the inner courtyard that was visible from my room whenever I opened the windows to let cigarette smoke out. I used to puff strong Indonesian kreteks that gave out a powerful scent of burnt cloves. On many afternoons, the historian-anthropologist William Henry Scott, who taught courses in anthropology, would come by with cups of coffee and his own local black-colored cigarettes. We would talk for hours about the Cordilleras and precolonial Philippines amid clouds of smoke. That was way before the strong lobby against smoking colonized most of UP’s enclosed spaces.

The only conversations that compare with those I had with Scotty were the spontaneous ones I struck with the psychologist Alfredo V. Lagmay, usually at the parking lot or in the corridor between sociology and psychology. We would chat standing, oblivious of the time, about philosophy, politics, culture and the Filipino psyche. What I learned in UP as a young professor I drew from casual encounters with scholars like them.

In those years, much of the pleasure of having an office at the Faculty Center came from the chance to run into the likes of Leopoldo Yabes, Ricardo Zarco, Remigio Agpalo, Francisco Arcellana, F.G. David, Virgilio Enriquez, Petronilo Bn. Daroy, Oscar Alfonso, Nieves and S.V. Epistola, Concepcion Dadulfalza, Behn Cervantes, and many others who are now long gone. It is their intellectual footprints and the memories of their engaging personas that went up in flames last Friday.

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