Insulating higher education from politics

There is a medieval view of politics that unfortunately persists in societies like ours: that the winner takes all; that, following the election of a new president, all the key positions in government must be vacated to give way to the appointment of those most loyal to the president, irrespective of merit.

Nothing does more violence to modern governance than this arrogance.  Nothing would bring government to a more abrupt halt than this nonsense.

I bring it up in the light of the recent resignation of Vice President Leni Robredo as chair of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC), and of the requested courtesy resignation of Dr. Patricia Licuanan, chair of the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd).  Due supposedly to irreconcilable differences, they were ordered by President Duterte to “desist” from further attending Cabinet meetings. While Robredo took this as a cue to offer her resignation, Licuanan decided she would stay at her post until 2018, albeit as a nonmember of the Cabinet, citing her unfinished term as CHEd chair.

We might usefully distinguish these two positions from one another.  While both are presidential appointees, the head of the HUDCC indeed serves at the pleasure of the president; the head of CHEd does not.  The latter is protected by a fixed term of four years and a possible reappointment to another term.  Both are of Cabinet rank, but, in fact, neither office is traditionally a Cabinet position. Their occupants attend Cabinet meetings at the pleasure of the president.

VP Robredo was right to resign from the HUDCC after being told not to attend Cabinet meetings. She should have done so as soon as it became clear that she could not support the President’s positions and pronouncements on key questions. Her staying on as a member of Mr. Duterte’s official family became untenable from the moment she spoke publicly against his actions.

Dr. Licuanan’s situation is qualitatively different. She has kept quiet on political issues. While her office is not a career position, neither is it that of a department secretary, who, indeed, as an alter ego of the President, serves at his pleasure. The CHEd chairmanship is perhaps more akin to the presidency of a public university like UP, which has a fixed term.  Indeed, under the current setup, the head of CHEd is the presiding officer of all the boards of state universities and colleges.

Just as it is unimaginable for the UP president to serve as an alter ego of the occupant of Malacañang, so, too, would it be unacceptable for the overseer of the nation’s institutions of higher learning to serve as no more than a foot soldier of the president.  Higher education institutions have a delicate function in society, which they perform best when their autonomy is assured. They are neither a mere adjunct of the market nor blind enforcers of state policies. That is the reason Republic Act No. 7722 (The Higher Education Act of 1994), the law that created CHEd, provided for a secure term for its chair and members. It is to insulate them from the demands of partisan politics.

Modern state systems are not just characterized by the doctrine of separation of powers, which invests upon the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government the autonomy they need to operate successfully in their respective spheres.  Equally crucial to their operation is the differentiation between the strictly political function and the administrative or civil service function.

Indeed, modernity is founded on such differentiation. Just as modern societies do not change their constitutions every time they elect a new government, so also do they not overhaul the entire bureaucracy to suit the politics of a new set of elected leaders.

The ones who are installed with the new president are the core members of his or her executive family—mostly the appointed heads of the key departments of government.  They constitute his or her Cabinet. Within their respective departments, however, they preside over a bureaucracy that keeps the engines of government softly whirring through many transitions. This is where political vision intersects with administration, where policy decisions are translated into programs.

A stable professional bureaucracy insulated from the vagaries of politics ensures the continuity of public service, even when the political process itself may undergo intense turbulence. In contrast, a politicized civil service is almost always paralyzed during periods of political transition.

Our own Constitution, a modern document in its various iterations, recognizes this.  That is why our laws admonish government employees not to engage in partisan politics, or express political preferences, in their capacity as civil servants. But, as citizens, they enjoy the right to vote like everyone else, and, at times, even to express their opinions on political issues. Only a thin line separates these two roles, a line that is preserved by restraint. It is what separates the civil servant from the politician.

Strangely enough, within the Commission on Higher Education, it is the career civil servants, starting with its executive director Julito Vitriolo, who have been behaving like politicians. Seventeen of them recently issued a manifesto asking President Duterte to illegally fire Dr. Licuanan and to “designate or appoint a Chairperson of the Commission of your own choice or your ALTER EGO (sic) to represent the CHED in the Cabinet ….”  They should read the law creating their office.

In a rational society, it is power players like them who would immediately face sanctions for overstepping the line.