The search for the 22nd UP president

It is a ritual that takes place every six years. A search committee appointed by the Board of Regents (BOR) invites nominations for the position of president of the University of the Philippines (UP), the nation’s premier university. The committee conducts consultations with various sectors of the university community, culminating in a public forum where the candidates present their vision-mission statements and plans, and answer questions from the audience. It then reports the results of the search to the board.

This year, the Board of Regents decided to take on the functions of the search committee itself, thus significantly abbreviating the process. Last Friday, it presided over a well-attended four-hour public forum at the UP Film Center’s Adarna Theater. Before the end of the month, it will select the 22nd president of UP from among the six candidates vying for the position.

In the past, the nominees usually made the rounds of the major campuses comprising the UP System, facing critical audiences of faculty, students, staff, and alumni. The lingering pandemic has made this difficult. In lieu of the campus tours, the one-time forum in UP Diliman was live-streamed on various digital platforms.

While the constituents of the academic community have no direct participation in the actual voting itself, they have ways of communicating their preference to those who are mandated by law to choose the university’s highest official. Sadly, in the final voting, their voices may not matter much.

But a president who is appointed with blithe disregard for the sentiments of the academic community, or primarily for his/her connections to the powers-that-be, will find it difficult to govern. For a university that is worth its name as an academic institution will always be jealous of its autonomy—it’s capacity to determine its own affairs and to choose its own leaders.

This is the tradition that has been UP’s hallmark since its founding. It is laden with all the tensions that mark academe’s relationship to power. By the contingencies of its unique development as a center of higher learning, UP has found itself historically cast in the difficult role as the nation’s conscience—a task it cannot abdicate without undermining the long-term prospects of the very society from which it draws its life.

Accordingly, the academic community has never hesitated to bite the hand that feeds it when necessary. Its ideological inclination has always been anti-establishment. Even as it produces graduates that easily fit into the existing social order, it openly tells them not to be afraid to go against the tide. “Tatak UP” is what it calls this mindset—a term that sums up nonconformism, idealism, and the habit of criticism.

This commitment to independent and critical thinking is palpable in every corner of the institution, a fact that makes the legislators who approve the UP’s annual budget sometimes ask why they continue to fund a school that seems to specialize in the training of the political order’s gravediggers. On the whole, Philippine society has tolerated this claim to autonomy, treating it as an institutional idiosyncrasy, a small price to pay for the overall excellence of its products.

But it’s not for a small reason that UP used to be called the “State University.” The explicit reference to it today as the “National University” by virtue of Republic Act No. 9500 (UP Charter of 2008) does not alter the fact that it continues to subsist almost wholly on state subsidy. Perhaps no one is more aware of this than the UP president who, every year, has to seek support for the university budget in both houses of Congress, and from Malacañang and the office of the budget secretary.

Politicians who cannot see beyond the power of Congress to appropriate funds for the operation of the university have little appreciation for the institutional autonomy that sets UP apart from other government agencies. It is clearly to them that Section 11 of RA 9500 was written: “Taking into account national goals and priorities, it [the UP] shall exclusively determine its teaching, research and extension thrusts, plans, policies, programs and standards….” (Underscoring mine)

The paradox posed by this lofty ideal is inescapable in the light of the political realities that attend the selection of the UP president. Of the 11 members of the BOR (the electing body), four are directly appointed by Malacañang (namely, the head of the Commission on Higher Education, plus three others), and two are members of Congress. The UP community has five: i.e., the incumbent UP president and one regent each for the faculty, students, staff, and alumni, respectively. Only a simple majority is needed to elect the UP president.

At last Friday’s forum, I could sense a discreet avoidance of the elephant in the room. It came in the form of a brief question on Red-tagging, but its broader dimensions couldn’t have escaped the notice of the largely academic audience.

I refer to current attempts to rewrite the record of the Marcos dictatorship, a regime that an entire generation of UP faculty and students spent their lives battling, even as a handful of its own former professors faithfully served it as technocrats. The issue that first surfaced when the Duterte regime decided to bury the remains of the dictator at the Libingan ng mga Bayani has now come to a head with the election in 2022 of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as President. How will the next UP president deal with the political activism of its constituents?