The University of the Philippines is in the middle of choosing its next president. If you’re the kind of newspaper reader who reads everything from the op-ed pages to the lifestyles sections, you might have noticed those “column feeds” and “personality sketches” extolling one of the women candidates that have suddenly materialized in the pages of certain Manila broadsheets.
The subject is a UP professor who’s also a media personality. She once ran for senator but lost, and for this “campaign” she’s also using her media connections to the fullest.
To do PR work she also seems to have hired this former broadsheet editor whose staff quit on her in 1999. In behalf of her client, the former editor has been grinding out these puff-and-boost pieces that have seen publication in several newspapers–and which, in the worst PR tradition, take considerable liberties with the facts.
The pieces don’t mention that her client was booed during a forum in UP’s main campus in Diliman, for example. They claim instead that she was the most applauded in all the six forums (only five of which she attended) in UP’s various campuses where the candidates for UP president were supposed to present and explain their visions for UP, which will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2008.
The search for UP president is supposed to be serious business, but obviously even some UP alumni look at it as no more serious than a campaign for some small-town elective post. Unfortunately, like most UP students who couldn’t care less, the public is not overly interested in who’s going to run UP for the next six years, primarily because they can’t see what relevance UP has to them.
True, some parents still think a UP education’s the surest way to riches, mostly through a UP College of Law or College of Medicine degree. But even that’s giving way to the thought that sending Junior to STI or AMA instead for a care-giver’s course so he can learn how to scour bedpans in a US nursing home could be simpler and even better.
This is UP’s current tragedy. Its relevance to Filipinos during the last several decades has become limited to how much more a UP degree can guarantee a good job than other universities–and even that belief is fading. What’s worse is that the more discerning, including some UP alumni themselves, tend to see UP as an institution that at the very least owes the Filipino people an explanation.
As Conrado de Quiros of the Inquirer said during an informal consultation with UP alumni and the media called by another woman candidate for UP President, UP has not so much served the nation in the last 96 years as done it a disservice. UP alumni are all over the government, business, the sciences, the media, the arts and the professions, but seem not to have made any difference on how the country has turned out–or, as the less charitable might put it, have actually ran the country into the ground.
UP alumni have been in government since the second decade of the 20th century. They have been senators, congressmen, judges, and presidents. Ferdinand Marcos, arguably the worst president the Philippines has ever had (with Mrs. Arroyo in Malacanang Marcos may lose his franchise to that previously uncontested distinction), was an alumnus of the UP College of Law.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is herself an alumna–of the UP School of Economics, eleven of whose faculty members recently predicted the collapse of the economy within two years unless the fiscal crisis is resolved (but who apparently did nothing to prevent it, some of them having served in NEDA and the Department of Budget and Management in several administrations).
Considering the state of the country, and the pre-eminence of UP alumni in keeping it firmly on the road to economic, political and judicial perdition, shouldn’t UP be actually apologizing to the country rather than crowing about how many senators, justices, congressmen, presidents and secretaries of economic development and planning it has contributed to the government–not to mention the hordes of crooked lawyers, operators and corrupt businessmen it’s graduated?
But of even greater interest is how UP can change all that in the future, in terms of how the training it provides can actually make people ethical as well as skilled–in the arts of governance, for example, or in the practice of law, or, for that matter, in the mass media–so that, if they do end up in government, they can help end corruption rather than contribute to it.
In addition, it was asked during the same consultation, can’t UP training do something about the “departure-lounge syndrome”–meaning the widespread desire to leave the country to make money abroad the minute one gets a diploma? It’s not only the graduates of Fatima College of Medicine who make for the airport upon passing the Medical Board exams, after all. Entire UP College of Medicine classes have also been known to leave for the US within months of graduation.
Both can of course be done, even if some of those in UP’s current central leadership passionately and cynically believe otherwise. But it will require UP’s re-engagement with the public first of all, so that it will be perceived as it really is–an intellectual resource for the nation, rather than, at best, a path to riches very much like Ali Baba’s password to the fabled cave of the Forty Thieves–or, at worst, as a clutch of aliens living on another planet they call “Excellence” while the country goes to hell.
Re-engagement would mean UP’s talking to the public by, among other means, making its position known on the issues that concern Filipinos, whether it be hunger or the state of local TV, amending the Constitution or the encouragement of arts and letters, human rights violations or foreign policy.
Individual faculty members do make the results of their research and their views on these and other issues known now and then, just like the School of Economics 11 did. But these have been few and far between, and far from an institutional effort.
Beyond a sustained effort to talk to the people, UP should also be listening to what the people are saying, in a continuing national dialogue that should make it an institution the citizenry can rely on to make sense of the complexities of this society, and what can be done to address its many problems.
Meanwhile, within UP itself, training in the various disciplines should include a strong ethical component (in only a handful of disciplines are there now courses in ethics) as well as an emphasis on this country’s history, how Philippine society works, how it can be changed for the better, and what values should guide it–the classical tasks of the social sciences as well as of the humanities.
The cynical–and some are at the very top of the UP administration–will say it won’t work, however. It’s a view that would leave things the way they are in both the University of the Philippines as well as government and society at large. It’s also violently at odds with that most fundamental assumption of all that should inform all educational institutions: that people can learn, and in learning, make a difference even in a society as hopelessly mired in its own corruption and deceit as Philippine society is.
UP has no other recourse but to find the road that would lead to something other than collective perdition. Otherwise the Filipino people might as well save their money and shut down UP, or else just keep it hobbling along in slow decay. Its sole consolation would then be only the fact that, at least, Maj. Gen. Carlos F. Garcia and all those stalwarts of Philippine Military Academy class 1971 now under investigation for corruption and various other offenses are not its alumni, and that there’s actually a school other than UP Filipinos can blame for the country’s woes.