Damaging U.P.

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The University of the Philippines (UP) Board of Regents, under the UP Charter the body charged with choosing the UP president, will meet this Thursday, the 17th of November, for that purpose. That meeting will mark the culmination of a three-month process that began last August, in anticipation of the retirement of Francisco Nemenzo in February, 2005, when he turns 70.

Who the next UP president will be is naturally a matter of concern for many UP faculty, its more militant students, most of the non-academic staff, and those alumni who still follow developments in their alma mater. Whatever policies the next president will put in place will affect the conditions under which professors, students and employees teach, study, and work. Interested alumni, on the other hand, at least want to be assured that UP will be in good hands for it to continue to be the institution that provided them the training that made so many of them successful and/or enabled them to make a difference in this country, or wherever else they now reside.

In certain sectors of the faculty, the primary concern is how UP can better arm with knowledge, and shape the consciousness of, future generations so they can help the Filipino people achieve the independence and progress that still elude the country despite the Revolution. These are the professors who, true to their calling, look at teaching and research as a way of helping the Filipino people realize their aspirations for better lives in a better country. Crucial to them is how the next president will enhance UP’s traditions of critical thought and independence, because it is these above all that make UP a national asset.

Undoubtedly, however, salaries and conditions of work are important to the faculty in general. While teaching is supposed to be a noble undertaking, keeping body and soul together is nevertheless the necessary condition for it. Over the last several years, uncompetitive UP salaries have in fact forced many UP professors to move from UP to better-paying universities such as Ateneo and De La Salle, or to private industry.

Upgrading UP salaries has thus become a critical issue in the country’s premier university, and one that both UP faculty and the administrative staff would like to see addressed by the next UP president. Most of the nominees for the post–ten, of which six are women–promise to find ways to find the funds needed to raise UP salaries. While there are continuing efforts to get UP exempted from the Salary Standardization Law and to allow it to fix its own salary scale, among them through the passage of a new UP Charter, funds for salaries will have to be sourced from somewhere.

Congress has consistently cut the budgets UP has proposed over the years, and is thus unlikely to provide those funds. Where to source the funds has been a contentious issue in UP for years. One proposal is to exploit UP’s idle assets and to link UP with industry, which to a limited extent is already happening. But this has been opposed by some sectors in the faculty and studentry who fear that it will “commercialize” UP and the education it offers.

Raising tuition fees has also been proposed. UP tuition fees are incredibly low for the quality of education and facilities it offers, but raising tuition fees is opposed by student and faculty groups who regard UP’s low tuition fees as a part of its mandate to educate the poor. What has met with some approval is a sustained effort to raise funds from alumni and the private sector, although there is skepticism over the willingness of either to do so.

(A proposal of long standing is to review the socialized tuition fee scheme known as STFAP, under which poor students pay less or are even paid allowances, while those from wealthy families pay more. This proposal, however, would raise existing income ceilings, and would thus lead to less income from tuition fees.)

In the three months of the search for the next UP president, some of the ten nominees (they are not “”candidates”) presented their visions for UP and plans of action in various forums in six UP campuses (Baguio, Iloilo, Davao, Los Banos, Manila and Diliman). Their visions and plans generally agreed on the need to sustain UP’s lead in the country, but also looked into UP’s regaining its 1960s status as a center of learning in Asia. The fact that UP will be celebrating its centennial in four years was similarly not lost to most of the nominees, who regard 2008 not only as a milestone in UP history. They also see it as a rallying point to mobilize alumni and the public at large to support UP efforts to become a better institution, and as a fitting moment for UP to have its first woman president (some sixty percent of UP students are women).

Although the public at large does not seem to be interested, it should be. UP is crucial to Filipino understanding of the Philippine crisis and in the search for solutions to it through knowledge-generation and appropriate policies. It is equally crucial to the training of artists, scientists, professionals and the country’s future leaders in all fields including government.

With about 5,000 highly-qualified professors and a corps of researchers in all fields, UP has the largest pool of expertise in the disciplines and the professions in the country. Its reach is also considerable: it has six constituent universities in nine campuses all over the country plus a cyber- campus (the Open University). Selecting a UP president is thus serious business, both for the consequences to UP as well as the national community.

Given all this, concern among UP constituencies is rising that the next UP president may be Malacanang’s choice rather than its constituencies’—and that his appointment would require either ignoring a UP rule that bars those 70 and above from serving as UP president (or even as lecturer), or going into another search by June, when this reputedly-favored nominee turns 70. There is talk that this nominee is waiting for a much juicier post than UP, possibly the Central Bank governorship, and that he has to be given a position in the meantime as payback for the financial support he gave President Arroyo and Vice President Noli de Castro last May.

Philippine presidents have always intervened in the choice of UP president through their appointees in the Board of Regents. In most of those instances, however, their choices have been qualified in academic and other terms and were prepared to serve UP for six years. Some even participated in the search process.

If current fears materialize, however, it would be the first time that the UP presidency will be given away like a door prize to someone who may not even be ready to serve for six years, whose appointment would be in violation of the UP “no one 70 and above” rule by June, and who was only nominally participated in the search process (he did not appear in any of the six forums). It would also damage UP, one of the very few remaining government institutions with any kind of credibility left.

This nominees’ appointment through Malacanang pressure on the Board of Regents would also create a whirlwind of outrage in UP that the Arroyo government needs now like it needs another General Garcia case. If it happens, it would go the way of those other acts, similarly unreasoning and beyond understanding, for which this government is becoming known. Beyond that, however, the price of such folly–to UP and the nation–can be, quite literally, incalculable.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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