U.P. on their minds

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Most Filipinos have neither the time nor the interest to think about the University of the Philippines, between SARS, the country’s economic decline, its peace and order problems and the day-to-day difficulties of survival in this archipelago of uncertainty.

Some Filipinos do have UP on their minds at this time of the year. Other than its students, these include not only those who graduated from it in April, but also the 4,500 incoming UP freshmen this June. Both groups share the same hopes: that a UP education will lead them to a brighter future or, in the case of those from elite and professional families to begin with, at least enable them to live in the manner to which they’re accustomed.

Oh sure. Generations of educators have taken issue with this utilitarian view of education for years. They argue that the real end of a college education is itself–the cultivation of one’s capacities, the intellectual and spiritual growth that education makes possible–and that it’s not to assure anyone of a high-paying job or a bright future, “bright” being defined as living a more or less carefree life of ease.

In these parts, and in much of the world for that matter, that argument has as much appeal as a planeload of wheezing tourists from Beijing. Most people go to college for the most utilitarian of purposes, which is at least to get a high-paying job, or else end up a big businessman, politician, or some other prime mover. (One of UP’s honor graduates on April 28, for example, hasn’t been hiding his intention to use his degree as a ticket to broadcasting or show business–from where, in the manner of Noli de Castro, he intends to go into politics.)

That’s despite four years in UP–or perhaps, as the more cynical say, because of four years in UP, which some are beginning to suspect equip young men and women with the skills, not to change the world, but to adjust to it, usually at considerable personal profit. It’s not to widen their intellectual horizons and realize their potentials as human beings that between 60,000 and 70,000 high-school graduates take the UP College Admissions Test twice each year (less than 10 percent make it), but precisely to land that high-paying job years from now whether here or abroad, preferably abroad.

Now and then one does meet a truly rare specimen among UP students–the one who says, and seems to mean it, that he or she’s going into journalism (or social work, or engineering, or law) “to change the world.” But for the most part one detects not only a firm dedication to nothing more than self-interest and a determination to pursue the corresponding career path, among what are supposed to be the hopes of the fatherland.

And yet UP is the one place in this country where one hears everywhere and at every turn such phrases as “serving the people,” “making a difference,” “reshaping society,” and–this one from the current UP president himself–“reshaping the world order.” Together with such motherhood words and phrases like “honesty” and “integrity,” these phrases are received with vigorous head-nodding by UP students–some of whom, years later, one can meet “serving the people” and “making a difference” in the United States, as usually happens with most UP medical, nursing and public health graduates (an entire College of Medicine graduating class once left for US hospitals almost as soon as its members passed the medical board exams).

What’s evident in this is the same disparity between words and deeds that’s of epidemic proportions in Philippine society, like TB or gastrointestinal disorders. UP in short reflects, despite itself, what’s going on in the rest of society, which most UP faculty members will tell you exerts a far greater influence on UP students and graduates than a battalion of professors or a four-year degree course can.

As some journalism professors are fond of saying, one semester of “don’t do this and don’t do that” in an ethics course quickly goes down the tubes when a student becomes a media practitioner and is rapidly re-socialized by the breathtaking corruption and unprofessional practices that afflict much of the media. Translation: you can tell them not to take bribes, but some will do so once they’re on the beat. Except that some become even better at it than their elders.

That may sound like an excuse for failure, or partial failure. But the key is Philippine society. To rise above its flaws– its corruption, its deceits and its self-destruction–requires the greatest of wills. Though a child of that society UP does try to be critical of it, for which tendency it is noted. But it can’t escape either the pressures of that flawed society–or the power of its values.

There’s the budget, of course, which this year, despite the most vigorous lobbying among congressmen and senators (most of them UP alumni and alumnae, who are among the most hostile to UP in this country), is P3 billion less than its proposed P7.2 billion. At P4.34 billion, the UP budget is nearly a third of the entire budget for state universities and colleges (P15. 7 billion)–but one-tenth the budget (P40.3 billion) for the Department of Defense, which speaks volumes about government priorities. In fact, the allotment for UP’s maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE) has been reduced by 20 percent–which is not really unusual, because MOOE has been steadily declining each year, and which explains why you can’t find a half-decent toilet in UP Diliman.

The budget aside, however, this year (this summer particularly), a developing controversy is threatening to similarly demonstrate how susceptible UP is to the same values it is often critical of. A potential scandal is brewing on the conduct of the UP Alumni Association (UPAA) elections, a long process that this year should conclude by May 31, but is likely to be further prolonged by lawsuits.

It looks like a teapot tempest but only at first glance. Those watching the controversy unfold are aghast that it should be happening in UP, and especially among its alumni–the products of its moral and intellectual tutelage whose conduct says more about UP than the legion of experts it has, or the quality of its programs across the entire range of human skill and knowledge.

The UPAA elections are threatening to be a microcosm of Philippine elections, which by common agreement are corrupt, expensive and brutal affairs. There are allegations of a P1-million war chest, flaws in the processing of ballots, and even a less-than-impartial Comelec. The UPAA Comelec is not a commission but a committee, but is similarly accused of the kind of partisanship the constitutional body has been accused of–specifically, of one of its members’ alleged electioneering in favor of one of the two groups contesting the elections for the UPAA Board of Directors.

That accusation–already made in writing by one of the two groups–and questions over the votes of some 4,300 UP alumni, plus the votes of last year’s alumni–are at the center of the controversy.

The case for partisanship, though not established by any official inquiry, is critical to the last two issues. The group identified with the “biased” Committee on Elections member brought the 4,300 votes in, but without the authorization from the alleged voters, or at least data sheet, that the committee’s own rules mandate. On the other hand, the 2002 alumni votes are being contested by the same group because they say those alumni are no longer UPAA members in good standing.

What’s critical is that the committee will rule (or has already ruled) on both issues. The committee member accused of partiality is an alumnus of the same fraternity as the committee chairman’s. One of the groups contesting the elections is identified with the same fraternity, which has been in control of UPAA for years. It would seem that the electioneering complaint is basis enough for inhibiting himself, but that has not been forthcoming.

Does all this sound familiar? It does, and it’s happening in UP, in the running of which the president of the alumni association does play an important role. As a representative of the alumni, he or she sits in the Board of Regents, the highest decision-making body of UP, on the premise that he or she is the rightful representative of all UP alumni. That means an important say on how UP discharges its mandate to the nation, the alumni representative being one of three representatives of UP academic constituencies (the students and the faculty, who are represented by their respective regents, are the two others).

Few Filipinos do think about UP except in rare circumstances, but right now those Filipinos who have come to know about the UPAA controversy can’t be blamed for wondering if, as alumni of the country’s leading university, the people involved couldn’t have acted less like children of Philippine society and more like how their UP education says they should. Apparently, they couldn’t.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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