University of the Philippines
Quezon Hall (University of the Philippines photo)

To the list of human rights lawyers and defenders; political and social activists; research and media organizations; reformist officials in government; independent journalists; Lumad leaders and school teachers; teachers’ groups; and farmers’, workers’, and student leaders whom they have labeled as either guerrillas of the New People’s Army (NPA), members and supporters of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and/ or of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), or as recruiters for the NPA, the Duterte regime and its loyalist military have added universities and colleges.

As part of a wide-ranging, multi-sectoral assault on regime critics and anyone else who disagrees with the regime’s self-serving versions of governance, public issues, events and reality itself, the spokespersons of its National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) have named— not accused, but named— 30 universities as NPA recruitment centers.

The list includes all three of the Philippines’ best universities— the University of the Philippines (UP), Ateneo De Manila University (ADMU), and De La Salle University (DLSU) — and the University of Santo Tomas (UST), incidentally the oldest university in this country. Two of the first three are in every list of the world’s best 500 universities, with UP at 159th place in the latest global rankings.

Twenty six more colleges and universities, most of them in the National Capital Region (NCR), are in the list. But the actual number is more than 18. Because the University of the Philippines is a system of seven constituent universities (UP Manila, UP Diliman, UP Los Banos, UP Cordillera. UP Visayas, UP Cebu, UP Mindanao and the UP Open University), by labeling it an NPA recruitment and “terrorist haven,” the NTF-ELCAC list in reality consists of 37 universities and colleges.

Because being in that list can lead to their getting death threats and even being killed, the students and faculty of the universities concerned would be perfectly justified in fearing for their safety, and in censoring themselves both in and out of the classroom in the awareness that they’re being watched for what they teach and what they say.

The list is thus not only an attack on free expression but also on academic freedom. Academic freedom is guaranteed for all institutions of higher learning by the 1987 Constitution. But that fact is either unknown to the red-baiters, or is just one more legal constraint on the abuse of power that they prefer to ignore

This latest outrage against academic freedom and free expression came on the heels of the Department of National Defense’s (DND) unilateral and uncivil termination last January 15 of its 1989 agreement with UP under the provisions of which the police and military can enter the latter’s campuses only with the permission of their administrators.

In reaction to criticism by the UP community of the abrogation of the agreement and the ongoing red-baiting (“red-tagging”) of the country’s premier university as an assault on academic freedom and as a threat to the safety and security of its professors, students and staff, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) volunteered to define academic freedom. (The CHED Chair also chairs its Board of Regents but UP is not under CHED supervision.)

The meaning of that concept is fairly well established, however, and the drafters of the 1987 Constitution, by guaranteeing in Article XIV Section 5 the enjoyment of academic freedom as the inherent right of every institution of higher learning, were apparently aware of how important it is not only to the country’s universities but also to Philippine society.
By common agreement among academics, free expression defenders, and enlightened, democratic governments, academic freedom is the right of professors to teach their areas of expertise in the manner they think best, and of both faculty and students to learn and do research and to share knowledge with the rest of society.

Professors teach but are also students, learning being the lifetime commitment of the truly educated. Both they and their academic wards are also members of the larger society. But despots and dictators, and fascists and theocrats have imposed limits on the teaching, research and extension functions of universities by making it dangerous for professors and students to teach and learn inconvenient truths, and by prohibiting the sharing outside academia of knowledge that may be contrary to their personal, familial, tribal, sectoral and class interests.

Such limits make a mockery of the freedom that institutions of higher learning need to advance and pass on knowledge to succeeding generations as well as to share it for the benefit of the citizenry. The incontestable truth is that human knowledge is never quite complete and must be constantly expanded. Its validity therefore has to be examined from time to time and cannot be enshrined as eternal and immutable. Doubt and uncertainty even about their own knowledge, findings and expertise are in fact among the characteristics of the truly informed; only the ignorant and the stupid think they already know everything.

It is for this reason that the capacity to do research regardless of the policies, opinions and preferences of the ruling elite, who in this country are so absolutely they know better than everyone else, is indivisible from the responsibilities of the true university. The knowledge thus gleaned from research and study professors transmit to their students who are also charged with doing their own inquiry into the many unexplored areas of their disciplines.
The findings generated are not solely for the institution and its constituents’ benefit. They must be shared with the rest of society. Knowledge is the most indispensable means through which free men and women can understand, change, and control the economic, social and political conditions that define their lives and those of their communities. Academic freedom is in this incontrovertible sense essential to the realization of human freedom; it is not solely “academic.”

It helps explain why tyrants have always feared universities and labeled them hotbeds of nonconformity, dissent, freedom, intellectual daring, and resistance to the enemies of reason and enlightenment. It is because true universities are all of these—and more.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, when the altered reality that had emerged globally after the deadliest conflict in history had to be understood and explained, and McCarthyism red-baited the professors of the University of Chicago, the anthropologist Robert Redfield described the duty of universities as “dangerous” in that the powerful will always target them because they are a threat to tyranny and the horrific impulses that had cost the lives of over 50 million people across the planet.

A true university’s duty is to provide the knowledge of the world that the enemies of humanity despise, and to prevent the dissemination of which they are prepared to do all they can including murder and mayhem so they can continue to rule under the illusion that they know better than the learned who have spent years in study, and the students they have taught and whose intellects they have nurtured.

More than anything else—more than the violence, the oppression, the mendacity and the incompetence—the certitude of ignorance is the tyrant’s worst vice. Describing false leaders a hundred years ago, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats put it so well in his poem “The Leaders of the Crowd”:

     “They must to keep their certainty accuse
     All that are different of a base intent...
                       How can they know (that)
     Truth flourishes where the student’s lamp has shone,
                                And there alone...?”

Also published on BusinessWorld. Photo from the University of the Philippines Facebook Page.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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