THE University of the Philippines has been celebrating since May this year the birth centennial of one of its greatest presidents. The celebrations, which have included lectures, symposia, photo exhibits and publications on Salvador P. Lopez, who was UP President from 1969 to 1975, will end in October.

“SP” to his staff in the department of foreign affairs and in UP, Lopez came to the presidency of the University with a distinguished background in literature, journalism and diplomacy. He wrote in 1940 the pioneering essay “Literature and Society,” in which he took issue with the then current view of “art for art’s sake” which was identified with Jose Garcia Villa. Lopez contended that to be meaningful, literature must confront the issues that define the human condition, a view he shared with the social realist writers of his time.

A columnist and newspaper editor until World War II, Lopez joined the Philippine foreign service after the war, and was Secretary of Foreign Affairs after his assignment as Ambassador to the United Nations.

Lopez assumed the presidency of UP in a time of unprecedented and as yet unequalled intellectual ferment in UP and the entire country. Spreading from UP to the media, artists’ groups, students and professors in other schools, among workers and peasants, that ferment examined and questioned the conventional wisdom in politics and governance, the economy, culture and the arts, and Philippine-US relations among others that justified a state of affairs that perpetrated the poverty based on the feudal relations that reigned in the countryside, and the web of agreements that assured the country’s status as a US client- state.

In seminars, teach-ins, lectures and discussion groups, a coherent critique of the state of Philippine society had emerged. It identified feudalism, imperialism and bureaucrat capitalism as the basic causes of Philippine poverty and underdevelopment, and proposed “national democracy” — the dismantling of feudalism in the countryside and the realization of authentic independence — as the solution .

The declaration of martial law in 1972 was primarily driven by Ferdinand Marcos’ determination to remain in power beyond 1973 — when, having been reelected in 1969, the 1936 Constitution banned his running again. But it was also intended to end the movement towards democratization, reform and revolution that had engulfed the country’s schools, factories and rural communities.

The martial law period was so far the most dangerous for the University of the Philippines in its entire history. But UP had also been in peril during and in the aftermath of the huge demonstrations, some of them led by UP students, that rocked the country in 1970, and the student occupation of UP’s Quezon City campus known as the Diliman Commune.

UP had been identified not only as the center of the radical student movement, but also as the main intellectual and cultural resource of the student, worker and peasant sectors that were demanding a larger role in governance in furtherance of the restructuring of the Philippine economic and social systems. Both before and during the martial law period, UP, its constituencies and its institutions, were major targets of state repression.

Barely a year after his appointment as UP President, Lopez was confronted with the violent police dispersal of the January 26, 1970 demonstration before Congress, which, together with the January 30th demonstration at Malacanang, generated the wave of marches, demonstrations and strikes that were so much part of Philippine life and politics in 1970.

Instead of echoing the Marcos administration line, as was expected of a career government official focused on protecting his job, that repression was justified because it was in response to a threat on the lives of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, Lopez declared that “The night of January 26 must be regarded as a night of grave portent for the future of the nation.”

He asked if, under these circumstances, it was “still possible to transform our society by peaceful means so that the many who are poor, oppressed, sick, and ignorant may be released from their misery by the actual operation of law and government.” Lopez implied that that time had passed because of the government’s fear and suppression of protest.

In the aftermath of the January 30th demonstration before Malacanang during which some students were killed by the military and the police, Lopez called a meeting of the faculty during which it was decided that UP deans, professors, staff members and students who wanted to, would march to Malacanang with Lopez himself at its head. That march did take place, marking the first time in which a UP President was ever involved in a mass action protesting government policy and actions.

The martial law period tested Lopez’ libertarian outlook most. The chief danger to UP at that time was its potential transformation into a mouthpiece of the martial law government through uncritical acceptance of government policies and the loss of its academic freedom.

Lopez very early on showed that he would resist all such efforts despite the reality of authoritarian rule, and that he would continue to speak his mind, preferring, in his own words, “to be silenced rather than to be silent.”

Lopez refused to dismiss activist professors and students, and demonstrated his independence most when he was invited to deliver the 1974 University of Hawaii Dillingham Lecture. He made it clear to his staff that he was “no drumbeater for the government,” and that, in his lecture, he intended to tell the truth no matter what the consequences, which, among others, could be his non-renewal as UP President come 1975.

Lopez’ lecture began with a quick summary, through a quotation from William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” of the state of affairs in the Philippines under martial law:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

This was not the case with UP itself. In its darkest hours, SP Lopez had managed to preserve and hold the center and core of UP life: its independence and intellectual daring, and its commitment to the service of the Filipino nation. UP has thankfully not forgotten “SP’s” fearless defense of UP and the nation at the time of their greatest peril.

(Adapted from “Holding the Center: SP Lopez’ Activism,” UP Newsletter: July- August, 2011)

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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