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The Burden of Being a National University

The Burden of Being a National University

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Published by: Joan Priela Morada on May 10, 2011
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The Burden of Being a National University
(Paper read at the UP System Conference, May 20-22 2009, Subic)

Randolf S. David
Professor, Dept. of Sociology College of Social Sciences and Philosophy

Not only because we are a university heavily subsidized by taxpayers’ money, but also because the public, in general, believes rightly or wrongly that since we have produced in the last one hundred years most of the nation’s leaders and achievers in various fields -- we are asked to take responsibility for the kind of society we have become. No one perhaps has put this to us more sharply than one of our centennial guest lecturers last year, SGV founder Washington SyCip, who told us: “If UP has accurately claimed that during the past 62 years after we left the US umbrella, UP graduates have occupied the presidential chair for 46 years, then may I ask you, ‘Why are we in such a mess?’”1 Mr. SyCip might as well have asked the same question of the Catholic Church, to which I assume the majority of the nation’s presidents belong. But that would not be fair, just as it is not fair to make UP answerable for the mess created by a few of its alumni who had the fortune to be elected the nation’s president. For, no single institution can be held responsible for what individuals do or fail to do after they have passed its portals. Yet, Mr. SyCip can hardly be faulted for articulating a thought that does make a lot of sense at first blush. If indeed we take pride in being the school that produces the nation’s presidents, then why is the country in such a mess? We cannot claim too much credit for the achievements of our graduates, and not also assume the accompanying responsibility for the problems they create. But, having said this, it is important for us to bear in mind that our people only have a vague idea of what we do as a university, how we function as an academic community, and, most of all, how we

2 understand our work. The public consciousness harbors certain expectations, usually inflated, about the kind of graduates we should be producing – expectations that are not always in accord with our concept of what an educated person should be, or expectations that, though we may agree with them, we are not always in a position to meet. Our graduates, for example, are expected to top all the national examinations, and, at the same time, to be actively involved in the affairs of the nation -- to be not only the best in their respective fields, but also to be socially aware and engaged. This immediately poses certain practical questions for us: For example, should we preoccupy ourselves with the training of potential bar topnotchers, or should we dismiss this goal and focus instead on “the teaching of the law in the grand manner”? We in the faculty are burdened by more or less the same expectations. A UP professor is not only expected to teach well, but also to serve as the mind, the conscience, and the heart of the nation. Yet, at the same time, we are not permitted to grumble too much about poor learning conditions and low pay. Doing so is seen as demeaning if not unpatriotic. We are constantly reminded that we are in this great institution to serve our country and not ourselves. That teaching in UP is a vocation, not a source of livelihood. In many ways, we who work here have adopted these public expectations as our own, and we have often tried to reflect these in our own understanding of our institutional functions. These hopes are however largely unexamined, and recurrent judgments that we have failed to meet them have given rise to a rhetoric of anxiety that dominates institutional reflection and reform. As our society moves in the direction of modernity -- i.e., in the direction of greater functional differentiation -- there is an urgent need for us to re-think and maybe re-draw the space we occupy so that our resources are not spread so thinly, and our chances of excelling in a few well-chosen fields of endeavor, and thus of serving the needs of an increasingly complex Philippine society, are greatly enhanced. As we mark our one hundred years of existence, we not only look back upon our institutional origins and transformation over the last century, we are also, prompted to think about the future. I have

3 always believed that of all the institutions in society, it is the university that has a special affinity with the future. Our wish to remain relevant to our society and to the larger world of learning, of which we are no less a part, obliges us to review what we have become in the light of our understanding of what a university is supposed to be, to reinvent ourselves if necessary, and to do what we must in order that we may continue to play an important role in our society and in our times. Occasions for institutional reflection like the recent centennial lectures, or like this conference, are important. An insight from cognitive biology tells us that living systems that have secured their existential conditions in their environment tend to develop better cognitive abilities. The last century has shown that UP has not only survived, but indeed it has thrived in the society that gave birth to it. If our survival as a university were constantly threatened, we would perhaps be on our toes all the time, performing only the essential rational-instrumental tasks expected of any school. I doubt if we would have the time to pause, to reflect, and to hold conferences. But, of course, a greater capacity to see or to observe ourselves does not always guarantee optimum adaptation to our environment, which itself is also becoming more complex. In my contribution to the centennial lecture series2, I argued that, like living systems, the University of the Philippines, has evolved from its beginnings to become an autopoietic or self-creating system. This evolution – meaning, its gradual differentiation from its environment, coupled with its own internal differentiation, is what has given it longterm viability in an increasingly complex environment. In broad strokes, I tried to illustrate the evolutionary process that UP has undergone. I painted a picture of the UP as an institution that was founded to serve colonial ends. Yet, in just a short time, it turned into a bastion of anti-colonial ideas. Defying a surrounding culture that was profoundly religious, UP instantly became the center of an assertive secularism. Throughout the last century, UP took for granted its entitlement to State subsidy, but it never hesitated to bite the hand that fed it when provoked. Its ideological inclination has always been anti-Establishment. Even as it produces graduates that can fit into the existing social order, it openly bids them to go against the tide. “Tatak UP” is how we call it – a term that recalls non-

4 conformism, idealism, and the habit of criticism. This commitment to subversiveness is palpable in every corner of this institution, a fact that perhaps makes the legislators who approve our budget every year ask why they continue to fund a school that specializes in the training of the system’s grave-diggers. Yet, on the whole, Philippine society has tolerated our claim to autonomy, treating it as an institutional idiosyncrasy, a small price to pay for the overall excellence of its product. It is not to say we are not called to account for what we do or fail to do. Yes, as Washington SyCip tells us, we are. We’re endlessly heckled when we don’t land among the top universities in the world or in the Asian region. We find ourselves torn between playing the game of catch-up in order to improve our survey ranking, and refusing to participate in these surveys altogether because we do not agree with the criteria they use to measure a university’s worth. I personally think that, important as they are, we cannot allow ourselves to be too distracted by these ranking systems. If a university had to respond to every challenge from its environment, this would lead, the sociologist Niklas Luhmann3 writes, to a system “demanding more of itself than it could possibly achieve operationally.” This is so, he adds, “because given the complexity of the environment, the system does not have the ‘requisitive variety.’” What must be ensured, first of all, he says, is “that the environment tolerates the autopoiesis of the system.” This means, for the university, that it is seen as performing its work better than any possible alternative at a given moment, and that in so doing, it solves a key problem for the larger society of which it is a part. For a university, that problem basically revolves around the production, acquisition, and transfer of useful knowledge. To put it bluntly: We hold the franchise on knowledge in our society – we certify what constitutes worthwhile knowledge, who is qualified to teach it or to learn it, how, and who gets to be called an educated person. Instruction and research are our basic operations; and our function, as the highest rung in the educational system, is to prepare Filipinos to live in future social systems.

5 But, these, as we know, are not all that a premier university does. A university is also expected to play a part in the social division of labor. The substance of this role may vary from country to country. But in the main, it is expressed in the kind of knowledge that is regarded as relevant, in the expectation that a great university’s graduates must also be leaders and therefore must be politically conscious and equipped with leadership qualities, and in the direct part that the university is expected to play in the cultural development of the nation. We often regard these desiderata as subordinate to our principal tasks as producer and transmitter of knowledge. Yet, they tend to overshadow the importance of teaching and research in the public reckoning of a university’s performance in relation to the nation’s life. Indeed, we may say: we purchase our academic freedom -- the freedom to do research on any subject we choose and to teach without any external constraint -- by the degree to which we are able to demonstrate our usefulness to society. And that usefulness is rarely measured by the Filipino public in terms of the number of people we graduate or the number of articles we publish in peer-reviewed journals. We are permitted to be self-governing, like no other institution of higher learning in this country. But, in return, the nation that pays our expenses constantly expects us to show that we deserve this autonomy. It is difficult enough to be a university in the modern sense, going by the criteria that are used to gauge whether an institution of higher learning may be regarded as “world-class” or not.4 It is even harder to imagine what compound expectations accompany the new label we have assigned ourselves as “the national university.”5 This nomenclature suggests to me not just recognition but an explicit affirmation of the direct linkage between the university’s mission and the nation’s future. As I understand it, no longer must we be content to reckon our role in terms of our usual teaching and research functions. More than this, we are taking upon ourselves a role that traditional universities never needed to assume – and that is, to serve not only as the vanguard of the nation’s consciousness, but also the spearhead of its transition to a fully modern society. How might we respond to this challenge?

6 A. First of all, I think it is crucial for us not to forget that we cannot aspire to be the national university if we do not secure our status as a university in the first instance. Instruction and research – the creation, acquisition, adaptation, and transmission of useful knowledge are our basic tasks. If we don’t do them well, we lose our credibility and stature as a center of learning in the world of knowledge. We have so far remained basically a teaching university, yet we cannot ignore the fact that all over the world, the great universities are prioritizing the creation and application of new knowledge, relegating instruction increasingly to a notch below research. We have to bear this in mind, even as we know that UP cannot at this point subordinate its teaching function to research. Insofar as our basic tasks are concerned, there are at least two things we might consider doing: (1) Research: Even as we cannot compete on equal terms with the rich universities in the world in the conduct of basic and path-breaking research, we can, using the tools of our disciplines, focus on the various realities of our country, analytically sorting out their nature and the problems they pose, and drawing out their policy or problemsolving implications. There is a broad range of topics, the subject of many commentaries and opinions, still awaiting the expert views of specialists from UP – mass poverty, hunger, human rights violations, the communist insurgency, war in Mindanao, corruption, dysfunctional elections, urban congestion, human trafficking, drug addiction, racial and ethnic conflict, and the state of Philippine education itself, etc. We can also address the global problems of our time – climate change, pandemics, financial crises, religious and cultural conflicts, threats to biodiversity, global migration, etc. – by examining their concrete manifestations and implications for a country like ours, again using the observational and analytical tools of our disciplines. We need to complement the initiative of the solitary scholar or public intellectual by encouraging and supporting departmental research programs, and by organizing analytical working groups on such topics across disciplines. Graduate training must go hand in hand with research programs.

7 (2) Instruction: Undergraduate training still takes up the bulk of our faculty time and facilities. There are political, historical, and structural reasons for this. Our undergraduate programs are good and much sought-after, and democratizing access to them is a continuing affirmative effort on our part. Today, however, many colleges, both public and private, are offering the same undergraduate programs. Yet only a few universities have the capability to offer graduate training. We have to seriously think of expanding our graduate programs beyond their present levels, until at least the number of our graduate students is as big as our undergraduate enrollment, if not bigger. We must endeavor to train the teachers and administrators of the country’s educational system. We must try to enrich the content of our curricula and teaching materials by providing equal space to local applications, publications, and research findings. We need to embark on a large-scale program to produce textbooks, teaching materials, and programs of instruction, to be used not just by our own students by the rest of the nation’s colleges and universities. All this cannot happen without an aggressive push for research, creative reflection, and writing. These are preliminary thoughts, and I am fully aware I am entering contested territory. I intend them as starting points for discussion. They are by no means exhaustive. But they mirror the kind of shift that I personally think is worth pursuing. B. Secondly, allow me now to move to the other tasks that, as I said earlier, we typically regard as auxiliary to our main function as a university, but whose centrality to the university’s need to establish its presence in the society we cannot ignore. To the extent we are able to serve these functions, we, as the national university, thereby earn the right to govern ourselves and set our own directions. That’s how important they are. For want of a better way of designating them, I shall refer to them as: (1) The task of raising the quality of public discourse, and (2) The task of forming our students as the future leaders of the nation. (1) Raising the quality of public discourse.


Universities like UP are uniquely positioned to intervene in the ongoing public discussion of issues and problems. This is a terrain that tends to be dominated by politicians, social activists, church people, mass media commentators, and opinion writers. Each one of these players represents a perspective, a way of framing, speaking or understanding, a given topic. When the media turn to a professor for his or her views on a topic, however, they do not expect just any type of opinion but a specialist’s opinion that is informed by the disciplines in which he/she operates. There will be times when we may have no basis to give an expert opinion, but an interviewer may nonetheless press us to speak as a sociologist, economist, linguist, biologist, geologist, or physicist. Under such circumstances, if the statements we give do not proceed from what we know as specialists, then it behooves us to make clear that we are speaking as lay citizens rather than as scholars. To pretend otherwise – i.e. to lend the authority of our institutional or disciplinal affiliation to the plain opinions we hold as members of a society is to risk undermining the authority of our disciplines, and indeed, of the university we represent. Certainly, the problem that our people face with regard to information cannot be underestimated. The exponential growth in the capacity of the mass media to bring a broad range of issues into the realm of public discourse has not been matched by an increase in the highmindedness of public discussions. This is a social need that the university, especially one that calls itself the national university, must attempt to systematically address. Again, I quote from Washington SyCip’s lecture: “Can UP encourage its bright faculty to publish objective position papers on national issues that will stop the endless and confusing debates that are in full page ads in the daily newspapers?” This one is a fair challenge. And I dare say, of course we can and we should, even if there is no assurance at the beginning that when UP speaks, anyone will listen or that the debate will end. Units like the School of Economics and the College of Law have occasionally intervened in ongoing public discussions, with clear position papers or “white papers” that frame the issues according to the vision of their respective disciplines. They have enriched public debate as a result. But, in the main, such interventions have been the result of the individual initiatives of the faculty, rather than of any

9 sustained institutional effort. It should not be difficult for us, with commensurate support and encouragement from the university administration, to form working groups on a variety of public issues. Our interventions need not be couched in the language of advocacy – it is enough that they offer conceptual clarity, critique, and concrete proposals for finding solutions to problems. Such think pieces need not always be based on new research either; they could be syntheses of existing studies and data, new interpretations that can bring out the blind spots of current analysis. Such contributions are vastly different from the statements that sometimes we are called upon to issue from our university councils. The latter are manifestos that too often are not so different from those issued by other sectors of the public. They are prominently reported in the media only because they come from UP, not always because they spell any substantive difference in the way the issues are framed or analyzed. These statements may often become crucial elements in the political equation, but they do not enrich the public consciousness. The mandate we have earned for ourselves as a subsystem of society is not so much for us to take sides in the conflict of partisan interests as to be arbiters of what constitutes knowledge in our time, of what is true and what is false, and of what can be claimed as a rational idea or course of action. But, we are not precluded from drawing conclusions that are politically consequential. It is important, however, that as we perform this task, we need to remind ourselves that political strife, even if we cannot entirely shield ourselves from it, is not the business of the university. Knowledge is. Reason is. These analytical papers need not always carry UP’s institutional seal. It is enough that they are issued from our premises, as a direct result of our work as academics. They can be the contribution of solitary authors, or they can be the joint work of a group of authors belonging to a department or college. Or they can be the in-house analyses of any of our research institutes. No less important than writing these is getting them into the circuit of public discourse – by way of symposia, press conferences, media interviews, television appearances, and articles in the popular media. We could aspire to do this until we reach a point when, as far as the public is concerned, no issue is considered closed until UP has spoken.

10 It is of course very tempting to short-circuit this whole process by issuing statements on every conceivable issue – statements that are not explicitly informed by our unique position as a center of learning -banking merely on our institutional prestige in order to be heard. This is a scandalous waste of intellectual capital that ultimately can only weaken our claim to being a university. 2. Forming our students as the future leaders of the nation We love to say that every UP graduate is more than just a collegedegree holder. He/she is, above all, a leader with a clear sense of purpose, a profound awareness of the basic problems of the country and of the world, and a passionate commitment to the national good. I still believe that, in general, this is true, although that is no reason to place upon the shoulders of UP graduates the entire weight of the Filipino nation’s past and future. Our students come to us as young adults already equipped with basic ideas of right and wrong. The values of their families and of the communities in which they are raised are already impressed on their character when they enter UP. We hold them for an average of 4 to 5 years – or, in some courses, up to a maximum of 8 years. But the public forgets that we do not run a monastery or a total institution that regulates every aspect of a student’s existence. Indeed, on the contrary, we make it a point that in the conduct of our evaluative function as a learning institution, we turn a blind eye on a student’s family background, religion, politics, social class or ethnicity. And so, during the period they are with us, our students remain open to a variety of other influences – the mass media, their families, their churches, their political organizations, their friends, and what they see in the larger society outside. We are not even supposed to poke our nose into any of these influences, except when they interfere with the business of learning itself. We may suggest or offer advise, but we cannot and do not command the loyalties of our students. Still, we make sure our students pick up some important values while they are with us, notably those associated with the General Education Program: love of country, social justice, solidarity, the need to think for oneself, rational argument, critical inquiry, thirst for knowledge,

11 etc. We also help them acquire what Habermas6 has called “extrafunctional” abilities that equip them for leadership positions in their chosen professions – “attributes and attitudes that are not contained per se in professional knowledge and skills.” None of these, as we know, are taught or professed in any programmatic way as in, say, a grade school values or morality subject. Rather, they are acquired in the course of their stay in the university community. We can only create the conditions that multiply the occasions in which such values may be imbibed. A university is not in the business of preaching morality, if by that is meant instruction in a single unified moral code that can provide an adequate distinction of good and evil for every conceivable context. Allow me to elaborate this point so that it is not misunderstood. In a modern differentiated society, where various function systems operate on the basis of their separate codes, a student may be taught the ethics applicable to a given system – be this law, politics, business, science, medicine, art, education, or mass media. But what is regarded as good in one system will not always correspond to what is desirable in another. This is to be expected, especially in a modern society. Among the things we teach our students is precisely that they must learn to differentiate – e.g. that what is good for their family is not always good for the country, that what is profitable is not always legal, that what is legal may not always be moral, etc. I have always believed, in this regard, that the so-called moral crisis gripping our country today is not due to Filipinos’ lack of any moral sense, or a weakness in their values. The crisis stems rather from a recurrent conflict of values – the tendency to apply moral notions drawn from one system to other systems where they are not appropriate. This is a problem that is particularly troublesome in societies undergoing the transition from tradition to modernity. Much of what we call corruption stems precisely from a failure to differentiate the multiple dimensions of human activity. For UP to take on the responsibility for the moral education of its students – beyond the ethical norms that are specific to function systems – is to assume, in the first instance, the existence of a moral consensus in society. I think it will tie down the university in an endless and ultimately futile search for moral universals that, if they

12 are not bare injunctions without much instructive significance, are bound to be very contentious. Having said this, I do very much subscribe to the idea that a university, especially the national university, the premier university of a country, has a special role to play in the formation of its students’ political consciousness. I do not understand this in the narrow sense of being committed to any ideology, whether left or right. I mean it rather in the broad sense of being profoundly aware of the social realities we confront today as a nation in a complex globalized world. I mean it too in the philosophical sense of being able to see oneself and one’s life as tightly intertwined with the fate of one’s society. At this present stage in country’s development, we cannot pretend as if our role is just to teach and do research. Bearing in mind where our country is today, that would be unconscionably ivory-towerish. A devastated Germany bent on rapid reconstruction faced the same question right after the end of the Second World War. Jurgen Habermas asked: “Can and should the university today restrict itself to what appears to be the only socially necessary function and at best institutionalize what remains of the traditional cultivation of personality as a separate educational subject divorced from the enterprise of knowledge?”7 He strongly argued against this illusion. Today, many of our universities find themselves irresistibly pulled by the magnet of economic processes, and, as a result, restrict their functions solely to the production and transmission of technically exploitable knowledge. It would be disastrous for our country if we followed this path. Whether we like it or not, our graduates, more than the graduates of any other tertiary school in the country, are today called upon to lead the nation through these difficult times -- to inspire our people by their example, to personify the heroic ideals of public service, and to commit themselves to the unfinished task of building the nation. But let me say again --these are not functions traditionally associated with a university. At the beginning of this paper, I precisely warned against the tendency of institutions to resonate every perturbation in their environment, which they may not have the requisite complexity to handle. But there seems no way for us to ignore some of these perturbations. By the contingencies of its unique development as a center of higher learning, UP has found itself cast in this difficult role

13 – a role it cannot abdicate without undermining the long-term prospects of the very society from which it draws its life. To me, this is the biggest burden that being the national university of our country has placed upon us. It is a reminder that we don’t just train professionals, we produce the nation’s leaders – Filipinos who, on top of what they must learn as professionals, are especially educated to become familiar with the nation’s history, to identify with its aspirations, to take on its manifold problems as their personal responsibility, to integrate commitment to the public good in everything they do, and most of all, to chart the nation’s future. In ordinary times, this undoubtedly is too much to ask of any student, no matter how much public subsidy goes into his education. But these are extraordinary times. Without wishing to sound melodramatic, I want to say that in all the 42 years I have taught in the university, I have never felt our society to be so distressed and so confused as it is today. I believe it is our duty to communicate to our students in no uncertain terms the nation’s cry for help. If it is necessary to consecrate one whole generation of UP students to pull the nation out of its present rut, we must do so in full awareness of what we need to do and why we must do it now. We must tell our students what is expected of them from the first day they set foot on any of our campuses. They must, from day one, think of their stay in UP as a rigorous preparation for a time when they must take in their hands a good part of the levers of decision-making for the nation. To think less than this is to be miscast in the wrong university. What does this mean for the task of teaching? It means we don’t just transmit knowledge. We form vocations for national service. That’s what being a national university suggests – at the minimum. How do we begin to organize ourselves, and the enterprise of learning itself, to carry out this function? There is no substitute, in the first instance, to the self-organization of students. The university must actively provide the conditions in which students can participate in the political discussions of the larger society as a constitutive part of the learning process. This connotes enormous responsibilities on the part of the university, and inevitably

14 pits the institution against many parents and politicians who may seek to confine the UP’s mission to the training of economically productive but politically apathetic graduates. Secondly, the university must realize that it cannot fulfill this function if it starts phasing out departments and courses whose practical value to national development is only indirect and cannot immediately be demonstrated. I have in mind courses in history, literature, the humanities, philosophy, and the social sciences whose survival has been imperiled in universities abroad that are being rationalized as profit-seeking corporations. I have time for only two final points. The first has to do with the further democratization of admissions. I would ask the university – the national university – to consider expanding admissions from the various provincial high schools, by identifying those high-caliber public high schools to whose valedictorian and salutatorian graduates we may offer automatic admission into UP. I will forever be grateful that this policy existed at the time I entered UP in the Sixties, for I was one of its beneficiaries. We need not compromise quality or lower our assessment standards to accommodate such students. We can offer learning assistance schemes, if needed, and tap some of our bright students to help ease their transition to UP’s rigorous system. I would also propose expanding scholarship programs aimed explicitly at supporting the tuition and living costs of bright students from the remote regions. The second point has to do with the establishment of a modified Pahinungod program. Every year, we can offer to our fresh graduates the opportunity to work as volunteers for a minimum of one year in a local government unit, or at any of the regional agencies of the national government. We can tap the alumni and some international organizations to fund a young blood civil servant program. The UP will guarantee a monthly living allowance. The objective is basically to motivate our graduates to acquire an early stake in the solution of the nation’s persistent problems as civil servants. We will encourage the participants to keep a journal of their internship, and we will publish the best of these learning experiences.

15 There are countless other things we can do, for which we have the requisite structures, or which will not take away significant resources from the main activities we are already pursuing. We have never lacked imagination; our worst enemy has been pessimism. Some of may think that many of the tasks I have enumerated here are none of the business of a university. That would be true in an important sense – if we stopped calling ourselves the National niversity of the Philippines. The principal burden of being a national university is precisely that we have to be -- for our country -- not just a source of light, but a beacon of hope and commitment through many seasons of despair. ----------oOo----------


Washington SyCip, “Questions for the future of U.P.,” Sept. 3, 2008 Randolf S. David, “Modernity and the University”, August 29, 2008 Niklas Luhmann, The Reality of the Mass Media. Stanford University Press, 1996. p. 96. Jamil Salmi, The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities. The World Bank, 2009.




Congress of the Philippines, R.A. 9500, “An Act to Strengthen the University of the Philippines as The National University”, April 29, 2008. Jurgen Habermas, “The University in a Democracy” in Toward a Rational Society, Beacon Press, 1970, p. 2.
7 6


Ibid., p. 4

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