UP academic community in disquiet, laments ‘loss’ of democratic governance

Oblation: The University of the Philippines' iconic symbol —PHOTO BY THE PHILIPPINE COLLEGIAN

The recent appointment of the new chancellor of the University of the Philippines Diliman has been disquieting for the academic community of students, faculty and staff in the country’s premier university, and the growing resentment against the selection process could turn into resistance to the administration of the new UP president, Angelo Jimenez.

On April 3, Jimenez and the majority of the 11-member Board of Regents, the university’s highest policymaking body, selected UP College of Law Dean Edgardo Carlo L. Vistan II as the new chancellor of Diliman, the UP System’s prime unit.

Vistan won over archeologist Victor Paz and math professor Fidel Nemenzo, who had been endorsed as the most qualified among the three by faculty members, student councils and organizations, and staff unions.

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From left: Fidel Nemenzo, Victor Paz, and Edgardo Carlo Vistan II —PHOTOS BY GIE RODENAS AND AR JAY REVIILA/PHILIPPINE COLLEGIAN

Nemenzo was seeking the post again after completing his three-year term as chancellor in March and failing to win the BOR’s support for his bid for the UP presidency last December.

“When the decision of the BOR on the chancellor came out, we were very surprised and saddened,” said College of Engineering Dean Tonette Tanchuling, who opened a public forum on April 17 on the fate and future of “democratic governance” in the university. She said many questioned the basis of the choice after considering the highest degree obtained, academic rank, administrative qualification and teaching experience of each of the three nominees.

Vistan has a master of laws degree and is a candidate for doctor of laws at Yale University. Paz and Nemenzo have a doctorate in their respective fields. Vistan taught for eight years; Paz, 36; and Nemenzo, 31. Nemenzo is a Professor 12, Paz a Professor 11, and Vistan an Assistant Professor 7. 

Of the three, Nemenzo has the most varied administrative experience.

‘The issue is merit’

Tanchuling said the three candidates all had the eligibility requirements to be nominated for chancellor. “But why are we opposing [the BOR’s choice]? The issue is merit, which should be primordial in a university,” she said.

All students and faculty undergo evaluation to uphold academic excellence and integrity. “These criteria should also be applied to our academic leaders,” she said.

Only four of the 11 regents, voted for Nemenzo—the student, faculty and staff, plus another regent.

“It is very sad that the credentials essential to an academic leader were ignored,” Tanchuling said. “We cannot accept that our administration has utterly disregarded our voice and our values of democratic governance, academic freedom, academic excellence and integrity that we have long fought for.”

Tanchuling was one of the 94 senior faculty, including 19 professor emeriti, students, alumni and staff who signed an open letter to Jimenez dated April 10 expressing dismay over the decision and demanding transparency and accountability in the search process. 

They urged Jimenez, who took office on Feb. 10, to make the search committee report public in order to clarify the basis for the BOR’s decision. They specifically want an explanation for his own vote and for him to persuade the other regents to also disclose their reasons for choosing Vistan.

Latrell Felix, the University Student Council chair, said that after the BOR’s decision was announced, she confronted Jimenez about the selection process.

“He kept on saying, ‘After all, the votes of the Board of Regents were based on their individual conscience and good faith,’” Felix said. “But is that really so? Because there are communities at stake and it’s supposed to be on the communities’ side that you are going to cast your vote. This is not based on your personal choices. You do not represent yourself but the community.” 

The head of the Commission on Higher Education chairs the BOR, with the UP president as cochair. The other regents are the heads of the Senate and House committees on higher education, three Malacanang appointees, and four others representing the student, faculty, staff and alumni who are chosen by their constituents.

‘Extraordinary significance’

The signatories to the open letter to Jimenez acknowledged that the BOR was a “collegial and democratic” body, but said that with regard to academic governance, the UP community’s “preference assumes extraordinary significance and deserves to be respected.”

“This selection simply defies logic and goes against the standards of academic meritocracy—which we judge ourselves by—as well as elementary standards of good governance, and basic principles of organizational management,” they said.

Jimenez’s handling of the selection process less than two months after he took office “will signal” how he will lead UP for the rest of his term.

“The trust and confidence of the UP Diliman community, the support of your constituency, and the credibility of your Office have now been seriously compromised,” said the signatories, addressing Jimenez. “Instead of seeing your first selection process as an opportunity to gain wider adherence and support from a vibrant institution, you have chosen to alienate and disavow it.”

Nemenzo lost in the BOR vote for UP president last Dec. 10 despite being considered the frontrunner among six candidates.

Tanchuling said the real issue was not the loss of one personality. “What was lost was democratic governance; thus, it was the university that was defeated,” she said.

‘Under siege’

Speaking at the same public forum on Monday, Professor Emeritus Eduardo Tadem of the UP Asian Center said recent events showed that UP was “under siege and assault from ‘trapo’ politics and transactional horse-trading.”

“April 3 would be remembered as a day of infamy and shame at the University of the Philippines Diliman,” he said.

The BOR’s actions meant that it has “abandoned the time-honored tradition and principles of UP (or any institution of higher learning) for democratic governance, accountability, transparency, academic excellence, collegiality and leadership legitimacy,” according to Tadem.

Section 3 (h) of the UP Charter itself states that the purpose of the national university is to “provide democratic governance in the University based on collegiality, representation, accountability, transparency and active participation of its constituents.” 

A “Movement for Democratic Governance in UP” has been formed in the wake of the new Diliman chancellor’s appointment.

Critics say that the BOR’s actions merely reflect the general condition outside the university and that the alleged moves against the democratic rights of the UP community must be resisted.

“What we don’t have [in UP], or the absence of democratic governance, it’s the same with our national government,” said former Faculty Regent Ramon Guillermo, director of the Center for International Studies.

Guillermo also noted that over the past two years, the BOR had been calling an increasing number of “executive sessions,” or meetings held with no staff present and with no formal recording of what was discussed.

“It has become normal,” he said.

Tanchuling said the rest of the country must know about what is happening because “we are a public university.”

“This is the people’s taxes. All Filipinos have a connection to UP,” she said.

Tadem said that “whether we like it or not, the whole country, the entire nation, is looking up to UP” as the “cream of the crop.”

“The future is at stake here. If we do not make a stand here in the University of the Philippines, how can we make a stand outside the university?” he said, adding:

“And what kind of example can we show to our families, to our countrymen, if we just lie down and accept our rights being trampled upon inside the university? What kind of graduates will we produce who will serve the people in the future?”

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