The flourishing of a university
I will not join the spirited exchanges now ongoing on social media over an honorary doctorate for the President of the Philippines. But what interests me about it is why it should matter at all upon whom degrees, even if honorary, are conferred and and what it suggests about the culture of a university.
A university is the locus of that difficult but necessary tension between freedom and rigidity. Academic freedom is not some fringe benefit a university enjoys. So essential is it to the life of a university that without it, there is, strictly speaking, no university at all. “Universitas scholarum et magistrorum” —and that meant a universe of freedom: unfettered minds, unbridled discourse, uncensored publication. That is why I have always chafed at subjecting universities to a surfeit of regulation. Government regulatory agencies serve universities best by being guardians of their academic freedom—in much the same way that the Constitution serves the people best by being the impeder of impeders! On the other hand, the scholars of the university are held to the highest standards of scholarship and the most stringent adherence to the canons of their disciplines. No decent physicist will be ever be paid heed again who quotes as authority the Book of Genesis, neither will a philosopher be given much credence who arrives at conclusions by using the formulas of integral calculus! The only acceptable censors in a university are one’s academic peers — and they hold the scholar, the professor and the student to account for method, procedure and the validity of inference.
At one time, I was an officer of the Philippine Association for Graduate Education (PAGE), and I sat for a session at which the late Bro. Andrew Gonzalez, FSC was invited to speak on “The Extension Work of Graduate Schools”. And the conference turned out to be an unmitigated let-down for the late Fr. Ramon Salinas, OP—PAGE’s long-time president—and his associates, not because Andrew was not good. On the contrary, he was his usual brilliant self, but instead of discoursing on the extension work of graduate schools, he lambasted the whole notion of extension work for advanced education. If, he argued, graduate students in the Philippines hardly produce quality papers, what time is there for extension work? And to what end? I do not say that I subscribe to this skepticism about extension work, but it is this kind of ferment, this clash of views that makes a university flourish. When the exchange is muted, then proportionally too is there a withering of academic life!
Lately, OBE—Outcomes Based Education—has been the mantra of the Commission on Higher Education, and there is much to be said for it. Setting institutional outcomes and determining “expected graduate attributes”, it is believed—and with good reason—is one way of bridging the troubling gap between university schooling and the demands of industry. And so it is that colleges within a university formulate their program objectives orientated towards the institutional objectives, and teachers drive themselves to their wits’ end writing syllabi according to the rubrics of OBE. There is much to be said for OBE, but when the demands of industry and enterprise and job opportunity determine curriculum, lay down the process of delivery and become the measure of a university’s success, then the very soul of a university is emaciated. The point rather is that the freedom of a university is exactly what makes the university graduate create opportunities for himself. The true university graduate does not fit into industry. He changes industry. He does not look for jobs that need his expertise. His expertise rather draws the attention of those who are clever enough to recognize that they need them!
And so it is that in my present job as Vice President for Administration and Finance of a state university, I am ever aware that I cannot truncate university life by making systems and schemes, manuals of operation and procedure in any way compromise and prejudice that openness and liberty that alone can assure the flourishing of a university and that make of it one huge public space — an agora, in the best of Greek traditions. Whatever administrative procedures and functions must be dutifully carried out will be justified only in the measure that they enable the sustainability and the enhancement of the drive for research, the irrepressible eros of inquiry and the inevitable clashes born out of intellectual conviction and integrity. Professors have to be paid according to an acceptable salary scale. Classrooms have to be adequate, and facilities have to be upgraded, the library well-stocked, the laboratories, state of the art. And the end of all administrative efficiency and fastidiousness is to provide for that environment where academic freedom reigns supreme: where no question is too embarrassing or too sensitive to be discussed, where no problem is ever too recondite to wrestle and tackle. So it is too that administration cannot and should not be vexed with forever placating a restive faculty that is unable to transcend visceral needs no matter the most earnest attempts at meeting them.
Indeed, the university flourishes by that restiveness that is the hallmark of the seeking spirit that hurtles towards an infinite horizon by ceaseless questioning. I like Popper’s characterization: Not in the accumulation of theories, but in the constant overthrow of theories and their replacement by better ones. This is what it means for a university to flourish!