WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A PUBLIC University in a democratic society?

Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 11, 2008

It is to be beholden at once to two masters: one, to the nation whom the university was created to serve, and at the same time, to the universal guild of learned peers without whose imprimatur a university is unworthy. Those two masters rarely talk, and when they do, they speak past the other in alien tongues.

The University of the Philippines?€? centennial celebration unites those dual commitments. On Tuesday, it kicked off the rites with a public concert by UP?€?s famed choral and symphonic groups, and on Wednesday, the academics gathered for a lecture by David Jonathan Gross, 2004 Nobel Laureate in Physics, when he received an honorary doctorate. UP president Emerlinda Roman will lead each campus (from Diliman, to Padre Faura, to Los Banos, all the way to Davao) in choosing their own ways to mark the centennial, as benefit the strengths of each faculty.

The UP Centennial Commission, chaired by Sen. Edgardo Angara, who was the UP president when I was a law student, will host the Centennial Lectures: jus to mention a few, from the social sciences, former UP presidents Dodong Nemenzo and Pepe Abueve, and sociologist Randy David; from the natural sciences, marine biologist Ed Gomez and physicist Joey Magpantay; and former the arts and letters, writer Jimmy Abad and composer Ramon Santos.

The UP reached out as well to local and global neighbors, and will feature lectures by the Jesuit mathematician Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, S.J., Ateneo president, and by biologist Baldomero Olivera, Harvard?€?s 2007 ?€?Scientist of the Year?€ and loyal UP alumnus.

The Centennial Commission will also launch a fund campaign to raise P5 billion for, among others, scholarships and faculty grants, consisting of matching funds raised by alumni to top the national government?€?s budgetary commitment. It is good news that we have now begun to follow the American tradition of alumni-giving to the alma mater.

Already, Silicon Valley entrepreneur, engineer Diosdado Banatao has pledged $500,000, the UP Alumni Engineers (UPAE) $400,000, and Dr. Magdaleno B. Albarracin (former dean of business administration) will match the UP-AE?€?s $400,000 pledge. It shows how much the alumni cherish the education that they received (and on this point, allow me to thank the UP law alumni who so generously gave to Malcolm Hall when I was law dean).

But we also have a long way to go in education our public and our government on why state universities should be supported with taxpayers?€? money. All over the world, not just in Europe but even among our Southeast Asian neighbors, governments fund their national, or imperial, or state universities. The phenomenon of the ?€?private?€ university, in fact, is the curious exception rather than the rule, but for the intellectual boondocks in the Philippine islands and in America.

Hereabouts, the popular image of the thinker is that of Jose Rizal?€?s Filosofo Tasio: bookish, out of touch with reality, useless at worst, marginal at best. Yet if ideas were so innocuous, why then, at the height of the McCarthyist witch-hunt of the 1950s, did Congress summon the chair of UP?€?s philosophy department, Ricardo Pascual, student of Bertrand Russell at Chicago, for his ideas on ?€?partyless democracy?€? Why would the cacique elite, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the US Central Intelligence Agency be paranoid about a theory they barely understood?

Democracies are indubitably good for universities: which thrive on the soil of freedom, but they also tend to judge universities by the wrong standards. Democracies apply the test of popularity, and ignore the scholar?€?s mission to seek new, if irreverent, truths. We see the university merely as, a source of diplomas that open the door to well-paying jobs. We delight in newspapers listings of those who excel in licensing examinations. We revel in the vibrant energies of the theater and the concert hall, and the wild cheering on the athletic fields. That is fine, because that is all part of the human side of learning.

But internationally, what elevates a school into a university is the research and publication by its faculty-the quiet toil in laboratories, in fieldwork, in historical archives. It is in the obscure and esoteric world of research, published in refereed journals, that the UP has shown its inner strength, especially in the basic sciences, and for which the nation time and gain has turned to it in past crises. A volcano erupts once every 200 years, but it takes the academics to have the patience to study them in between. And when finally a Mount Pinatubo erupts, a busy nation stops to learn the meaning of the word "lahar".