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Home Op-Ed Columns Opinion on Page One A university dishonored

A university dishonored

 

ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

I HAVE no problem when a university, and not only the University of the Philippines (UP), strictly adheres to academic standards of excellence, and expects its students and faculty to uphold those standards before they graduate or get promoted and tenured.

However, I have a fundamental problem when a university, more so if it is funded by taxpayers’ money, begins to function like a moral guardian, a gatekeeper of what is tolerable and acceptable.

 

The beauty of a university rests on its tolerance of voices not only of dissent, but also of those that are unpopular.

I can accept Catholic universities when they behave holier than thou, and impose an additional standard to measure good behavior of their constituents, which is consistent with Catholic or Christian values.

But not UP, not a secular university funded by people’s taxes, and whose very existence rests on the fact that it must be a breeding ground for tolerance even of the vulgar and the openly defiant. It is a place where academic freedom turns it into a refuge for the blasphemer and the heretic, and where the full spectrum of political ideologies is theorized and taught.

This is why as a UP alumnus I am offended when people from UP behave as if it is the final arbiter of truth, a guardian of morality, and a propagator of a singular and homogenizing set of values that can only be done through the policing of acceptable conduct.

This has found clear manifestation in how some of UP’s faculty, students and alumni have expressed their opposition to the unsolicited offer made by the UP Board of Regents to confer a doctorate honoris causa on President Rodrigo Duterte.

The President, as expected, refused the offer. But the damage has been done. Eager in maligning the President as not worthy of the honor, those who opposed ended up dishonoring UP.

Social media exploded with posts by UP faculty, alumni and students, and even their non-UP sympathizers, copy-pasting a sweeping judgment on the conduct of the President. They argue that in “giving honor to a man who challenges basic human decency, discourages public dissent, promotes a culture of impunity, and lauds extra-judicial killings, UP has taken a major step backward in upholding honor and excellence.”

These are pretty strong words, even as they remain as accusations that need to be proven by empirical data or logical reasoning. What this statement in fact does is become a judgment of guilt without the necessary factual warrants. This is so unscientific for a university that houses centers of excellence for many scientific endeavors. What it does is to push UP to become part of the lynch mob that condemns before verified proof is presented, which is a contradictory stance when you think that UP as supposed to be a place where evidence and reason should rule supreme in the production and vetting of truth and knowledge.

The allegations that the President lauds extra-judicial killings and is promoting a culture of impunity has yet to be substantiated by empirical proof that is not corrupted by political partisanship but is produced from unassailable data and evidence.

The claim that the President discourages dissent is not even supported by evidence, and is contradicted by the very existence of vocal and virulent opposition to his being given the honorary degree. There is no killing spree of journalists. The opposition openly plots to unseat him. He has not filed a single libel case against, or ordered advertisers to boycott, critical media. Demonstrations and rallies are tolerated. It is not his fault if support for dissenting voices among the people is low, shown in the poor attendance in anti-Duterte rallies.

The claim that UP will renege on its commitment to uphold honor and excellence if they honor the President, on the basis of an allegation that he challenges basic decency, turns the university into a moral fundamentalist. This conservative stance would make UP abandon its responsibility to foster critical debate on contentious issues, which is a trademark of an excellent secular university. It renders human decency as already a fixed and absolute construct which can secure for us a warrant to pass judgment on human conduct. Those who say this forget that UP precisely exists to push the limits of what is decent, and that since decency is a social construction, that such limits are contested grounds.

Left with eggs on their faces, these guardians of UP morality will be best served if they undertake a deep introspection, a skill that they seriously lack. They have always been isolationist, self-absorbed and elitist, arrogantly believing that UP is a fountain of excellence and perfection.

Before they can pass judgment on the ethical and moral practices of others, they must seriously look into UP and examine if it totally upholds human decency and if dissenters are tolerated at all times.

Let me tell you a little secret. The beauty of being a former UP employee, and of having maintained kinship links to UP, is that I have come face to face with indecent practices from within its ranks. And I have personally experienced being the object of institutionalized harassment for being an outspoken dissenter. And I am sure I am not alone.

 

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