Power struggle looms at CHED

CHED executive director Julito Vitriolo, the highest-ranking career executive in the commission, has called for chair Patricia Licuanan’s resignation after she was told not to attend Cabinet meetings last week. File photo

Power struggle looms at CHED
Janvic Mateo (The Philippine Star) - December 12, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines – A power struggle seems to be looming at the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), where chair Patricia Licuanan is facing growing opposition even within the agency’s ranks.

CHED executive director Julito Vitriolo, the highest-ranking career executive in the commission, has called for Licuanan’s resignation after she was told not to attend Cabinet meetings last week.

“I think she should resign, step down and respect the authority of the President,” Vitriolo told The STAR in a phone interview. 

“She should wake up and realize that this is a new political ballgame. Members of the Cabinet are occupying political positions, which are based on trust and confidence of the Chief Executive,” he added.

Vitriolo claimed most of the career officials at the agency share the same sentiment.

Days after Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr. told Licuanan on Dec. 4 to desist from attending Cabinet meetings, Vitriolo wrote to the President asking him to appoint an officer-in-charge who can serve as the latter’s alter ego at the agency.

He accused Licuanan of gross insubordination and usurping the authority and chairmanship of CHED after she refused to file a courtesy resignation, which Duterte demanded in August from all appointees of former president Benigno Aquino III.

Licuanan – whom Aquino appointed in 2010 and reappointed to a second and final term four years later – repeatedly maintained that she was not covered by Duterte’s order. She said the governing law mandates a term of four years to a CHED chairperson, with a possibility of one reappointment. Her second term will end in 2018.

Responding to Vitriolo’s letter, Licuanan accused the career official of trying to undermine her authority at the commission.

“(His) action is not surprising, as he has a long track record of undermining CHED and its chair. He is simply up to his old tricks,” Licuanan’s camp said in a statement to The STAR. 

The CHED chair is set to convene this morning a national directorate meeting with other officials of the commission, including Vitriolo.

It is the first time the two officials will meet since the surprise press briefing of the CHED executive director in Malacañang on Thursday, which reportedly caught Licuanan off guard.

De Vera as OIC?

In his letter dated Dec. 8, the same day he appeared at the Palace to hold a press briefing, Vitriolo asked Duterte to “intercede and protect the interests of the majority of CHED employees” against that of Licuanan.

He recommended that the President for the meantime appoint an officer-in-charge, who enjoys his trust and confidence as his official representative in the higher education sector.

“We humbly pray, Mr. President, that your appointee or designate shall represent CHED in the Cabinet so that CHED will again be in the mainstream and that important concerns in higher education are amply addressed at the highest level of government,” read the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The STAR.

Vitriolo recommended the designation of CHED commissioner J. Prospero de Vera, Duterte’s only appointee in CHED so far, as officer-in-charge of the commission.

“To date, there is only one commissioner appointee coming from your administration who is openly and aggressively pursuing your programs in the commission,” Vitriolo’s letter to Duterte added, referring to De Vera, a former official of the University of the Philippines.

De Vera, who recently lost a close fight for the UP presidency, declined to comment on the situation at the agency, but stressed that he serves at the pleasure of the President.

“I will follow the decision and instructions of the President in the interest of CHED and the higher education community,” he told The STAR. “I’m a presidential appointee and I follow the priorities and decisions of my appointing authority.”

In his letter, Vitriolo also asked Duterte to appoint three new commissioners in the agency, noting that the current commissioners are still in holdover capacity.

Commissioners Alex Brillantes and Minella Alarcon filed their courtesy resignations in August, but still remain in their posts, as Malacañang has not acted on their resignations yet.

A third commissioner, Ruperto Sangalang, did not submit his resignation, as his term already expired in July. He remains in holdover capacity until Duterte appoints his replacement.

‘Politicized’ CHED

Licuanan stood firm on her decision not to vacate her post, stressing that the term provision in the Higher Education Act was included to ensure that CHED will not be politicized.

“By stipulating a term that makes the chairperson of CHED not co-terminus with the appointing authority, the law aimed to ensure continuity and protect the oversight agency for higher education from factors that would undermine its political neutrality,” read a statement from her office.

“This is further underscored by the fact that the appointment of the CHED Chairperson is not confirmed by the Commission on Appointments of Congress, as practiced with the appointment of other Cabinet secretaries,” it added.

While the law that created CHED provided that its chairperson will have a rank of Cabinet secretary, Licuanan also noted that some of the agency’s previous chairpersons were not necessarily considered part of the official family of the sitting president.

“The Commission fully respects the decision to exclude CHED from the Cabinet, understanding that this is the prerogative of any sitting President,” she said.

“Historically, CHED has functioned effectively even without being part of the President’s cabinet, such as during the time of presidents Ramos, Estrada and Macapagal-Arroyo,” she added.

Licuanan admitted that she was surprised with the Palace statement citing “irreconcilable differences” between her and Duterte, noting an earlier conversation with the Chief Executive, whom she said expressed assurance that he would respect her term.

“The Commission has and will continue to support the Duterte administration’s goals, aligning higher education policies and programs to the 10-point socio-economic agenda of the current government,” she said.

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