The value of a PhD

PENMAN - Butch Dalisay () - January 9, 2012 - 12:00am

(Part one)

I usually write about fountain pens, computers, movies, cheap weekend getaways, and the kind of featherweight fluff that many readers seem to think culture and lifestyle writers should confine themselves to, but since nothing serves, reflects, and promotes culture better than education, I’m going to deal with a hot topic in higher education this Monday and the next — also and precisely because it’s very rarely that ordinary readers get a glimpse into the inner workings of academia.

I’m referring, of course, to the controversy surrounding the conferment of a Doctor of Laws degree, summa cum laude, to embattled Chief Justice Renato Corona by the University of Sto. Tomas among the many activities celebrating its quadricentennial in 2011. The integrity of that venerable institution was put in question by an article published in another newspaper by veteran journalist Marites D. Vitug suggesting that UST had violated its own rules in granting a PhD to the Chief Justice without requiring a proper dissertation.

Through a spokesperson quoted by journalist and UST assistant professor Lito Zulueta, UST responded by invoking academic freedom in allowing a “scholarly treatise” — in this case a public lecture on environmental justice delivered by Corona at the UST Graduate School in November 2010 — to substitute for his dissertation. The university also seemed to question Vitug’s background and motives in writing the piece, given that Corona is now facing an impeachment trial in the Senate, and that Vitug has been a keen follower and critic of the Supreme Court, whose all-too-human frailties she exposed in the bestselling book Shadow of Doubt.

So there were two issues or questions embedded here. First, was UST within its rights — and did it act in the best academic manner — by giving Corona his PhD the way it did? And second, did it deal fairly with Ms. Vitug and her colleagues, who claim to have made repeated requests for information about Corona’s doctorate and dissertation, without much success?

Since UST insists (rather strangely, I think) that — if she wanted a proper response — Vitug should first have made “prior disclosure” of her background and presumptive bias, and of who owned and maintained the online organization ( she was now writing for, let me make some unbidden disclosures: I am and have been Marites Vitug’s friend and colleague for many years now, as the copyeditor of Newsbreak magazine which she edited, and also as copy editor of at least two of her books. I am a full professor of English at the University of the Philippines, which I once served as its spokesman in my capacity as vice president for public affairs. That said, I’m speaking neither as Marites’s friend nor as a spokesman for another university (you’ll find out, quickly enough, that nobody can really speak for the whole of UP, given its multiplicity of mindsets), but as Butch Dalisay the occasional editorialist and gadfly.

Now let’s take up the UST-Corona PhD issue. There are, first of all, a few things that people should understand about a PhD (and equivalent degrees, such as an LlD, a DA, a DBA, an EdD, and so on). In a university setting, the PhD is the highest degree one can aspire for, attainable after many years of study and upon completion, presentation, and successful defense of a dissertation, a major research (and sometimes creative) project that should bring some significant new knowledge and fresh insight to the academic table. Like a marriage or the birth of child, a PhD is the labor of a lifetime, something not for the faint of heart and the weak of mind or body; the road to a PhD is littered with the carcasses of many an otherwise bright young man or woman who came be devoured by his or her own dissertation project.

But as exalted as a PhD might be in certain quarters, having a PhD is no guarantee of smartness, integrity, goodness, or wisdom. And the plain fact is, most people don’t need one to succeed or to function well in society. (Trust me — I have one, although I rarely trot it out; among fellow writers, it means absolutely nothing, besides a license to teach some classes that the best writers know they can do without.) The world in and out of universities is flush with PhDs full of themselves, who may actually know very little about the things that matter to people on the street, and whose scruples, or the lack thereof, would put an Ativan gang member to shame. Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, had a PhD in Drama from the University of Heidelberg. Let’s not even talk about the PhDs from Stanford and Harvard, among others, who greased the wheels of Marcos’s martial law.

On the other hand, universities are also full of PhDs who can’t hold a candle to Willie Revillame and Manny Pacquiao in fame and fortune, who’ve toiled away in labs and libraries for decades in utter obscurity and near-penury, but whose contributions to learning and education have enriched — quite literally—many others. They’ve found medicines in mollusks and explanations for human and social behavior that make us understand ourselves better, and made discoveries in the abstract whose practical applications may be many years beyond the horizon, but without which knowledge and soon industry itself would stall and stagnate.

The inordinate pride with which PhD holders append those letters to their names may seem like silly snobbery to the outsider, but you’ll understand why when you suspend five to 10 years of your normal life, put your family and profession on the back burner and maybe even lose them at some point, write reams of term papers only your professors will read, curse your friends when they drive by in BMWs, and spill your blood and guts in pursuit of such thrilling research topics as “Number-Theoretic Aspects of Computational Complexity” and “The Edible Complex: Postcolonial Narrative and the Politics of Eating.”

That said, some PhDs are easier to get than others. While PhDs are normally earned — meaning to say, paid for in sweat and tuition, in residency at a university, with a research or creative dissertation to climax the effort — others can be given on an honorary basis at the discretion of a university’s highest officers. At best, it can be argued that these honorary doctorates, too, are earned by deserving recipients whose life’s work is being honored rather than any single study or contribution they made. At worst or at the most practical, they are employed by universities to keep their major donors happy, or to invite big names with deep pockets to endow this or that institute. Academia, sad to say, is not above corruption.

Next week, I’ll talk about exactly where, to my mind, universities can err or fall short of their own high standards when they grant what amounts to a free pass to a PhD.

In the meanwhile — and this should be of great interest to those who’ve been demanding to know who and what truly is — journalist and Ateneo communications professor Chay Hofileña wrote me to say that she and a group of fellow journalists will introduce “a social news network on Jan. 12, 2012. We are called Rappler.?To celebrate this event, we are partnering with institutions such as the Far Eastern University, Konrad Adenauer Center for Journalism at the Ateneo, Philippine Fulbright Scholars Association, and the Philippine Association of Communication Educators.?Together we are holding a ‘chat session’ with the theme ‘Social Media for Social Change’ from 8 a.m. to 12 noon at the FEU auditorium. We would like to invite you to be a part of this event, which will feature Veronica Pedrosa, news presenter of Al Jazeera English. She will be joined by Maria Ressa, former CNN Jakarta bureau chief and now Rappler CEO and executive editor. She will speak about social media and Rappler.”

You can register for this event online at I strongly suggest that UST send its representative to this forum, which promises to be full of interesting surprises.

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E-mail me at and check out my blog at

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