Leonor Briones,Silliman’s eminent person
FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - August 27, 2013 - 12:00am

The Eminent Person who delivered the prestigious Silliman Founders’ Day lecture yesterday, Leonor M. Briones, should be sitting in the body investigating (if that is allowed to happen) the alleged involvement of legislators in the inappropriate use of their pork barrel.  She knows possibly everything about the national budget, the causes of, and wrong solutions to poverty,  and about the country’s indebtedness. I would say, those to be investigated should beware her acid tongue and mind full of facts and figures.

In the meantime, she is sitting as chair of Silliman’s Board of Trustees, a position close to her heart, being an eminent alumna of the university.  

On the challenges to Silliman education, she says, “It is impossible for Silliman, with its limited financial and asset resources, to keep up with the richer universities. Preparing for global competitiveness is very costly.  If Silliman continues its tradition of molding the values of its students, and strengthens general education, its graduates can face the challenges of competitive life.”

When she finished at Silliman, she says, “I did not know everything about the latest in accountancy and finance, but I was taught the virtues of hard work and honesty. I was taught creativity and integrity. This is more important than technical knowhow. Character is more important than pieces of knowledge and expensive technical gobbledygook.”

However, Silliman, she continues, is ranked among the top universities of the country, ‘small’ as it is. Its reputation is much bigger than the value of its assets, its financial resources, and the size of its student population (9,000 from prep to college levels, with 300 international students from 30 countries).

Silliman leads in arts and letters, particularly music and creative writing. It is globally recognized for its work in the biological sciences, especially marine biology. It has produced eminent academicians like Prof. Dioscoro Rabor and Dr. Angel Alcala. It has produced national artists like Dr. Edith L. Tiempo and Jose Romero.

She cites the performance of graduates in national board examinations. Silliman graduates consistently obtain scores higher than the national average. Nursing and accountancy graduates consistently garner 90 percent and above ratings. Our youngest college, the College of Medicine, has 100 percent passing rating. Our College of Agriculture consistently  has high rates in licensure examinations, a fact which the public hardly notices. Engineering performs extremely well, the College of Law scores are always higher than the national average. This is the reason why Silliman ranks very high in performance in licensure exams.”

Leonor entered Silliman in the 1950s as an accountancy major. Her parents, from Guihulngan, Negros Oriental, were school teachers. She went to Silliman well-equipped, carrying with her the virtues instilled by her  parents, i.e., honesty, courage, and commitment to truth. Her father, a brilliant Sillimanian, was well read, knowledgeable in both arts and sciences, and highly respected by the community, and her mother had a beautiful singing voice. 

In Silliman, she was president of  church and youth organizations. She was captain of the college quiz bowl team, which won the general championship. “I was very proud of this because we proved that even while our course was on accountancy, we knew more general information than those other fields.” On top of these, she was a full scholar for eight straight semesters, and graduated magna cum laude.

Then off she went to the state university in Diliman, where she was a full scholar at the now National College for Public Administration and Governance. After  graduation, she proceeded to Leeds University in England for studies in public enterprises. She completed her diploma with distinction, was one of only two ladies in the course, and she topped the examinations.

Upon her return she was invited to join the UP faculty, then was assigned to Cebu City. By that time, she had joined the progressive and anti-Marcos movements. When martial law was declared, she went into hiding for nearly two years.

She went to Harvard University twice, first, for a certificate in public enterprises, and second, for a course in government innovations.

After martial law, when she was a faculty member at NCPAG, during one of its national seminars on accountability, then Commission on Audit Chair Francisco Tantuico heard her speak. Right then and there, he invited her to join COA as secretary of the Commission. Thus, Tantuico involved her in the thoroughgoing reforms which he initiated at COA.

After Tantuico retired, Leonor went back to teach at the UP, and was later appointed by UP President Emil Q. Javier as vice president of the UP System for Finance and Administration.

While she was with COA, she became an acquaintance of then Senator, and later Vice-President Joseph Estrada, who was close to the NCPAG because of his brother-in-law, Dr. Raul de Guzman, who was the college dean. Leonor gave Estrada briefings on the national debt and the budget. When he became president, he appointed her National Treasurer.

“The position of treasurer is very important,” says Leonor. “In addition to serving as the repository of government funds, the treasurer plays an important role in the formulation of fiscal policy. The treasurer does not just keep the money of the government and disburses it. He or she has to invest available cash and make it earn.”

“Yes, I brought a lot of changes. First, I democratized the system of issuing bills and bonds. Before my time, only banks and rich investors could invest in treasury bills and bonds because the minimum investment was P100,000. I  brought down the minimum tenor to P50,000,  then to P25,000, and finally to P5,000. Nowadays, even a student or a market vendor can invest in treasury bonds if he or she has P5,000.”

What she liked about Erap, Leonor says, was his allowing of “professionalism as the hallmark of my working relationship with him. He did not micromanage, I was allowed to introduce daring innovations in treasury operations. President Estrada treated me  as a professional and I managed the treasury professionally. It was only when the term of President Estrada was ended that we became personal friends. Now we share opinions, jokes and even sing duets during Cabinet reunions! This is as it should be.”

She became president of the Freedom from Debt Coalition after she left COA. “I can proudly say that in the seven years that I was president of FDC, we successfully raised the consciousness of the taxpaying public and made them aware of the huge problem of debt of the Philippines.”

 She became a member of the Silliman Board of  Trustees while she was national treasurer. After she left the treasury, the chairmanship of the board was vacant during the centennial of Silliman in 2001. She was recommended  for the position by former Dumaguete City Mayor Ipeng  Remollo, but she only accepted  the chair when Julio Sy, chair of the investment committee, now the Board president, and the chair emeritus, Roman Yap, assured her of their support, which they kept.

Leonor lives by her philosophy of life. She is “not driven by money, I am driven by a strong sense of responsibility and duty instilled in me by my parents, my faith, and Silliman.”

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