A sacred obligation

SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. - The Philippine Star

Manila is the center of higher education. It houses the University belt in España, Morayta, Recto, Legarda, Mendiola, Taft, Intramuros and its environs. These Escuelas and Colegios trace their ancestry to predecessor institutions established during Spanish colonial times. The University of Santo Tomas (originally Colegio de Nuestra Señora de Santisimo Rosario) was founded in 1611. Letran and Sta. Isabel, to name two, are also circa 17th century. 

By the 20th century, Manila was home to dozens of universities. But even as the city hosted all these giant private institutions, Manila’s residents could hardly afford the prohibitive matriculation to study next door. It was ironic as it was tragic.

In 1960, the City Council of Manila dreamt of establishing a university responsive to the city’s needs and offering quality but affordable higher education. But the proposition was hijacked by political infighting. Mayor Antonio “Yeba” Villegas hunkered down in 1965, bypassing the NP v. Liberal Party (LP) impasse in the Council. LP partymate Rep. Justo Albert sponsored a bill in Congress establishing the University of the City of Manila, to become known as the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (PLM). 

Congressman Albert expressed the hope that this would spur other cities to exert similar efforts. “To permit the continuing control of education in the hands of big corporations is a tragic renunciation by the government of a sacred obligation to our people.” 

The great equalizer. I gained my first exposure to PLM as Councilor of Manila in 1988. We funded PLM’s operations but gave the school a wide berth. I didn’t know then of my father’s role in PLM’s story.  It turns out he was a member of that 1960 City Council. And, as executive secretary to the president in 1970, he authorized the exchange of property between national and city governments for a proper site for PLM. I could not have known then that, in the future, I’d be invited to serve in its administration. Ten years after leaving the City Council, I would be asked to head the PLM College of Law as dean (10 years) and be appointed PLM executive vice president for two years.

The demand from residents was overwhelming. Over 10,000 would apply annually for PLM’s 3,500 freshmen slots. In 1995, my brother councilors and I decided to present the underserved youth of Manila with additional opportunities for affordable college education. In honoring our own sacred obligation, we established the tuition free City College of Manila. Manila is the first city with two higher education institutions (HEIs). 

We already had the largest social services budget. Only Manila has six city run public hospitals. Mayor Francisco Moreno Domagoso shared recently how local hospitals and universities around the country looked to the charters of Ospital ng Maynila and PLM as their models. Where Manila goes the nation goes. It was true before and has become true once again.

Epicenter of local higher education. The City College of Manila was renamed the Universidad de Manila (UDM) in 2007. I was invited to head the University as president in 2015. 

With a budget of over P1 billion for both universities combined, heading one or the other is the equivalent of running a giant corporation. There is that daily challenge of leadership, management, administration, governance – in all their different connotations. Politics infuses their operations. But that is a challenge and should never be an excuse.

And there is the perspective of public service. Higher education, of itself, is already a service to humanity. The generation of knowledge (research), empowerment and extension. In the local university context, these are done in a manner responsive to the community. 

Today, 25 years after, more than 43,000 students have exited through UDM’s portals. And the great majority have given back.  They took what they learned and contributed their own passages and pages to the city’s narrative.

Full circle. Ten years at PLM and four years at UDM. I was never alone in this proud service. I was backed by the faith of mayors: Lito Atienza and Alfredo Lim for PLM; Joseph Estrada for UDM. And the unconditional support of the Manila City Council, my alma mater. It was an honor to serve with a Board of Regents that included Secretary Leonor Briones, Secretary William Dar, Justice Arturo Brion, Secretary Ramon Cardenas and General Cesar Fortuno. Their presence assured only the highest levels of professionalism, innovation and wisdom combined with humility. Two important lessons: Patience to temper ardor. Compassion to moderate rigor. 

I worked with a complex combination of personalities. It takes a special type to thrive in the thankless university setting but all helped pull their oars to steer the ship. University officials are commonly perceived to be distant and unapproachable. This is understandable. Arms length is the proximity required by the demands of the position. To compromise students’ formation will have consequences. At all times, be firm. But we do not exist in ivory towers. Its more like being a prisoner in your own dungeon in the sky.

Inevitably you are drawn by the stories of students. The tribulations are affecting. First in their families to get a degree. The top reason for a visit to the university physician? Hypoglycemia, because of hunger. You understand that a university is not just the physical layout or the traditions or the academic honors. In the end, its about the people that run it and the people served by it.

I am happy to return the keys of UDM to our mayor and to pass on the torch. And I am the better for it. The idiom is fitting in the higher education setting. The torch represents the quest for knowledge. “And lighting the way for others brightens the path for ourselves.”

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