The first university
MINI CRITIQUE - Isagani Cruz () - December 17, 2009 - 12:00am

In this column last week, I carelessly left out the words “Philippine government” in the sentence “The first Philippine government university was the 1898 Universidad Literaria de Filipinas.” That university, of course, did not really exist, because our government in 1898 was, well, rather short-lived.

Incidentally, the first truly existing (though still short-lived) government or public university on our islands was established by the Spanish colonial authorities in 1640. That was the Universidad de San Felipe de Austria in Manila, which existed for exactly three years. It was abolished in 1643 by the Spanish government in Madrid, overruling the authorities based in the Philippines.

There is a bit of a controversy in identifying the first private university in the Philippines.

In 1590 the Jesuits founded the Colegio-Seminario de San Ignacio. In 1621 Pope Gregory XV made it a papal university, called the Universidad de San Ignacio. In 1623 Philip IV named it a royal university. It became collateral damage in the war of the friars against the Jesuits in the country. When the Jesuits returned in 1859 after having been expelled in 1768, the university was incorporated as a mere College of Medicine and Pharmacy into the University of Santo Tomas.

In 1595 the Jesuits founded the Colegio-Seminario de San Ildefonso, which (after being handed over to the Dominicans, the Paulists, and the Society of the Divine Word) eventually became in 1948 the University of San Carlos.

In 1611 the Dominicans founded the Colegio de Nuestro Señora del Santisimo Rosario, which Pope Innocent X named in 1645 as La Real y Pontificia Universidad de Santo Tomas de Aquino Universidad Catolica de Filipinas, or what we now know as the University of Santo Tomas.

When I was writing my book Building a Nation: Private Education in the Philippines in 1997, the common wisdom was that UST was “the oldest university in Asia.” In the book, I argued that UST should not claim to be the oldest university in the Philippines (and therefore not in Asia). That distinction, I wrote then, belonged to the Universidad de San Ignacio, if we were to trace an institution’s origin to the time it was founded, not to the time it was named a university.

I am tickled pink that, in the Wikipedia article on it, UST is described as “the second royal and pontifical institution in the Philippines, after the Jesuits’ Universidad de San Ignacio founded in 1590 but closed in 1768 following the expulsion of the Society of Jesus from the Philippines.” What in 1997 was a rather unpopular view has now become the orthodox account.

Since the Universidad de San Ignacio disappeared, however, it is all right to say that UST is the oldest surviving university in the Philippines and in Asia, at least until the University of San Carlos tries to upstage UST (it could, following my line of reasoning).

My 1997 book, by the way, generated another controversy regarding the Universidad de San Ignacio.

In my original text on the Universidad de San Ignacio in Asia, I had this sentence: “Unlike other Jesuit schools which were closed in 1768, when the Jesuits were expelled by the Pope from the islands due to Church intramurals in Rome, the university continued to operate under government authorities after 1768.” A Jesuit scholar who read the manuscript objected that the Jesuits were not expelled by the Pope but by King Charles III of Spain in 1767. Since I wanted my book to be bought by Jesuit schools, I removed the reference to the Pope and revised the phrase within commas to simply read “when the Jesuits were expelled from the islands.” That presumably made the Jesuits happy and sold a few more copies.

It is true that documents show that Charles III ordered the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Spanish colonies in 1767. (It took until 1768 for the news to reach our islands, in those days of literally snail mail.) There were riots in Madrid in 1766, and the king suspected the Jesuits of having had a hand in them. The Jesuits, reputed to be “the grenadiers of the Pope’s guard,” also tended to question Charles’s dictatorial policies. Charles censored papal bulls, for instance, and even fought against the Spanish Inquisition. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that the expulsion of the Jesuits was done completely by Charles and without the knowledge of Jesuit-educated Pope Clement XIII.

In 1773, the Jesuits were “suppressed,” to use the polite word used by scholars, not by Charles but by Popes Benedict XIV (who died after giving the order) and Clement XIV (despite the temporary respite during the term of Clement XIII). That was some time after the expulsion from our islands, so I suppose one could argue that my original phrase was still not literally correct. It was not literally the Pope that expelled the Jesuits, but the Spanish king.

I wonder, however, looking at the Philippines today where the Catholic Church has such a large say in affairs of the state (witness the Reproductive Health Bill), whether it was really possible for Charles III to do such a drastic action without some kind of tacit approval from Rome, not from the Pope but from the Pope’s men.

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