Public Universities that belong to all of us and seek the common good: this is what we must defend

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In his remarks at the opening ceremony of the Educational Reform Discussion Series, which will keep the university community actively engaged until 2017, and where more than 600 people attended, the president of the Universidad de Chile spoke about the social role of public universities, and he highlighted the importance of including everybody’s voice into the government’s project for reform. 

By Ennio Vivaldi Véjar, President of the Universidad de Chile

We have convened here today to initiate a process in which our university community can discuss, and constructively critique, the new Higher Education Reform Bill.  We expect that it will be possible to look back at this event as an important milestone in this unnecessarily difficult, unexpectedly long, and inexplicably belated journey, which ought finally to reinforce our foundational mission, our unwavering vocation as the Universidad de Chile, and help return to the Chilean higher education system as a whole the good sense that it has lost.  Only time can tell if this event will become a pivotal historical moment, but today, at least, the enormous strength that is palpable here in the salón de honor means that we can at least be sure that what we are witnessing is a tremendously emotional and moving affair.  And the emotion we feel comes from knowing that this strength does not derive from the exercise of political or administrative power, or from economic power, or even from threats or acts of violence and cruelty; rather, our strength comes from history, reason, and emotion—from our commitment to the future of education in Chile.

One notable fact that gives us strength is that the whole university community is represented at this event: faculty, staff, and students.  We gain strength from the fact that our entire organization is here.  The University Council, in whose sessions arose the very idea to convene this event, and the subsequent process, is here today; The University Senate is with us, the vice president of which has brought a synthesis of their ongoing reflections, a document of great importance.  With us, as well, are the Evaluation Committee members, who have been a crucial asset, not just in the data gathering necessary to develop a clear stance towards the proposed project, but also in the way they have demonstrated a keen intelligence in their analysis of that very data.  I also highlight the efforts made to bring together, for the very first time, the legal directors of all the faculties, so they may evaluate how to contribute to the reform.

The first thing we must celebrate is the fact that we finally have a reform bill, and that it has been presented to parliament for discussion.  One can be in favor of it, or not, and perhaps it will need to be modified as much as necessary, but what is crucial is that since 1981 we have not had an opportunity like this, an opportunity to discuss a project that deals with these issues.

The Universidad de Chile has proved that it has been able to survive in the most dysfunctional context imaginable, alien to the principles it was founded upon.  We are now able to finally influence the kind of world we want to live in, and the kind of higher education we want for Chile.  That is why, regardless of whether the proposed legislation is good or bad, or how limited it may seem, we are experiencing a joyous occasion; from now on, instead of having to simply adapt to what is decided for us, we can begin to define the world we want for ourselves.

I do not wish to expound the historical roots of our current educational system.  It is the future that brings us together to consider these most formidable questions: how do we change the way access to higher education is distributed, so that it may better reflect the needs of the whole society?  How do we establish a way to understand the link between the country’s development and the areas of study offered by the different universities?  What is the effect of eliminating university loan programs, like the CAE (State- sponsored Credit) and how do we strengthen public higher education?  How do we ensure that the public funding that is given directly to our universities will not be eliminated?  How do we ensure that the funding from the state is administered in a balanced way with respect to the other universities?  How do we change the absurd perception out there that if the state-owned universities “get one more cent” from the government, then the whole system is threatened.

The space in which all political and ideological sectors are able to feel encouraged to participate in the building of a common future is the very essence of public education.  It is certainly the principal arena that safeguards the unity of the country, and the nation’s ability to define itself.  These transcendental notions compel us to speak about the university of the future, instead of about how bad things are today.

In this discussion about the future, the notion of the public university is paramount.  We must give meaning back to the expression “public university.”  Definitions require a genus and a species.  The Universidad de Chile is an academic community, like many others, but it is public, which gives it a different connotation within the university system as a whole.  Like one’s nationality, it is our seal of identity.  Being a public university differentiates us from private universities.  It is a crucial conceptual difference that shouldn’t be confused with other factors, like the way public resources should be distributed, or who has the right to obtain them, and under what conditions.  On the contrary, it’s about defining what public universities are mandated to do as such.

The OECD defines it very clearly: an educational institution is public when it is controlled and managed directly by a public authority or agency, or when its governing body is made up of a majority of members that have been appointed by a public authority or publicly elected.  This notion of the public university entails that it does not have an owner that controls it; that it does not have to answer to any specific interest group; that it guarantees and benefits from pluralism; that it is not accountable nor subject to an outside power; that it can freely assert its scientific findings; that it is not subject to any pressure, given that the state should protect its freedom to say what it thinks, what it does, and what it investigates.  It is this public university—which belongs to all of us—that we must today defend energetically.  It’s about the country.  It’s about bringing people together.

The public university binds together all of the concerns that identify us as a nation and as a people.  It seems quite unreasonable that this long awaited debate concerning the university system should be reduced to a squabble between different constituent groups that brandish whatever parliamentary, economic, or any other leverage they may have in order to defend the interests of a particular university.  The primordial element of a public university is, precisely, the concern for the country as a whole.

These remarks take us to the issue I would like to address, and which I consider to be vital, because this issue will determine whether we can have public universities again in Chile.  There is an expression that, luckily, is new, because if it had existed before, then a system of public health would not have been possible; neither would a public education system, nor systems of justice, nor electrification, nor the technological development of the country, nor the policies that safeguard nutrition and food production.  I’m talking about the notion of state capture.  I believe, quite frankly, that this is the most important issue we should be addressing, because if all the demands for meaningful engagement with the state, on the part of our state universities, are to be considered attempts to capture the state, then it will simply be impossible to rebuild a public system of higher education.  In this supposed state capture, the state would consider public universities, and their communities, to be a threat, since these would presumably constitute a special interest group—in other words, separate from the public interest.  In this scenario, the differential treatment of public universities is immediately understood as an attempt, on behalf of these same universities, to appropriate the state.  We should ask, appropriating what and for whom?  In any case, the logical conclusion of all this is quite simple: if all universities simply defend their own particular interests, then there are no public universities, only private ones.  And that conclusion coincides very well with how public universities have been treated for so many years.

Today, we need to be discussing things that are much more important and inspiring than the national budget.  I’m not saying that the Ministry of Finance isn’t important; it is crucial, without a doubt.  But the importance of such a ministry should be felt at the end of the discussion, like when one makes it to the supermarket checkout, having already determined the things one wants to buy, if such a comparison can be made.  The debate concerning our universities, as this current process of discussion contends, should not begin at the Ministry of Finance; rather, it should end there.  Where should the debate begin?  In each of the other ministries.  As state universities, we have a responsibility to work, within the state, to develop technology, economy, education, and culture.  To do this, we must engage with each of the different ministries and with each of the corresponding parliamentary commissions.  The public university must articulate its role in these conversations.  If we are not capable of addressing these issues responsibly and by acknowledging the shared concerns of the country, and instead are deemed untrustworthy as an entity that only competes with others for control over the country, then the real meaning of the public university will be lost forever, because this is what has defined the Universidad de Chile historically, and it should go on defining the public system in the future.

Public universities, let’s repeat, are the guarantors of democracy, and of the coexistence of diverse ideologies, religions, and political tendencies.  And this is why today we must emphasize more than ever that the common good does exist, and that a society is not just the sum total of interest groups that labor to secure influence for themselves, or for a reduced sector, or for a limited ideology, or for a particular religion.  There is a common good, and it is precisely this that should determine the actions of a university whose main concerns are the needs of its people.  That is the common good we are all committed to.

I want to finish by calling your attention to our obligation to prevent us from failing in this endeavor.  One way to fail would be for part of us to ignore the rest and act as a group that considers only its own interests, forgetting that for the vitality of each part, the entire system is essential.  This is why this moment is tremendously important, because here we can all recognize each other as the Universidad de Chile: faculty, students, and staff.  Here we understand that if we do not respect each other, if we fail to understand each other, and if we cannot have a dialogue, or a conversation, and we simply attack one another, then it will be impossible for this university to survive as a system.  Today, we must be conscious of this, because we have such a big responsibility, and because we have longed for this opportunity for so long.  This process must, therefore, culminate with a synthesis that reflects the views of the university community as a whole, structured as ideas and proposals.

Perhaps these may crystallize into one idea, which our entire university can more or less agree on, but this process is, nevertheless, and without a doubt, the fulfillment of our role as the defenders of democracy and as the inheritors of a historical legacy.  That is, giving each and every one of you, each member of the community, whether you are faculty, staff, or students, and by extension, every Chilean, the chance to contribute to a common goal, so that we may come to believe that the country we belong to is also the country we create and are emotionally and intellectually committed to—each and every one of us.  Thank you.

 

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