The Latin American University, and the Rest


By RODRIGO BAÑO, Professor of the Social Sciences Department of the Universidad de Chile /Translated by Anthony Rauld, Department of Linguistics of the Universidad de Chile /Photo by Alejandra Fuenzalida

“Chance is the father of everything”, wrote a philosopher many years ago, even though today very few would want to subscribe to that.  The phrase is attractive, poetic, and full of meaning, even evocative and foreboding; but it has a patriarchal and chauvinistic tone as well, which doesn’t resonate today.  But when this same gentleman affirms that will is the mother of all things, then people start to take him seriously, because will is behind action and it defines meaning.  A Florentine had already told the prince that fortune determines half of all things, while the other half is determined by will.  Even more importantly, when you don’t decide for yourself, others decide for you.  Let’s see where this can take us in thinking about the issue of universities in Latin America.

The legend about how the French invented Latin America in order to justify the establishment of a French empire in Mexico might actually be true; in any case, I don’t really have the time to google it.  But having the name, a Latin American perspective soon emerged, a perspective that stressed the integration of the region’s problems, as well as its research questions.  This had its zenith in the 20th century, with theories and discourses that constantly referred to what was Latin American in order to stress common features, and differences with respect to other developed and developing countries.  But at the end of that century, the concept of what was Latin American was swallowed up by the figure of globalization, which broke up Latin America, turning it into a list of atomized countries, all embracing their originality and rejecting regionalism; it welded those aspiring and original countries together with the homogeneity of the globalized world system, which marched jubilantly towards the end of history.

In these circumstances, mentioning Latin America, and more specifically, the universities of Latin America, seemed to be an inexcusable anachronism.  But, what a surprise!  After all those vague policies of the 1980’s, aimed at getting in tune with those more serious countries—and all those economic reforms that were supposed to lead straight to a genuine capitalism—we seem to be returning to a more home-grown style of politics: not very globalized and well aware of the fact that the region has a dependent economy that is linked to the exportation of raw materials, with all the volatility that comes with it.  It would seem that Latin America had not been buried so deep after all.  Let’s take this as the justification necessary to once again use the expression Latin America, and to reflect on its universities.

“Why should we worry about the universities of Latin America if the good ones are in Europe and the United States?” asked the expert smiling intelligently (even though the experts don’t really smile and I’ll remain mercifully silent on the question of intelligence).  My fingers slid off the keypad and it was hard to find them; the neurons I never found again.  The only thing I can do is ask for clemency, based on the theory of relativity.

Ever since Nietzsche produced God’s death certificate, things have gotten harder.  Now there is no one to appeal to when we need a definite ruling on what is good and what is bad; consequently, anyone can deploy the resources needed to prove that what they think is good is actually good, and what they think is bad, actually bad.  Frequently, personal or corporate interests contaminate this exercise, and so what is actually a personal or corporate convenience is argued for as if it were a universal good—and all arguments to the contrary are simply disqualified.  Maybe it’s not really like this, but yet again maybe it is.

With respect to the universities, it all seems to come down to comparisons that allow for the ordering of existing universities from best to worst.  This is the famous ranking system (you choose the one you like), which creates a well-organized list that supposedly allows you to scientifically define the best and the worst—with numbers.  So you get the happy emoticon when your university goes up in some ranking and the sad emoticon when it goes down.  Enormous efforts are deployed in order to pile on the merits that will be evaluated when the time comes.  From here it is the whip and the tears, the incentives and the medals; all of it so that you can become something you’re really not.

But wait, in my infantile disposition, let me also ask certain questions, of course, infantile ones.  What do the rankings measure? The rankings, with their elaborate concepts, analytical dimensions, and precise indicators, all unquestionable and objective of course, try to measure, in general, and abstractly, something that is quite historic and concrete.  They measure things that are taken to be as important for one and all universities, and they assume that what is important is without a doubt important.  But following the same line as Friedrich, I have the impression that the choice of certain values always takes place within a position of power: the one who calls the shots imposes his values—what is good, and what is bad, what is pretty and what is ugly.  The criticism that we hear today, from the typical critics, against Euro-centrism (although it should really be directed at what we could call a USA-centrism) is that over here the tendency is to measure oneself with the standards set by the important countries, the dominant players on the world stage, a stage set up with little input from us.  Our feelings of inadequacy for not being tall, blonde, and for not having blue eyes can only be fixed by taking out ads with people who actually look like that.  Our feelings of inadequacy for hanging on the tail ends of the university rankings can only be fixed by rejecting our own histories and projects in order to try to copy in English the playbook of the big players.

It’s no wonder that in the famous Shanghai ranking there are no Latin American universities in the top one hundred.  Also, among the fifty top universities of the world, 33 are from the United States, and 42 are English speaking; among the one hundred best universities in the world, more than half are from the United States.  Friedrich Nietzsche would surely confirm that defining what is good, and what is bad, is serious business indeed.

On the other hand, the Spanish conquistadors were pretty quick to establish universities in America, not so the Portuguese, who left Brazil without universities well into the 20th century.  Salamanca and Alcalá de Henares were the model Hispanics.  The King founded the Universidad de Salamanca, while Cardinal Cisneros, thanks to a Papal Bull, founded the Universidad de Alcalá.  And, although you won’t believe it, some have said that these came to represent the two university types that developed here: the public universities and the Catholic universities.  These two types of universities are currently up against the onslaught of the new universities, which have diverse origins.  Some have risen to form elites, who aren’t really willing to mix with the aspirational crowd; others are more generous to the less fortunate, who aren’t good enough to get into the prestigious schools, but who are good enough to qualify for loans.  There are even those who just see a business opportunity—and a chance to create jobs, of course.

Naturally, the colonial universities weren’t calling their own shots, since they were controlled by the dominant class, who after all had given themselves the role of conquistadors; the crown and the papacy would define what kind of universities they wanted and for what purposes.  At the beginning of the 19th century, the resentment of the creoles led to the expulsion of the peninsular elite, and so the universities were adapted for the new task of putting together a nation as quickly as possible.  For this purpose, the creoles looked towards the enlightenment for inspiration, which at that time represented all that was good, imposing the Napoleonic model on their universities and orienting them for the production of the professionals that the nation now required.  We’ve also inherited something from this, like the importance and independence of the schools in relation to the universities that house them, and the professionalizing tendency, which intensified year after year, but maintained that aristocratic likeness the Creole Oligarchy had always aspired to.

During the 20th century, with the Mexican Revolution and the Cordoba Reforms of 1918, the Latin American universities began to look at themselves and tried to define themselves according to their own logic and will.  That was the moment when some people began to speak in earnest of a Latin American model, even though it was sprinkled here and there with elements from both the Napoleonic and Humboldtean models.  Of course, this didn’t occur in a vacuum; rather, the changes in the university took place within a broader Latin American context of economic, social and political transformations.  This factor explains the rapid and extensive spread throughout Latin America of the ideas proposed as part of the Cordova reforms (autonomy, participation, and free tuition), which became an important influence in the debate.  During this period, important universities emerged in the region, like the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), the Universidad de Buenos Aires, the Universidad de la República in Uruguay, the Universidad de Chile, the federal and state universities of Brazil, just to name a few; the rise of national public universities was the norm throughout the region.

But since history dies hard, it continues its path, and new problems arise.  In Latin America, the crisis of the 1960’s broke out, and a tidal wave of dictatorships soon followed; and when the waters receded, another economic, social, and political landscape emerged, and similarly for the university system.   This is where we are currently, but it continues to evolve, either by our own impulse, or by the impulse of others.

It is no surprise, but surely worthy of consideration, that in recent years there has been an important increase in higher education enrollment in general, and at the university level specifically in all Latin American countries—this has had a huge impact on the how the university systems are able to develop, and the different countries have dealt with this reality in different ways.  Immune to ridicule, some have sustained that in Chile the sharp increase in higher education enrollment is due to the expansion of private universities, overlooking the fact that the increase is universal, regardless of the model, whether it is more public or more private.  But logic seems to be going out of fashion, and the principle of causality can apply to anything.

What we know for sure is that there is an impulse towards privatization.  In the Chilean case, it is exaggerated; in other places, like in Uruguay, there is more reticence, but overall the idea that privatization is good and convenient has become dominant—and this naturally has served to justify policies that transfer what was once considered part of the public sphere over to the private one.  In order to avoid problems with respect to the saintly ‘halo’ associated with the word ‘public’ (which survives as a residue of the Res-Publica), private universities are now crowned with that same ‘halo’; it is possible, then, to refer to private universities as being public—and it’s not a contradiction in terms, but in fact, an elegant expression that can be said with a straight face.  The state, which has to withstand quite a lot, is reduced to a bureaucracy of gray buildings.  And the thinking in general is that the logic of privatization is the right kind of thinking.

Private university education in the region dates back quite a while; its beginnings, as we have seen, are linked to the Catholic Church’s pretension of maintaining the only true faith.  But in recent times, the private universities have incorporated other ideological orientations, and often the profit motive.  The university enrollment in countries like Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica and Peru is now predominantly private, where Chile is the extreme case at 70%.  Other countries, like Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela and obviously Cuba have a private enrollment rate that doesn’t surpass 20%.

As is often the case with social processes, in Latin America and everywhere else, trends don’t unravel in a void as if they were part of a scientific experiment; they are continuously affected by other processes and events that are taking place within the economy, the society, and in the political world—the trend towards privatization, consequently, fluctuates accordingly.  Argentina, for example, stubbornly fights on to defend public education, and the same goes for their cousins the Uruguayans.  Brazil, meanwhile, has launched a strong push for privatization, but at the same time the governments of the PT party have allowed themselves to open public universities.  Paraguay has remained stable.  Peru is privatizing.  Colombia and Venezuela are beginning to privatize, but they often revert to state-owned universities.  Chile is privatizing, and continues to privatize.  In general, the fluctuations of politics, where there are such fluctuations, are quite noticeable.

Of course, the avatars of privatization are not the only ones active in the contemporary Latin American university scene.  The Bologna accords also have a strong influence on university reform, and this includes changes in the curriculum, the shortening of university degree programs, and the consideration of the labor market in relation to the development of professional criteria; as well as the adoption of new teaching methodologies, self-financing and a general disapproval of tuition gratuity.  Many people here embrace them with a lot of enthusiasm even though (or since) they are agreements between European countries.

So let’s go back to the beginning, where we discuss the issue of will and the concept of deciding for yourself—instead of others deciding for you.  In the current debates about the future of our universities, there is usually a lot of emphasis on international comparison, which can generate interesting information, no doubt.  But lurking behind the international comparisons is an admiration for what the other has, and often an uncritical acceptance of proposals that are put forward in extraneous contexts.  It would seem that the only worthwhile discussion involves figuring out the right mechanisms for becoming one of the good universities, where “good” here means what the rankings or the European accords determine to be good.  It is even common to deny elemental logic altogether by arguing that the privatization of universities is the right direction since the best universities in the world are private; or that university participation in the election of its authorities should not be tolerated, because the good universities in the world don’t do it—never mind the fact that there is no causal link between the two and that there are also bad private universities who don’t elect their authorities.  There is a tendency to focus on ends that haven’t even been discussed, as well as on productivity goals, which must be met or face a drop in the rankings; the regional context is never considered, neither are the broader objectives they may have.

It’s not that a university in Latin America should stop being a university and turn into something else; but it should at least think in Latin American, in its own context, and in its own projects.  Sometimes it’s worth remembering that Latin America didn’t have a middle ages, nor a major superpower capable of attracting great minds from other continents; there are no countries here with better income distribution, and it is certainly not the epicenter for intellectual, scientific or artistic debate.  This doesn’t free the Latin American university from trying to be the best, it just has to be the best within the context of its own society, with its own problems and with its own projects.

I recognize that I am ignorant, and I know that this is no real accomplishment, but apart from studying the history of the universities in the region, I don’t see any concern for defining what a university is today in Latin America, and for what we want for that university.  And obviously I’m talking about public universities, the ones that belong to all of us, the ones that are called to respond to a social, and to a national project—something that the private university isn’t called to do, whatever their lofty or petty objectives may be.

In Latin America we have a long history of university experiences and, beyond this rapid rise of private universities, what is truly surprising is that the public universities have survived at all, and not just survived.  The survival of the public universities in the region is a testament not just to the merits of the universities themselves, but also to the societies they belong to—and their social and political struggles.  The Latin American societies are societies of Latin America, just as the Latin American universities are universities of Latin America.  That is hardly a discovery, but being in itself does not automatically mean being for itself, and at times it would seem that Latin America is unaware of being the latter.

Will requires awareness.  Being aware of your own identity is what prevents others from deciding for you the projects you should decide for yourself.  Universities are not and should not be alien to their own societies.  What does a university want to do for its society?  What can it do?  What does a society want for its university? What can it do for its university?  Anybody could continue imagining the different questions that seek to determine what the objectives of our university should be, and from here design the mechanisms that we find most appropriate for it.  That’s all about will.  It’s not about pretending to be a Martian in order to opt out of the globalized world; it’s about having an identity, and then exploring what it’s all about.

The university isn’t the most adequate place for questions concerning will, but it is the place for reason; but reason without will cannot go anywhere, it doesn’t have a clear objective, and disappears into thin air.  The Latin American university needs autonomy, strictly speaking, because autonomy implies a capacity to determine its own norms, to establish freely the course for action according to its own definition of the values and principles that give it shape.  Maybe the values and norms that the Latin American universities define as their own are the same ones that the international rankings and the universities of the hegemonic countries proclaim.  But maybe they aren’t.


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