Academic freedom

READ MORE: Fr. Ranhilio Callangan Aquino (March 11, 2020). Trouncing academic freedom. The Manila Times. www.manilatimes.net/2020/03/11/opinion/columnists/topanalysis/trouncing-academic-freedom/702027. For more info, rannie_aquino@csu.edu.ph; rannie_aquino@sanbeda.edu.ph; rannie_aquino@outlook.com.

In legal history, universities have largely been recognized as “zones of freedom” — and that is what has allowed them to thrive. It is the intellectual and moral space within a university’s precincts that have allowed inquiry, investigation and disputation to flourish.

Academe has always been a fertile ground for the blooming of more than a hundred flowers! That is the reason that in many constitutions and legal systems, academic freedom has won secure guarantees. Together with the freedom of the institution is the freedom of the investigator, the researcher, the scholar — to inquire, to research and to disseminate. Contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere… To contemplate and to hand on to others the fruit of one’s contemplation. That is the essence of the intellectual life and, for the good both of the individual and of society, the law keeps it sacrosanct.

In disposing of the Philippine Law School Admission Test (PhilSAT) issue, the Supreme Court seized the occasion to secure academic freedom from dilution and erosion. It must be said, though, that Philippine jurisprudence has not been wanting in doctrine protective of academic freedom. Despite the protestations of a lady who argued academic freedom in insisting on her right to pursue theological studies at a seminary, the court invoked the very same academic freedom to uphold the institution’s right to determine “who to teach.”

Against the Civil Service Commission (CSC) that had declared a professor of the University of the Philippines (UP) terminated from the service, the court once more insisted that UP alone could determine “who would teach” and not the CSC. In yet another case, a student who had enrolled in a doctorate degree program but had not attended classes was held eligible to graduate because the university, held the court, was at liberty to determine “how it would teach” — and this meant methods other than traditional classroom delivery!

Attendant to the PhilSAT case, one of the petitioners also questioned the Legal Education Board’s (LEB) requirement that law professors should hold, at the very least, a master’s degree in law. The Supreme Court upheld this as a “reasonable minimum requirement.” What it struck down, however, were the enforcement measures of the LEB: the sanction of downgrading the accreditation of a law school and its attempts at classifying and ranking the professors of colleges of law. This, said the court, constituted impermissible intrusions into the academic freedom of institutions to determine “who should teach.”

In an earlier case not related to the PhilSAT issue, the Supreme Court had maintained with the school that a college instructor without a master’s degree could never claim the right to permanency and tenure because the advanced degree was the minimum requirement for permanency on the teaching corps.

READ MORE: Fr. Ranhilio Callangan Aquino (March 11, 2020). Trouncing academic freedom. The Manila Times. www.manilatimes.net/2020/03/11/opinion/columnists/topanalysis/trouncing-academic-freedom/702027. For more info, rannie_aquino@csu.edu.ph; rannie_aquino@sanbeda.edu.ph; rannie_aquino@outlook.com.

That is all very well and jurisprudence is clearly robust. But state universities and colleges, in fact, are constantly harangued, their academic freedom emasculated not principally by the Commission on Higher Education (although some work must also be done in this respect, especially in regard to governance issues, as well as the so-called policies, standards and guidelines that are often enforced not as policies, but as ironclad rules), but by such non-academic votaries of bureaucracy: the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and the Commission on Audit (CoA).

Those in private higher education institutions enjoy tremendously more freedom than do state institutions — ironically! The promotion of an instructor or a professor, for example, must not only conform to the qualification standards in the relevant manuals of a state university. They must also conform to DBM classifications. One such issuance is the now hotly debated National Budget Circular 461 that purports to set qualification standards for each rank of professorship.

Under this circular, the very discretion of the university president to promote is restricted (only to the highest grade within the same rank, e.g., from associate professor 2 to associate professor 4, but never to professor 1), so says DBM. When, once, the Cagayan State University decided to exercise its academic freedom by setting qualification standards for professors with designated positions other than those laid down by the DBM, we were told that we would have to pay those promoted from our own savings!

The CoA is no better. It is, in fact, worse. There is hardly any more detestable obstacle to the progress and growth of state universities than the legal fundamentalists in the employ of the Audit commission.

Before in-service training programs or planning conferences are set in motion, every attempt must be made to make the affair conform, not to the exigencies of the university’s operations and needs, but to the multifarious demands of the fault-finders at CoA. The procurement of complex equipment for high levels of research is subject not to the demands of science nor to the necessities of research, but to the limits, both procedural and substantive, that CoA has set in place.

I do not chafe against audit. We must be accountable. But I fret against unreasonable audit and fault finding, and there is a clear difference between the two. Even the grant of calamity assistance to employees and service-providers of the university community in times of grave need is farthest determined by the precepts of charity, but is often stymied by the nitpicking of the Audit agency.

So, yes, the law is there and the jurisprudence has been very constructive. But the DBM and CoA think of themselves somehow as guardians against the court’s liberality, unfazed both by the letter and the spirit of the Constitution and the laws, so long as they are faithful to the letter of their rules. All forms of fundamentalism are pernicious because fundamentalism finds in the intransigence of a written text refuge from the vagaries and shades of real life. And this is fundamentalism that strikes at the core of academic freedom.

READ MORE: Fr. Ranhilio Callangan Aquino (March 11, 2020). Trouncing academic freedom. The Manila Times. www.manilatimes.net/2020/03/11/opinion/columnists/topanalysis/trouncing-academic-freedom/702027. For more info, rannie_aquino@csu.edu.ph; rannie_aquino@sanbeda.edu.ph; rannie_aquino@outlook.com.

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