Schism at the university: The GE divide at UP

One of a nation’s most important treasures is its youth — their character and their intellect. This is the reason why it is important to write about the current controversy and divide at the University of the Philippines Diliman. At the center of this debate and controversy is the question of General Education or Liberal Education. Is it important? Can it be whittled down without consequences? What is the importance of a science and engineering major in learning the other disciplines ? On that count the same question can be asked What is the importance of an arts, social science, culture, and history major in learning about science and engineering?

In this issue. I would like to tackle two issues both related to what happened in UP DIliman at the University Council (UC) meeting:

First, How important is GE?
Second, Settling the GE Question: A Point of Order Issue ?

Caveat and limitations

Before we proceed though let us put up some caveats and limits. The blogger is writing this from the position of one who not only graduated from the UP but also teaches one those required GE subjects, Science Technology and Society — which was retained.

On what happened during the proverbial road to this encounter most were taken and observed from tenured colleagues and friends who were more active and physically witnessed it.

Lastly, The blogger writes based on his personal belief and the sum of his upbringing and education.

How important is GE?

To answer this question one has to look briefly at the history of scientists, libraries, schools and universities.

Let us start with The City of Alexandria in Egypt under the Alexandrian General and Pharaoh Ptolemy Soter is of importance to this discussion because this is where the Great Library of Alexandria was established. One must remember that this library was not only a collection of books and scrolls for it was but more than that it was a learning, a research, a critical discussion center where the likes of Archimedes of Syracuse went to. Later when the Library of Alexandrian diminished into the Serapeum and eventually faded under fire and fanaticism there arose another institution in Baghdad of the Abbassid Caliphate of Haroun Al-Raschid and Al-Mammun the Bayt Al-Hikma or the House of Wisdom. This institution had four functions or objectives: (I) Translate the accumulated bodies of knowledge from Greece, Rome and other civilizations into Arabic; (II) Conduct and pursue research into the different bodies of knowledge; (III) Collect, collate, organize, preserve and male available these bodies of knowledge; And (IV) To learn and to have critical discourses using these bodies of knowledge. In this environment, Scholars were multi-disciplinary scientists-philosophers and aside from preserving the accumulated body of knowledge they were able to generate more giving humanity the works of Al Jazziri in Mathematics , Ibn Sina in Medicine and others. These accumulated and generated knowledge — products of a multidisciplinary minds — were the seeds on which the European body of knowledge was rebuilt and augmented.

The insatiable drive and interest in a multiple disciplines were factors that enabled humanity not only to abide but to thrive.This enabled individuals like Aristotle, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Alexander Borodin, Beatrix Potter, Jose Rizal, the Luna Brothers and others to excel and contribute to more than one branch of knowledge. Furthermore, the works of Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Isaac Asimov shows how their interest in more than one area of knowledge has enhanced their work. Did not Da Vinci use mathematics, chemistry, philosophy and art to produce his works?

The seeding and exposure of anyone to the different branches of the collective human knowledge is important since it not only enriches but equips the individual in any undertaking he or she may undertake.

To alter the required GE subjects should be done with caution so as not to deny the student and the individual the potential to develop their own capacity as fully as possible. In a sense Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is an apt symbol for the goal to fully develop because in this study of proportions it shows man can occupy a circle and a square. In Renaissance geometry and in neoplatonism a square represents the terrestrial world while a circle represents the celestial world The Vitruvian Man reminds us that humanity is capable of achieving a great number of things.

Settling the GE Question: A Point of Order Issue ?

To understand what happened on the faithful Monday one has to read through a series of documents, listen to the different anecdotal account of that faithful Monday.

Now, The discussion and debate about the GE issues has been on-going for a long time through a series of conferences, seminars and meeting. One report in particular is important because it was done by an Ad hoc committee tasked to come out with an assessment and recommendation on the GE issue or as stated in ad-hoc report, “1) review previous studies on the UPD GE program; 2) review administrative and operational aspects; 3) benchmark with other GE programs; and 4) recommend a format for a new GE program”.

This particular report is titled: REPORT OF THE AD HOC COMMITTEE: HYBRID GENERAL EDUCATION PROGRAM REVIEW and can be viewed by clicking this link.

In the report among other things were four illustrations or options in teaching GE based on a three tiered design composed of core, domain-specific and integrative subjects. Illustrations A to B had 36 units minimum. Illustration C had 24 to 45 units. Lastly, Illustration D had 21 units. Coincidentally, This illustration according to the AdHoc Committee report, took into consideration or was based the 21-unit minimum proposed during the 2015 UPD GE Conference. The report stated that a major concern for illustration D or what is called the open system would be the identification of the core courses.

Eventually, What was selected last Monday was Illustration D or the 21 unit minimum proposal. Now it must be stated there were two important proposals that were approved that day. First, There was the proposal to adapt a new GE program which won overwhelmingly voted and then there was the second vote that selected which of the four illustration or proposal would be adapted by UP Diliman. It is the second vote on which of the four illustrations/options that has generated the present uproar and concern from the different sectors of the UP community through out the world.

One of the accounts can be read in an open letter to the UP Board of Regents (BOR) at entitled “Dear UP BOR: Defer approval of reduction of GE units to a minimum of 21 at UP Diliman” by Sofia Guillermo:

This quote below talks about how on that fateful Monday things got out of hand:

During the UC Special meeting, however, while a motion regarding the change of the GE was still being discussed, there was a sudden raising of hands of the faculty members seated on the left side of the Physics auditorium while members on the other side of the auditorium were still trying to figure out the motion being forwarded. The latter were not clear on the motion to be decided on, much less ready to vote on any motion. Despite objections repeatedly raised on the clarity of the motion — whether or not it was a question, or what the word “change” [6] meant — the votes were counted and recorded. This was unfair to the other half of the assembly who were not aware that the issue on the motion was supposed to have been “settled” (which was actually not the case). Despite the requests to further discuss the motion, the counting of votes continued upon the demand of the other members of the council who claimed that a voting process cannot be stopped once it has began. This led to further misunderstanding and disagreements during the assembly.

The discussions got out of control — those who voted for the GE to be changed were not effectively dissuaded by the Chair from booing and heckling during the discussion. This was done not once, but repeatedly, every time someone spoke and said something against the reduction of GE units to a minimum of 21. Those who pushed for this drastic reduction of GE units became rowdier and neither reason nor logic was proffered. The boorish behavior could not be controlled throughout the assembly. The principles of respect and collegiality had vanished. What also proved baffling was that those championing the Execom proposal for the reduction of GE units to a minimum of 21 ignored the challenge to produce any scientific basis for their proposal. We wish to go on record that they did not present any position paper to justify their claims, very much unlike past UC debates where colleagues were furnished statements/position papers so that all of those attending may scrutinize the data being used and the analyses being presented.

The UC special meeting started at 1:30 p.m. and continued until past 7:30 p.m. in the evening. Since many faculty members had been in the auditorium for the GE conference at 8:30 a.m., the quality of the discussion significantly declined after 5:00 p.m. and many had to leave. It would have been more prudent to adjourn the UC special meeting and call another meeting to vote on the issue. However, the UC special meeting dragged on, forcing the vote in possibly the longest UC meeting in recent history. Based on the empty seats at that time, more than half of the faculty had already left when the final vote was taken.

I still have to seean officially posted online narrative on the GE issue that is substantially paint a contrary account. Most anecdotal stories support the account above. However, There are anecdotal stories surfacing that state the unruliness was not limited to one side.

Regardless, Given the uproar and controversy following the vote,There are questions that needs to be looked into and answered:

First, Were the other three illustrations/options recommended by the Ad-hoc Committee created by the Executive Committee of the UC placed on the table to be voted upon?

Second, Looking at the stories from FB, the Open Letter to the BOR and off-line discussion it would seem that the atmosphere of the meeting was volatile and mutually acrimonious could the meeting have been managed better in order to avoided and prevented the transformation of what initially can be called an academic disagreement into a full blown schism at UP Diliman? Was it imperative that the vote be done in one day and in that manner?

Third, This brings into focus as well the communications and information management of the GE issues and was everyone and I mean everyone from the students, faculty, personnel, alumni and policy makers informed? Furthermore, Aside from being informed were they even asked?

Fourth, It would be important too look at the short and long term impact of this decision. Will it lead to a shortage of classes created by the whittling down of subjects? Will it lead to a loss of jobs? How will it affect the future scientists, engineers, artists and leader with less exposure to the the richness of human knowledge?

These questions must be answered.

One must remember that as a member of the UP community — whether one is a student, faculty, personnel, official and alumni — each individual would have his or her reason or reasons for supporting one of the four illustrations or options (for a three tiered GE) and a decision has to be reached. The danger and a fatal error though was to do it in a fashion that has created the present uproar and schism that has critically divided the University of the Philippines and invites a possible intervention. This could place the academic independence of UP in peril.

In the end though one is reminded of this verse that has been quoted and paraphrased through the years.

A little neglect may breed mischief …?for want of a nail, the shoe was lost;?for want of a shoe the horse was lost;
And for want of a horse the rider was lost.
—Benjamin Franklin
Poor Richard’s Almanac, preface (1758)

For want of a nail the shoe was lost;?For want of a shoe the horse was lost;?For want of a horse the battle was lost;?For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost—
All for the want of a horse-shoe nail.
from Fifty Famous People by James Baldwin



This post is supported by a writing grant from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).