An important accord which guarantees the exercise of academic freedom and which has been in force for 31 years between the University of the Philippines (UP) and the Philippine Department of National Defense (DND) was unilaterally abrogated by DND Secretary Delfin Lorenzana last 15 January 2021 (Talabong).
He justified the unilateral abrogation of the agreement by alleging that there is an ongoing “clandestine recruitment” on UP campuses by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing the New People’s Army (NPA). According to him, the accord is being used as “a shield for [communist] propaganda” and that the abrogation is meant to “secure” the youth against the enemies of the people. As if owning up to the shortcomings of the military, Gen. Lorenzana claims that the DND has nothing to gain by suppressing academic freedom and freedom of expression since this will only “alienate [the DND] further from the people.”
UP President Danilo Concepcion immediately released a statement (19 January 2021) saying that the unilateral abrogation was “totally unnecessary and unwarranted,” and “may result in worsening rather than improving relations between our institutions” (Magsambol). He called Gen. Lorenzana to task for making a decision which “can only sow more confusion and mistrust, given that you have not specified what it is that you exactly aim to do or put in place in lieu of the protections and courtesies afforded by the agreement.” Countless UP administrators, senators, congressmen, alumni, and university colleges and units followed suit in condemning the unilateral abrogation of the accord as an attack on academic freedom. A letter to the UP Board of Regents (BOR) (dated 24 January 2021) by 32 professors emeriti of UP Diliman strongly protested the unilateral abrogation,
Indeed we see in these recent initiatives of the military establishment—not just in UP but in many other campuses as well—an effort to bring civil governance in these institutions to heel, to compel academic administrators to conform to State authority, no matter how unreasonable or contrary to time-honored academic practice. Our military institutions—and even our highest academic and administrative officials—must be reminded that UP is an intellectual meritocracy, as great universities should be, which is how it can best serve the nation.
This move by the Duterte administration was not completely unexpected. Unable to deal competently with the COVID-19 pandemic and plagued by recent scandals on the illegal injection of vaccines on his close-in security detail and the government’s acquisition of more expensive but less effective vaccines from China, the Duterte administration has consistently used its counter-insurgency campaign against rebels, whether real or a product of its imagining, as a means to deflect public scrutiny from its incompetence and corruption.
Shaped by the bitter experiences of the Filipino people under the Marcos dictatorship, the 1989 UP-DND Accord is a rather unique document. In its current form, it is an extremely inconvenient document for would-be tyrants and dictators. The accord was signed by then UP President Jose Abueva and DND Secretary Fidel V. Ramos. It requires that state military and police forces first coordinate with university officials before entering any campus of the UP System. University officials must be notified before any search or arrest warrants, or invitations for “questioning” are served to any faculty, student, personnel or invited participants in any UP activity. It also requires the military or police to immediately report to the UP President, Chancellor, Dean, or whoever is in charge in their absence, if any UP student, faculty or personnel are arrested or taken into detention anywhere in the Philippines. UP faculty, students and staff shall also not be subjected to any custodial interrogation without prior notice to the UP President or Chancellor and without assistance of a counsel which may be provided by the University. Most importantly, the military and police are disallowed from interfering in any peaceful protest actions by UP constituents within UP premises.
The accord represents the practical implementation of the then newly passed Philippine Constitution of 1987 which included a provision ensuring that “academic freedom shall be enjoyed in all institutions of higher learning” (Article XIV, Section 5.2). It was also a necessary confidence building measure in a context wherein the armed forces were known to have participated in widespread and gross human rights abuses during the Martial Law era. Due to this, the military had lost much of its credibility and trustworthiness among the public. The immediate cause of the accord, however, was the abduction of Donato Continente, a staffer of the official student paper of UP, right in front of the building which houses student offices and organizations on 16 June 1989. He was detained and tortured on suspicion of being involved in the assassination of US Army office Col. James Rowe (Villanueva). Most importantly, the document is a result of the militant student movement which played a crucial role in the successful struggle against the Marcos dictatorship. Its predecessor was an agreement signed in 1981 by then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and UP student activist Sonia Sotto, chairperson of the militant League of Filipino Students (LFS). Many among those harassed, tortured, imprisoned and killed during the US-supported Marcos regime were UP students.
Defining and Limiting Academic Freedom
Instead of protesting the abrogation of the accord, the Chairperson of the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) Prospero De Vera, claimed that the implementation of the accord was “destined to be problematic” and that,
In the next few days, I will be constituting a Panel of Education Experts to define the meaning of academic freedom and the role of security forces in the protection of academic freedom and the welfare of students. Courts have long drawn and placed judicial tests and standards to protect free speech and academic freedom, and we can be guided by them. Narrowly tailoring regulation to allow the fullest articulation of speech while allowing the protection of compelling state interest is a balanced standard that we all can be guided with to bring out what is common interest to all, and not on those where we differ.
De Vera’s proposal seemingly does not take into account the long and rich discussion on academic freedom which UP has produced in over the century of its existence. In fact, in the late 50s and early 60s, vociferous discussions on academic freedom were taking place in the Philippines with UP at the epicenter (De Joya 2016). On the one hand, there were the perceived efforts by so-called “religio-sectarians” to erode academic freedom by calling for more religion in UP and for the weakening of the principle of separation between Church and State. On the other hand, there were the attacks on UP faculty and students by the Committee on Anti-Filipino Activities (CAFA) which was leading an anti-communist campaign modeled after the House Un-American Activities Committee and inspired by US-style McCarthyism. The immediate reason for the controversy was the publication of an anonymous article in a UP journal entitled “The Peasant War in the Philippines” (1958) which was mistakenly deemed subversive and pro-communist. In a bizarre turn, Ricardo Pascual, a professor of philosophy and champion of logical positivism, was inexplicably accused of being a communist just because of his alleged atheism
It was in this context that Felicisimo Ocampo, a judge and politician, delivered a speech entitled “Academic Freedom and Freedom from Subversion” (21 March 1961) at the Philippine House of Representatives. His intervention was a contribution to the national debate set off by CAFA’s anti-communist witch-hunt in UP. According to him,
… it would seem that the problem really boils down to : what questions may be asked during the CAFA inquiry, if it has to be prolonged upon appropriate grounds, manner and procedure. If such questions relate to a professor’s communist affiliations or espousal of subversive doctrines, academic freedom is not violated. But when the CAFA probes into what teaching is pursued in our institution of higher learning – without proceeding from a prima facie case of such affiliation or subversion – academic freedom is thereby encroached upon (Ocampo 1961, 46).
For Ocampo, the limit to academic freedom is therefore the classroom itself. In his opinion, without any proof that the ideas being discussed by a professor in the classroom have any real effects on the real world in the form of actual organizational affiliation or “espousal” of subversive ideas (in the sense of putting these into action), teaching in the classroom should not be interfered with. In sum, as long as even potentially dangerous ideas remain purely “academic,” there should be no cause for alarm and no reason for investigation. On the other hand, if the professor is proven to have communist affiliations as well as espousing subversive doctrines, he or she shall be deemed to have overstepped the permissible and can no longer expect any protection under the umbrella of academic freedom.
Another view on the matter was offered by lawyer and law professor Perfecto V. Fernandez, who was still a student at the UP College of Law when he wrote the essay “National Security and Academic Freedom” (1957). This essay was included in a compilation of important writings on academic freedom which was entitled Academic Freedom: The Philippine Collegian Special Issue (1957). Fernandez believed that,
Whatever views he may advance and no matter how offensive these ideas may be to those who cherish democratic sentiments, he will be assured of immunity from reprisal, as long as he acknowledges that the constitutional process is the only gateway to real and lasting reform, be it in the economic or political order. He must eschew the use of force as a means to seeing his ideas prevail. Appeal to the sword negates instantly and immediately the democratic process and surely the Republic deserves no censure if it resorts to prohibition as a legitimate weapon of self-defense. (Fernandez 1957, 162)
The limit of academic freedom is therefore the manifested allegiance of the professor to the constitution as well as to the peaceful processes it enshrines. Academic freedom, which is here understood as premised on constant verbal acts of “acknowledging” the constitution and “eschewing” the use of force for the purposes of changing or reforming the political and economic order, must therefore take place exclusively within the framework of the prevailing constitution. Other verbal acts such as “appealing to the sword” will automatically lift the academic’s “immunity from reprisal” and subject him or her to “prohibition” by the State, of which the most immediate may be the prohibition from his or her profession. Some kinds of verbal acts therefore seem to be prohibited in the classroom. For example, serious discussions on the plausibility and historical results of European and American doctrines pertaining to the right to revolt against unjust authority, with their “appeals to the sword,” cannot be part of classroom fare, unless these are seriously watered down or refuted. Least of all can the Philippine revolutionary tradition itself be the subject of any real and honest study unless prevailing “democratic sentiments” be offended.
Alejandro Roces, a Philippine National Artist who served in an important capacity as Secretary of Education from 1962 to 1965, during the term of Philippine President Diosdado Macapagal, shared his thoughts on the topic with an essay entitled, “The Meaning of Academic Freedom” (1962). He wrote,
The difficulty arises when in teaching his subject, either formally in the classroom or informally in open forums, the professor advocates opinions which would run counter to the laws of his country, such as advocating communism. Is he still within his right of academic freedom as a professor in a university addressing himself to university men to accept or refute his ideas? … The answer to this question is based on an answer to another question: How mature are the students and professors? If they are mature enough to be able to spot errors and refute ideas with counter ideas, then no harm is done. If however, the students and professors are so immature that any charlatan can sway them, then there is real danger – and when this happens the state comes in to protect the innocents. (Roces 1942, 267)
The limit here is the perceived “maturity” of the academic community which is, in theory, sufficiently equipped to easily refute and dismiss ideas such as communism. One can therefore say or discuss anything as an academic without any prior prohibition or limitation as long as no one takes potentially subversive ideas seriously. It becomes another matter though when such ideas begin to “sway” vulnerable minds. This is where the paternalistic State should supposedly come swooping in to protect the innocent and immature faculty and students from further harmful influence of the intellectual charlatans in their midst. Academic freedom therefore holds only so long as ideas which run counter to the prevailing “laws of the country” remain unpopular in the universities. Only a mature university community, in the estimation of the State and its functionaries, deserves to be granted full academic freedom. Naturally, such an assessment by the authorities can be indefinitely postponed. And until then, academic freedom can also be deferred for the foreseeable future. For Roces, it seems that “maturity,” in the sense of being able to wield reason, is synonymous with “rationality.” In this view, therefore, academic freedom can only be upheld in a situation where a certain kind of rationality prevails. The limit of academic freedom is therefore held to be “rationality” itself.
In summary, Ocampo, Fernandez and Roces recognize that classroom discussions on so-called subversive ideas can be protected by the principle of academic freedom only as long these do not lead to organizational affiliation, actual espousal in practice, are qualified by constant expressions of allegiance to the constitution and disavowals of violent social transformation, and as long as these remain marginal and are not taken seriously by a sufficiently “mature” and “rational” academic community. In short, academic freedom is acceptable only so long as it remains purely academic, strictly bounded by the law, and circumscribed by a certain idea of what passes for “rationality.”
In contrast to these limiting definitions, former UP President Francisco Nemenzo offered a uniquely dissenting view on academic freedom. His perspective was doubtless influenced by the particular conditions at the time of his writing. A Philippine classic, his essay entitled “The Continuing Relevance of Academic Freedom,” was written in the dark depths of Martial Law when he was Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) of UP Diliman and delivered at a seminar on “Academic Freedom and Contemporary Philippine Reality” (13 January 1977). According to Nemenzo,
Like all other freedoms, [academic freedom] has value only when actually used, and it has usefulness only to those who have ideas to profess which imperil the interests and outrage those in power. It has meaning only, where members of the university perform the essential function of social critics: otherwise it is worthless… Academic freedom is connected with social criticism because activities supportive of the status quo will always be tolerated without need for special protection… (Nemenzo 1977, 5)
It is the national community that the university should serve, not the ones who rule it. If our convictions and our findings dictate that we denounce the policies and actions for our rulers, let us do so with, courage, vigour and honesty. It is precisely this critical function that sets a value to academic freedom. (12)
Another UP President, Rafael Palma, in the face of Philippine President Manuel Quezon’s persecution, had articulated similar sentiments as early as 1933,
If each professor cannot feel safe to proclaim what he considers the truth, because of fear of persecution or displeasure of the men in power, then truth would not come out from his lips or will totally be disfigured. And when that time comes, the University would be nothing more than a mere political agency of the men in power instead of becoming the citadel of learning, unafraid and forward looking in its sacred duty to reveal the naked truth as it is in its service to the State. (Palma 1957, 151)
For Nemenzo as well as Palma, academic freedom is not a mere policy which can be defined, formulated, and limited by “education experts” or by well salaried technocrats and uniformed personnel. Indeed, harmless and commonplace ideas agreeable to the powers that be, would not need the protective banner of academic freedom at all. A university composed of a bevy of learned sycophants would never dare displease the authorities of any era, least of all outrage them. Likewise, academic freedom would be completely superfluous for armed military and police elements who would wish to barge into universities to give enlightening lectures on counter-insurgency and permissible activism on campus. Though he had presented a much richer elaboration of the same idea, Nemenzo was perhaps following Rosa Luxemburg’s famous dictum that, “freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently” (Luxemburg 1940). It is well-known that even revolutions in the natural sciences must always face more or less strong institutional resistance from the dominant paradigm (Kuhn 1962). Such resistance and its concomitant acts of repression must be even more obvious and brazen in the political and social fields which touch directly on matters of the State.
Academic freedom cannot be a right granted from above but something which is constantly asserted, defended, and fought for from below.
Limits are anathema to academic freedom. Indeed, academic freedom cannot be defined by limits but by the overstepping of limits. If academic freedom can be conceived at all in terms of a limits, it can only be as a limit determined not by those in power but as a limit to the exercise and abuse of power itself. It is no accident that it was precisely in the time of greatest repression that Nemenzo was able to fearlessly formulate the most powerful articulation of the meaning of academic freedom in the Philippine context. Like the freedom of speech, academic freedom always has something inherently unsettling and contentious about it. This is the reason why there is always talk by the powers that be about defining it or determining its limits. The moment academic freedom ceases to be unsettling then it is done for. The endless repetition of received ideas and comfortable platitudes would not only mean the preservation of the status quo, it would also mean the death of science and the pursuit of knowledge.
In this light, De Vera’s proposal to form a panel of “education experts” to “tailor regulation” of academic freedom to supposedly “allow the fullest articulation of free speech” while “allowing for the protection of compelling state interest” is fundamentally wrong-headed. It does not only lack historical perspective, it also represents a narrow technocratic understanding of academic freedom which it reduces to a policy problem. It is clear at the outset that there will be nothing “academic” about the proposed “balanced standard” between the university and the “state interest,” presumably represented by politicians, technocrats, military and police. In fact, the Duterte Administration has already produced proposals for what it thinks may pass for such a “balanced standard” in the form of Senate Committee Report No. 10 (October 2019) which proposes, among others, measures such as the inclusion of a “lecture series on how to detect insurgency elements in schools… in the authorized activities of schools and universities ,” “regular review of academic curriculum / modules, and monitoring and evaluation of school activities,” “investigations on the allegations against teachers who instigate their students to participate in rallies and street demonstrations that advocate radical and subversive ideologies,” etc. (Ager). Such a dubious exercise will result in nothing less than a purely political and military incursion into the university. Mel Sta Maria, the dean of the Far Eastern University (FEU) Institute of Law, minced no words when he wrote, “This is the most intrusive, gross, and unconstitutional governmental action that can ever be done in regard to education. No governmental agency should define how academic freedom should be operationalized in UP and, for that matter, in any educational institution…”
De Vera’s claim that this “balanced standard” will “bring out what is common interest to all, and not on those where we differ,” precisely ignores the essential truth that the most important thing that academic freedom protects is not what is “common” but precisely “where we differ.”
Red-tagging (or “red-baiting”) is not an academic matter in the Philippines. A pattern of vilification can be followed by grave threats, assassination or illegal arrest and torture. Bravely working under a widespread culture of impunity, human rights defenders, ethnic rights activists, labor union organizers, journalists, lawyers, doctors, writers, and cultural workers have constantly faced indiscriminate red-tagging and threats to their lives.
On January 22, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) held a press conference which pinpointed four the College of Arts and Letters (College), College of Fine Arts (CFA), College of Mass Communication (CMC), and the College of Education (CED) in UP Diliman as “recruitment centers” for the CPP and the NPA. On the same day, the Facebook page “Armed Forces of the Philippines Information Exchange” falsely listed 27 people who are supposedly “UP students who became NPA (died or captured)” (Tantuco). The following day, on January 23, Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade Jr. of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), named 18 schools, including all the country’s major universities, as “recruitment havens of the New People’s Army” (“Top universities…”). Not content with this, on the same day, the Civil Relations Service of the AFP posted as part of its propaganda campaign, an anti-communist testimony from a UP professor who was revealed to be a fake. This campaign will not be ending soon.
The abrogation of the UP-DND Accord means that the military and police can now enter UP campuses at will. The academic community now faces the prospect of armed military and police presence and constant surveillance in their midst. Schools and universities in the Philippines are under attack by a regime that knows no limits to its brutality and violence. The most pressing challenge today is not how to define the rights and freedoms of the Filipino people but how to protect and fight for it.
Center for International Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman
Ramon Guillermo is a FORSEA Board Member.
Banner: A multisectoral press conference against the abrogation of the UP-DND Accord was held at University of the Philippines Diliman, January 26, 2021. Behind the speakers is the installation “Barikada” (barricade) by the artist Toym Imao. Photo credit: STAND UP
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