Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

“We have to help our country love itself again”---says new Ateneo president, Fr. Jett Villarin

Fr. Jose Ramon Villarin S.J.

Last Thursday, Sept. 8, Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I attended the investiture of Fr. Jose Ramon “Jett” Villarin, S.J. as the 30th President of the Ateneo  University. My family has been in the Ateneo for at least three generations now, and I myself had worked in the Ateneo College of Law as assistant to its late Regent, Fr. Pacifico  Ortiz, where I also had the privilege of interacting with then Ateneo President Francisco Araneta (Fr. Ortiz eventually also became President of the university). So the investiture of the new president was a must for me.

Fr. Bienvenido Nebres
Last Thursday was momentous as it was a changing of the guard. The lanky, ascetic-looking Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, 71, who had served as President for 18 critical years in the nation’s history (“far too long,” he quipped to Cecile Alvarez and me in our dzRH interview many months ago) was turning over the university mace to a short boyish-looking scientist  20 years his junior, who enjoys playing the piano and his guitar to relax.


Henry Lee Irwin Theater

A rite of passage always heightens expectancy, especially in the case of the recent investiture at the Ateneo, which saw the end of the longest-running presidential tenure in its 152 -year history, and the coming in of perhaps the youngest president at least in contemporary times. One felt the excitement among the academic cap-and-gowned community assembled at the Henry Lee Irwin Auditorium as well as in the students gathered at the Ateneo Gym, watching from giant TV screen. 

Fr. Jose Cecilio Magadia
The festivities began the evening before with an elegant concert by various campus choral groups at the Church of the Gesu (where, among others, one of my favorite songs, “Light of a Million Mornings,” was beautifully rendered by the Ateneo Glee Club). Thursday began with the solemn mass of thanksgiving, ushered in by the impressive processional of all the Loyola Jesuits led by Provincial Superior Jose Cecilio Magadia, followed by the investiture ceremony and dinner. 


It was also the first time that the President of the Republic had graced an Ateneo investiture, administering the oath of office in Filipino to the incoming school prexy. Perhaps in the excitement of the moment Villarin, garbed in the black and yellow robe of his Ph.D alma mater, Georgia Institute of  Technology in Atlanta, forgot to acknowledge the presence of Chief Justice Renato Corona seated on stage with P-Noy and school dignitaries; but the CJ took it gracefully, smiling at the jokes the new Ateneo exec cracked.

The invitation to P-Noy was no accident, as he was one year behind (AB Economics ’81) Villarin’s BS '80 class in the Ateneo, and they are said to be good friends. When I learned this, I found myself hoping that Villarin would capitalize on this friendship and help put together even an informal think-tank (or what he calls “strategic thinkers”) for the President, who obviously could use brain infusion into his circle of advisers.


Checking out the biographies of Villarin and and his predecessor, one easily concludes the generation gap; but actually their lives intersected quite closely. Both are scientists and the fact that they succeeded each other augurs well for a much-needed impetus to the sciences here.

Nebres holds a master's and  Ph.D in Mathematics both from Stanford University (getting his doctorate in record year and a half) and Villarin a master’s in Physics from the Jesuit-run Marquette University in Wisconsin (“known for Jesuits engaged in science”) and a Ph.D in Atmospheric Sciences from Georgia Tech, in addition to his bachelor’s degree in sacred theology from the Loyola School of Theology, summa cum laude. The presidency of the Jesuit-run Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro also proved to be the immediate springboard to the Ateneo de Manila's helm for both.

Fr. Nebres chalks up among his numerous accomplishments his being a founder of the “Consortium” of leading universities in Manila to develop Ph.D. programs in math, physics and chemistry, with the view to developing here a critical mass of scientists in these areas. Evidently, as Ateneo College Dean he had already spotted the young  Villarin who in 1980 graduated with a BS in Physics, magna cum laude and class valedictorian. Thus later, as Jesuit Provincial Superior, Nebres turned down the request of the latter, by then a newly-ordained Jesuit, to be assigned to Mindanao with his brother scholastics out on regency. Instead the Superior gave him a physics book and said, ‘You go to Marquette University and study.” “Had I not gone there,” the new Ateneo prexy mused, “I would have lost my interest in science.”


The new President's investiture speech listed three “strategic concerns” of the Ateneo as a Jesuit, Catholic and Filipino university: namely, its identity and mission, nation-building, and environment and development, or as he put it, "God's creation." His scientific background studded his speech with environmental images of the nation, e.g., referring to it as “a garden that has been given to us in trust," so that “we cannot leave this garden, the way it is now, to our children.”

Villarin emphasized, among other things, the need to realize that the use of non-renewable resources for fuel development "has begun to tax the carrying and replenishment capacity of certain crucial reservoirs or lifelines of the earth," and he called on the academic community to help dramatize this crisis. But his environmental wish-list also detailed practical concerns for society: e.g., “we need to plant forests, not trees,” and “we need more parks, not more parking.”


Villarin has been involved in allied concerns on global warming since his foreign student days, winning several awards here and abroad for his work. For instance, his work on greenhouse gas emissions resulted in his becoming part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize together with Al Gore. Hopefully his presidency of the Ateneo would help focus more sharply the local academic community's attention on the devastating effects of this global menace---enough to prod our LGUs to act with more alarm and urgency.  

But I like most his remark, “We have to help our country love itself again.”


Villarin’s election to the helm of the country’s leading private university also comes at a most crucial time---when our top four universities (the others being the UP, De la Salle University and UST) fell in ranking among the world’s top universities for 2011-12, according to the London-based Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), a company specializing in education and study abroad. UP fell 18 points, from 314th last year to 332nd this year, while Ateneo registered an even bigger plunge of 53 points, from 307th last year to 360th.  De la Salle University and UST scored even more dismally, with DLSU dropping from the 451-500 bracket to the 551-600 bracket and UST from the 551-600 bracket last year, to be stricken off the top 600-list this year.


It hurts that as our leading universities have fallen from academic grace in the QS ratings, a number of universities from Asia such as in Hongkong, Singapore, Tokyo, Kobe, Seoul and one or two from China landed among the TOP 50, alongside European and American schools (topnotcher for the second straight year is the University of Cambridge in the UK, followed by Harvard, Massachussetts Institute of Technology and Yale in the US, and Oxford in UK).

The deterioration in higher education---as well as in education in general---is attributed to the decreasing support from government, as evidenced by sharp cuts in the budget of the UP (from P6.9 billion in 2010 to P5.53 this year---or P1.39 billion less), and the 112 state colleges and universities (from P23.8 billion last year to P23.4 billion this year---or P400 million less). TESDA, the critical vocational training ground for the less privileged, also saw its budget slashed even bigger.

Rep. Angelo Palmones
As AGHAM party-list Rep. Angelo Palmones notes in our dzRH program (to be aired tomorrow night, Sunday, Sept. 11 at 8 pm.), it should not surprise anyone that our universities have fallen in the QS ratings, as there has been little government support for them. Palmones stresses that thanks for the rallies staged by UP students and state colleges and universities, their budgets were restored to a certain degree, but he also lamented that a measly P9 billion or 0.01 percent share in the GDP is allocated to scientific research, including those of Pag-Asa. On the other hand, the administration wants to increase the conditional cash transfer (CCT) funding to P39 billion for next year, despite DSWD's failure to properly monitor the funds and defective listings of beneficiaries. 

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