When the University of the Philippines centennial celebrations kicked off yesterday, I too shared the joy and excitement of many UP alumni. Of course, technically I’m not an alumnus because I never graduated. Like many activists from my batch, I filed a Leave of Absence (LOA), then after a semester, was considered Absent Without Leave (AWOL). I guess I already exceeded the Maximum Residency Rule (MRR). My student number starts with 92 by the way, and nope, I have no regrets with my decision to drop out (but that’s another long story).
I remember with great fondness my stay in the UP, the place where I spent the formative years of my activism. It was a difficult time to be an activist in the 90’s, quite complicated really. It was a time when forces from within and outside the university were questioning the activism of UP. The question frequently asked then was “Has UP lost its soul?”, referring to the activist and progressive tradition that the university seemed to have lost. Some simply considered activism dead, a hasty generalization based on the perception that there were so many cars parked on campus, the “rich kids” were believed to be the new majority in the erstwhile “University of the People”.
Time and again, UP students, teachers and community folk proved that activism was alive and well, and in some cases, thriving in UP. Thousands of students and workers marched in 1992 to oppose the 50% tuition fee increase that ushered in the P300/unit rate. (In 2007, tuition was pegged at P1,000/unit). Other significant protests include the Black Saturday rally vs the 1993 oath taking ceremony of UP President Emil Javier (the only time since Marcos when water cannons were used on protesters inside the Diliman campus), the stinging defeat of the Commonwealth Property Development Plan, the 1994 support for the striking workers of SM (scores of UP students and community activists were hurt during the strike) and the protests demanding greater state subsidy for education (1999-2000). There’s also the unforgettable evening march of dormers during Edsa 2 (they marched from UP to the Edsa Shrine on the evening of January 15).
Activism didn’t die in the 90’s. It merely tried to reconnect with its roots, find its place in history, come to terms with some harsh lessons and realities, and tried to move on from there. The activist movement of the 90’s did its share and had significant contributions in the peoples’ struggle.
Let me just say that having lots of parked cars at AS didn’t necessarily make the students inherently apathetic. The perceived “apathy” (e.g. students would rather be at the tambayan than join a rally) is partly the fault of the organized activists themselves who probably did not spend much time interacting with the general student population. Blaming the so-called “rich kids” merely fostered a cynical mindset even among the activists.
And it wasn’t even an entirely accurate statement to say that the “rich kids” were the majority (that’s what the administration would also say when it tried to justify tuition increases.) I believe that during our time, UP was predominantly middle-class (from lower, middle and upper middle), many coming from private schools, with still a significant number from public schools. Of course there were well off students too during our time, but wasn’t it the same in the 70’s and 80’s? Some of those so-called “rich kids” even ended up going to the mountains to fight for social change.
I won’t deny that we had to adapt to actual conditions to be more effective in our work. We needed to be more sensitive to the needs and sentiments of the students. There were some weaknesses on the part of the organized activists. It took some time before these were resolved. We lost a great number of student council elections during that period. There’s some truth in the assertion that some forms of protest and conscientization needed to be more creative (to be able to communicate better to the students), but this shouldn’t mean abandoning militant forms (rallies, marches and demonstrations) which were ultimately the decisive forms of struggle. Being creative shouldn’t mean being reformist or compromising.
I remember some folks pounding the point that we have to change the forms of struggle, to be more creative, to “adapt to the changing times.” What they were actually advocating was a change in the way we viewed our times, a change in our analysis of society and the means to change society for the better.
More than a decade after that debate, it is plain to see that society hasn’t improved much, being worse now than it was before. Every day under the Arroyo regime seems to affirm the need for collective and militant struggle. Yup, we still need creative forms and means to ignite the people but at the end of the day, militant mass movement pa rin ang kailangan. That much I have learned and to continue to reaffirm.
I also learned that the UP student movement was most potent and relevant when it was linked with the people’s movement and struggle. That’s when it made its distinct mark in history. That’s when the UP student movement truly mattered. If UP students didn’t link up with the people, society wouldn’t have cared if we marched and shouted till our lungs collapsed. We would have been looked on as a bunch of self-serving, spoiled brats with annoying tantrums.
So what about UP as a bastion of activism? I think this can be attributed to several related factors. It’s important to note that the university as an institution is still generally pro-status quo. It’s not about to turn the tatsulok upside down . It is not a revolutionary or radical institution (though some will argue that it is still relatively liberal or progressive compared to many higher learning institutions). Despite these limitations, there are some conditions in the university that allow activism to grow, which is a good thing. For example, there’s something progressive and positive in principles such as academic freedom that allow students and teachers to be critical and pursue activism. The UP may not be a radical institution but it does have radical students and teachers who use the limited space to propagate radical ideas that get amplified in and out of the university.
The above point is important because the university doesn’t operate in a social vacuum. The community is still affected by issues such as poverty, lack of government budget, repression, foreign domination and many other issues that can radicalize people. (The issue that made me join LFS was the tuition increase of 1992). They see that their problems in the university are also linked with the problems of society. Students and teachers cannot escape these social realities and so they create venues to articulate and resolve these issues. They discuss, organize and hold demonstrations to air their grievances. They aspire and struggle for change within and outside the confines of the university.
Activism is not really inherent in the orientation of the university (contrary to what many scared parents believe, hehe), but due to existing social contradictions (a nation in crisis), and because of some positive conditions that can be found in UP as a learning institution, and because of the efforts of generations of activists before us, UP has come to be known as a “bastion of activism”. Surely, it didn’t happen overnight.
We pay tribute and give just recognition to the many activists before us, those who rallied and mobilize during the early years of the university, during the period of war and colonial occupations, during the period of conservatism and McCarthyism, during the First Quarter Storm and the years spent resisting martial law, during the two people power uprisings, and up to the present.
Activist or not, I believe most UP students are still proud of this legacy and distinction. (Heck, you can see it even during the UAAP games.) It’s something that is definitely worth celebrating as part of the 100-year history of UP.