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Why is UP the Bastion of Student Activism?

What's with the Iskolar ng Bayan?
by Ara Eugenio
Nov 19, 2020
Photo/s: Ara Eugenio
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The University of the Philippines made headlines this week after it led a pack of universities in a nationwide call for an academic break following monster storms that struck during the pandemic. Accompanied by neighbors from Ateneo de Manila, students staged a protest along Katipunan Avenue.

During the President's weekly speech to the nation on Nov. 17, he made special mention of UP, threatening to defund it over students supposed ties to communist rebels. School authorities denied this.

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Being red-tagged isn't news to UP. The university's activist ways is often tagged in a "slippery slope" to the more extreme ideas of communism, analysts have said. However, it has heightened in recent years when internet trolls would accuse students and faculty of being "aktibista" or "bayaran" at the slightest expression of dissent.

The university has always been this way, regardless of who sits in office. In its century-old existence, it has long committed itself to becoming a "bastion of student activism" in the Philippines.

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In 1925, fourth UP President Rafael Palma envisioned the university as that "by the people, for the people". This placed social and political problems under the realm of the university's teachings. UP insists that as a public institution, its loyalty will always lie in the tax-paying public whom it shall serve, and not the tax-collecting government.

Activism is a UP way of life

Multiple political upheavals have seen UP's participation especially during Martial Law. The Diliman Commune way back in February of 1971 is remembered to this day as most historic.

Students and faculty held a barricade inside the campus for nine days to prevent state entities from entering. It was a protest in defense of human rights, academic freedom, and freedom of speech and expression. 

"The Diliman Commune’s message of a university in solidarity with the people opposed to spiraling prices and a university ready to defend itself against attacks by state forces remains relevant to this day," wrote former DSWD secretary Judy Taguiwalo in 2011.

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Throughout budget cuts, tuition fee hikes, election fraud, corruption in government, and human rights abuses, members of the UP community stood in opposition to president after president so long as it mattered. 

"Our silence, when we have the ability to speak is in itself a cause of injustice. Remember these words: the line of fire is always a place of honor," UP alumnus and Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen quoted Martial Law activist Lean Alejandro in his 2020 Bar oath-taking address.

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When activism is no more in UP, that's when the problem starts

UP isn't free from criticism despite championing a just society.  

Dictator Ferdinand Marcos himself was a product of UP, along with many politicians and government personalities who have become subjects of public contempt.

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Inside campus, student elections and public officials are not free from scrutiny. There are also instances of fraternity-related violence and leaked group chats that show how discriminatory beliefs continue to exist in the minds of students.  

As students often describe it: UP is a microcosm of Philippine society. It is not perfect.

In a speech by lawyer and activist Raffy Aquino for the UP Nameless Project in 2013, he recalled a scene from his freshman year in the university as he walked one of its halls.

Professor Francisco Nemenzo, then newly-installed dean of the college who would eventually become UP President, was being interviewed by a TV anchor. 

“What can you say about the problem of activism in UP, now that you are a dean?" the newsman asked. 

Aquino recalled Nemenzo's answer which he said without missing a beat:

“So what’s the problem? If there is no more activism in UP, then that would be a problem."

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