The National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM, selected a new rector last Tuesday. But given the media coverage of the secretive selection process, one could be forgiven for thinking the country had elected a new president.
Or as some observers perhaps more aptly put it, named a new Pope.
José Narro Robles, former dean of the UNAM medical school, officially takes over as the university’s rector on Nov. 20.
Unofficially, he assumes a much larger role in Mexico’s cultural and political life as the leader of the country’s pre-eminent institution of higher education, which has been described by outgoing rector Juan Ramón de la Fuente as the “grand social project of the Mexican nation.”
“Rectors have always had an important role, like that of a [cabinet] minister without legal recognition, someone [whose position] had enormous weight,” said UNAM professor Imanol Ordorika, who studies higher education institutions and co-authored a book on UNAM’s internal politics.
“The rector has an enormous influence in the national political scene.”
That influence stems from the stature and size of UNAM, which educates nearly 300,000 students per year, carries out roughly half of the nation’s scientific research and has produced graduates who went on to become presidents to Nobel Prize winners to billionaire businessmen – former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, writer Octavio Paz and impresario Carlos Slim Helú, to name three.
Its sprawling Ciudad Universitaria campus in southern Mexico City recently attained status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And the school’s professional soccer team, Pumas, has a long history of success and a large and loyal following.
UNAM also defines and dominates much of the nation’s intellectual scene and is affiliated with La Jornada, a left-leaning daily newspaper. As UNAM sociology professor Roger Bartra Muria put it, “[UNAM] is the principle bridge between politics and culture.”
Outsiders agree about UNAM's role. The university is a “very important, very influential institution,” said Carlos Briseno Torres, rector of the University of Guadalajara, the nation's second largest public university.
The school has always held a proud place as a public institution providing generations of Mexicans from all social classes with a secular and free education.
But UNAM’s sway has diminished somewhat with the advent of private universities. Private schools now educate approximately 40 percent of the nation’s university students, a 400 percent jump over the past three decades, according to Ordorika, who added that the federal government hasn’t invested in expanding access to public higher education over that time.
Although widely regarded for its profession programs, some UNAM humanities and social sciences graduates entering the job market report having their credentials belittled by private sector employers.
Thus, one of Narro’s biggest challenges will be maintaining the national university’s stature as Mexico’s educational and political landscape continues to shift. And already, the new rector has pledged during his candidacy to uphold the tenets of secularism and free access, which perhaps give the national university its greatest fame.
“The big challenge is to put [UNAM] in tune with the needs of Mexico and the challenges of the future,” the new rector said on Thursday.
Many UNAM professors have already expressed approval for Narro’s approach.
“For the population that doesn’t have easy access to education, the university resolves that problem,” said Rafael López González, an UNAM professor and coauthor of a book on the university’s political history.
“It’s a fundamental institution for higher education in Mexico.”
UNAM students only make a voluntary payment of 20 cents towards the cost of their studies. According to political science student Lucía Alvarado, “When you pay, you get a stamped receipt that costs more than the actual fee.”
Alvarado opted for studying at UNAM instead of an expensive private university costing 7,000 pesos per month, explaining, “UNAM is a better school in terms of research, freedom of thinking and the humanities.”
She also liked UNAM’s approach of admitting students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds.
"There are all types of people ... including the children of important political figures studying here," she said.
"We're all equal friends here ... in the [private schools], there are so many cliques."
Many of Alvarado’s classmates lacked her educational options, though.
Adrián Paredes, also a political science student, said he enrolled in UNAM for “the quality of its programs,” but more importantly, “It’s accessible.”
He noted, however, that the lack of resources generated by a tuition fee creates challenges for UNAM. The school only accepts about one-third of all applicants on an annual basis. It also urgently needs to upgrade aging classrooms and fading athletic facilities, Paredes added.
University administrators proposed a tuition fee in 1999 as a means of funding infrastructure improvements, but the plan sparked a backlash that shut down the school for nine months.
Outgoing rector De la Fuente assumed UNAM’s top job in the midst of the student strike. But during his eight-year tenure the school regained some of the stature it lost during the shutdown. It climbed into the ranks of the top 100 universities in the world on a prestigious survey of higher education institutions and undertook ambitious research projects, including developing the most powerful supercomputer in Latin America.
In spite of the fact he's inheriting a top university, Narro will face challenges as the new rector. Already, he has faced criticism, albeit indirectly.
Some faculty members, observers and protesting students – who burned down the doors to the rectory building on Thursday night – objected to the perpetuation of a management style they described as secretive and not fitting with the country becoming more open and democratic. They also took exception with the 15-member UNAM Board of Regents’ less-than-transparent method of choosing De la Fuente’s successor.
Ordorika compared the selection process to that of the Vatican.
“It’s like a conclave of cardinals, where the cardinals – in this case, 15 cardinals – meet behind closed doors and decide who is going to be rector,” he said.
Narro’s ascent into the rector’s office was greeted on Wednesday with newspaper headlines and commentaries inferring that De la Fuente was instrumental in naming his successor – a charge the outgoing rector and board members deny. But Ordorika noted that 13 of the 15 current board members were appointed during De la Fuente’s tenure by the UNAM University Council.
Additionally, “The proposals made by the rector are always approved,” Ordorika explained.
The list of eight aspirants vying for the rector’s position also drew scorn from some UNAM faculty members, who were hoping for candidates who would usher in a new era of leadership, untainted by previous political connections.
Bartra, the UNAM sociologist, said, “Many of the candidates are actually old PRIistas.”
He noted that all but one of the candidates either had deep roots in the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, or have recently switched to the governing National Action Party, or PAN.
Only candidate Rosaura Ruiz Gutiérrez, who rose through the ranks of the faculty unions and student movements, lacked such a background. (Narro previously headed the IMSS during the administration of former president Ernesto Zedillo.)
Still, with a PAN president in Los Pinos, Bartra sees opportunity for UNAM and Narro.
Previous PRI presidents would often meddle in the rector selection process and by proxy, the UNAM agenda, according to Bartra.
But with the PAN – a party whose senior officials mostly attended private universities – now occupying presidency, he ironically saw an opportunity for UNAM to part with the remnants of the old PRI system.
“I believe this is a good thing,” he said.
“It implies more autonomy. A real autonomy.”
And with increased autonomy for the university – which President Felipe Calderón has promised to respect – Bartra expressed cautious optimism about the future of UNAM.
“It seems that now UNAM is in a new stage that hasn’t ever been explored,” he said.
“It’s something fascinating to witness.”