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Professor Marco Antonio Zago’s Inauguration Speech as President of the University of São Paulo, on January 25, 2014

by Richard Meckien - published Jan 31, 2014 04:55 PM - - last modified Jan 31, 2014 05:00 PM
Rights: Carlos Malferrari (translator)

Mr. Governor, Mr. Deputy President, members of the honorable University Council, distinguished officials, ladies and gentlemen:

The University of São Paulo is 80 years old today, if we consider the decree that formally established it on January 25, 1934. Its origins, however, date from even earlier, from the founding of the Law School in 1827, followed by the five other professional schools that coalesced with the School of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters (created by the same decree) to form USP’s initial core.

A surprisingly modern feature of that nascent university was the intrinsic diversity of its mission. It was intended to be simultaneously a high-quality vocational college; a research institute for sciences, literature and philosophy; and a place to develop intellectual leaders, and to create, understand and transmit culture.

Established in this fashion, the university proved to be a successful political and strategic project, giving rise to two other public universities in the state of São Paulo (UNESP and UNICAMP), research institutes (such as the Butantan, IPT, IPEN and IAC), the Paula Souza Center, and UNIVESP – all instruments of a policy that led the state of São Paulo to a leadership position in Brazil, both in intellectual production and in the development of qualified, college-educated personnel.

Universities exist to provide higher education of excellence to new generations, and to promote research, understood in the broadest sense, that is, experimental and technological investigation; the study of human problems; inquiries into economic, political and social issues; the academic dimensions of cultural and artistic manifestations, among others; and the extension of its results to society as a whole.

A university of high academic standards, however, cannot treat its two traditional missions – education and intellectual production – as two watertight compartments. Rather, they should be developed jointly: you cannot be strong in research and weak in teaching. Only the existence of research groups and laboratories of excellence, for instance, ensures the development of graduate courses; otherwise, graduate training becomes an empty endeavor.

In the words of Karl Jaspers, “The university is a school – but of a very special sort. It is intended not merely as a place for instruction; rather, the student is to participate actively in research and from this experience he is to acquire the intellectual discipline and education which will remain with him throughout his life. Ideally, the student thinks independently, listens critically and is responsible to himself. He has the freedom to learn.”[*]

By the nature of their mission and interests, universities are entities that transcend national borders. They deal with matters that are valued in every culture, every nation and every age. We have only to look at the fledgling universities of medieval Europe, when young people of diverse national origins sought Bologna, Paris, Coimbra or Oxford. Yet, it should be emphasized that, just as in the Middle Ages, internationalization cannot be attained through bureaucratic or artificial means. Only universities recognized as centers of knowledge will attract the youth of our globalized world.

In addition to its two classic missions – higher education and research –, the past decade has strengthened the recognition of the universities’ so-called “third mission,” comprising all their relationships with non-academic partners. Unlike the transnational character of college-level teaching and research, the third mission reinforces a university’s bond with local and regional communities, which are subject today to rapid or unexpected changes, including globalization, climate change, economic uncertainty and swift technological transformations. The University of São Paulo must work together with the government to address the difficult problems that arise from population concentration in large cities, society’s rapidly changing age and consumption profiles, and the replacement of an economy based on labor and natural resources by a knowledge and information society. Today’s world requires from universities actions that go beyond their walls.

As stated in our program, the relevance of Brazilian universities will be determined by their ability to respond creatively to the challenges of the problems that are emerging in our current scenario: the expansion of cultural phenomena, the growing demands for access to knowledge and to society’s cultural heritage, the requirement that institutions (especially public ones) meet the aspirations of diverse social players, the need to expand social inclusion, the ability to keep in sync with the movements of society as a whole, the skill to turn knowledge into innovation both in the productive sector and in public policies.

The University of São Paulo will not shirk its responsibilities. Nonetheless, we must acknowledge that it is today under great pressure, both from outside and from within. Threats and pressures, by themselves, are not inherently negative, as they may represent opportunities to change and to enhance cohesion.

To what threats and pressures is USP currently subject? On one hand, we must react vigorously to society’s legitimate expectation of a response to growing social demands. On the other, we are facing a situation of financial imbalance that could even jeopardize our autonomy.

However, the most serious threat is the corrosion of the very fabric of the university, whether through protest movements that have turned into acts of aggression against property and people, or through intolerance to dialogue, which threatens to transform the university into a burial ground for ideas.

We must react. We must face these challenges in three distinct ways:

First of all, we must increase the contributions of the University of São Paulo to society. We must do more, and better, improving overall quality and reducing the dropout rates of our undergraduate courses. We have to reevaluate the access system to the university and carefully monitor the process of racial and social inclusion, intervening when needed.

USP Leste and the Lorena campus will be two additional sources of pride for the University of São Paulo, and should have a positive impact in their respective regions, as happened with the our campuses in Ribeirão Preto, São Carlos, Piracicaba, Bauru and Pirassununga. We must expand our relationship with the productive and governmental sectors, and take part in articulating and implementing technology parks.

Secondly, we will radically change how we manage our financial resources, overhauling and modernizing the administration to enhance the core activities. It is inadmissible that a simple change in an undergraduate course should require an endless ritual of discussions and approvals that contribute little or nothing to improve the quality of the decisions.

Prudent management of limited financial resources will compel us to administrative sobriety and to a joint evaluation of our priorities, favoring academic activities and human resources over construction projects.

Finally, we are committed to reviewing the governance of the university, which is currently undergoing a crisis of legitimacy and management. We therefore pledge to renegotiate the relationships within the university, increasing internal aggregation, and to bring dialogue – not confrontation – to the center of campus life, in an effort of democratization that goes way beyond the means of choosing the next President. Democratization means reversing the concentration of power that characterized recent presidencies, more sharing of responsibilities between the President’s office and the academic units, increasing the transparency of the budget, and restoring the central role of the collegiate bodies.

There is no doubt that our most urgent task, which will be everyone’s ongoing concern as of tomorrow, is to rebuild the relations between students and teachers, in all dimensions. This will be the foundation of the changes that will take place in the University of São Paulo. We must never, ever, forget that, above all, we are educators and that we will be judged by how successfully we carry out this mission. The youth that we educate will attest whether the University of São Paulo, as it approaches its centennial, is truly attaining its mission and fulfilling the dream of its founders.

With this I mind, I call upon everyone – students, professors, workers – to respond together to the challenges before us, as in the poetic words of João Cabral de Melo Neto:

One rooster cannot weave a morning,
He will always need other roosters:
one to catch the cry that he
and toss it to another, another rooster
to catch the cry that a rooster before him
and toss it to another, and other roosters
that with many other roosters crisscross
the sun threads of their rooster cries,
so that the morning, from a tenuous tissue,
will grow by the weaving of all the roosters.[†]

The campaign is over, the rituals of job transitions have been performed. We are now allies for the same cause. Allow me evoke one last time the motto that motivated us in our campaign for the welfare and prosperity of the university: we are now all for the University of São Paulo! All for USP!

[*] Translated by H. A. T. Reiche and H. F. Vanderschmidt.

[†] Translated by Richard Zenith.