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A Mosaic of Visions

(Inaugural Speech delivered by Fr. Dionisio M. Miranda, SVD, during his Investiture as the 10th President of the University of San Carlos, July 5, 2008, held at the Rudolf Rahmann Cultural Center, South Campus, J. Alcantara St. Cebu City)

Introduction.  For those attuned to its symbolisms, the toga I wear today represents both a departure from, and a continuation of, a tradition.  It departs from tradition because most theological schools in Rome, already used to the clerical garb, saw no further need for an academic dress.  But because the tradition of the University of San Carlos demanded it, I chose to design a new one in deference to the custom of investiture.  The crimson bands refer to the discipline of theology, as does the STD after my name.  Theology also explains the Scriptural allusions, religious metaphors, and patterns of moral discourse.   

1. Education as Inculturation.  My work as theological ethicist engaged me in a particular movement called inculturation, whose ideal is to so lodge faith at the heart of culture to the extent that it becomes its very principle of life and operation.  Perhaps this can be made more concrete in terms of the principles which guide the process. The first was indigenization, which is nothing more than rediscovering one’s voice, after centuries of being taught – badly - that all there is to speak must come from someone else’s discourse. The second was contextualization, which is inserting one’s understanding in one’s native soil, and one’s historical period.  If that sounds abstruse, think of it more simply in terms of a current slogan, “think global, but act local.” The third was the choice of a procedural approach, allowing the issues to shape the methods by which they could be solved.  One did not only drink from one’s own well; one did so with a coconut shell. What I learned in theological circles about the value and possibility of unlearning years of pursuing an agenda on inertia I now apply to education, in the conviction that learning’s purpose is best achieved by asking questions of questions, by taking the learner seriously, and by pressing the issue of the common social good.  In other words, for the University of San Carlos to recover its reason for being it has to weave again the core processes of education, which are to facilitate learning, to advance knowledge, and to make both serve human flourishing.         

2. Revisioning as Educational Conversion.  The liberal tradition of education decisively lays the emphasis on the learning process and the value of learning transfer more than it does on content and function.  Nonetheless, relevance demands of education that it balance the functional and the processual components, much as Aristotelian philosophy grasped the dynamicity of matter and form, or the complementation between the phenomenological and the ontological, or in more popular terminology the interplay between theory and practice.  Among the serious challenges which any educational institution faces at the cusp of the third millennium is the need to return to the basics, something which is not feasible without a keen sense of history.  The refounding of the University must begin at its most elemental units, such as the department, which needs to reconnect with the principles of its foundation.  Reflection on the history of academic units reveals that none of them is ever straightforward but is a blend of mission and response to need, as well as of the accidents of personalities and resources ready to hand.  Whatever the process, the department acquires an identity that is the product of its history, and a heritage that it can enrich only by bringing it forward and beyond.  Revisioning is a sort of retrieval, a revisiting of the past in order to refresh the sense of what one’s essential nature always was.  This reaching backward into the past is, in religious language, no more than a program of conversion. 

3. Envisioning a multitude of educational mansions.  Those in the know agree that our present Board of Trustees is a rather activist group, engaged not only in refining existing policy, but in crafting fresh ones.  It was due to its initiative that the Long Range Plan was conceived and a Roadmap designed.  Wisely the Board urged that a roadmap can only provide generic directions, and that it was now the proper task of future administrations to bring it down to the level of execution.  In that light one can imagine university as a commons where disciplines are cultivated separately and yet in tandem.  Alternatively one can think of the university through the metaphor of a round-table, with accent on dialogue within the disciplines and among the departments, replete with the cacophony of debates and the choruses of agreement.  Finally one can employ a paradigm of the university as a living entity where cells grow into tissue, tissues into organ, organs into systems until all constitute a single total organism.  But like all living beings, the university needs an animating principle, a character, a soul.  The task awaiting every department, whether they come from the natural sciences, the social sciences, or the integrative sciences, is to settle on a vision or metaphor which conveys how it imagines itself to be a decade from today.  Over time it will also have to undertake the systematic outlining of the steps and resources it will need to arrive at that future vision.  One thing is clear: the vision of USC’s future will have to be as unified yet diverse as a mosaic of visions, not unlike Jesus’ promise of many mansions.     

4. Discerning the Signs of the Educational Times.  Between the legacy of the past and the destination of the future each department must craft its future in conjunction with all the pressures being brought to bear on education today.  At the turn of the millennium the principal source of anxiety was Y2K, which eventually dissipated as an empty threat.  Strategic Planners of governments and trans-nationals do not plan for short but long periods, imagining for example, fifty years from now, the state of a country’s water resources, the remaining supply of oil, the shape of the religious landscape, the strength of future superpowers relative to each other, the ageing rates of populations and so on.  I cannot presume to see that far into the educational landscape, but in what we have come to accept as the knowledge era, some signs of the future are already emerging.  One is the segmentation of the labor market, where we increasingly see notable shifts from pre-industrial factory workers to industry professionals, or to post-industrial sub-specialists, leading to a greater demand for vocational training and technical expertise.  Another is the increasing commonplace of computer literacy as a standard requirement in the workplace, itself governed less and less by the bundy-clock and more and more by flexi-time.  Today the buzzwords are tech-voc, ladderization, verticalization, cross-border and the like.  Increasingly the priority demand on department chairs is not only management skillfulness but critical discernment of the signs of the educational times.   

5. Parallels between religious refounding and University Revisioning. In the not so distant past there was serious talk in church circles about the “refounding of consecrated life,” focused on the crises of religious vocations.  The concern continues, but without the sanguine optimism of that period, tempered by the realities of the contemporary world and the realization that dreams can only be realized under certain conditions.  For the University of San Carlos two come immediately to mind.  Firstly, we will need the collaboration of the community.  Communities require leadership, of which they will need various types at all levels of the organization; but institutions do not perpetuate themselves automatically – they survive in those who gather as disparate individuals joined by a shared purpose.  No effort at refounding USC can gain traction without the cooperation and collaboration of its faculty and staff.   Secondly we will also need what some call luck and others serendipity, but which the religious in me prefers to call grace.  The early missionaries founded Colegio de San Ildefonso as a logical offshoot of their faith; that it survived as Colegio y Seminario, real o conciliar across the centuries could only be explained in terms of a certain hope; as University of San Carlos today it will have a future beyond ourselves if we believe in God’s mission of love more than in our perceived talents or capacities.  We of the Society of the Divine Word are reminded today as  never before that the mission is never ours alone, but God’s in the first place.  We thank all of you who are here today to share in our joy at the many fruitful years behind us, thanks to towering pioneers and nameless contributors.  We thank all of you too for wishing us well as we face the future challenges of Philippine education. 

To conclude: Leadership as Stewardship – Feeding Christ’s lambs.  Philosophers spontaneously try to integrate all of human knowing into a single system, only to discover that sometimes all you can hope for is a window into the world of knowledge, constructed out of one’s discipline knowledge.  One should not begrudge the architect for looking at the Church, for example, as dwelling-place, or a technophile for seeing social change as engineering. As questions are posed on how we wish to formulate our program of leadership for the university in the next triennium all we can offer is an image of stewardship along the lines of the greatest Teacher who ever lived.  Jesus taught about the kingdom of God in the form of parable. My invitation to each member of the academic community, whether student or faculty, staff or administrator, is to join in the challenge of unfolding, within each academic department, service unit, or administrative level, what the Kingdom of God means for the University of San Carlos. The role of the President of any Catholic university, in my considered view, can only echo that of Peter, in an academic context, to be sure. Asked thrice by Jesus whether he loved him, Peter’s affirmations were met by a repeated mandate: Feed my lambs.  The university President, more than any other academic, is tasked to lead those who come to these halls of learning to the source of truth – about human life, in this world, as a family, in its many nuances.  It is in light of this entrustment that I respectfully accept the task of leading so that the Lord can become our way, our truth, and our life. At root this is the mission of the University of San Carlos, then, now and tomorrow; I can only make it also my own. Thank you for your confidence, and may God bless this, our shared beginning.