Review Essay

Politics and Academia in Latin American Universities

Simon Schwartzman

Published in the Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 25, 3, 416-423, 1983

Orlando Albornoz, Ideología y Política en la Universidad Latinoamericana. Caracas, Venezuela: Instituto Societas, 1972.

Edgardo Boeninger Kausel and others, Desarrollo Científico-Tecnológico y Universidad. Santiago, Chile: Corporación de Promoción Universitaria, 1973.

Luiz Scherz Garcia and others, La Universidad Latinoamericana en la Década del 80. Proyecciones del desarrollo en América Latina y su incidencia en la educación superior. Santiago, Chile: Corporación de Promoción Universitaria, 1975

Patricio Dooner and Ivan Lavador (editors), La Universidad Latinoamericana: Visión de una Década. Santiago, Chile: Corporación de Promoción Universitaria, 1979.

Luis Antônio Cunha, A Universidade Temporã, Rio de Janeiro, Editora Civilização Brasileira SA., 1980.

Daniel Levy, University and Government in México - Autonomy in an Authoritarian System. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1980. 


Almost ten years have passed between Orlando Albornoz's book on the politicization of Latin American Universities and Daniel Levy's analysis of the Mexican universities in their relationships with its government and society. One could probably sustain that the problems that besieged the Latin American universities in the sixties are still with us today, and give no signs of disappearing in the eighties. Our understanding of these problems, however, have improved significantly.

The book by Orlando Albornoz brings together different articles written by the author from 1965 to 1972, and in its lack of unity and coherence it is a good image of the state of the art on those years. About half of the volume is concerned with student political activism, there is one large article on the Latin American Universities, and two chapters on Venezuela. The author is obviously uneasy with the quantitative materials on student ideologies that were gathered according to the standard sociological procedures of the time. The tables are often unintelligible, and the interpretations ad hoc. He is at his best, however, when he offers his personal view on the political role of the Latin American students. It is clear, he shows, that politicization affected only a minor part of the student body, those in the large, national and public universities, to the exclusion of those in the poorer, more isolated and private schools, Political activism was carried on by an elite, or rather a counter-elite, which was very ineffective in the attainment of its political goals. The students had little to say about the internal, more academic aspects of the university life, and very often tried to transform the universities in revolutionary bastions against their country's political regimes, often with tragic consequences. With all these limitations, Albornoz perceived the students as performing on the whole a positive role: for him, they were a candle in the dark, very often the only voice of criticism that emerged against the unanimous conservatism of the traditional - military, clerical, professional and business - elites of their countries. They were the guardian of the modern political values, and as such played an essential role in the political development of their countries.

The several volumes published by the Corporación de Promoción Universitaria, in Santiago de Chile show that, when the combination of student activism and right-wing military regimes brought to most Latin American countries an unprecedented period of repression and interference in their universities, the torch was sustained not by the students, but by their teachers, who tried to think as best as they could on what were the realities of their university systems, and which kind of role they could play in the future of their region.

La Universidad Latinoamericana - Visión de una década is a large volume of almost 700 pages and 26 chapters (some of them included in the other volumes published previously) which gives a comprehensive view of how the Latin American scholars perceived their own reality. The overall picture is uneven, but nevertheless impressive. After several conceptual chapters showing the authors' familiarity with the international literature, the book has a section dealing with the "general perspectives on the university in Latin America", ten case studies dealing with different countries, and a concluding part dealing with the relationships between science, technology and the universities. One could group the different articles in four general subjects, on student activism, the general characteristics of the Latin American universities, their relationship with the continent's general pattern of socioeconomic development, and the questions of scientific and technological research in the university context.

Paul E. Sigmund, from Princeton University, gives an excellent rendering of the literature on student activism, from the impact of individual variables on the student's ideologies through the social impact of student activism. He notes that activists were predominantly recruited from the upper, rather than the lower middle classes; and that if was an almost exclusively male phenomenon (facts have certainly changed in that respect!). Politically active students were more easily found in social sciences and humanities than in engineering and medicine, and more in the better than in the low quality establishments. In terms of its impact in society, he shows that student protest tended to be more effective in times of crisis. This means, he says, that there is something abnormal in the political systems where students participate so actively through their own organized movements. When this occurs, the risk of disproportionate authoritarian repression increases, and the university as an educational institution becomes threatened in its normal functions.

Pablo Gonzales Casanova, the well known Mexican sociologist and former rector of the Universidad Nacional de Mexico, could not agree more. He starts with a strong defense of the student leadership's rationality and competence. It would be simplistic, he says, to say that the students are irrational, led by extraneous forces and privileged members of the elite. Like the intellectuals depicted by Karl Mannheim, the student leadership is considered to have a superior political and intellectual competence, which transcends their eventual limitations of origin and context. The only problem is that, for unknown reasons, they tend to develop some fallacious ideas which are presented very persuasively to their colleagues, but that can have dreadful consequences.

The fallacies are those of extreme radicalism and opposition to all forms of political "reformism". In doing that, says Gonzales Casanova, the students end up playing in the hands of the extreme right, the foreign monopolies and the imperialists, and are ultimately responsible for the dictatorial regimes that, in many Latin American countries, replaced the old populist and civilian governments. This analysis obviously reflect the conflicts between Gonzales Casanova and the Mexican students during his rectorship, and cover only part of the reality. The students were not always so radical, and there are many explanations to the right-wing military governments in Latin America besides student activism.

All these analyses of student activism show that one could never infer their attitudes simply from their socioeconomic or class origins. To be in a university is what makes most of the difference. It is important, for these and other reasons, to understand what this institution is, and how does it change. Two articles, one by Jorge Graciarena and another by Ernesto Schiefelbein and Aldo Solari, address this question.

Graciarena, for many years a sociologist working at the Economic Commission of Latin America, tries to link the reform movements of the Latin American universities with the socioeconomic changes that occur in the region. His approach is both historical and functionalist; he believes that changes in the university system are adjustments, albeit delayed, to historical transformations of the Latin American countries, having to do with their modernization and economic development. These adjustments lead to more technical education, more scientific research, closer linkages between the university and its environment, more internal and external democratization. The speed, variations and smoothness of these adaptations depend on the existing university structures and the more general political contexts. For instance, the Brazilian university reform of 1966 is characterized as leading to a technically competent, but "dependent and demobilized university", which is explained by a process of political and economic development led by a domineering state and open to foreign capital. In another article in the same volume, however, Graciarena makes a detailed analysis of the development of the system of higher education in Brazil, which he considers "chaotic", and concludes with a plea for more stringent planning and rationality. The Brazilian higher education was allowed to growth anarchically, he says, because the aim was less to adjust the educational system to the needs of socioeconomic planning than to divert the pressures of a rising middle class from the more strategic political and economic areas. The Catholic University of Chile before Pinochet, on the other hand, was a model of a University which wanted to be "the people's lucid and critical consciousness", something more in line with the political option that Chile was attempting at the time.

Schifelbein and Solari recognize that there is a general tendency to place the educational systems under mechanisms of global planning, but note that, because of the tradition of political autonomy of the Latin America universities, they tend to escape them. They see what happens with higher education less in terms of the functional needs of the region's historical development, and more in terms of the interplay of different interest groups within and outside the educational systems. For them, one should not be very optimistic about the possibilities of making the universities to comply to whatever functions or goals one could set for them. The results, they say, will always have to do much less with stated goals than with the different weight of social groups, however irrational and unfair they may be.

This difference in perspective reflects, in some measure, the hard lessons of the collision between the Latin American universities and the repressive regimes of Chile, Argentina, Uruguai and many other countries. The different articles dealing with the questions of science and technology show the same differences. There are still those who, like Marcelo Robert, from the Economic Commission for Latin America, support the idea that science and technology should be developed within the Latin American universities as a part of a global plan, aimed at "bringing the cultural, social, economic, geographic and human structures of the country closer to an ideal goal for the society ( 'Imagen Objetivo de la Sociedad'), something that has been called a Civilization Project". Most of the articles, however, take a much sober view of the realities of the Latin American universities and their potentiality for scientific and technological research. Francisco R. Sagasti shows that scientific research at the universities could be only one part of a broader scientific and technological establishment to be created in a country; Jaime Lavados supports the notion that science at the university should be seen in its relations with the universities' teaching and educational tasks, and not attempt to solve all problems having to do with scientific and technological underdevelopment in their countries. Edmundo Fuenzalida takes a much more pessimistic view, and supports the idea that, given the other functions of the university systems in Latin America, they should really give up all their attempts to develop their own scientific and technological centers.

These references give just a superficial idea of the complexity and variety of views, analysis and interpretations found in these books on the Latin American universities. They are enough to suggest, however, that there is some kind of division between those that see the educational system as a kind of direct translation of social, political and economic variables, and those that attempt to see the specific characteristics of the educational system, and only then try to examine their interplay with their environment. The books by Luis Antonio Cunha and Daniel Levy are a good example of this contrast.

A Universidade Temporã, the late-comer University, by Luis Antonio Cunha, has a good historical overview of the development of the Brazilian higher educational system up to the Second World War. He divides the country's history in four periods - the Colony, the Empire, the First Republic and the Vargas period- and for each he has a section on the economic and political background and then a description of what happened with the system of higher education. The relationships between the two are established mostly at the ideological level: for instance, the regional elite in São Paulo was more liberal than the national elites in Rio de Janeiro, and this is related to the fact that the University of São Paulo was organized around a liberal perspective, while the University of Rio de Janeiro followed a much more rigid and authoritarian pattern. This does not explain, however, why the University of São Paulo is a much more successful undertaking than its counterpart in the country's capital. There is no attempt, in the whole book, to understand why the Brazilian university was organized so late in comparison with other Latin American countries, or why it never had the autonomy and political weight of other universities in the region.

University and Government in Mexico, by Daniel C. Levy, is not concerned with congruities, but with its opposite: how come, he asks, that such an authoritarian regime such?as the Mexican one can tolerate so much autonomy in its University? Unlike virginity, autonomy can have different meanings and degree and a large portion of the book is concerned with the exercise of appointive, academic and financial autonomy by the Mexican university. The general conclusion is that, yes, the Mexican government exerts very little control on what is taught, who gets appointed and how much and how well is money spent by the Mexican university. Moreover, all attempts to impose a planning system to the universities have failed, the same happening with the establishment of tuition. In spite of occasional confrontations, including the gruesome 1968 massacre of hundreds of university students in Mexico City, there was never an effort to establish an ongoing control over the university's day-to-day activities.

This occurs, says Levy, because Mexico's political regime is not authoritarian throughout, but treats some privileged sectors, such as the university population, along a "reconciliation" model. This is so, presumably, partly because "the regime has had superior economic and political tools at its disposal, or lesser problems (for example, mobilization) to confront" (p.149). One wishes the author had tried to go a little deeper than that. It is obvious, for instance, that the revolutionary rhetoric found among Mexican university teachers and students do not mean the same as the equivalent words in other Latin American countries. The Mexican regime is also "revolutionary", and the radical terminology is very often little more than a code of communication between sectors of the same political elite. One should look for an explanation for this, in part, on Mexico's political history and revolutionary past; but one should also consider the social inequalities in the country, which have allowed for the maintenance of privileges for a small middle and upper sector at the expenses of the large majority of its population. In the latter sense, Mexico is similar to other Latin American countries such as Venezuela and even Brasil, countries where the pattern has been the co-optation of the former student radicals into the government's political and administrative structures; and is the opposite of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, where a more extended middle sector had led to a much more serious and protracted confrontation between the authoritarian regimes and the university communities.

One also wished that Levy had tried his hand in an attempt to evaluate what autonomy does for the quality of the Mexican university. In a small section entitled "University resistance to Reform", Levy suggests that, while considering itself as a progressive institution, what dominates in the Mexican university is the defense of is corporate privileges, at the expenses of more rationality or academic quality. He also shows that, whenever the government interferes, it does so repressively, without any ability to change it for the better.

But ultimately, the question of academic quality is unavoidable. What makes the study of the university institutions so challenging and important is not the mere fact that students and teachers make a sizeable interest group, and not even the fact that the universities are often the recruiting ground of revolutionary leadership; it is the promise they hold of providing their countries with the knowledge, capability and leadership they need to move into a better future. This is not a simple question of technical competence, of course, but neither is it a matter of sheer politics. What all these books are looking for, and providing partial answers, is the special chemistry that may eventually combine these two elements into a new and liberating philosophical stone. In the process, we get to know more about the real world. <