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La Educación
Número: (118) II
Año: 1994

The Culture of the University of Panama


Although there are historical precedents of other postsecondary institutions, the modern University of Panama (UP) was founded in 1935 and in some respects has followed similar patterns of other Latin American universities. In 1970, 8,000 students attended the University primarily at one campus and in 1990 there were over 40,000 students taking classes in educational centers throughout the country. There are almost twice as many women students as there are men students, and over half of the students take classes in the evening. UP has 2,100 teachers distributed in 14 faculties; over half of the faculty is tenured (Gandásequi 1992, 545). The main campus is in the nation’s capital, Panama City. Master’s degree programs have been created in many fields, but doctorates exist only in Medicine and Law. For the first thirty years of its existence, the University was without significant competition whereas in the 1990s there has arisen a plethora of private, public, and international institutions that offer postsecondary degrees in Panama. Furthermore, many wealthy students study abroad.

Panama’s literacy rate is over 85 percent. Primary education is compulsory and there are 350,000 students currently enrolled in grades one through six. Enrollment in secondary grades is 200,000. About 60,000 students attend postsecondary institutions in Panama and abroad. Thus, about 94 percent of Panamanian youth attend primary school, 48 percent go to high school, and 3 percent attend postsecondary institutions (Ramos, Avila, and Cordero 1991, 15). After UP, the second largest institution in the country is the Technological University, which enrolls about 10,000 students who study engineering and allied fields. About 5,000 students are enrolled in the University of Santa Maria la Antigua, a private Roman Catholic institution.

Panama is 90 percent Catholic. The overall population is roughly two and a half million; the vast majority is Mestizo and Spanish speaking. The indigenous population (Cuna, Ngobe or Guaymí, Emberá or Chocó, Bokotá, and Teribe) is 5 percent of the total citizenry. In 1821 the land that was to become Panama received independence from Spain, and in 1903 Panama separated from Colombia. The United States began to have a dominating influence as work was started on the Panama Canal. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s there was increased pressure from various forces within Panama such as the University of Panama, for the United States to return the Canal to Panama, which resulted in the treaty of 1977.

The recent political history of Panama began in 1968 with a military takeover that led to the establishment of a government by General Torrijos in 1969. Torrijos was a charismatic leader whose populist domestic programs and nationalist foreign policy appealed to many in the country. The death of Torrijos in 1981 gradually led to the control of the government by General Manuel Noriega. Widespread corruption and the regime’s crackdown on civil liberties created problems within the country. Outside Panama, the Bush administration created the perception that General Noriega was a security risk to the United States. The United States cut off foreign aid to Panama, which increased unemployment and economic instability. When a United States soldier was stopped by Panamanian security forces in 1989, President Bush used the incident as a pretense to invade the country. The massive invasion led to Noriega’s downfall and arrest, and the United States installed Guillermo Endara as president. Panamanian sentiment about the invasion has ranged from criticism about continued U.S. interference in the internal affairs of Panama, to support for the overthrow of a dictator. The result of the invasion has been increased unemployment, poverty, and health care problems. The civilian areas of Panama City that were bombed have yet to be rebuilt. The citizenry has, however, gradually moved toward democracy and stabilization. Presidential elections are scheduled for 1994, and the completion of the transfer of the Canal to Panama will take place in 1999.

Mission and Ideology

The development of the University began with heavy input from European intellectuals resulting in the institution being founded with a quasi-European philosophy. During the takeover of the government by Torrijos in 1968 the University was closed; it reopened seven months later. Perhaps this event more than anything else led to a redirection in the basic ideology of the institution away from elite training and toward massification. Regional centers were started. Open admissions became the norm. An ideology of higher education as a basic right available to every citizen became the overriding mission of the institution. Of consequence, there was a 400 percent student increase in a relatively short period (Cresalc 1985, 8). This dramatic and abrupt change in institutional philosophy affected not only the number of students in the University but also virtually every aspect of the institution—from teacher salaries to how one defines research. The relationship between the state and the university was perceived in a different manner from before.

Historically, the modern mission of the University has been to act as the nation’s critical conscience (Universidad de Panamá 1993). In this light, the institution’s role has been to aid in the development of national independence. At the same time, as discussed above, how one interprets a mission changes over time due to social and historical contexts and the ideas of the organizational actors. Clearly, the example of massification highlights how the institution’s participants interpreted and enacted its mission in the late 1960s and 1970s. Morales (1992) has pointed out that there have been at least three different interpretations of the mission: an oligarchic model from 1935-1960; a developmental or democratic model from 1960-1980; and a neoliberal model during the 1980s.

At present, many of the interviewees noted that the greatest problem lies in the basic tension of what the mission of the university is and how it relates to societal advancement. “Our problems are not fiscal, but cultural,” commented one individual. “We have yet to define our role in society.” “What is the role of faculty?” asked another individual. “We do not know.” “The invasion has caused Panamanians to think about what a new Panama should be;” said another, “but to do that we must also consider what our role [the university] is in a new Panama. We have not done this.” Indeed, from the interviews one discovers that the organization’s participants believe an institutional mission has not been defined other than that the University exists with open doors. “Academic quality, what it means to be a professor, and what an academic career means are examples of things we have not defined,” explained another person. “Research is either by individuals at the University, or in Institutes outside the University. We have no mind set about what research is, what is needed,” added another individual.

Knowledge and Power

Coupled with the lack of understanding of what kind of research, if any, should be attempted at the University is the inability to see how the institution defines knowledge. My point here is that, as Ortega y Gassett noted, an institution’s mission ought to explicitly affect all areas of institutional life. Camargo and Miranda, for example, have argued that research and teaching should be developed that utilizes Panamanian culture and history, but at present no such work is being done (1992). In the interviews at the University everyone noted massification as a key component of institutional life, but no one articulated how the mission affected, for example, pedagogy or research.

Many individuals pointed out that the research function of the institution was virtually nonexistent: “Most faculty are part-time,” explained one person, “so they do not have time to do research.” A second person added, “The bureaucracy is too great. It’s easier to do your work outside of the University.” “Politics plays into everything,” added a third. “If you don’t get involved you’ll find yourself without a lab, even a desk. If you do get involved you end up with no time to do your research.” And a fourth individual commented, “We have no research tradition other than when someone is trained abroad. But they come back here and the conditions are so different that it becomes impossible.” A fifth person observed, “We do research. We have a National Congress where people present their work, but it is not a central part of our consciousness as faculty.”

Relatedly, no one discussed the relationship between the academic curriculum and pedagogy; that is, some people commented on the curriculum as being that which pertains to knowledge, but how knowledge gets transmitted to the learner was not a point of concern. One wonders how it is possible to create culturally specific forms of Panamanian thought within the University if knowledge production does not take place and discussions about the relationship between teaching and learning is absent. To be sure, many institutes, centers, and “think tanks” exist in Panama, but they have increasingly been started outside the University because, as the interviewees noted, of the politicization of the academy or the bureaucratic structures that further hindered research.

Consequently, knowledge gets defined in quite traditional ways and the transmission of knowledge to the students occurs in the most formal of mechanisms—the lecture. Any sense that a mission of a public university defined as helping the working class should have a unique curricular or pedagogic structure is virtually absent. Similarly, the idea that power is somehow linked to academic forms of knowledge only occurs as abstract arguments rather than in concrete analyses of the relations between academe and society.

The participants pointed out that power, in general, is wielded traditionally so that coalitions form and grow or fall according to political elections. As one person noted, “The unions have a voice, and we constantly think of elections—for the dean, the rector.” Another person added, “People are declaring themselves candidates now, even though the election [for Rector] is not for two years.” “A rector appoints who he wants,” said another individual, “and they are debts for supporting him. It’s all political.”

Because of his structural position, then, the Rector had power. Once a rector was elected he appointed vice rectors who needed to be confirmed by the academic assembly, which almost always happened. Further, the relationship among individuals within the University who belong to political parties outside the University is remarkably close so that governmental and university relations are very often defined in terms of political relationships. “Political parties in society determine relations in the University,” commented an individual. “A rector must get along with the government. It doesn’t matter who, Noriega, Endara, or whoever. The rector must work within the political framework of society.” Thus, any sense that the mission of a public university is to be a conduit for alternative forms of knowledge or the empowerment of the masses (rather than the government) has been consumed by the conflicting relations of power between government and university, and political strife amongst vying factions within the university. As one person summarized:

We are contained by the system. You always work in a political environment. The system is centralized. It is democratic because of the assemblies and the ability of faculty to speak. But the organic structure must change. Now everything is bureaucratic. We do not think about the future. We think of how to defeat one group and help our group.
“We are so centralized,” continued another individual, “that the controller general of the country is the one whom you must see when you want to buy something.” Thus, although autonomy from the government may exist in other public universities such as in Mexico (Levy 1980), virtually all of the participants interviewed at UP felt that at present the University existed in light of governmental actions. Such an assumption highlights an institution where the participants define power contextually as the ability to control resources and positions. Knowledge is constructed implicitly along these lines rather than argued and fought over in explicit terms.
Communication and Language

When one sets foot on campus, the most obvious signs that exist in numerous locations are large billboards highlighting that a particular building is being renovated during the administration of the current rector. As with any symbol, the interpretation of such a sign is manifold. Presumably the administration has placed these signs throughout the campus to convey a sense of change and optimism about the future as well as to highlight how institutional funds are being spent. As I noted in the previous section, the rector also calls upon quite common political symbols in large part because he exists within a political framework. However, the overwhelming sentiment of the interviewees was one of pessimism and/or cynicism. “This administration is lamentable,” said one person. “He will be remembered for painting the university,” said another. “We have serious problems,” added a third person, “and all we see is more centralization and more signs.”

More than any other cultural theme pertaining to UP, an analysis of communication and language highlights an institution that is bereft of identity and in a general sense of depression about the present and future. One question asked during the interviews was open-ended: “Is this a good university?” The intent of the question was to provoke respondents’ categories for how they defined quality or excellence. When asked at other institutions in Central America the responses enabled categories to be developed about quality such as with whom the interviewees compared themselves (e.g., other Central American institutions, the United States, etc.), or what categories the respondents used to think about quality (e.g., teaching, research, public service). However, at the University of Panama over 90 percent of the respondents answered in the negative; they felt the institution was not good. “The university should be cleaned,” said one person, “close it. Get students who are serious and faculty who are serious. Then reopen it.” “I am sad for the University,” said another person, “I received my degree here. We are no longer good.” “People only come here because they have to,” said a third person. A fourth person added, “We don’t think like that. We don’t think about quality. It’s a political institution, so we haven’t experienced a concern for excellence.” A fifth person summarized, “I don’t know what we will be in the future. We can’t wait for five years. We must work at changing the structure and become important.”

Their responses existed primarily in two domains. Either they felt there had been a complete breakdown of institutional communication because of politicization, or that the centralized structure made organic change impossible—and for the institution to be good, dramatic change was needed.

Other reasons pertained to points one hears quite commonly in Latin America—lack of adequate supplies, insufficient classroom space, lack of student preparation, and the like. The respondents’ pessimism about the University is interesting not only as a cultural comment but also as a comparative one, for participants at institutions with similar problems in funding or resources commonly responded that their institution was good. What, then, has caused the construction of a culture turned against itself?

Leadership and Strategy

Individuals highlighted three areas of concern with regard to decision making at the University. As the individual most in the spotlight, the Rector came in for a great deal of criticism as someone “too political” or “too concerned with his welfare” or “too centralized.” Centralization came up in virtually every discussion about the problems of the institution. “The central problem is centralization,” explained one individual; and a second said, “The Rector is centralized, but it is the system that makes us centralized. He just hasn’t changed it.” A third person elaborated:
If you want anything you must go to the Rector. Some people think even he doesn’t make decisions, that he goes to the controller of the country. But it means no one has authority. We’re too bureaucratic.
One of the additional dilemmas for the current administration was that the Rector’s vice rectors were not seen as independent of him. In other words, “the Rector doesn’t have a team. Everyone finds out what to do from him.” “The vice rectors,” added another, “do what the Rector says. He got rid of the one person who didn’t do what he said.” Many people also felt that a climate of fear existed where there was little academic debate and the Rector tried to rule by fiat. Most people also noted that the Rector acted within the parameters of how individuals expected a Rector to act; the position is a political role, for example, and the Rector acted as a politician. At the same time, individuals seemed to feel it was time to break the mold.

The second concern was the inability to articulate a shared vision of the University in any meaningful manner. The point here was that the structure of the institution did not allow for meaningful dialogue but instead was oriented toward politicization. As noted, although the institution always has had the role of being the critical conscience of the country, most individuals could not articulate how they felt the University enacted that role.

Along with the Rector, faculty unions carried a considerable amount of authority, and the academic assemblies thus were able to consider proposals put before them. Yet the interviewees felt in general that the unions and assemblies did not stimulate concrete ideas about the direction and nature of the institution in the 21st century.

The third related point addressed the difficulty UP had in breaking free from the government and generating enough income to prosper. More than Costa Rican universities, such as the University of Costa Rica or National University, UP’s budget was almost entirely driven by governmental subsidies. Further, the income from the government was insufficient. In 1990 the government provided a 40 million dollar budget which was 10 million dollars less than in 1986. The conflict with the United States and resulting unemployment were the primary reasons for the drop in funding. Tuition at $26/ semester, coupled with a national scholarship system, generated no income.

Little sponsored research existed. Brunner has estimated that less than 15 percent of Latin America’s professorate are active researchers (1992, 13). When I asked respondents about the percent of research at UP, they uniformly responded that the percent would be much lower. The result is that indirect costs or finance from outside sources for buildings and laboratories was virtually nonexistent.

Individuals felt that the fortunes of the economy and the direction of the government would largely determine the institution’s future. Although authors such as Candanedo, González, and Avila (1991) have argued that the university should protect its autonomy, virtually no one in the interviews felt that the institution was free from government interference. Again, the point to be learned from these comments was that the participants existed within a culture where they felt that they were neither making attempts to control their destiny, nor were they able to do so.

Consequently, when asked “what will this institution be like in five years,” few individuals could respond in any meaningful manner. As with the previous open-ended question one expects responses that will locate the culture in a particular manner. To say that research will be more important, for example, indicates that research has become an area of discussion. To say that students will be better prepared suggests that discussions about academic quality are a point of concern. But in general the respondents at UP could not envision what their institution would be like.   “We can’t wait five years,” said one person, “we need to figure out what we will be tomorrow.”  Another person commented, “We need dramatic change and it is not possible now. I do not know what I should do.”

Environment and Constituencies

If faculty lamented the poor communicative climate within the university, they pointed to the environment as the single greatest factor for determining how the institutional culture became fractured. To be sure, any institution is influenced by its environment; however, the respondents’ comments pertained more to the tight relationship between the government and the institution than to the simple facts of currency and change.

I noted how cultural themes are capable of action and reaction. The organization’s participants at UP defined constituencies in two ways. The government was a constituency because they provided funding; students were constituencies because it attended the universities. Other than those two groups, however, the respondents did not seem to have actively considered alternative definitions. Relationships with other Panamanian postsecondary institutions were formal and distant, and with other Latin American institutions they were virtually nonexistent. The business sector, private foundations, or agencies that might be able to provide income were not aggressively sought. Students were defined narrowly as those from the working class, so that middle-class students now attended the Catholic university in Panama, and wealthy students went abroad. And most importantly, relationships with the external environment in terms of the citizenry seemed to be absent. Obviously, some foundations provided money, some middle-class students attended the University, and some faculty were critically involved in their communities as faculty members. But, in general, the institutional culture did not support alternative definitions of constituency partly because the larger environment had placed the institution in a specific context with which the University had not aggressively responded. That is, massification created an influx of working class students, and the concomitant changes in society made it harder for the institution’s participants to redefine themselves and their culture to more adequately meet the needs of these students.