THE COMMISSION on Higher Education (Ched) has affirmed the University’s status as an autonomous institution of higher learning, in the aftermath of the controversy over the doctorate in civil law granted to embattled Chief Justice Renato Corona.

“UST is an autonomous institution and autonomy is only given by Ched if the institution is mature, responsible, and has high academic standards,” Ched Executive Director Julito Vitriolo told the Varsitarian. “[It] is free to exercise academic freedom, which means that [it] can determine whom to accept as long as it (UST) sees it fit under the circumstances … without our interference.”

Questions over Corona’s doctorate were first raised by online news outfit Rappler last Dec. 22, the first in a series of stories ahead of the magistrate’s Senate impeachment trial. Rappler editor at large Marites Vitug claimed Corona was allowed to graduate last year without writing a dissertation and given summa cum laude honors despite being an “overstaying” student. UST did not respond to Rappler’s requests for comment.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer published the story word-for-word last Jan. 1. It sought UST’s reply the same day and published a story based on UST’s statement the following day, Jan. 2.

UST’s statement said that it “enjoys an institutional academic freedom to set its standards of quality and excellence and determine to whom it shall confer appropriate degrees.”

Vitriolo affirmed UST’s claim and said that an institution, when given autonomy, can even create special programs without seeking Ched’s approval. For a university to be granted an autonomous status, it must comply with the criteria required by Ched as regards standards, track record, “mission of excellence,” leadership in the academic community, faculty and research, he added.

Civil Law Dean Nilo Divina said UST remained faithful to its standards when it conferred upon Corona the doctorate degree. “We are one of the best educational institutions in the country and everybody can attest [to] that,” he said. “We live by certain standards — very high standards — and we will not tolerate any wrongdoing.”

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In its statement, UST also said the Graduate School in fact turned down its law consultant's request that the dissertation requirement be waived for Corona, who graduated last April.

“Instead of waiving the dissertation requirement, it imposed on the Chief Justice an equivalent requirement: to write a scholarly treatise on any subject related to his field, to be delivered in public, and eventually published. He dutifully fulfilled these in 2010. The quality and relevance of his paper, his answers to the questions raised during the public forum, and the eventual publication of his paper were all evaluated and for which he was given the necessary credits equivalent to a dissertation,” the UST statement said.

Corona delivered his paper “To Every One His Due: The Philippine Judiciary at the Forefront of Promoting Environment Justice,” in a public forum in November 2010.

Divina said this was a “valid” substitute for a dissertation.

“A substitute requirement was imposed on [Corona], a similar scholarly content and that was the paper he delivered on Environmental Law, which was received by the legal community. That is a valid substitute for the dissertation,” Divina said.

Graduate School Dean Lilian Sison said in an email to the Varsitarian: “The dissertation was not totally waived.”

“In fact we already started in some programs like Science and Education where students are asked to publish their dissertation as articles (ranging from 2-4) rather than the traditional bound manuscripts which only gather dust in the library. This is a changing paradigm in dissertation writing and the appropriate way to improve the university's publication index which is the weakness of most universities in the Philippines,” she said. “Now when it comes to rigor of the articles written, who determines this? The [Graduate School Faculty] Council believes that the determination of rigor falls within the academic prerogative and freedom of the institution conferring the degree,” she added.

'Research should be given priority'

Sison said the Graduate School regretted that the matter had caused “unpalatable” publicity for UST. “The Council believes that no amount of defense will satisfy the detractors of CJ Corona, especially in a situation that is politically charged. They are really out to get him by all means,” Sison said. “We conferred on him the degree in good faith, but who would think at that time that the chief justice would be impeached?”

Sison also said Corona met the residency requirement of seven years, not five years as reported by Rappler. Corona received a general weighted average of 1.05, enough to earn him a summa cum laude. While Corona first enrolled about a decade ago, he had filed a two-year leave of absence, which stopped the clock as far as residency was concerned.

“The [Faculty] Council, including the law consultant, gave him 1.0 for the Public Lecture, 1.0 for the legal treatise on Environmental Law that he delivered in public, and an average of 1.14 for academic subjects,” Sison said.

Corona finished his bachelor of laws in Ateneo de Manila, and obtained his master of laws from Harvard University in 1982. Before joining the Supreme Court in 2002, he was acting executive secretary under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. He was also presidential legal counsel under President Fidel Ramos. He placed 25th out of 1,965 bar examinees in 1974, with a grade of 84.60 percent.

‘Limits’ to academic freedom

However, Vitriolo said that a university’s exercise of academic freedom must stay reasonable.

“You cannot just improvise too much,” he said. “The units that will be conferred must be within the program and the curriculum must be accepted by the academic community. It must be a standard of reasonable depth.”

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Vitriolo added that universities should exercise prudence when conferring degrees. “The graduate will carry the name of the institution, so [universities] will not give a degree for nothing,” Vitriolo said. “If the person is a failure, so is the school.”

A UST Faculty Union officer, who asked not to be named, said “we ought to have a better explanation [than] what our University authorities have given so far,” adding that UST’s Jan. 2 statement yielded “more questions than answers.”

“[I]t pains me to witness – I surmise this is true of many of our members – how the quality of education in UST Graduate School is being maligned, [and how, directly or indirectly] the public cast aspersions on the competence of the Thomasian professors we have here in our beloved University because of this questionable doctorate degree,” he said. “Certainly, our teachers, alumni and students do not deserve this.”

He pointed out that getting a doctoral degree is not easy, even for tenured professors.

The UST Graduate School normally requires a dissertation or thesis for graduation. Students and faculty members overstaying beyond the residency limit must enroll additional subjects. They are also disqualified to receive Latin honors.

These rules had been imposed on some professors, the union official said, noting however that their degrees were the fruit of hard work and not any special treatment. “These requirements, however, make us proud because we know that the degree awarded to us is hard-earned and not a product of special treatment,” the union officer said.

Vitriolo said he was confident of UST’s decision to confer the doctoral degree, as it would not have been given to Corona without the approval of the University’s top academic authorities. “It means that they have considered the parameters.” Nigel Bryant B. Evangelista and Marnee A. Gamboa


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