Ateneo's business decision

This was my column yesterday. For the third time, I missed a column last Monday. I got stuck in a training program in San Pablo Laguna where the heat was unbearable and everything conspired to make sure I wouldn't be able to write anything sensible and logical.

I am not privy to Ateneo de Manila University’s policy on plagiarism but given its stature as a top tier university and its reputation as home of some of the best literary and academic minds in the country, if not the world (think National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera, theater giant Onofre Pagsanjan, poet and essayist Danton Remoto, among others), I think it is safe to assume that it would have a stringent policy on plagiarism in place.

It has been said more than often enough that plagiarism is the greatest academic “sin” and in many universities, it is more than enough grounds for termination of employment. It is inconceivable to imagine Ateneo—The Ateneo!—condoning plagiarism among its professors or students. It is even more inconceivable to imagine the Ateneo turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to plagiarism by its highest official.

So why then is the Ateneo taking a rather reticent response to that flap over that commencement speech made by tycoon Manuel Pangilinan, also chairman of the board of trustees of the university? In news reports published yesterday, the Ateneo virtually absolved Pangilinan of accountability for the plagiarism issue and refused to accept his resignation as chair of is board of trustees. The university did try to leave some wiggle space for Pangilinan and for itself by saying that the ultimate decision is Pangilinan’s.

I can understand Ateneo’s desire to “forgive” Pangilinan for the embarrassing mistake of trusting his speechwriters enough, who, by the way, the academic institution was quick to assert were not graduates of the school. Ateneo’s vehement reaction at being associated with the unnamed speechwriters was a little amusing given the way it shuffled its feet on what to do with Pangilinan’s involvement in what it called simply as an “unfortunate incident.”

Sure, Pangilinan did not write that speech. Everyone knows that busy executives cannot possibly have the time to write speeches—if they had to write their speeches, social lunches, business conferences, and all other types of forums would become obsolete, as we would run out of business leaders who accept speaking engagements. Take it from someone who dabbles as ghostwriter for some executives—crafting speeches does take time and lots of effort.

But Pangilinan delivered the speech. He owned it. It became his the moment he approved it. Still, it was big of him to immediately accept responsibility for the flap. I can imagine how Senator Manuel Villar or Noynoy Aquino would have flailed around and obfuscated the issue had it happened to them. I am sure Villar and Aquino would have thrown giant tantrums and blamed everyone else except themselves.

Pangilinan said he wanted to resolve the matter quickly and put a stop to the controversy. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be possible now that Ateneo rejected his resignation as its chairman. The controversy has just gotten a new lease of life.

By not accepting Pangilinan’s resignation, Ateneo sent conflicting messages to the world. On one hand, its dogged and resolute show of loyalty to one of its alumni and the commitment to pursue due process were admirable. On the other hand, it also showed a double standard—if this happened to a college student or even one of its faculty members, I doubt if the Ateneo would have showed ambivalence. At the same time, the decision cast a shadow of doubt over Ateneo’s supposed cloak of moral righteousness. How can it now impose its policy on plagiarism among its students and faculty when it has “forgiven” Pangilinan for the same offense?

More than anything else, though, Ateneo would have difficulty disproving a predominant perception in the minds of people: That the decision to reject Pangilinan’s offer of resignation was primarily a business decision. Pangilinan happens to be one of the richest men in the Philippines and his munificence —particularly to the Ateneo—is widely known. He is said to be the single biggest individual patron of the Ateneo.

I have nothing against academic institutions making business decisions per se. Even universities have to be profitable. However, academic institutions cannot—must not—sacrifice academic integrity for the sake of money. And when the institution is a Catholic institution that makes a big to-do about being the conscience of this nation then all the more reason it must be careful about protecting its integrity.

As I write, I have a strong feeling that Pangilinan will insist on quitting his seat at the boardroom of Ateneo. If he does, it will only prove that Pangilinan is made of much sterner moral stuff than the people at the helm of his beloved alma mater. There will be people who will insist that Pangilinan’s decision to quit Ateneo’s board is also a business decision. Being made a laughingstock for aping the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Conan O’Brien and J. K. Rowling is not exactly something a tycoon wants to be known for.

Pangilinan, and even the Ateneo, will survive this crisis. In a few months, the whole embarrassment will be a mere footnote among discussions about commencement speeches. But hopefully everyone learned a lesson or two from the whole incident.

Given the advances in information technology where practically every published work or public statement made by anyone famous or for that matter, infamous, is now easily accessible through the Internet, plagiarism has become an even more serious concern for academic institutions. It had become very easy—not to mention, tempting —to commit plagiarism. But the downside, of course, is that it had also become easier, much, much easier to detect or prove if a work is plagiarized or not. There are even sites in the Internet that offers free tracking service to check if a work is plagiarized.


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