Nicaragua: University Autonomy in Times of Coronavirus

Two youth with face masks on a city bus in Managua. Photo: EFE

How is it that a center of thought, with the country’s chief medical school, hasn’t been able to protect its students, staff and administrative employees?

By Alejandra Centeno (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – In 2020, I returned to what I consider the greatest practice of freedom: education. Almost two years have passed since that August 13, when the self-designated council of the UNAN (Nicaraguan National Autonomous University) expelled me for “coup promoting and vandalism”, thus keeping me distant from the classroom for a number of months.

I experienced both great hope and heaviness of spirit at the same time with the beginning of this new year. Hope, because I was presented with the unparalleled opportunity to conclude the university career that I had been in the final year of, when the political crisis broke out that was to mark the lives of our generation.

Sadness, because in order to achieve this, it was necessary that I leave my country, and with it my home, my family, my friends, the student movement, my life. I would have to move to Spain, and resist from a different vantage point; I say this because I’m convinced that studying and preparing ourselves academically isn’t only a way of resisting, but also the principal tool for doing so, in order to forge the transformations that we need in Nicaragua.

So I pulled up my roots in that country “so violently sweet”, that never leaves me, and I set off once again on the constant search for knowledge.

Not even two months had passed when the Coronavirus began appearing in the local news of my new environment. In just a few weeks, it was already putting pressure on one of the best public health systems in the world, and it only took a couple of weeks for the Andalucia Junta to suspend classes in all of the educational centers of that autonomous region, as a form of prevention in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic. Thus, Loyola University of the Company of Jesus communicated the suspension of all in-person teaching activities, both theoretical and practical, not only as a form of protection, but also as a way to break the chain of possible contagion.

Approximately one week before activities were suspended, Loyola’s competent authorities were already sending us e-mails outlining the preventive measures oriented by the World Health Organization (WHO), accompanied by the emergency telephone numbers to report any symptoms that could be related to the new disease.

This disease, according to Tedros Adhanom Ghebrevesus, president of the WHO, was spreading in an accelerating curve. According to the most current data from John Hopkins University, as of 21:00 Greenwich Mean Time on March 25, Covid-19 had already infected 458,927 people around the world. In just five days, there were more than 200,000 new cases, putting the totals above 400,000.

Alejandra Centeno

I share this data with the intention of affirming the following: we’re not in a situation where it’s enough to communicate “preventive measure should be taken”, much less to post suggestions of foods rich in Vitamin C, as the UNAN in Managua has done.  We’re not talking about a cold that will pass in three days.

Adhanom Ghebrevesus insists that only by implementing aggressive tactics can the world win the fight against Coronavirus. None of these tactics involve assembling the students of an entire department into one room to tell them what the Coronavirus is.

I like to think that the exercise of assuming a commitment to the environment is part of the social responsibility that, in theory, any institute of higher education exercises. If the university doesn’t involve itself with reality and the challenges of the present, it’s more than time to question its function and outreach, as well as its level of commitment to the society in which it’s immersed.

How is it possible, then, that the UNAN, a center of thought and research recognized as having the country’s chief school of Medicine, hasn’t been even capable of protecting its students, teachers, administrative workers and other staff?

You can’t have preventive measures in a university that lacks soap in the bathrooms, where the class sections for each year of the career are packed full of students. Further, this is a university that has already demonstrated its brutal indifference to the complaints of its students. It continues giving evidence of this callousness when it threatens to sanction those that promote the idea of not attending classes as a preventive measure.

It’s not hard for me to imagine that they could expel the first student that admits to having symptoms, or perhaps the one that – to safeguard their lives and the lives of those close to them – decides to stop attending.

Beyond the simple fact of protecting the students, avoiding gatherings of large numbers of people is closely tied to impeding the spread of the Coronavirus and cutting the chain of contagion. Thus, it’s a way of being responsible for ourselves, but also for the rest, for the families of our country.

In this sense, the distance from the global reality that the principal university of Nicaragua has marked out, can’t be justified by alleging an attempt to preserve the well-being and continuity of the semester in course. This irresponsible act is nothing more than a direct collaboration with a regime that is desperately trying to show that in a country as battered as Nicaragua, everything is normal.

The UNAN-Managua is an instrument that supports the Ortega-Murillo regime. By being an institution with no autonomy, it’s not hard to imagine that they’re naturally incapable of adopting and prioritizing strategic measures for an emergency situation like this. They simply can’t challenge the negligent actions of the state.

But if they really were autonomous?

The law of University Autonomy, which establishes the ideal principle of non-intervention in university affairs on the part of outside powers – political, religious or business interests – makes it possible to imagine a university teaching from the standpoint of the practice and example of the humanization of knowledge: preparing their students beyond their future work capabilities and in their social competencies; refining their emotions, the maturing of their understanding; and defining their individual responsibility for the enormous challenges that the new Coronavirus may impose on our country.

The world is distraught, the most efficient public systems are overwhelmed, the economic projections are discouraging, and the least we can expect from our houses of higher education is that they adapt the process of teaching and learning to the new circumstances. I say this without ignoring the different technical, geographical, functional and inclusive challenges that the new formula can present.

For that reason, it’s vital and urgent that the full conquest of university autonomy be included in the process of constructing what we have called the “new Nicaragua”. We need universities that are active and aware participants in actions that face up to the regional and national problems, universities that base their teaching models on human dignity and the protection of human rights.

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