In the 21 June edition of University World News, Héctor Vera described the deteriorating state of Mexican higher education under the current presidential administration. Vera focused on the troubled state of research funding after several controversial decisions were made, such as excluding academic staff from private universities from the research funds associated with CONACYT’s national registry of researchers (SNI in Spanish). He also noted that the recent inclusion of Mexico’s top federal prosecutor at the highest tier of said registry, after several failed attempts over the past several decades, invited questions about cronyism.
In recent days, things have turned from crisis to an all-out assault by the president’s party, known as MORENA, in the State of Puebla, where governor Miguel Barbosa Huerta sent state police to take over the campus of the Fundación Universidad de las Américas Puebla (UDLAP) and froze the institution’s assets as part of a legal dispute involving the institution’s board.
I will argue that rather than an isolated and admittedly bizarre case, this is an indication of the risks attached to the current Mexican government’s unbridled meddling in civil society, which must be denounced.
An incomprehensible attack
On 29 June, forces from Puebla’s State Police, some carrying long semi-automatic weapons, took over the campus of UDLAP, one of Mexico’s top higher education institutions according to domestic rankings, and one of a handful of Mexican universities that have earned international accreditation, both institutional (SACS-COC) and specialised (for example, AACSB and ABET).
The state police, despite being greeted with a federal injunction, forcibly evacuated the institution, including students who had just returned to university housing, in an attempt to instal a new board for the university.
The police threatened students with arrest if they did not comply, so students left campus without being able to collect their belongings from the residence halls although they were permitted to do so hours later. This caused fear at first and, later, anger among the student body who have not been permitted to return after almost two weeks.
I cannot focus in detail on the complex legal dispute involving the board of UDLAP, suffice to say that members of the university board, as individuals, are under criminal investigation due to activities related to another foundation, the Mary Street Jenkins Foundation.
UDLAP administrators have pointed out that neither UDLAP or its board members are under investigation in relation to the higher education institution. However, this issue opened the door for MORENA’s governor of Puebla to use an obscure state government agency that oversees private foundations to appoint a brand new board and take control of UDLAP’s facilities and assets.
It is noteworthy that the original board members have not been convicted of wrongdoing and that a federal judge had issued an injunction.
Moreover, it was reported that the same top federal prosecutor recently appointed to the national registry of researchers was involved in reopening an investigation against UDLAP’s board and was involved in a previous legal dispute against UDLAP involving the use of brand assets when he was president of another university in Mexico City.
Both the university where he was president and UDLAP used to be the same, but split into two different entities decades ago.
Impasse at UDLAP spells trouble
The assault on UDLAP cannot be dismissed as an isolated event. While an extreme incident, the occupation of a private university by state police reignites concerns about a new state law for education in Puebla that private institutions had characterised as dangerously ambiguous because it states that the assets and facilities of state-sanctioned educational entities are part of the state’s education system. This introduced concerns about the property rights of private universities.
The forced occupation of the facilities and assets of a private university, with the use of heavily armed police forces, is unacceptable. This much has been stated by the association of Mexican institutions of higher education, ANUIES, and by the federation of Mexican private higher education institutions, FIMPES.
However, while these statements of solidarity and concern are important gestures, a university with a student body of 9,000 runs the risk of having its call for justice drowned out in a populous country still reeling from the COVID crisis.
Given federal jurisdiction regarding research funding, private higher education institutions in other states controlled by MORENA and across Mexico would do well to pay attention and speak up against government meddling in civil society.
A way forward
It is not too late for the authorities to de-escalate the conflict, free the university from occupation and let the legal process unfold without any further intervention. UDLAP should not be held hostage in personal settling of scores or be used as a warranty for the alleged misconduct of its board members, especially with regard to something which is unrelated to the university.
More broadly, Mexico’s government should recognise the contributions of private universities to social mobility and access to higher education. Some of the universities adding the greatest value to student outcomes in Mexico, Latin America and around the world, are private. This is particularly true among high-performing institutions with a long trajectory of excellence such as UDLAP.
Gerardo Blanco is associate professor and academic director of the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are personal and not those of CIHE, the Carolyne and Peter Lynch School of Education and Human Development, or Boston College.
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