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Is the XU sale the high road?

Antonio J. Montalván II .

IN what is perhaps the most critical moment of its 86-year existence, Xavier U Ateneo is at a crossroads. The intended sale of four of six hectares of its Divisoria campus, and 14 of 63 hectares of its Manresa campus to a land development company has let loose a salvo of reactions engaging both sides of the spectrum. Yet speculations escalating from many segments of the alumni need not be a fear of the unknown.

Consultations are currently ongoing where inputs have been exchanged and received favorably by university authorities. One of the most perceptible observations alleges the plan to be a done deal even before consultations have been conducted.

The plan cannot be a done deal, for historical reasons unknown to many. Here is where a working knowledge of the history of XU Ateneo is necessary. On May 5, 1940, Father General Vlodimir Ledochowski granted approval for the Society of Jesus to take responsibility for the Ateneo de Cagayan as a Jesuit institution. That signifies the institution as an official apostolic undertaking of the Jesuits, a basis that persists this day.

The only justifiable route then is through the Jesuit superior general in Rome. In response, Father General Arturo Sosa has instructed the university president Fr. Roberto Yap SJ and the Board of Trustees that a “more in-depth

and extensive discernment and consultation” with stakeholders be the primary requisite. Those opposing can thus rest assured that they have an ally in the Venezuelan Black Pope.

Father General used an unequivocal term – dialogue – and describes the process to include: “Should serious questions be raised in this process, they should likewise be addressed. My hope is that this would make this project even stronger, with greater and more solid support from major stakeholders.”

The plan to transfer the Divisoria campus began 11 years ago after assessing two principal conditions: the growing congestion of that part of the city and the lack of space for expansion. Although a cherished landmark to many, the XU Divisoria campus is actually a small one – just six hectares. Expansion is nearly impossible but only vertical. Eleven years later, the plan has taken shape with Cebu Landmasters Inc. to acquire a total of 18 hectares from both the Divisoria and Manresa campuses to finance the construction of a new state-of-the-art 21st Century campus.

One can thus imagine the mixed reactions from many sectors. Alumni, for instance, can easily be overwhelmed by memories and reminiscence. One objection that begged to be addressed was heritage, particularly the conservation of historical edifices inside the Divisoria campus.

Let me digress a little. In 2014, I volunteered for the current university president, Fr. Bobby, to gain a national historical marker for XU. I made the offer in a private capacity, not as a faculty of the School of Graduate Studies. The official request was transmitted by him to the National Historical Commission of the Philippines on three very durable historical facts supported by documentation as is the protocol: XU is Mindanao’s first university; XU is the first Catholic university of Mindanao; XU is the first of all the Ateneos all over the Philippines to become a university. The last feather on the cap may probably come as a surprise to many – Ateneo de Manila became a university only in 1959, a year later than XU in 1958.

That marker would have invested the campus with the status of a national heritage site. National historical markers have basically the force of law: not only will the site be named in the state’s official inventory of national historical sites, but altering and demolishing historical structures will be regulated or prohibited by law because the aim is to conserve. Yet a more distinct status could have come with the declaration – it would have automatically rendered the university an Important Cultural Property under Article 3 Section 5 of Republic Act 10066, the National Cultural Heritage Law of 2009.

The response of the then chairman of the NHCP Maria Serena Diokno was rather farfetched and superfluous. She did not attempt to deny the distinctions but counseled to rather wait for the centenary of XU. To note, XU in 2014 was 81 years old an institution, 56 years as university. That would have been a wait of either 19 or 44 years, as the case may be. But age was beside the point. Whether XU is 5, 25, or 75 years old does not change the historical data, undeniable as they are, that it is the first university in Mindanao, the first Catholic university in Mindanao, and the first of all the Ateneos to become a university. Those facts are unchallenged. I found Maris Diokno’s reasoning ungrounded, even if she was a personal friend. Soon after that, she had left the NHCP with the change of the new administration. There was an impasse to sustain the momentum for the marker.

Barring that marker, the heritage status of certain built structures inside the Divisoria campus is not lost. First, an appreciation of the law is in order. RA 10066 does not prohibit the sale of cultural properties. What is expressly prohibited is demolition. The law makes a cut of at least 50 years for a built structure to attain presumed heritage status, even without an official declaration. In which case, three landmarks in the Divisoria campus have attained that status: Lucas Hall which was built in 1935 and ably supported by a marble cornerstone just outside the client windows of the current finance office, the University Church of the Immaculate Conception and Loyola House Jesuit residence. The Manila city planner and architect Gines Rivera who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology designed the last two, circa late 1950s. Rivera had also designed beginning 1949 the master plan for the Loyola Heights campus overlooking the Marikina Valley.

Without doubt, Lucas Hall remains XU’s historical crown jewel as the only building that survived World War II. The campus was the northern Mindanao headquarters of the Japanese Kawamura Detachment beginning May 1942. It was leveled by the American liberation bombs of Oct. 21, 1944. Extant photos show Lucas Hall pockmarked by bullets. Incidentally, RA 10066 allows adaptive re-use of historical edifices, the designs and construction of which have to be screened and supervised by appointed experts either from the NHCP or the National Museum of the Philippines.

Precisely because of the consultations, the plan recognizes these three landmarks as a sine-qua-non: they will not be demolished. Both XU and the developer will embark on retention of the church, Loyola House, and the adaptive reuse of Lucas Hall, in addition to the football field (old alumni will refer to it as the drill field). Architects from the NHCP will be consulted, a process not alien to Cebu Landmasters. When it won the bid to develop the Cebu city landmark Patria de Cebu of the Archdiocese of Cebu, adaptive reuse was also the focal approach with the advice of NHCP architects.

One commentary had exclaimed – “what will happen to XU Museum?” In the context of the same heritage laws, the museum does not stand the rigor of RA 10066.

The current building of Museo de Oro is out of the question. Although personally inaugurated by Cory Aquino in July 1986, an event I had witnessed, the building was not built according to museum curatorial standards. XU has never had the benefit of professional curators. Many see the museum as the city’s best because of its collection, but it has not ever been curated along world museology standards. Despite a recent 16 million-peso makeover, there is no narrative. Worse, objects are displayed without a catalogue and accession numbers, a mortal blunder in the museum profession that exposes the utter incapacity for conservation where the history and dimensions of an object are documented. The museum cannot even account for the loss of three plates of religious paintings done by the colonial-era Filipino master Damian Domingo. Once when I peeked inside its storage room, I was dumbfounded. Objects were scattered hodgepodge, with no effort to classify and stack them with labels — this, in a teaching institution supposedly of high caliber, in an age when even museum storage is now open to public scholarship and study.

That deficiency has even worsened in recent years when XU created a Center for Culture and Arts and placed the museum under this office, regulating museum operation. The previous status quo remains ideal when it was directly under the office of the university president. It was said that the national organization of the National Museum being part of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts served as the model. Again, that is a wrong appreciation. The National Museum is not UNDER the NCCA but the Office of the President. It sits in the board of the NCCA, as the latter is the coordinating body of the country’s six major cultural institutions. No museum anywhere in the world is regulated and persons with zero experience of the museology science simply cannot vet appointments to curatorial positions.

In short, the present museum building can be demolished, with a pictorial marker of the building put up to show what once stood there, if only to respect the fact that a president of the country had inaugurated it. Because of its serious lack of professional management, Museo de Oro has to be reconfigured, totally overhauled, perhaps even renamed (it is not a museum of gold). This fits to a T in the plan as it involves the construction of a University Forum that includes a museum in the new campus. That can be XU’s redeeming chance to curate even the architectural design of the new museum along a curatorial science narrative, as the case should be (curatorial narrative goes first, then infrastructural design next). And then the museum must be returned to the office of the university president to gain back the creative curatorial autonomy it needs.

The development plan calls the new 46-hectare campus at Manresa the Masterson campus. It is a deserving accolade for the great visionary and Ramon Magsaysay Award laureate Fr. William Masterson SJ, the boy from Brooklyn who pushed frontiers, the giant memory of a man in Cagayan de Oro. It was also Masterson who called that property, once thought of as a rocky hill of an outpost where nothing could grow, with a name that has become dear to Cagayan de Oro. The position paper of the XU Aggies Alumni articulates it well: “Manresa Farm is linked with history. It is named after a town called Manresa near Barcelona, Spain where St. Ignatius of Loyola divested himself of his earthly wealth and nobility to work in poverty and to work for God’s greater glory.”

As an added bonus to history, the 14-hectare University Town will be aptly named Manresa Town, ensuring that the name will not be forgotten by time. A new chapel that will be the central highpoint of the Masterson campus University Plaza will enshrine the old crucifix of the chapel at Divisoria. The hardwood was taken from the house of Zosimo and Conchita Roa Roa who had donated that house to the Ateneo de Cagayan when it opened in June 1933. It is also noteworthy that the preservation of 25 hectares of forest cover and animal sanctuary is part of the plan. Manresa’s forests are the city’s lungs. One essential for sustainability that cannot be left unsaid is addressing the traffic congestion of uptown Cagayan de Oro, which copes daily with more than an hour of traffic standstill. Concessions and solutions will be discussed with city government involving the construction of two new access roads to and from downtown.

In the end, those opposing should learn a lesson on standing on credible ground, as for instance the alumni’s appeal some years ago for the return of the name Ateneo de Cagayan. Those who opposed fell silent when Fr. Miguel Bernad SJ, the greatest historian Mindanao had ever produced, narrated why the name Xavier University was adopted in 1958.  Then Father Rector Francisco Araneta SJ (brother of the antiquarian and bon vivant Luis Ma. Araneta, father of the infamous Greggy) applied for the university status in 1956. But the application was fraught with serious shortcomings. Education regulations then required a full research facility and faculty with doctorates. Ateneo de Cagayan had none of that. To fill the gap, Fr. Francis Madigan SJ, who had a doctorate in sociology, was dispatched from the United States. Under his aegis, the Research Institute for Mindanao Culture took shape. But that was insufficient; Madigan was the lone doctor. Fr. Fritz made a novena and a promise to St. Francis Xavier that if the university status will be granted, the institution be named after the Patron of the Indies. Here the story unfolds rather dramatically. Just minutes before the commencement exercises of 1958 were to begin, a telegram was received – the Bureau of Education had granted the university status. The proverbial phrase – the rest is history – remains unassailable to this day because it stands on a miracle of religious faith.

A tidbit of history that enriches the heritage worth of XU – on its official inauguration as a university (by then officially given the nomenclature Xavier University Ateneo de Cagayan) on Aug. 27, 1958, an academic convocation was convened where the guest of honor was President Carlos P. Garcia. The director of the Bureau of Education Manuel Lim and the first university president Fr. Araneta conferred on Garcia XU’s first doctorate degree honoris causa. Among honorary doctors in XU’s list of infamy and fame through the years were Cory Aquino, Ferdinand E. Marcos (yes, during his first presidential term), and Justiniano R. Borja who remains inimitable to this day – shame on the city’s dirty politicians. When Miriam Defensor Santiago was conferred the honorary doctor of laws, the ceremonies at the drill field was moved indoors to the chapel because of a sudden downpour. Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez was awarded twice – because on the second time the office of the university president Fr. Antonio Samson SJ had failed to research that Pelaez had already been given the honor many years ago. Pelaez himself had to teach XU that lesson in his convocation speech, an embarrassing warning that it is wrong not to count on history.

XU Ateneo’s link of intimacy with Cagayan de Oro cannot be underestimated. Before 1935, the campus was the town’s backyard of coconut groves and grassland. Bought from a certain Mrs. DeKraft of Tagoloan with some parcels from Vicenta Roa Mortola, the opening of the campus in June 1935 changed the geography of town. It necessitated the opening of Manuel Corrales Avenue – prior to the Ateneo, the easternmost street of town was Calle Nueva (later renamed Pabayo Street). The town expanded because of the Ateneo. Moreover, the Ateneo rapidly gained fame. Operated as a boarding school, it had students from the Visayas and some from Luzon. Cagayan became an educational center because of the Ateneo. Many of its graduates became prominent public servants, to name a few: governor Alfredo Montelibano of Negros Occidental, mayor Francisco Garganera of Iloilo city and mayor Tommy Osmeña of Cebu city.

XU Ateneo is at a crossroads. Is the XU sale to Cebu Landmasters the high road to take? The dialogue and consultations that Father General has prescribed has even enriched the original plan. Alumni, many of them benefactors of scholarships, can be aggressive in their love for the institution but need not fear the unknown. The Jesuit vow of obedience is legendary. Were the dialogues not taken place, it is the Jesuits themselves who will be at the mercy of Father General. It is thus full steam ahead to embark on the prospect for change at the crossroads that everyone has a role to ensure the high road is taken.

(Antonio J. Montalván II is a social anthropologist.)

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TREND MAKER. Mindanao Gold Star Daily was established in 1989 to set ablaze a new meaning & flame to the local newspaper business. Throughout the years it continued its focus and interest in the rural areas & pioneered the growth of countryside journalism.

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