University of Panama Situation Worsens

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Since mid-August, when COHA first spotlighted the possibility of an emerging diploma scandal at the University of Panama and suggested that the case was symptomatic of the high degree of corruption and venality which critics claimed were adversely affecting both the government and bureaucracy, conditions have not significantly moved in a positive direction. (See COHA Memorandum to the Press: “Diploma Scandal at the University of Panama Further Mires the Torrijos Government in Corruption Charges,” August 19, 2005)

On September 27, in a shocking exhibition of how Panama’s higher education system has been highjacked by self-serving hacks (many of whom serve as part of the country’s political establishment), the university’s General Council formally moved to expel outspoken professor Miguel Antonio Bernal, a motion which came before the university’s Academic Council (the group theoretically empowered to officially terminate a professor) the following day. Both bodies are under the de facto control of university Rector Gustavo Garcia de Paredes, one of Panama’s most controversial public figures, whose own background may not stand up to the scrutiny that it is now beginning to get after the Rector’s mischievously invoked similar misgivings over Bernal’s credentials.

Garcia de Paredes is a close political ally of President Torrijos, and has close ties to a number of Bernal’s political foes. As has happened before in his whistleblower career, Prof. Bernal – who is widely admired not only for his academic qualities but also for his selfless commitment over a lifetime to serve his nation and university – once again came to the forefront of a story of growing national interest (information is now circulating that a similar diploma scandal may be taking place on the high school level). Bernal had complained that one University of Panama student was awarded a degree even though he had not fulfilled some of the required subjects. Rumors quickly spread after the government’s prosecutors began to investigate, that the case of the student was just the tip of the iceberg. As speculation goes, there may have been something akin to a diploma mill operating to distribute degrees to those not wanting to bother having to attend all the necessary classes. Bernal’s charges about the UP having awarded a diploma to an unqualified recipient brought him into the cross hairs of his numerous political foes. In this latest move by the political establishment against Bernal, the woeful reputation of Panama’s leadership for its low level of civic rectitude, is once again being publicly displayed to the hemisphere.

The General Council’s draft document, which declares that Bernal is a “non grata citizen” at the University, claims that the purpose of its move is to “maintain and increase the prestige of the University and contribute to the fulfillment of its goals.” The university’s Rector has acknowledged that its initiative is merely symbolic, and will, in any event, not result in Bernal’s ouster from the institution. Yet this archly political anti-Bernal initiative being championed by the university’s key administrators – who in many instances have obtained their appointments not as the result of any academic distinction, but by dint of their political connections – is likely to backfire. Any effort by the government’s palace guard, who only rarely operate at peak efficiency other than when they try to squelch the dissident voice of one of the campus’ handful of respected academic figures, will only end up further wounding the University’s already bruised reputation.

Bernal’s only crime was to try to blow the whistle on one small segment of the country’s endemic corruption, including presenting evidence of the awarding of a diploma to a student who had not properly earned it. Although this case has been definitely authenticated, it may be but one among many. Furthermore, the illegal practice may have expanded to the high school level. By hatching its vendetta against Bernal, who largely is responsible for breaking the story, the administrators and their house academics have signed on to a strategy which inevitably will defame the university as well as the country. Furthermore, the Torrijos administration, while not formally connected, has apparently allowed itself to become complicit in a farcical caricature of an academic and judicial process that would be laughed out of court in a country with self-respecting civic institutions.

By continuing to persecute Bernal for speaking his mind about some of the country’s and its university’s most glaring problems, both the University and the Torrijos administration may have generated a new round of self-inflicted wounds. Teaching personnel at the University of Panama would be well-advised to take a public stand, before further violations of academic liberties are witnessed. Their own personal standing among their peers, and that of the UP among its sister institutions throughout the hemisphere, could be compromised. The awarding of spurious academic degrees to ill-deserving students may be very limited or it could reflect a broader situation affecting administrators and other university personnel, (Rector Garcia de Paredes, for example, apparently was granted his doctorate less than a year after having been awarded his undergraduate degree in Madrid, which would represent a startling, if not unprecedented, academic achievement). The presence of administrators whose credentials are perhaps less than they would have them be, could even further tarnish the University’s already compromised standing. This could later hurt the ability of Panamanian students to transfer credits to U.S. graduate schools as well as those presently studying in overseas institutions who wish to transfer credits. It could also invite a possible motion of censure by the 45,000-member American Association of University Professors, which may not look kindly on the political persecution of faculty members in a nearby institution who dare to lawfully speak out on pressing campus as well as national issues.