The counter-reform of Michoacán’s indigenous university

Earlier this year, the state government of Michoacán issued decrees for the “reform” of the Intercultural Indigenous University of Michoacán (UIIM), established in 2006 as an initiative of the PRD administration of Lázaro Cárdenas Batel. As an undergraduate Cárdenas Batel had been trained in anthropology and always professed an interest in advancing indigenous rights. But as a senator he had voted against the new national indigenous law based on negotiations between the government and the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, finally sent to congress by incoming PAN president Vicente Fox, after progress had been blocked in favour of continuing low level counter-insurgency war by the previous PRI administration headed by Ernesto Zedillo.

Despite an agreement between the state and federal governments on how the new institution was to be run and financed, the project was slow to materialise. I had participated in meetings about it in 2002 and 2003 when doing fieldwork in the Nahua communities in the coastal region. There were meetings in the indigenous communities themselves, in which young people of both sexes and their parents participated. A regional Forum for the coastal communities was convened by the state government in Aquila, attended by a few representatives of the P’urhépecha communities of the central highlands as well as teachers and agrarian and civil authorities from the Nahua communities of the coast. In all these meetings, there was an emphasis from the grassroots on the need for the new institutions to provide a high quality education that would be better adapted to the needs and aspirations of young indigenous people and respectful of indigenous culture and languages.

These hopes have tended to be frustrated. Since its foundation, Michoacán’s Indigenous Intercultural University has been beset by financial, managerial and infrastructure problems that have produced academic problems, reduced enrolments, and increased drop-out rates. There is no disputing that something needed to be done, but there is much to dispute in the way these reforms have been introduced and their substance, as has been pointed out in a recent article in Spanish by Dra. Bertha Dimas Huacuz, founding director of the Indigenous Intercultural Preparatory School of the P’urhépecha community of Santa Fe de la Laguna in the Lake Pátzcuaro region, a graduate of the medical school of the Universidad Michoacana, who also studied at Harvard. This post summarises the gist of her analysis in English and provides a link to the Spanish original.

Whereas the original proposals were subject to widespread public consultation, including discussion within communities, the reforms were prepared in secret. The state government not only failed to consult the governing body of the UIIM but did not even communicate its proposals to the responsible sub-secretariat of the federal Education Ministry, in violation of the agreement that founded the institution. No independent evaluation of the performance and problems of the UIIM was commissioned. Lacking any strategic vision, the proposals were not provided with any “evidence-based” justification. This is top-down government by decree with a vengeance, in a part of Mexico where “states of exception” have tended to become the rule, and their unintended consequences lamentable.

Although the decrees talk about the need to update the aims and objectives of the UIIM, and emphasise the desirability of strengthening the links between the institution and the communities that it serves, they change the university’s governance in a way that weakens its autonomy and the limited oversight of federal government representatives in order to bring the university more firmly under the direct control of the state governor and his bureaucrats. The person specification for the post of rector eliminates earlier insistence on recognized experience in the intercultural field, and the new decrees downgrade the academic capacities to be demanded of its staff. Only undergraduate qualifications rather than Masters degrees are now required for directors of divisions and subject areas. The fact that the reforms reduced the minimum age for appointment as rector from 30 to 25 appears to have been part of a manoeuvre to install a candidate personally favoured by the governor, who would have been too young under the previous regulations. No soundings were taken amongst the existing academic staff, and there is no way for either staff or students to know whether better qualified candidates might have been willing to take on the post.

Far from strengthening an institution with problems, these reforms seem destined to degrade its academic reputation further, and, as Dra. Dimas Huacuz points out, diminish its governability and the capacity of its governing body to take strategic decisions. The new decrees also display a marked contempt for a principle that was supposed to be integral to the project: that the institution should evolve in close consultation with the communities that it serves. The decrees are simply an imposition, since nobody was provided with the information or opportunity to make an informed response to the proposals before the changes were made.

The internal politics of both academic and indigenous communities may be complicated and often fractious. But a non-transparent, anti-democratic, politics of imposition without consultation of even the most ritualised kind can only magnify these problems.

Michoacán’s state government seems determined to keep the UIIM a second or even third class higher educational institution. It is not unusual for governors to interfere in the appointment (and removal) of rectors in defiance of transparency and academic standards in the intercultural university sector, but a key issue is whether the institution can continue to fulfil a social function that is legitimate and important without an independent review of its management and a stronger financial base. The UIIM aims, for example, to offer specialized professional courses that will be directly beneficial to young indigenous people close to where they live, thus helping them to construct livelihoods that will be viable in their local communities and apply their existing skills, without the expenses that studying in a conventional university in a distant big city would entail. An example of this approach is the course in sustainable development and alternative tourism that the UIIM offers in the municipality of Aquila, by the sea in Faro de Bucerías, a popular destination for less affluent tourists inside indigenous territory.

The Michoacán state government does recognise that there is a problem with indigenous access to higher education. Mexico does not fare well in comparison with other countries at a similar economic level in terms of university access figures in general. Michoacán has one of the worst records even by Mexican standards, with only 24% of its young people entering higher education. Yet the figure for indigenous communities is far worse, and a mere one per cent nationally.

Brazil has tried to address the problem of widening access to federal universities by affirmative action policies, directed mainly at afro-descendent people from poor families but also allocating quotas for indigenous Brazilians. Mexico’s intercultural indigenous universities represent a different kind of approach that does tend to create a different kind of university from public and private sector institutions targeted at the population in general.

This is not the place to discuss the pros and cons of these different approaches, which reflect rather different contexts. But it does seem clear that the “reforms” imposed by substitute governor of Michoacán, Salvador Jara Guerrero, who was rector of the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás Hidalgo, one of Latin America’s oldest universities, from 2011 until 2014, are not going to solve the known problems of the UIIM, and might even hasten its extinction. Dra. Dimas Huacuz suggests that the only way forward now is for the institution to be refounded.

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