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These Brazilian Students Need a Bigger Say Over Their Education

University of Brasília in Brazil It is a shame that, after 23 years of direct elections of the rector and after the election of five rectors (one of them reelected) by the university community, the University of Brasília (UnB) must once again undergo a period with a rector pro tempore appointed by the Minister of Education.

The University Counsel, it is true, was consulted and Roberto Aguiar was indisputably a wise choice. He is a jurist and a humanist with vast experience in education and in negotiating.

At the same time, it is proof of the university’s vitality and autonomy that the elected rector’s exit came through his resignation and not through intervention. It resulted from the student mobilization and not from any sort of claims by special interest groups.

Not only did the student body show great capacity for indignation, but it also demonstrated its willingness to run risks, confront the power, struggle. And Rector Timothy Mulholland demonstrated he understood that making matters worse by extending the situation beyond the limits of university autonomy was unjustified.

In the next months, the UnB rector pro tempore will have the greatest responsibility of all our rectors. Greater even than that of the memorable Darcy Ribeiro, whose role was to begin from point zero and invent a university.

Greater than that of the military regime’s rector, who had all the money and power he needed to impose his ideas. And greater also than that of the rectors who came later and needed to dismantle the authoritarianism, liberate the institution, and bring it into the 21st century.

Besides handling the day-to-day administration, the rector pro tempore will face difficult tasks. He must conduct the electoral process to choose the new rector with total legitimacy. He must provide continuity to the projects already in set in motion in the last few years.

He must determine the truth about the news of the past few months. And, with the community, he must set up the process of debates and mobilization that will permit the reformation of UnB, its reestablishment in accord with the needs of this century.

To determine the entire truth, the UnB cannot merely submit itself to the external police and Public Ministry investigations. It should ideally also create an internal commission to win back its credibility, clarifying erroneous statements, singling out those responsible and apologizing to the population of Brasília and all of Brazil.

As for the election of the new rector, the first point will be to give more votes to the students. In the last elections, each professor’s vote was the equivalent of the vote of 90 students, and the vote of one staff member equaled that of nine students.

The students are the group that is the least to blame for the administration’s errors. The next election must incorporate them, either through parity vote – assigning 1/3 value to the professors’ vote, 1/3 to the staff’s, and 1/3 to the students’ – or through universal vote.

There is no indication that a student would be less prepared than any other UnB voter would or that he or she would have any less interest when casting a vote for the rector. The students, in fact, are less vulnerable to campaign promises than the professors and the staff and would not benefit directly from the personal advantages the administration can offer.

One need only remember that the first three elected rectors at UnB won parity-vote elections and this had no negative impact upon their administrations.

Beyond giving weight to the students, the electoral process must not permit the debate of promises for special interest groups or for individuals and must not play politics. It also must put an end to the possibility of reelection; ex-rectors should not be candidates. The discussion should be fundamentally about UnB’s future – its courses, its programs, its structure, and its evaluation and responsibility criteria.

This will be possible if the election were to be transformed into a great debate about the future of the Brazilian university and, especially, that of the University of Brasília. Above all, the election must capture the interest of the students, something impossible to do if their vote is worth only crumbs.

The students themselves took the lead in the changes of the past few days. Two months ago, the professors, through the majority of the assembly, accepted things as they were.

Professor Roberto Aguiar is the person best prepared to coordinate UnB activities and to transform the month of May 2008 into a period of great creative fermentation and recovery from the deterioration the university has suffered. To do this, the students must not be ignored.

Cristovam Buarque is a professor at the University of Brasília and a PDT senator for the Federal District. He was the UnB rector from 1985 to 1989. You can visit his new website – www.cristovam.org.br – and write to him at cristovam@senado.gov.br.

Translated from the Portuguese by Linda Jerome – LinJerome@cs.com.

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