A Datu in Diliman

| Written by UP Media and Public Relations Office

Commencement Address of President Angelo Jimenez
30 July 2023
UP Diliman

University of the Philippines President Angelo A. Jimenez delivering his Commencement Address to the graduating class of UP Diliman on July 30, at the Quezon Hall, UP Diliman, Quezon City. Photo by Abraham Arboleda, UP MPRO.

Madiyaw nga hinaat kaniyo nga tanan!

Honorable Members of our Board of Regents, UP Diliman Chancellor Edgardo Carlo Vistan, the Chancellors of our other Constituent Universities, our University officials, faculty members, staff members, workers, students, distinguished guests, and above all our graduating students today and their proud parents:

A very pleasant albeit rainy morning to all of you, and thank you all for coming today despite the weather. I am sure that we will not allow a steel gray sky and a rush of rain to dampen our spirits, like the sunflowers along University Avenue that remain radiant as ever.

I did not know until recently, when I was approached by Chancellor Vistan, that I was to be your commencement speaker. It is uncommon—if not unprecedented—for the UP President to fill that role, which we usually reserve for an academic, cultural, or political luminary, none of which I consider myself to be.

But having been your President for less than half a year, I thought that this would be a good opportunity to introduce myself to our community, that you might know me and my ideas beyond my standard CV.

This morning, I want to tell you a story.

I am being introduced to you by my formal Christian name. Ako nga po si Angelo Azura Jimenez, abogado at ikadalawampu’t dalawang Pangulo ng Unibersidad ng Pilipinas.

Subalit may isa pa po akong pangalan na nais kong gamitin ngayong araw, bilang pagpapakilala sa inyo ng aking pinagmulan, at ng aking kabuuan.

Ako po si Datu Mankalagan.

Isa akong Manobo mula sa Agusan Valley. Isinilang ako at lumaki sa isang sinauna at makasaysayang lunsod sa wawa ng Ilog Agusan, sa Mindanaw. Ito ang lunsod ng Butuan, na bantog sa Silangang Asya bilang isang mayamang kaharian bago pa man dumating ang mga Kastila. In my city, we say: “Before there was the Philippines, there was Butuan.”

And what a great pre-Hispanic city it was, home to skillful artisans of gold and builders of mighty, ocean-going boats called balangays. Many elements that now form part of the cultural tapestry of our island entered through the Agusan River’s estuary. Its sheer length, one of the longest in the country, ensured that cultural and social exchanges with a larger world penetrated deeply into the heart of Mindanaw centuries before our nation was born.

I love my city. It is my legs, my arms, my mind, my heart. It is the cradle of my deepest affections. It is who I am, today and forever.

The title of “datu” was conferred on me by my people in a solemn ceremony in 2007. A ritual dagger was plunged deep into the heart of a live boar. I heard its vertiginous squeal of pain as it spurted blood and began to die.

A priestess scooped the blood that gushed straight from the heart of the boar before it fell to the ground, and proceeded to paint it on the palm of my hands and soles of my feet, to the drone of her own incantations.

I thought I was going to faint and I never fully realized it then but now I think I know why—life was being ritually offered to give birth to a new one, a new identity. It was an overpowering sensation.

On that same occasion, our elders gave me the name “Mankalagan.” In our local language, it means “great spirit.” I do not know if I deserve the name, and my title as a Manobo datu may be honorific, but the tremendous pride I draw from it gives me the courage I need to speak before you today.

It was not always so. I grew up taking it for granted. I never took the time to officially register as one, nor find the need for it. All I knew growing up was that I had Manobo blood. That was enough. Or so I thought, until something I never dreamed of happened to me—I became UP President, which reminded me of the duality of my character, and why it is important to accept and embrace.

Alam ko pong hindi lamang ito aking istorya, kundi istorya rin ng marami sa inyong kaharap ko ngayon. Malalayo ang inyong pinanggalingan, mga munting pook na minsa’y atin nang nakakalimutan. Naging bagong tahanan na natin ang kalunsuran, ang Diliman.

Like Butuan, I love UP Diliman. It is not always easy to love you, Diliman, but I do.

Because like Butuan, I was raised here, too. Like Butuan, UP Diliman is my arms, my legs, my mind, my heart—the cradle of my deepest affections. Like Butuan, UP Diliman is who I am, today and forever.

When I attained the presidency of this national university, I knew I had to reconcile these two halves of me. They were not in conflict with each other, but were rather the two legs on which I would find my way forward.

Early this year, I woke up one morning and had an epiphany. I would reclaim my Manobo identity, and view the world from its perspective, to seek both courage and clarity of vision. And it came.

My region, CARAGA, is the poorest in our country, next only to our neighbor, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or BARMM. So, on February first, ten days before I took office, I went up the mountain to a place called Sitio Mahayahay.

In the early morning, in Mahayahay, I took my oath of office as the 22nd UP President before the children of the Lumad. It was a symbolic act. But it was important to me.

Oddly enough, in Bisaya, Mahayahay means comfortable, but life there is tough.

It is a poverty-stricken, conflict-ridden hamlet located north of Butuan City. I was told, in fact, that a few days before I came, a firefight occurred in that area between government and communist forces.

There could be worse places in the country, but I personally know of no place that symbolizes marginalization from the life of the nation—politically, economically and socially—more than the life of the Lumads in Mahayahay.

Jimenez symbolically takes his oath as UP President in the mountains of a conflict-ridden place called Mahayahay in Butuan. “I was always there as a little boy. I took my oath before the children of the Lumad. I wanted to, in my own little way, remind UP where its ultimate loyalty belongs,” he says. Photo courtesy of Father Saturnino Urios University (FSUU) Strategic Communications Office.

I wanted to remind UP, by taking my oath there, where its loyalty should ultimately lie. I needed to take that powerful lesson to heart.

Despite the early morning chill, I had never felt so warm. I was, after all, among my people. Despite the fog that covered the hills, I had never felt such clarity. There, high up in those lovely hills, among the poorest of our people, from the outside looking in, I grasped what I had long suspected about our beloved university.

And it came in the form of three great moral paradoxes.

The first paradox is that the University of the Philippines was founded to provide leaders for the nation. And indeed we have, among the 300,000 alumni who preceded you today. We have produced the most Presidents, the most number of Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, Senate Presidents and Speakers of the House. Throughout the government bureaucracy, you will find our graduates in responsible positions.

In the private sector, you will find captains of industry among our alumni. In fact, among the richest Filipinos, you will find UP graduates. No other University in the country comes close to our dominant position in national life.

And yet, after over a hundred years since our founding as the national university, and still today the only national university in the broadest sense, we find ourselves in one of the most inequitable societies in the world.

We would be blind not to see that poverty, poor health, homelessness and hunger still stalk most of our people. This is an outrage and a ringing accusation against our own self-conceit as the best and the brightest, Iskolar ng Bayan, and University of the People.

This is an existential threat to Filipino nationhood. No nation can long endure under the extreme inequalities we are witnessing today.

The second moral paradox is that access to our university, which we love to call the University of the People, is very difficult for the people. Dedicated in our mind to the highest ideal of equality, are we, in fact, reinforcing and institutionalizing inequality?

I estimate that about 60 percent of our students today come from private schools, as I did. And we all know that while our public secondary schools have produced some of our best students and alumni, there is a yawning gap today between the quality of public and private basic education, in favor of the latter.

Our UPCAT is designed to select only the best, the elite among our high schools. What are the chances of the children of the lumad in Mahayahay of entering UP? Or of the children of Aetas and other lumads? Of the teeming masses of the poor huddled in cramped, under-invested public schools in the country today?

There’s more.

There are around 114 state colleges and universities today and one of them gets 20 percent of the national budget for higher education. You guessed it! That’s our UP.

I have long stopped bragging that we are the nation’s top university. With that share of the budget, we might as well close down if we were not Number One.

One might argue—and some have—that there is no moral justification for just one school, UP, to have such an inordinate share of the budget. Some even say it is because we are simply powerful. But there is actually one.

As the national university, we are mandated under Republic Act 9500, the law revising the UP Charter, to lead in higher education.

Have we?

We all know that there is a huge gap overall between the quality of UP education and the rest of the SUCs. In fact, no other public tertiary educational institution in the Philippines has ever landed among the top 1000 in in global rankings.

Have we simply run away with the biggest share of the national budget for higher education without doing what we could for others?

I believe in democratic access to UP education. And I believe that it is best done by helping improve the quality of education in other SUCs. Would this not be more equitable? Would this not be more democratic access? Does one have to be in UP to have access to a UP-level education? At the same time, we can review UPCAT and our equity-excellence formulas to give our disadvantaged a better fighting chance.

Finally, the third paradox is that the free education you enjoyed in UP today was not actually free. It was paid for by other people who might have needed it more.

Every peso that was spent on your education was one peso less for another Filipino who might have been sick and could not afford to buy medicines.

It was one peso less for housing for another Filipino who could not afford decent shelter.

It was one peso less for a hungry Filipino who could not afford to buy food.

It was one peso less for the education of another student your age who may have had to drop out of school entirely for lack of money.

The free education you got from UP came from many people who needed it just as much if not more, and paid for it by enduring a lower quality of life.

Dear graduates, throughout your UP years, the words “Honor” and “Excellence” have been drummed into your heads. For over a hundred years, we have pledged fealty to these two very personal ideals.

But I ask you now—are these enough?

All of us in UP bear a heavy moral burden to serve the Filipino people. Unless we do, honor and excellence are only for self-aggrandizement, and will mean little to our suffering compatriots.

The sunflowers bloom in anticipation of the graduation season in UP Diliman, Quezon City. The planting and blossoming of the flowers have become part of the traditions of the University. Photo by Jonathan Madrid, UP MPRO.

When I look out my office in Quezon Hall at our green campus—and looking at you today—my heart swells with pride at what we have achieved. But when my thoughts go back to being that lumad on the mountain, gazing past the horizon to far Manila, I recall, with great trepidation, the great challenges and responsibilities that lie ahead of us.

I did not mean to cast a pall on your graduation day but to reflect on what it means to be UP. I actually wanted to speak of hope. And a hopeful story is unfolding right this very instant.

As you all know, last Tuesday, the Philippines National Women’s Football Team, better known as the Filipinas, beat host-country New Zealand 1-0 in the first round of this year’s FIFA World Cup. The whole world is talking about it now.

The New Zealand Team, nicknamed the Ferns, ranked 26th in FIFA world standings, was way above our current rank of 46. In the game, they dominated with 70 percent ball possession. They were touted to win, we were not. In fact, as World Cup debutante, we were not expected to win at all. It took the Ferns 6 World Cup appearances to win their first match ever against former World Champions Norway last week.

How did our team do it? There are three important lessons for all of us.

First, by making the most of their chances. The Ferns dominated the game with 70 percent ball possession against our 30. They had 16 shots at goal, with 4 on target. We had 4, with only one, only one, on target. But that one hit the back of the net, to give us our first ever goal, our first ever win, and in our first ever appearance on the world’s biggest stage, the World Cup.

I’ve watched that magical clip of Sarina Bolden’s four-against-one winning header. The exhilaration I felt could only be matched by the one I felt two decades ago when, as a hostage negotiator in Iraq, I finally, physically grabbed Filipino hostage Robert Tarongoy into freedom and safety right in the middle of the bloody streets of war-torn Baghdad.

It was my own little, personal World-Cup-like moment. But the true prize for me was not a cheering crowd. It was way more precious. Mission accomplished for our nation, I could go back home to the loving arms of my wife and kids, alive.

In Wellington a few days ago, the Filipinas tried to create many chances but, in the end, they managed to produce only one real chance. And that one chance was all they needed.

In life, there will be precious few great chances. Maybe only one. Maybe none at all, if you will simply wait for it. We should strive for own World Cup moment. When it comes, grab it by the scruff of the neck.

Second, by making themselves invincible. The Ferns never scored against us. So, another way of looking at 70 percent possession by the other side is that our defense was under pressure 70 percent of the time, and withstood the withering fire.

I have no doubt that your UP education has made you strong, resourceful, and resolute. Yours is a generation that survived the ravages of the first ever truly global pandemic in human history.

For over two years, you were all isolated from each other. That was not easy. Humans are essentially social beings, and their social nature has been key to the survival of the species throughout history. Isolation is the enemy. We have never survived serious challenges alone.

Your generation has broken the isolation brought about by the pandemic by your mastery of technology that enabled us to keep our connection with each other. Social media and information technology may have redefined social interaction, but you have made it achieve its social purpose. It has also enabled all of you not only to graduate but prepare for life in the digital age.

Against the challenges of the COVID pandemic, your defense held, like the Filipinas on world’s greatest sporting stage.

Third, the Filipinas wanted to win more. Against a stronger side, this is absolutely required. The Filipinas had the proper motivation.

One of the most competitive elements of an athlete is mental toughness. The most amazing part of the Filipinas victory is that they just came in from a 2-0 loss in their first game against a strong Swiss team. They quickly put that behind them, adjusted, and came out more determined in the next game. And won.

This is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from the Filipinas. We will always have our losses in life. But we take our defeats, learn our lessons, and move on to the next challenge trying to do better.

These are not new insights. In fact, this is ancient wisdom. Be strong, take risks, be motivated.

Most of all, succeed not just for yourself, but for the many others whose lives and spirits will be uplifted by the good you do.

Di lang tayo dapat Iskolar ng Bayan kundi Iskolar Para sa Bayan.

Serve the people. Wala nang mas tatayog pa sa adhikaing ito para sa ating lahat: paglingkuran ang sambayanan!

Mabuhay kayo, mabuhay ang UP, at mabuhay ang Pilipinas!

Ato ini, kadiyawon ta!