Heeding the Higher Call

| Written by Arlyn VCD Palisoc Romualdo

Vice President for Academic Affairs Leo De Paz Cubillan during this interview with the UP Forum. Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO.


“I was already set on early retirement. I took a week to decide.”

Dr. Leo De Paz Cubillan narrated how he became UP’s new Vice President for Academic Affairs (VPAA). That week was one of contemplation for the ophthalmologist who wanted to see things more clearly. After studying how he could contribute to UP, he drew up plans and presented them to then-incoming UP President Angelo Jimenez. Cubillan has been VPAA since April, but he was previously the President’s adviser for academic and research development during the Office of the VPAA’s (OVPAA) transition.

“The decision was difficult, but there was a higher calling.” He and his wife, Dr. Eileen Liesl Abesamis Cubillan, have been empty nesters for more than five years. He wanted more time with his children abroad, but the pull of service proved stronger, something he had felt since wanting to become a doctor and being in UP.

Student, doctor, teacher 

Growing up in Surigao, Cubillan’s dream of becoming of a doctor started when he played the role of one in an elementary school play. Initially, he wasn’t even going to UP. Because the release of UP College Admission Test results came much later than those of other schools, he was already enrolled in another school. It was his parents’ friends who persuaded them that UP was the place for him.

So, armed with a National Science and Technology Authority scholarship, he moved to UP Diliman (UPD) in 1982 under the AB Humanities pre-med program. He was 16 and homesick, going to Cubao just to call home. But he also kept his focus, shifting to BS Biology as it was a better pre-med program. “When there were dorm activities, I would go somewhere else to study,” he remembered.

Graduating magna cum laude, Cubillan was named “Most Outstanding Graduate” in the first batch from the newly elevated Institute of Biology, and gained admission to the College of Medicine (CM) in UP Manila (UPM). It was another adjustment; from the sprawling UPD campus, he now found himself in cramped UPM. He was swamped with daily lectures from 7AM to 7PM and weekly exams. But it was in the flurry of med school that he met his future wife, two years his junior. Cubillan did his fellowship at the UP Philippine General Hospital (PGH) while waiting for her to finish the Dermatology program.

In 1998, the couple then went on fellowships to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Cubillan was already a university researcher at the UPM National Institutes of Health (NIH) Philippine Eye Research Institute (PERI) and a CM clinical associate professor. In his second year at UCSF, he took the Master of Public Health at UC Berkeley. He believed it would help him “contribute to the improvement of health care in our country” because of the issues in health care access he saw during his UP-PGH clinical training.

“The decision was difficult, but there was a higher calling.” – Cubillan


From research to policy to practice

He was seeing patients, teaching, and doing research after his UC studies. Among others, Cubillan was involved in the regular PERI survey of blindness that helped formulate the Department of Health policies on the prevention and reduction of blindness in the country. Another research outcome he was proud of was the signing in 2019 of Republic Act No. 11358 or the National Vision Screening Act for the mandatory vision screening of kindergarten pupils, which was to be implemented by the Department of Education.

Teachers were trained to test the vision of students aged below seven years, using the PERI-developed kit. Cubillan said that vision screening revealed that many children were distracted in class simply because they couldn’t see the blackboard too well. There was one who even emerged as the top student in class after being moved to the front and finally seeing the blackboard clearly. Screening at this stage in children’s development also allowed for the detection and correction of a lazy eye. While implementation of the law was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has since resumed. “We’re able to prevent further visual impairment. One student, one class at a time,” he said.

Cubillan at one of the hallways of the UP PGH Polyclinic in New Clark City, Tarlac. The facility, which will eventually be a 200-bed hospital, is one of the development projects he has been handling for UP Manila. Photo by MIsael Bacani, UP MPRO.

The administrator 

As if the hats Cubillan wore weren’t enough, he has also been appointed to various administrative posts since 2005 at PERI, NIH, UP PGH, and UPM. Additionally, he has been handling development projects, such as the NIH building and the UPM units in New Clark City, including the 200-bed UP PGH whose initial structure was the polyclinic opened in time for the 2019 Southeast Asian Games and the S&T park for health sciences. “I experienced firsthand the challenges of running a government academic institution and hospital,” he recalled.

Certainly taxing, but all were done in the spirit of service and the desire to help UP further contribute to national development. “Because of my experience, I have learned to think out of the box in looking at programs and projects, and learning how to do them well and making them effective despite bureaucratic challenges.” He added that President Jimenez’s vision for UP encouraged him more and inspired him to work as VPAA.

“I experienced firsthand the challenges
of running a government academic institution and hospital.” – Cubillan


The next six years 

The OVPAA is anchored on the three pillars of UP education: instruction, research, and public service. Under Cubillan’s leadership, it will continue to support the fulfillment of UP’s mandates. It will move to increase democratic access to UP education by expanding scholarships that cover cost of living expenses. He expressed interest in looking into possible first generation college students, the first in their families to get a college education, and to provide them with opportunities to study in UP.

Cubillan’s office will work to improve student and faculty experience by creating more spaces for social interaction among students, and academic collaboration among faculty. He intends to push for the creation of programs and avenues for public service, taking the cue from President Jimenez who envisions “a UP that is not just about honor and excellence but also kindness.”

To make more responsive curricular programs, the OVPAA will pursue the integration of digital technologies to improve teaching, learning, and research “in the face of a rapidly changing digital landscape.” It will work towards improving cross enrollment across the UP System, aligning with President Jimenez’s aim of allowing UP students smooth and seamless access, physical or digital, to course offerings in other campuses.

More initiatives are forthcoming under Cubillan’s direction. It is certainly expected of someone who has been with UP for 40 years. That he chose to continue serving over his personal aspirations speaks volumes about the man with a clear vision at the helm of the OVPAA.

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