To the UP community, the name Jose “Pepe” Alcantara is up there in the annals of the brave as one of the UP student-activists who opposed martial law. Now, coming back to UP, not as a student leader but as Executive Vice President (EVP) in President Angelo Jimenez’ administrative team, Jose Fernando Tagum Alcantara still carries the fire of activism, purified by struggle and experience, and channeled into a different form.
Answering the call
The call to activism came early, although it took the form of another kind of calling, the priesthood. This led the young probinsyano from Batac, Ilocos Norte to enter Christ the King Seminary of the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) in his first year of high school.
Life in the seminary was all about routine. “You wake up at 5:00 in the morning, shower at 6:00, then go to Mass. At 7:00, you prepare for school. Seminary life gave us some kind of discipline and structure.” Alcantara added with a laugh: “Pagpasok mo sa UP, grabe, total change.”
He entered UP in 1976, a year he described as a time when UP students, faculty and those in non-academic sectors reawakened after the numbing shock immediately following the declaration of martial law. “The year 1976 was the beginning of questioning: ‘Bakit pinataw ang martial law? Makatarungan ba yan?’ The community started holding symposia and outdoor activities, even though these were not allowed by the government and the military.”
He immediately took to UP’s liberal spirit, and by his second year, became president of UP Namnama, a student organization for Ilocano students. He was also part of the founding group of the Sandigan para sa Mag-aaral at Sambayanan (SAMASA). “In the seminary, we were exposed to social realities, so that when they talked about political issues, madali kong na-absorb. Naging automatic na nagustuhan kong makiniig, magsalita, until I became part of student activism in UP.”
“I was told that I was the very first student to be arrested inside a classroom in Palma Hall. I was detained and imprisoned for two long years because of activism.” – Alcantara
Two years of darkness
His activism soon drew the attention of enforcers of the regime, and in 1979, he was arrested while inside the campus by a military intelligence group. “I was told that I was the very first student to be arrested inside a classroom in Palma Hall,” Alcantara recounted. “I was detained and imprisoned for two long years because of activism.”
He was brought to Camp Crame, where he spent six months in a small room, roughly six by eight feet. The walls were painted black and the room had no windows, no light, and the constant darkness made it impossible to ascertain whether it was night or day. Afterward, he was transferred to the Bicutan detention center.
Return to student activism
After his release in 1981, Alcantara wanted to recoup his strength and focus on his studies, but fate had other ideas. “I was asked to run for the Student Council. It was a difficult decision, but it was in the blood, so umoo naman ako.” He urged a younger student, a “very talkative straight-shooter” named Lean Alejandro, to take on the chairmanship; but when Alejandro refused out of respect for seniority, Alcantara became the second chairperson of the Student Council, serving from 1982-1983 after Malou Mangahas.
It took Alcantara five years to finish the four-year Bachelor of Arts in Political Science program. He marched in the commencement exercises in 1983, and received the UP Diamond Jubilee Scholarship Award. He had been Chairman of the UP Student Council, founding Chairman of the Center for Nationalist Studies and KASAMA sa UP, and founding National Chairman of the League of Filipino Students.
That same year, Alcantara left for the USA. He earned his masteral degree in International Economics from the University of South Carolina in Columbia in 1987, then his Doctoral Residency in International Economics at the London School of Economics in 1991.
Life in the corporate world
“In London, I was asked to help a team working on the integration of the Philippine Stock Exchange,” he related. The Manila Stock Exchange and the Makati Stock Exchange were merged and became the Philippine Stock Exchange in 1997; and Alcantara, who was Vice President for International Trade for the Philippine International Trading Corporation from 1995 to 1997, became Senior Vice President of the Philippine Stock Exchange from 1997 to 2001.
His experience in the private sector spans 32 years. He worked in various top positions in an array of industries, and served as executive adviser and consultant for economic, business and infrastructure projects in both the private and the public sector.
Returning to UP
Then in 2023, another call to serve came when new UP President Jimenez asked Alcantara to join his team. “I have to admit, it was a difficult decision. I’m technically a retired professional.” Still, not one to shy away from the call no matter how it came, Pepe Alcantara chose to serve.
“There is excitement or the feeling of challenge,” he said about returning to UP. “And I love the work. This is the time to help the President, the UP System, to take a transformative direction.”
For Alcantara, being EVP means fulfilling two main functions: “Number one is to closely assist the President, to make things happen, to implement and realize his decisions. In doing so, I look at barriers and gaps between point A and point B.” He enumerated those barriers: the lack of money, the lack of policy to provide direction, and the lack of programs to enforce said policy.
The second function of an EVP is to advise the President. “I am there to create a supportive, loyal check and balance. My role is to provide an alternative way of looking at it and maybe give him a better way to decide.”
“Hindi tayo nauubusan ng talino at plano sa academe.
Yung kailangan is the patience and the science and art of making things happen.” – Alcantara
Shifting to higher education administration
After three decades in the private sector, taking on the administration of a university is quite a change. “We have to accept that the UP work culture is totally different compared to private enterprise, pero merong mahahango sa corporate na magagamit dito, which is my expertise,” Alcantara said.
One such area is in the implementation of projects. “In UP, we have so many plans, but translating that into implementation requires the discipline and eagerness of a corporate enterprise. Hindi tayo nauubusan ng talino at plano sa academe. Yung kailangan is the patience and the science and art of making things happen.”
Some of the initiatives he is helping the UP President with include performance measurements. “We have created a good governance committee that will review the systems, procedures, and the relationships of functions so that we can also now digitally transform the entire UP System, which is the President’s top priority,” Alcantara said. “Those are the things that we have to do to make our work easier and more enjoyable. How I wish we were so efficient that we could work only four days in a week, and by 3 pm pwede na tayong umuwi so we can climb trees, go biking, swimming and kayaking,” he added.
An activist, then and now
How would Alcantara know that he will have succeeded as EVP of UP? “I would like to make sure that our staff are healthy and they enjoy what they do.”
A seminarian, student leader, and political detainee in his youth; a CEO during his professional years; a university administrator at the cusp of retirement. Yet, his activism has remained constant throughout the seeming contradictions he has lived through.
“When I was a student, my calling was to be an activist. But as you move on, you redefine yourself to become more relevant. I look at it as a process, not as contradictions. It’s part of the growing.
“If you ask me, I’m an activist,” Alcantara declared. “When I make decisions, I’m an activist. Why? Because I think outside the box.”