The autonomy of the university

Image: Cyrus Saurius

The autonomy of the university


Bolsonaro is guided by the desire to destroy what was built over more than a century in universities

In the war against science promoted by Bolsonaro and his supporters, an important maneuver is the control of universities. I will not discuss here and now the reasons that move Planalto occupants to hate the production of knowledge. I just note the need to study them, if you want to understand the denialist wave on which the President, his generals and pastors surf.

Academic communities, anywhere and forever, seek to live with no ties other than their own. It is the nature of those who produce to know how to challenge it permanently, which displeases established powers. The defiant posture is maintained until the very last moment, suggested Jacques-Louis David, in “The Death of Socrates”, a canvas now on display at the Metropolitan in New York. The philosopher took advantage of the departure time to give his last class. In Plato's account, man would be freeing himself from ties!

The choice of leaders of academic institutions is always a problem for political power, aware that it cannot radically suppress freedom. Hence the ruler seeks a balance point. Obviously, this is not the case with Bolsonaro, as seen by the choice of his Ministers of Education and holders of key positions in the portfolio. Man is guided by the desire to destroy what has been built over more than a century.

Knowing the subversive potential of higher education, the Portuguese Crown was peremptory: no people with great knowledge and vast intellectual elaborations in its most profitable colony. Dom Pedro II endeavored to build the image of protector of the sciences and the arts, but he did not relax in his control of the institutions he benefited nor did he dare to create a university. The soldiers who dismissed him praised knowledge, as long as it was strictly narrow-minded. Positivism was contrary to the creative spirit.

In the first decades of the Republic, several specialized military schools emerged, but no university worthy of the name. The formal grouping of faculties that Epitácio Pessoa, in 1920, named the University of Rio de Janeiro gained institutional status only under the Estado Novo, under the name of the University of Brazil. Prior to that, among the measures taken to dispute political hegemony, the São Paulo elite defeated by arms in 1932 had created the IPT and the USP. The generals who subverted the order in 1964 imagined building, at the cost of blows, a “great power”. They were men formed between the two world wars, when it became evident that the command would belong to the holders of scientific and technological knowledge. Whoever had the most advanced knowledge would be rich and strong, subjecting the others. The generals created universities, leaving them in the hands of faithful proselytes, provincial bosses who began to appoint professors and employees duly released by the information services.

During redemocratization, the academic community fought for its autonomy and obtained Article 207 from the Constituent Assembly. The chapter of autonomous choice of rectors and departmental heads was opened. In the fierce debates between the internal currents, the conceptions of academic life were being refined and plans were established. The process of choosing leaders was not well defined when dozens of federal institutions of higher education and hundreds of graduate programs were created. In addition to state institutions, Brazil began to form contingents of doctors that allowed it to compete in the production of knowledge with countries classified as developed. Everything happened without time to mature. The youthful academic community, dazzled, even invented a title not recognized across borders, that of “post-doctor”.

I write to know that, with the election of the rector of the Federal University of Sergipe, Bolsonaro, for the nineteenth time, acts as absolute ruler. The appointed teacher, Liliádia da Silva Oliveira Barreto, did not even participate in the consultation with teachers, students and staff. The Sergipe case is symbolic: the President ignored the academic community, opinions of the Public Prosecutor's Office and judicial decisions. His audacity prompted a collective backlash from elected and deferred deans. Dangerously, it did not arouse massive and forceful reactions. Catatonic states can be stopped explosively. Is this what the President, his generals and pastors want? Do they stimulate the collective explosion to exercise the Strong Arm?

* Manuel Domingos Neto is a doctor in history from the University of Paris, retired professor at UFC. He was vice-president of CNPq.

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