by Sheila S. Coronel and Alecks P. Pabico
THIS blog post is an attempt to clarify the PCIJ’s previous reporting on the University of the Philippines College of Law. It does not intend to rake up old wounds, but to point out where we were wrong and where our reporting failed to capture the complex story of politics in the college. We should have known better. Politics in the UP law faculty is more byzantine than politics most anywhere else. Our apologies for thinking it was so simple. Our apologies as well for the delay. We have been caught up in reporting and other work these past weeks and have only had time in recent days to put together our reporting on our reporting.
First: an admission of grievous error.
On Sept. 28, Alecks Pabico reported in this blog a supposed verbal instruction from the newly appointed U.P. law dean, Salvador Carlota, to members of the U.P. Law Center not to attend the scheduled Senate hearing on the North Rail project in light of President Arroyo’s recently issued Executive Order No. 464.
The information was relayed to our reporter on the eve of the hearing by a lawyer who was familiar with the North Rail case, and confirmed to us by another lawyer, also with the U.P. law faculty, who was similarly involved in the legal issues of the North Rail contract. Both these sources had proved reliable in the past and were consulted by us on many legal matters, including those concerning the goings-on at the law school.
For this reason, the report on Carlota’s supposed instruction was posted in this blog at 7 p.m. on Sept. 28. We considered this a timely story because that same night, news broke out about the Malacañang order preventing officials from testifying in Congress.
As pointed out by Dean Carlota himself the next day, the information we received — and blogged about — was false. Did our sources lie to us? Probably not. It is possible that they overreacted to Malacañang’s announcement and made certain presuppositions based on unconfirmed reports. We should have immediately asked Dean Carlota to verify the report but did not do so until the following day.
As a remedial measure, we did correct the blog post the next day by striking out the erroneous details, making evident to readers the portions that had been stricken out. Also on that day, we posted another blog entry that carried Dean Carlota’s denial that he ever instructed professors of the UP College of Law not to testify before the Senate.
Looking back, we now realize that these corrective measures were not enough. In his blog, lawyer JJ Disini, also of the U.P. College of Law, has called ours a “quasi-retraction” and criticized what he said was a half-baked correction. He is right. We should have been more forthright about our error. We should also have apologized for it. The way the corrections were made gave the impression we were covering up our mistake, or making light of it.
But it is not too late. We apologize to Dean Carlota and to our readers for that error and promise our readers that henceforth, we will own up to our mistakes in a more straightforward manner. We will also apologize for them.
The controversy over the deanship
We would also like to clarify another report by Alecks Pabico posted on Sept. 24, also related to the U.P. College of Law. That report, which said that Malacañang may have had a hand in the selection of a new dean for the College of Law, created a stir both in and outside the university. That report was based on interviews with three professors at the College of Law. As these professors corroborated each other’s account, we felt that we could report what they said.
We were wrong. We should have sought more views. We should have taken greater effort to corroborate. Being clueless about the politics there was not an excuse.
The truth, we have subsequently found out, is much more complex. While it may be true that the Palace or The Firm did try to influence the UP Board of Regents’ selection of a new law dean, there were other considerations — including internal squabbles and politics in the College of Law — that shaped the selection of Carlota as dean. We failed to reflect these other issues in our reporting. In so doing, we did not give a full account of what had transpired. By reporting on this now, we hope to atone for this lapse.
In its Oct. 24 issue, Newsbreak reported pretty much what we did in our Sept. 24 post. It said that Susan Villanueva, a lecturer at the U.P. College of Law and former partner of what used to be the Carpio Villaraza law firm, endorsed Carlota to the deanship. “The endorsement was sealed with a telephone call from Rodel Cruz, undersecretary of the Department of National Defense and former partner, too, of the firm,” said Newsbreak.
Rodel Cruz, it reported, is undersecretary to Avelino Cruz, one of the founding partners of “The Firm” and the president’s former legal counsel. The magazine went further on to report that Malacañang seemed unduly interested in the deanship because the College of Law “happens to be influential in legal and political circles.” Newsbreak hinted that Carlota was appointed to “help cool down the U.P. College of Law,” which under the deanship of Raul Pangalangan, had called on the president to resign.
We have since found out, however, that the story has many more angles than what had been previously been reported.
It is true that many in law faculty had endorsed Pangalangan’s election to a third, and unprecedented, term. Deans at the U.P. are appointed for third terms only under “exceptional circumstances.” There was a debate as to what exceptional means — some say the exceptional circumstance is when there is no other contender; others say that exceptional referred to the dean’s performance.
Whatever the interpretation, Pangalangan did not get unanimous faculty endorsement for his bid for a third term. Some members of the faculty in fact wanted a change. For starters, Susan Villanueva had opposed Pangalangan’s appointment as dean from the start. It should be remembered that Pangalangan’s assumption of the deanship was also shrouded in controversy, as the majority of the faculty members wanted Raphael Perpetuo ‘Popo’ Lotilla, now energy secretary, to be named to that post.
When Pangalangan’s first term was up three years ago, Villanueva again opposed his reappointment and endorsed instead another faculty member, Marvic Leonen, who is known for his strong anti-establishment views and his pioneering work in environmental law. Leonen is currently vice president for legal affairs of the university and was also a strong contender for the deanship this year. But he did not get Villanueva’s endorsement this time. Some suspect this was because he had publicly called on the president to resign.
Others in the law faculty felt that it was unlikely that either Leonen or Pangalangan would get the approval of the Board of Regents, which is stacked with Arroyo supporters. Yet, it would seem, both men felt they had a fighting chance to get the deanship if the Board would base its decision on academic criteria. That was a big IF, and many in the law faculty doubted that would be the case.
To these doubting professors, Carlota, who had voted with the majority of the law faculty calling for the president’s resignation, was a safe choice: he was more likely to get the regents’ approval than either Leonen and Pangalangan, but he would also be better than the other contender, Danilo Concepcion, who had been nominated for the deanship.
It was indeed Villanueva, a partner of The Firm, who nominated Carlota. Some faculty members believed she did so, not because of orders from either The Firm or the Palace, as reported by Newsbreak and the PCIJ blog.
These professors say that Villanueva endorsed Carlota simply because she didn’t want another contender, Concepcion, to be dean. Some in the faculty, who saw the futility of fighting for either Leonen or Pangalangan, happened to agree with her.
“Carlota was nominated by the group that didn’t want either Raul (Pangalangan) or Danny (Concepcion),” says a former faculty member who closely observed the struggle for the deanship. “Villanueva is a partner of The Firm but I don’t think she did it it because of this or out of any pressure from Malacañang. From the beginning, Susan has always been against Raul. I don’t think it had anything to do with Raul’s stand on the GMA resign issue.”
To some faculty members, it was not so much Malacañang intervention but anticipation of what the Board of Regents would do that sealed Carlota’s appointment to the deanship. “Nobody was against Carlota,” said one faculty member. “But nobody was for him either.”
Other faculty members, however, insist that there were maneuverings behind the scene in in the selection of the deanship. “I wouldn’t put it past The Firm (to intervene), but of course we don’t have proof,” says one law professor. “The Board of Regents was looking for stability. Marvic is too extreme. Raul’s third term was a long shot. So Carlota was the logical choice.”
To Carlota’s credit, however, all the sources we spoke to said he did not actively campaign for the deanship. But some other U.P. sources also insist that even while this was so, there was active lobbying for him in the Board of Regents. But then again, this is not unusual in the U.P., where there are always those seeking to influence the regents in their choices not only of deans but especially of the university president. These sources provide no other evidence of an outside hand in the selection of the law dean, except that the regents’ meeting seemed unusually short and there didn’t appear to be much discussion on the choices.
Former Supreme Court Justice Abraham Sarmiento, a member of the Board of Regents, said in a telephone interview that to the majority of the Board, Carlota appeared “the most able and appropriate, fitting person to become dean.”
“They’re saying there may be a Gloria hand (in the selection),” he said. “But I endorsed Carlota because he’s sober, he’s not politicking. I didn’t vote for him because of Gloria. She didn’t call me. She knows better. People say The Firm had a hand. Pangalangan goes around delivering speeches, writing in newspapers. But after two terms, he’s not qualified. Leonen had no supporters and of course, Gloria also has supporters in the Board.”
The first round of voting, according to Sarmiento was seven votes for Carlota, two for Concepcion, two for Pangalangan and one for Leonen. When a second round of voting was held after Pangalangan had been taken out of the running, the voting was still seven for Carlota, four for Concepcion and one for Leonen. If Carlota hadn’t been nominated, Concepcion would have won, exactly what Villanueva had feared.
In the end, this whole affair has a happy ending. All the various factions in the College of Law attended Carlota’s oath-taking. All of them also agreed to bury the hatchet and to call a truce in what has been a bruising, and contentious, struggle. Peace has returned to the College of Law.
We have learned our lesson as well. The next time we talk to law professors, we will take more than the usual care.