Seeing higher ed in a global context
Professor, former activist shares firsthand experiences with students
|Imanol Ordorika today at U.Va. (above), and speaking in the economics faculty’s Ho Chi Minh Auditorium in 1987 as leader of students opposing reforms at
Mexico’s national university.
Jacqueline Mosio, courtesy of chronicle of higher education
By Anne Bromley
One highlight of Bill Ashby’s years as a student, he said, was listening to Imanol Ordorika, a professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México narrate a documentary about the 1980s student movement in Mexico.
Ordorika, a leader of that movement, which was dedicated to keeping tuition down and increasing access at UNAM, Mexico’s flagship university, was translating a speech he delivered as a student activist.
“The opportunity to learn from a former student activist, who is now in a position to reflect on his experience and dissect it from a sociopolitical perspective, was amazing and unforgettable,” said Ashby, who wears several hats at U.Va. An associate dean, he serves as director of the University’s student center at Newcomb Hall and is a doctoral student in higher education at the Curry School.
Ordorika, chairholder this year of the Frank Talbott Jr. Visiting Professorship, a position that rotates among the University’s schools, has been introducing U.Va. students to a unique perspective. His firsthand experience, along with his internationally respected research on social movements and higher education, help bring the intersection of politics and social theory in higher education alive. He also offers students at U.Va. a new frame of reference, by comparing institutions around the world, particularly in Latin America and South Africa, to the system in the United States.
Ordorika majored in physics as a UNAM student, but he went to Stanford for a Ph.D. in international and comparative education.
In addition to his research and teaching, Ordorika has also been a key figure in Mexican politics, as a candidate for Congress and as a spokesman for Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the opposition presidential candidate who many say lost to Carlos Salinas in 1988 because of voting fraud.
For this year, Ordorika and his family are enjoying the small-town culture of Charlottesville in contrast to the busy metropolis of Mexico City, where they live amidst 17 million inhabitants. The Talbot chair has allowed Ordorika to complete a new edition of his book, “Power and Conflict in University Governance,” and to work closely with graduate students.
“The students here at U.Va. have impressed me with their curiosity and diligence,” he said.
Ordorika encourages students “to think about colleges and universities as political institutions and sites of contest, as well as places of higher learning.” He resists the notion that higher education must conform to market demands, and questions the manner in which the public and private benefits of higher education are valued.
While some other countries look to the United States as a model of higher education, he suggests that in many instances they are not well served by trying to emulate the system here. At a recent meeting of the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education in Paris, he noted the disparity in opportunity for research faculty in Latin America. Seeking corporate or government grants is an essential strategy for faculty and institutions in this country, but it is largely a fantasy in peripheral countries, such as Mexico and Bolivia, where there are few private or government funds for research.
Ordorika’s ideas and his personal experiences provide students with a unique combination, according to David Breneman, dean of the Curry School and an expert on the financing of higher education.
“We identified several potential candidates. Brian Pusser [assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education] mentioned Imanol, and having known of his work earlier, we jumped at the opportunity to invite him,” said Breneman. “We also thought that with the University’s focus on international issues, having a scholar from Mexico would be of particular value to our faculty and students.”
That has been the case for Margaret Peak, a graduate student in the Curry School’s higher education program who is planning her dissertation on South Africa’s system of higher education. She has learned an “understanding that what seems to work well in this country may not be ideal for developing Third World countries and many of the more socialist countries of Europe,” she said. “Two concepts I can think of are philanthropy and research grants, neither of which have been successful in many poor countries.”
Ordorika also is concerned about the future of knowledge production and intellectual interaction at universities in the United States and around the world. He warns that the increasing emphasis on market values and the reluctance of many faculty and administrative leaders to challenge the neo-liberal proposals that dominate global public policy debates may narrow the role of higher education in creating social change. He stresses that the purpose of higher education goes far beyond the pursuit of grants and the preparation of students for the labor market.