The Conquest of University Autonomy in Nicaragua
By Carlos Tunnermann Bernheim
Nicaraguan Language Academy
The most important event in the destiny and development of Higher Education in Nicaragua was the victory of university autonomy, through the decree of March 27, 1958 in response to the constant and valiant gestures of then Rector Dr. Mariano Fiallos Gil, “Father of University Autonomy.”
Effectively, this Decree, approved and promulgated by the Executive Power in recess at the National Congress of the Republic, granted the National University teaching, administrative and economic autonomy. That moment, crucial to the evolution of Higher Education in Nicaragua, crystalized the struggles and aspirations of several generations of university students who, fully cognizant of their responsibility and with a clear vision of what a true University should be, had consistently upheld the ideal of University Autonomy.
Adverse political circumstances did not allow much time for that cry, growing louder each day, to be heard by those who held our Alma Mater’s destiny in their hands. Precursors of this patriotic Nicaraguan university movement were leaders from the 1944-1947 era, who, facing violent Executive intervention into the life of our Universities, repeatedly proclaimed the need to separate the leadership and management of our houses of Higher Education from the state’s machinery. A group of militants in the movement operated under the banner “Fighting for a Central, Autonomous and Popular University.”
The lack of autonomy had lead the Alma Mater to a complete state of servitude to the Executive Power. Party politics had become entrenched and students were forced to participate in the painful and irritating spectacle of a University that, devoid of all respect and ignorant of the true mission of an authentic University, prostrated itself in servile and embarrassing positions.
During the 1950s, the group CEJIS (Circle of Judicial and Social Students) emerged at the National University in Leon and resuscitated the cry for autonomy. As it was imperative to transform the legal status of the University to achieve the group’s autonomy, it drafted in 1955 a “Basic National University Law,” assisted by Dr. Mariano Fiallos Gil, then Professor of Criminology and Philosophy of Law, which garnered wide and favorable comment from the national press. The project was publicly presented for consideration by the government, university authorities and general society. The university authorities of that time were opposed to the student project.
In 1955, the University Center (CUUN), the highest student body, created a “Permanent Committee for University Autonomy,” of which this author was named president. This Committee developed, over the course of 1955, an intense campaign in favor of approving the Draft Law prepared in 1953. In October 1955, the Committee gained the collaboration of National Congressman, Dr. Eduardo Conrado Vado, to officially present the Basic National University Law before the Deputies Chamber.
On Wednesday, Oct. 5, 1955, a large group of university students traveled to Managua, where we filled the Chamber’s galleries to witness and applaud the moment the draft law for University Autonomy was presented. All the nation’s newspapers covered the event and published stories and photographs of the students’ presence in Congress, demanding university autonomy.
The Chamber’s liberal majority crushed the student project. Later in 1957, when President Luis Somoza had the wisdom to appoint Dr. Mariano Fiallos Gil Rector of the University, he conditioned his acceptance to the imminent granting of university autonomy, which was passed with the support of the entire academic community. The President of the Republic decreed the law on March 25, 1958, a date which marked a milestone in the development of Higher Education in the nation. This event was classified at the time “as the most important event in Nicaraguan culture, since independence.”
Autonomy dusted off and revitalized the old cloisters, rescuing the University from the provincial corners to which the government had intentionally banished it and allowed it to place itself, as was its due, in the center of national life. Thanks to autonomy and the leadership of Rector Fiallos Gil, the University gained awareness of its lofty mission and responsibility within the heart of Nicaraguan society and prepared itself to comply.
That is how, four decades late, following the Córdoba University Reform of 1918, University Autonomy finally reached our parts. To no avail were the targuments of those who opposed it. We triumphed because there was no choice but to prevail, because in the end progress always triumphs, in spite of the pessimists or those who seek to prevent it. But it was the strength, perseverance and firm character of Gil Mariano Fiallos, which made this achievement possible, despite the dynastic dictatorship regime we were suffering.
Carlos Tunnermann Bernhei
Lawyer and educator. Has held the posts of: General Secretary of Higher Central American University Council (CSUCA) 1959-1964); Rector of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua for three periods (1964-1974); Director of UNESCO Program in Colombia (1975-1978); Minister of Education (1979-1984). Ambassador of Nicaragua to the United States and OAS (1984-1988); Member of the UNESCO Governing Board (1990-1994) and Special Advisor to the General Director of UNESCO; member of the Administration Council of the University of the United Nations (Tokyo, Japan); Board of Directors of the International Universities Association; President on two occasions of the University Union of Latin America (UDUAL) and President of the Central American Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CCA). CURRENTLY: advisor to Universidad Politecnica de Nicaragua (UPOLI), Sub-director of the Nicaraguan Language Academy; Doctor “Honoris Causa” in Humanities from the “Pedro Henriquez Urena” National University in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; Doctor “Honoris Causa” in Education from UPOLI in Nicaragua and Doctor “Honoris Causa” from the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua-Leon. He has twice won a Guggenheim Fellowship for Research. Awarded the “Dr. Carlos Martinez Duran” prize from UDUAL in 2004 “as recognition of a lifetime that has contributed significantly to the promotion of Latin American integration and the improvement of university academic activities.” He is the author of a number of books on higher education and literature.
Photo:© UNESCO/ 1980 Nicaragua. Manifestation against illiteracy