Georgetown University has seen an outcry against Álvaro Uribe for his alleged institutional and human rights violations and against the university for appointing the former president as a guest lecturer, especially in such a secretive manner. With this piece I will not ride the coattails of this indignation. Instead, I bring to light something the mainstream media has not yet emphasized about Uribe and Georgetown.
Though not recognized by a world-renowned institution of higher education as a “distinguished scholar in the practice of global leadership,” as Uribe is by Georgetown, I too am a university lecturer. Having dedicated my adult life to the academe, I am unsettled by Uribe’s treatment of the spirit of our “sacred” institution.
At Georgetown, Uribe made students agree to a “pact of honor” to not disclose specific details about his lecture. Read the previous sentence again. Now consider it for a moment.
Such a request is worrisome. Not only does it place students in an awkward position, but also goes against the very spirit and purpose of university.
A university is an environment where ideas are forwarded, promoted, discussed, and debated. A university is a space for the search for truth, for the application of previous discoveries and wisdom, for challenging those curiosities. It is a place for the creation of new knowledge.
It is also a community where students and academics, together, are united by the principle that they are at university for learning and sharing these interpretations of truth and facts and histories with the outside world. A university is based on the notion of academic freedom.
Such “sacred” and categorically imperative institutional mores and ethics were not advanced by Uribe. Instead, what he did advance was an authoritarian restriction of these deeply-rooted values and liberties.
The students had the choice to remain seated and accept Uribe’s “pact of honor” and not disclose specific details about his lecture. The students also had the choice to not accept it and be escorted out.
However, I also believe these students still have the ability—even after attending—to breach the pact Uribe demanded, because it was an unjust request made by a representative of an institution of higher learning. Such a request attacks and assaults university principles.
If I would have been in the classroom when Uribe made the request, as I so much desired, I would have spoken up and challenged the proposed agreement. The possible responses to his “pact of honor” were not only “yes I accept” or “no I do not accept.” Another answer would have been to oppose the very request as being, for a lack of a better term, unconstitutional.
Uribe’s Georgetown “pact of honor” was an affront to the very intent of the institution that brought him there and that represents the students.
I would have countered Uribe with my own request, a “pact of honor” of a different sort: to remain in the classroom and abide by the spirit of university, or not lecture at all.
Though he was in a position of authority by being in front of the classroom as an invited lecturer, his authoritarianism crossed the line. He went above the rule of law of the institution that gave him the opportunity to speak.
Georgetown and Uribe should have never put the students in attendance in such a situation. Not only were the classroom and building already militarized with police and bodyguards because of Uribe’s presence, but such a request must have made the atmosphere coercive, regardless of what the lecturer discussed and taught.
I am not challenging his ability to speak, but if he does speak he must abide by the laws and rules of university, which he is not above. It makes me wonder what style of university Uribe wishes to establish in Colombia, as he recently suggested.
If any Georgetown student of Uribe reads my words, I hope he or she has the courage to challenge this so-called “pact of honor” and respectfully remind Uribe he is not in Colombia any more.
Julián Esteban Torres López is an editor, writer, researcher, and educator with nearly two decades’ experience working with publications, historical societies, and cultural and research institutions, and has held leadership positions in the academe, the arts, journals, the business sector, and history museums. You can follow him on Twitter.