Turmoil at a Mexican University

Months after forcing out a host of professors and administrators, the rector of an institution with close ties to U.S. colleges himself departs.
December 5, 2007

Amid years of unrest at a Mexican university known to attract American scholars and college students, the rector seen as responsible for the instability has left, and those left behind are wondering what's next. Pedro Angel Palou, whose tenure at Universidad de las Américas Puebla was marked by run-ins with longtime faculty and administrators, accepted a position at the University of Paris, according to a UDLA statement.

While officials at the private university say Palou resigned, many close to the university believe he was fired, according to Mark Ryan, a former professor of international relations at the university. Ryan was among 15 professors forced out by Palou's administration last spring. The provost and several high-ranking administrators were also ousted at the time -- the latest in a string of dismissals that prompted many to question the rector's leadership and the university's direction.

The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits UDLA, put the university on a yearlong warning last December after reviewing financial audit reports. In its public sanction, the commission said UDLA failed to have a sound financial base and a governing body not controlled by a minority of board members. (Ryan said the university's equivalent of a board is largely made up of members of one family.)

The commission is set to release its so-called "second monitoring report" Monday, which could result in an end to the warning, a continuing period of probation or revoked accreditation. Belle S. Wheelan, president of the commission, said the group will consider only the information collected from the institution before the rector's departure.

Claudia Kselman, director of the University of Notre Dame's Office of International Studies, was on the UDLA campus last week as news of Palou's departure spread. She said professors there mostly were pleased with the announcement, though many expressed concern about what a transfer of power would mean for the short-term stability of the institution.

Notre Dame is one of several institutions in the United States that have study abroad programs at UDLA. Its students spend either a semester or full year in Mexico. The program is particularly popular with pre-med students who opt to take a physics course at UDLA, Kselman said.

Sixteen Notre Dame students are studying there this fall and at least seven are planning to go in the spring. Kselman said there's no talk of ending the program because of the unrest.

"It worries me that so many professors have been fired, and we are concerned about the situation down there," Kselman said. "Despite that, students continue to take good courses like they have in the past. It hasn't been so disruptive to our program."

Texas Christian University, which has dual degree programs in graduate business administration and communication studies with UDLA, is monitoring the situation and hasn't yet decided whether to cut ties with the Mexican university, according to Bonnie Melhart, TCU's associate provost for academic affairs.

UDLA officials could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. Trustees said that during Palou’s tenure, UDLA increased the number of degree programs offered to its students at universities abroad. The institution saw a 10 percent increase in enrollment this year, according to the news release. (Ryan said he’s dubious of university statistics.)

Ryan, who was dean of the colleges at UDLA, came there to start a residential college program modeled off one he ran at Yale University. According to Ryan, UDLA had financial problems and a falling enrollment prior to Palou's arrival, but tension only increased in the years after he began as rector in 2005.

Palou dismissed dozens of full-time faculty without formal review in late 2005 along with scores of staff members months later, Ryan said. The rector made faculty appointments without consulting others, and instituted a loyalty oath that was required for department heads.

Ryan said Palou abolished a committee that had been formed to review governance procedures, prompting more than a dozen professors to join Ryan at his home last spring to write a letter of protest. During the meeting, Ryan said a university guard showed up and told him to report to the rector's office. Twelve people at that meeting were forced resign. Ryan said his office was padlocked. Many, including Ryan, haven't been back to campus since.

That episode, Ryan said, is emblematic of Palou's leadership style. "From my perspective he had an authoritarian style much more associated with Mexican politics than with an academic setting," Ryan said. (Palou had previously served in government.)

Many of the faculty members dismissed over the course of Palou's tenure had been at UDLA for decades. They were department chairs and the equivalent of endowed faculty, leaders in the fields of economics, communications and international relations.

Ryan said there has been a freeze on new faculty hiring, and that Palou replaced professors with doctoral degrees with those with limited or no academic experience. The rector explained his firings, he said, as targeting people who were plotting against the university and conspiring against him. Some, Ryan contends, were forced to resign for questioning the rector's expenditures.

“There was never any vision promoted to explain his actions,” Ryan said. “There has been a great deal of uncertainly -- people are fearful for their jobs. Most of the faculty who are left have been very quiet. It's been mostly student protests."

Students have responded through a blog (written in Spanish) that chronicles some of the movement. Many have also expressed anger over the way Palou treated student media -- he shut down the campus newspaper at least once and continually censored the publication, some contend.

Miguel Sanchez, a graduate student at Stanford University and a 1994 graduate of UDLA, said he's noticed a change at his alma mater. In the years after graduating, he communicated regularly with professors and spoke to current students when he went home for breaks. Now, when he contacts faculty, he often won't hear back at all. When he does, they are not comfortable speaking about what's happening on campus, Sanchez said.

“It's heartbreaking for me to realize how much my alma matter has changed during this decade," Sanchez wrote in an entry below an article that appeared in October's Stanford Daily . “Thanks to the UDLA I was able to become a professional in the Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, that was thanks to the UDLA that existed in the '80s and '90s. I'm sorry to confirm from first hand experience that the UDLA of this decade is a completely different school and a fading shadow of years past.”

Ryan said he's concerned about student attrition and about the university's reputation. Even before the latest string of dismissals, many well-respected faculty had already left, he added.

"It's a delicate moment," Ryan said. "Many people here have hopes for a restoration and further advancement of the university. I count myself among those people. We just don't know who we'll be working with."


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