A Nation’s Academic Legacy on the Line
By ALEJANDRO ENVILA FISHER
The new proposal to reform the internal bylaws of Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), which was presented earlier this month by Armando Contreras Castillo, a federal deputy of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) leftist National Regeneration Movement (Morena), is intended to strip the university’s governing board of the power to elect its rector.
The proposed reform would instead allow all members of the UNAM community to elect by direct, universal vote the school’s rector.
But this proposal, which the AMLO administration is using as a distraction from its own issues concerning public discontent with its Plan B electoral reform, tense bilateral relations with the United States and growing evidence of corruption and malfeasance within its ranks, constitutes a blatant violation of the UNAM’s inherent autonomy.
This is not the first time that AMLO and his cohorts have infringed on the constitutional law, lest we forget his bulldozed-through Electrical Industry Law that prioritizes state-run energy providers or independent — and cleaner — alternatives, and, of course, his contentious plan to essentially dismantle the country’s most important electoral body ahead of the next presidential elections in 2024.
Contreras Castillo’s proposal, in addition to flagrantly violating the university’s innate autonomy provided for in Section VII of Article 3 of the Mexican Constitution, poses a number of other legal problems.
Perhaps the most notable issue is that it is in conflict with the provisions of Article 2 of Mexico’s General Law of Higher Education, approved in Congress and promulgated by López Obrador himself on April 20, 2021. In that norm, designed and approved by the Morena parliamentary majority, it is clearly established that “the legislative processes related to their organic laws of the nation’s universities will, at all times, remain unrestrictedly in regards to its powers and guarantees, which may not undermine their autonomous right to govern themselves.”
Additionally, the third paragraph of that same article states that “no legislative act may contravene the provisions of Section VII of Article 3 of the Mexican Constitution.” Any initiative or reform to the internal bylaws referred to in this article must be the result of a prior, free and informed consultation with the university community, with the competent governing bodies of the university or higher education institution to which the law grants autonomy.
The objective of this ruling is to guarantee that any legislative reform that might modify the administration of autonomous universities should be rooted from within and not by external agents, since only in the schools can constitutional autonomy be guaranteed.
Contreras Castillo’s proposal does not provide for any consultation with the UNAM community, much less an explicit response from its collegiate governing bodies: the University Council and the Governing Board.
In reality the only thing that the initiative would guarantee, should it be imposed, would be to entangle the UNAM in an internal dispute that would immediately put an end to its stability, inevitably leading to an internal war and interruption of its daily operations, with all what this implies in costs for the students who are currently studying at the institution.
Should Contreras Castillo’s proposal make its way to the congressional floor, or, worse yet, pass through the subservient Morena Chamber of Deputies and Senate, as did the president’s Plan B to suppress free and open elections by tying the hands of the National Electoral Institute (INE), it would balloon into something far more ominous than a convenient political distraction. It would become, for all intents and purposes, the source of an exhausting and extremely dangerous internal conflict within the UNAM, the dimensions of which have not been seen in decades, and the victims would be Mexico’s poorest young people and their dreams to build professional careers within the country’s most-important and most-respected academic institution.
ALEJANDRO ENVILA FISHER is a lawyer and professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s (UNAM) School of Law. He directed the political magazine Cambio and Radio Capital for 15 years. He also founded and directed GreenTV, a cable television channel specializing in sustainability and the environment, for five years. He has been a commentator and host for various radio and television shows and has written political columns for the newspapers El Día and Unomásuno, in addition to publishing articles in more than 20 regional newspapers in Mexico since 1995. He is the author of the books “One Hundred Names of the Mexican Transition,” “Chimalhuacán, the Empire of La Loba” and “Chimalhuacán, from Lost City to Model Municipality.”