When the president of a university is dragged from his bed in the middle of the night and shot point-blank in his garden by an elite squad of the national military, we must pause to ask why.
This month the Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador, known as UCA, will be commemorating the 25th anniversary of the killings of eight people on its campus, including six Jesuit priests: the president, vice president, and leading faculty members. Universities—especially those of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities — will be sending delegations to San Salvador for a range of events to remember these martyrs.
When the killings occurred I was a young Jesuit studying Literae Humaniores at Oxford. The news came in the form of a short notice posted on a bulletin board in the hall. I was angry and outraged that they had been murdered. In another sense, however, I felt proud—proud that academics mattered so much and that the leader of a university could be a threat to the Salvadoran army. But most of all I was moved by the example of courage. In the privileged context of an elite English university, I was inspired to think that on the other side of the world there were professors who lived and died for what they believed.
Throughout the lengthy civil war in El Salvador, the Rev. Ignacio Ellacuria, president of UCA, placed the work of the university within the larger struggle of the country—what he called the “social reality.” Ellacuria was committed to a “preferential option for the poor.” A university, he believed, had to lend intellectual support to those who did not possess academic qualifications to legitimize their rights. More challenging for those of us in the academy is his conviction in the responsibility of academe: “A university is inescapably a social force: It must transform and enlighten the society in which it lives.”
This vision of the academy does more than challenge individual academics to consider their work within a broader horizon than their own disciplinary boundaries. As an organization whose members are diverse, autonomous, and frequently disagreeing, can a university take a particular position on a social issue? Can it be directed by something besides the market demand?
We learn from Ellacuria biographers like Robert Lassalle-Klein and David Ignatius Gandalfo in the book A Grammar of Justice that in the case of UCA, the entire university committed itself to being a social force in all areas of its work: teaching, researching, institute work, publications. Each would be done “with the awareness of and as a response to the fact that the majority of humankind is dehumanized by conditions of poverty, marginalization, and oppression.” The university took steps to reorient itself to the needs of the Salvadoran people: turning a weekly publication, Proceso, into a vital source of independent documentation and analysis of current events in the country; creating a Chair for the National Reality, for debating virtually every major proposal on the future of El Salvador; creating the Human Rights Institute to focus international attention on Salvadoran refugees; opening the University’s Institute for Public Opinion, which provided polling and a voice for average Salvadorans.
Ellacuria took it even further—likely sealing his fate—by proposing in 1981 to the UCA governing board that “the social outreach of the UCA should now ground itself in the perspective of a political solution and … a process of mediation” to end the civil war. He envisioned public events, round tables, gatherings of politicians, economists, and military figures, and a university radio station and newspaper dedicated to “national collective consciousness” of Salvadoran society.
Indeed, in 1988 a broad cross section of groups from Salvadoran civil society came to UCA for a national debate on the future of the country—marking a turning point for a national call for the “negotiated peace” that the military did not want to occur.
I am hopeful this is replicable, in some small measure, in U.S. academe. But while UCA was one of few universities in a small country, the terrain of higher education in the United States is quite different. Our political context is also far more variegated than a country long dominated by an oligarchy and in the midst of a civil war. This academic and political climate comes with its own challenges: the need for fund raising and sensitivity to the political leanings of donors; an environment of shallow arguments or labels latched upon to shut down honest dialogue; ease and comfort and technology leading to short attention spans and a lack of collective conscience. Hidden orthodoxies of many varieties, as well as fear and discomfort with conflict, keep us from many productive conversations or resolve, much less collective action.
Fear was not something that dominated the leadership of UCA, however, and institutions of higher education are still capable of bold and courageous action.
The killings at UCA remind us that there is a cost of taking a stand—one that touches us down to this day. As soldiers were brutally killing this small community, a university cleaning lady was huddled with her husband and young daughter in a room nearby. She alone was able to witness that it was the Salvadoran military, not Communist guerrillas (as the government claimed), who performed the murders. For this she had to escape from the country. After terrible treatment at the hands of the FBI at a hotel in Miami, she has lived out her life in exile here in Silicon Valley.
Her name is Lucia Cerna, and she lives and breathes what she simply calls “the truth.” Cerna has now written a book with a friend. It tells her story as a poor, uneducated girl growing up in El Salvador, and it exposes—quite graphically—what she learned as a cleaning lady at UCA and how her life was changed by the events that she witnessed.
La Verdad was required reading for the incoming first-year class at Santa Clara University. We have much to learn from Lucia, and throughout the summer orientation sessions, all new students discussed the book in their residential learning communities. The most interesting parts of the conversations focused on what “truth” is. Is “truth” just a construction that comes from a particular set of political or economic interests? Or does “truth” have some kind of deeper force and meaning?
I was encouraged to hear students stick up for a deeper version of truth. And when I asked why they thought they were asked to read this book as they were entering college, they all seemed to understand intuitively. One said: “It’s because this is a university where we are formed to be people with a deep commitment to justice and the good of others and always have the courage to stand up for the truth.”
The young woman who said this reflected what I have long experienced among undergraduate and graduate students: a desire to learn a way of life that is in service of humanity and to cultivate the virtues that will lead to that, even if it costs them. While students, more than ever, are anxious about economic concerns and rightly ask whether a university education will get them a job, economic satisfaction or the learning of a marketable skill set will not, ultimately, satisfy young people.
As the future of higher education remains so uncertain, and as the financial pressures of running universities increase, I continue to take great encouragement in the possibility that the academic life may still really matter—if for nothing else, then for the sake of the example it gives to our students.
Author Bio: The Rev. Michael C. McCarthy is a professor of religious studies and classics at Santa Clara University and serves as the executive director of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education.