Cecilia Paredes’ first team meeting as a young researcher made her realise what academia in Latin America had been lacking.
Then a mechanical engineering academic at Ecuador’s Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (ESPOL), Dr Paredes watched as her new colleagues’ debate over funding difficulties quickly became heated, to the point where she “thought they might kill each other”. But this was actually a positive.
“I quickly learned that’s what you should do in academia,” Dr Paredes told Times Higher Education during the Universia 2018 Ibero-American university rectors’ conference in Spain. “But it hasn’t taken to Latin America yet because people [there] get offended more easily.”
“They were not rude, but incredibly ruthless,” she explained. “Then we had a coffee break and everyone was laughing again. The experience really changed me.”
The difference, she said, was that these researchers were tightly connected with universities in Belgium – reflecting a culture of openness that was much less common in Ecuador. “Their attitude was a huge awakening to me – we had a problem, we addressed it, we discussed it openly and moved on.”
In January, Dr Paredes became ESPOL’s first ever female president, aged 46 – challenging a number of leadership stereotypes found across the region – and her first goal will be to push successful debating skills like those she witnessed into the curriculum.
Causing offence to traditional sensibilities is something that Dr Paredes says she is unafraid of.
Time spent working and studying at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in the US also helped her to develop a businesslike approach to scholarly collaborations, she said. But a deeply entrenched machismo culture that prevails within Latin American universities will be one of her “biggest challenges” in maintaining the level of respect and authority needed for leadership.
“Unfortunately we do have an inequality problem,” she told THE. “I have professors who come to me now – some of whom were once my own teachers – and they refer to me as mi hijita [similar to “darling”]. It’s a term you’d usually call your daughter or your wife, and they call me that.”
“I don’t get upset because I know it’s an inherited culture, but I do realise more and more now that they do this. They wouldn’t do that to a male boss, absolutely not.”
Whether intentional or unintentional, such degrading treatment can be wearing, but Dr Paredes said that she feels vindicated in the knowledge that she was brought into the role by those who wanted to see that culture change.
State-funded Ecuadorian universities such as ESPOL select their leaders through votes involving both staff and students at least every four years, as is common in Latin American countries, with professors given the majority of the weighting in making the choice.
After five years as vice-rector of the university, Dr Paredes won the rector role with 75 per cent of the final vote – an unusually large majority compared with previous years.
“In my previous roles I made a lot of changes,” she said. “If the system doesn’t work, I find a way to go around it. So when I came to stand for rector I was worried my provocativeness would stand against me. But winning made me reflect on what the professors really want – which is a different perspective, a different view of the world because they realise we have to change.”
Dr Paredes’ ambitions to improve the university’s courses run deeper than simply upgrading the student experience – since 2008 she has been a member of the Ecuadorian Educational Council, a seven-person committee representing the country’s leading institutions.
The committee acts as a regulator for government education policy and could perhaps one day provide a gateway to even higher ambitions for Dr Paredes – although she simply says she “want[s] to improve the system from the inside”.
In the meantime, change is an increasingly important prospect for ESPOL – and higher education across Ecuador more widely – as the country grapples with a move towards a knowledge economy. Some degree courses had remained unchanged for years, but Dr Paredes has sought to review her university’s teaching and learning approaches to bring the staff up to speed with student needs.
“We have to make changes, we cannot be afraid of them because otherwise we will disappear,” she said. “Even students who are coming in next year are being included in [planning ideas]. Even though I think I know what I want [to change] I have to involve them because they are of a different culture and time – I accept my ideas are outdated compared to theirs.”
“Will this upset some people? Maybe,” Dr Paredes added, “but I don’t have a problem when people say they don’t like me or they disagree with me – it’s business. Mostly, I feel excited and I know I’m doing something right when I have female students coming up to me to say ‘I’m inspired by you’. It’s a very humbling feeling and it’s very cool.”