Mexico's elite recovers from rocky ride

May 11, 2001

A seismic shift in the organisation of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Unam) is planned by its rector, Juan Ramon de la Fuente.

The former government health secretary and Unam academic is proposing reforms designed to modernise Mexico's oldest and largest institution, in line with the progressive outlook of President Vicente Fox's new administration.

But only last year, the future of the world's biggest university seemed shaky. Dr de la Fuente admits that a "politically motivated" ten-month strike almost brought about its collapse.

With about 300,000 students (about 15 per cent of the country's student population) and a research capacity that produces 50 per cent of Mexico's research and development output, such an event would have been devastating.

Political factions seized the opportunity of pre-election sensitivity to turn a dispute over proposed tuition fee increases into a wrangle that closed Unam for a year.

Dr de la Fuente said: "It was no longer a problem within the university, but a national, social and political problem that had implications for national security."

The process of re-building public and academic confidence in Unam and repairing the internal community and its morale has been slow and complex, he said.

"We were not coming back from a long weekend - it was a ten-month strike that nearly devastated the social tissue of the university."

An important part of the healing process was a referendum of 180,000 academics, students and university workers on a "consensus proposal" document, based on opinions expressed at 89 public meetings called by the rector as he sought a solution to the crisis.

The document won the support of nine out of ten voters, and is the basis for Dr de la Fuente's agenda for change at Unam.

This will involve a thorough review of Unam's "vertical" and "centralised" academic structure and an overhaul of the institution's legal framework, which is still based on "organic law" drawn up in 1945.

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