Standoff after new leader imposed on Mexican economics institute

Students protest after staff dismissed and tenure evaluations halted at Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics

December 14, 2021
Students and academics from the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE) hold a peaceful demonstration in protest about the appointment as director of Dr. José Antonio Romero Tellaeche
Source: Mario Jasso/
Students and academics from CIDE demonstrate in protest about the appointment as director of José Antonio Romero Tellaeche

Fears over the future of academic institutions in Mexico have mounted, with one of the country’s top research centres locked in a standoff with its funder following the sacking of senior academics and the imposition of a new director.

Tensions at the publicly funded Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), which has a main campus in Mexico City and another in the state of Aguascalientes, have been brewing in recent weeks since Conacyt, the National Science and Technology Council, named José Antonio Romero Tellaeche as interim director general of CIDE instead of allowing customary elections for the post to proceed.

At the end of November, Conacyt’s director, María Elena Álvarez-Buylla, announced that Dr Romero would take on the role permanently, in a move decried by some staff and students as a violation of CIDE’s constitution.

Dr Romero then removed several senior staff at both campuses, setting off a train of events that has severely affected teaching.

One of those dismissed was Catherine Andrews, a British-born social scientist who has lived and worked in Mexico for more than two decades and who, in addition to her teaching role, was also the academic secretary of the Mexico City campus and a member of CIDE’s faculty evaluation committee.

Last month, she and colleagues were in the middle of conducting an online staff appraisal session – important in the Mexican system as these are linked to the awarding of tenure – when Dr Romero ordered the meetings to be shut down as they represented, according to an order from his office, “an act of rebellion”.

Another of the staff members to be dismissed was Alejandro Madrazo, CIDE’s regional director in Aguascalientes, reportedly for his support of a group of researchers demanding improvements in their working conditions.

Dr Romero’s predecessor as CIDE director, Sergio López Ayllón, had announced his resignation earlier this year, apparently after difficulties in his relationship with Conacyt.

Professor Andrews told Times Higher Education that it was “a very difficult time for the CIDE community”.

“Everything they [the new director general’s team] have done is by diktat and not according to our constitution. I am very worried for my students,” she said.

The dismissals and interruptions to evaluations have led to calls for the resignations of Dr Romero and Professor Álvarez-Buylla, who was appointed to Conacyt by Mexican president Andres Manuel López Obrador, the nominally left-of-centre candidate who took office in 2018 saying he wanted to improve social mobility.

As unrest has mounted, students have blocked entrances to CIDE buildings. They say that several meetings to discuss grievances have been arranged in recent days, but that the institution’s leadership have repeatedly postponed them or failed to attend.

Neither Professor Álvarez-Buylla, Dr Romero or Conacyt responded to requests for interviews.

Several scholars who spoke to THE on condition of anonymity voiced fears that the recent events were part of a strategic move to assert greater control over the country’s higher education sector and control the future direction of research. While CIDE is not fully self-governing, unlike the country’s largest institutions such as the National Autonomous University of Mexico, it has enjoyed an arm’s-length relationship with previous administrations.

Mr Lopez Obrador recently caused consternation when he spoke out against 31 academics – including some former members of Conacyt – and suggested they should be investigated for organised crime. The academics were charged with violating a law passed in 2019 that prevents members of an advisory board from receiving money from a government science fund. The academics received $2.5 million (£1.8 million) – crucially, however – years before the law was passed. The request for warrants was denied by a judge.

Meanwhile, the outlook remains uncertain for CIDE, which occupies a unique position in Mexico’s higher education space. It is a hybrid, part-university and part-thinktank, undertaking consulting work for the government as well as external organisations including the World Bank. Many of its postgraduates go on to study and work abroad.

The centre’s small size – there are around 500 students enrolled on undergraduate and postgraduate programmes – belies its importance, said Alberto Díaz-Cayeros, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Stanford University, who alongside two Nobel prizewinners has supported a call for the parties to negotiate and for the new administration to ensure the rules are followed.

“This is a very complicated issue,” Professor Díaz-Cayeros told THE. “It is hard to imagine any other institution in Mexico being able to draw on such a wide range of support. It reflects CIDE’s excellent reputation both nationally and internationally. 

“I can see that Professor Álvarez-Buylla is in a very difficult position but unless relations are patched up there is a tremendous risk that the institution could start losing faculty and students.”


Print headline: Standoff as new boss imposed on institute

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