MANILA (UPDATED) – The Commission on Higher Education (CHED) should be kept away from politics, especially when it is leading to the spread of “lies and half-truths,” a former high-ranking commission official said.
In an open letter to CHED, which was also sent to the leaders of higher education institutions, former commissioner and chairperson Ester A. Garcia appealed to the commission’s leadership to “maintain the autonomy of CHED and shield it from too much political interference.”
This was in the wake of controversies regarding the commission’s leadership, particularly the chairmanship of incumbent Patricia Licuanan.
Licuanan was thrust into the limelight when she and Vice President Leni Robredo were asked last month to stop attending Cabinet meetings with President Rodrigo Duterte, effective December 5.
This was followed by reports that the Palace was awaiting Licuanan’s filing of a courtesy resignation, considering a change in administration, and to make way for a newly-appointed commissioner's assumption of the chairmanship.
Licuanan was appointed chairperson of CHED by President Benigno Aquino III. Her second four-year term ends in 2018.
“No chairman of CHED has ever resigned due to change in administration,” Garcia wrote, and recalled her own term as chair.
“Dr. Angel Alcala did not resign when President Joseph Estrada took over…I did not resign when President Estrada was replaced by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. I finished my term of 4 years. The others who resigned did it for other reasons, not change of administration,” she said.
In a phone interview with ABS-CBN News, current University of the East President and Chief Academic Officer Garcia said that she was “conflicted” when there was a change of administration during her term, but things became clear when she looked at the issue from a legal standpoint.
“At the time, the other members were resigning. I was conflicted, I looked at the law. Tinawagan ko ang mga gumawa nung batas who I happened to know…they told me not to resign, so I did not,” she said.
Garcia also disputed claims supposedly perpetuated by parties urging Licuanan’s resignation, who she did not name, that the Commission cannot function well if the chair does not attend cabinet meetings.
“Noong nandiyan ako sa CHED, almost the very beginning…after the time I left, I have personal knowledge—none of the chairmen was a member of the Cabinet, except [the late education] secretary Ricardo Gloria,” Garcia said.
Licuanan was invited to the Cabinet by former president Benigno Aquino III, she said, but even during the times that CHED officials were not a part of meetings, they were able to perform “very well.”
In her letter, Garcia said that “over the years, the CHED had functioned well even without being part of the cabinet. Many policies on various issues affecting Higher Education were promulgated without any problem.”
These included the autonomy of higher education institutions; the policies, standards and guidelines governing academic programs; the selection of Centers of Excellence and Centers of Development; faculty development programs; scholarship programs, among others.
“[The critics say] CHED is not functioning so she (Licuanan) should resign. That should not be the way to look at it, because we were never members of the cabinet,” Garcia said.
In a previous interview on the ABS-CBN News Channel, Licuanan alleged that CHED directors were forced to sign a document asking her to step down.
Seventeen directors led by CHED executive director Julito Vitriolo, had earlier signed a letter addressed to President Rodrigo Duterte asking him to appoint an officer-in-charge in place of Licuanan.
"Essentially many of them have come to me saying they signed under duress and some said they simply thought they were signing an appeal for clarification," she said.
Newly-appointed CHED commissioner Prospero de Vera III, meanwhile, denied in an interview on “Mornings@ ANC” that he called for Licuanan’s resignation.
"The accusation that I am working with Vitriolo to kick out the CHED Chair is not only spiteful; it is also unfounded. I barely know the CHED officials as I have been with the commission for only three months," he also said in a statement.
On Garcia’s open letter, De Vera said that while the former CHED chair is entitled to her opinion, it should be clear that it is the president’s prerogative on who sits in the Cabinet.
“Whether the CHED chair is a regular member of the Cabinet or not is irrelevant. Whether Ester Garcia attended Cabinet meetings then is also irrelevant now,” he said in a text message.
He added that it is important for CHED to sit in the Cabinet under Duterte, particularly because of changes such as the impending availability of higher education for free.
“Garcia’s statement shifts public attention away from the real issue which is, why did the President tell Licuanan to stop attending Cabinet meetings? Are there policy differences between her and PRRD?” De Vera said.
Last week, Vitriolo and De Vera reportedly walked out of a CHED national directorate meeting after questioning Licuanan’s legitimacy to preside.
ABS-CBN News tried to get in touch with Licuanan for this article, but are still awaiting a response from the CHED chair as of this writing.
De Vera is a co-host of ANC's #NoFilter political opinion show with veteran journalist Teodoro Locsin Jr.