Law students protest move against Bernal in April, 2004. Archive photo by Eric Jackson
Supreme Court revives 2004 disciplinary process against Bernal for outing university rector's fake diploma
The PRD's university control to test Martinelli
by Eric Jackson
In Panama, one's job can be endangered if one calls a former education minister from the dictatorship who has a fake doctorate "Mister" instead of "Doctor."
Back in March of 2004, at the behest of the University of Panama's rector, the Faculty Council passed a resolution declaring the law professor, Dr. Miguel Antonio Bernal, "non grata" on campus. Mr. Gustavo García de Paredes, the rector, then initiated disciplinary hearings against Bernal. A hearing was scheduled early that April, at which the PRD had assembled a jeering mob of university administrators. Bernal declined to walk that gauntlet and instead sued in the Supreme Court to set aside the disciplinary proceedings. After more than five years of dithering, the high court has now by a 7-2 vote set aside Bernal's objections, allowing the university to proceed.
Formally, Bernal is charged with disrespect for something he wrote about García de Paredes, his election, his entourage and his policies. To wit:
Patronage, intimidation, votes as a function of jobs and sinecures and other vices that we Panamanians suffer in the national elections every five years once again characterized [the university elections.] To this was added on this occasion the tragic aggravating factor of the intervention of the Comptroller General of the Republic and the Minister of Economy and Finance in favor of the winning candidate....
[T]hey adopt measures against academic excellence and detrimental to the already weak research program, by reducing the hours available for research and suspending the full-time research positions and returning those professors to full-time teaching. The argument made in justification is economic savings, but they have raised the salaries of aides and professors in administrative positions, and at the same time increased the number of those.
However, the sense of urgency behind the proceedings had more to do with two scandals that were simmering away at the time: the awarding of unearned university diplomas by García de Paredes and the people around him, and the rector's own bogus doctoral degree.
About one year later, the practice that had been suspected and under quiet investigation for a long time was definitively documented. Humberto Alcázar, a student member of the University of Panama's Academic Council and political supporter of the rector, was nailed for getting an undergraduate degree in accounting for which he had not taken the necessary classes or accumulated sufficient credit hours. The diploma was signed by García de Paredes himself and the university's secretary general, Ónfala de De Bello. Bernal filed a criminal complaint and Attorney General Ana Matilde Gomez, a former student of Bernal's, initiated a criminal case against Alcázar, De Bello and several others, but not the rector. That case is still pending, not having come to trial.
Meanwhile, other dissident University of Panama professors and students had been probing and asking questions about the rector's claimed credentials. As published in various places, the claims were contradictory and incongruous. Professor Federico Ardila Acuña finally threw down the gauntlet over that issue in September of 2005. By law, one needs to have a doctoral degree to be rector, and García de Paredes claims and can show a piece of paper from the University of Madrid --- now better known as the Complutense --- that calls him a doctor of philosophy.
However, that piece of paper was issued during the course of the Francisco Franco dictatorship. At the time, foreigners could buy doctoral degrees from the University of Madrid, and receive a paper that looked genuine without having to meet any academic requirements. However, there is a way to distinguish those bought diplomas from earned ones: anyone with a genuine doctorate from the University of Madrid has his or her dissertation printed and bound at university expense, deposited in the university library and noted in the library's index file. There is no such notation about or dissertation by García de Paredes in the Complutense's library.
During the Torrijos administration, while both the disciplinary action against Bernal and the Alcázar diploma cases were stalled in the legal system, the rector's hand was strengthened by PRD legislation that, among other thing, gave his administrative appointees "tenure." Some 500 university administrators jammed into the National Assembly gallery as that legislation was passed.
So what now? Bernal is genuinely worried about getting fired after nearly 40 years of teaching law. "Gustavo García de Paredes now has his hands free," Bernal said. "He has been waiting to expel me."
His law students have been rallying to his side, and there will be campus demonstrations on Bernal's behalf in the days to come. In most of the news media that have commented on the court ruling, the rector has also come under heavy criticism. "Miguel Antonio Bernal is a controversial man," La Estrella opined. "But the fact that an opinion led to a disciplinary process that could end up in his firing as a lecturer for the law faculty is a shock." On a front page editorial, El Panama America opined that "The possible expulsion of a lecturer from the classrooms of the University of Panama, just because he dared to criticize the authorities, places in doubt its boasts of solvency and takes the country back to the time of prisoners of conscience."
When President elect Ricardo Martinelli was the Minister of Canal Affairs, and before that as director of the Social Security Fund, he dealt with Gustavo García de Paredes as a member of various boards that the university rector sits on by virtue of his position. They seemed to get along well enough. However, the incoming president inherits a thoroughly broken public education system, an economic squeeze that's going to require austerity measures throughout the government and persistent educational scandals, including some in higher education. Martinelli has appointed another foe of García de Paredes, Mariela Jiménez, as his administration's civil service director and there is about to be a huge fight over whether political appointees will have lifetime public sector jobs.
Thus what might be dismissed as a clash of egos or a matter of a university rector's prerogatives could become a flashpoint for conflicts over much broader-ranging issues between an incoming coalition that won an election by a wide margin and a PRD rector who won his job with the support of various campus leftist factions who were not part of the Martinelli alliance.
One of the parties backing Martinelli supported Bernal's unsuccessful bid to be mayor of Panama City, although Martinelli himself supported Bosco Vallarino. It's not Martinelli's fight and by the constitution the university does have a certain legal autonomy, but this confrontation does give him and his administration a number of options to intervene if he so chooses. It can also serve as an excuse for the new legislature to undo some of the things that its predecessor did with respect to the University of Panama's governing structure.
One might be tempted to believe that the University of Panama's international reputation will be riding on the result of this argument, but in the international world of academia neither the national university nor its rector are highly regarded. The facts that the formal issue in the argument between Mr. García de Paredes and Dr. Bernal is so petty, and that the deeper struggle is over policies at such a lightweight institution, may create a temptation for other parties to throw their weight into the balance.
in Casco Viejo, Panama City
2009 by Eric Jackson
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