Thursday, July 06, 2006

On Being a University Town, Part 2

There's no question as to the economic impact of the academic sector on the economy of Dumaguete. The seven universities and colleges pump in an estimated P2-B into the city annually. Much of the city's services -- the restaurants, the laundromats, the boarding houses, the department stores -- depend on the thousands of students who call Dumaguete home. That, however, seems to be the extent of the relationship between the academe and the city at large. What a waste of potential!

Take, for instance, the relationship between the city's universities and the local government. It's an oft-repeated complaint that local government policies do not reflect the needs of the academic population. On the flipside, the universities seem content to take a reactionary stance towards the local government's policies. Witness the recent debacles on the unwanted flyover and the previously proposed port area reclamation. No doubt, academe can be vociferous in its response to these issues, but all the same it has always been reactive, not proactive.

These issues, like so many others affecting the city, could have been taken as a joint practical exercises in urban planning and traffic management between the local government and a university. Yet we see no such cooperation taking place. It's not that we don't have a congestion problem along a major street fronting Silliman; we do. It's not that we don't need better terminal facilities; we do. But academe cannot leave it to city planners to devise the solutions; academe needs to participate and propose alternatives.

It's much the same situation with the state of entrepreneurship in the city. Letter-writer Razcel Salvarita laments the lack of creative performances, of coffee shops, and venues for artistic expression. He would do better to see these as opportunities for enterprise in a market that he and his compatriots obviously know so well.

And that's just it. How many local small business startups catering to the aforementioned markets have emerged from the business management programs run by the local colleges and universities? In a university town, the academe is supposed to be the breeding ground for wild yet plausible business ideas. If Salvarita says there is a demand -- and I believe there is -- then how come our business majors are not partnering with the artists to meet the opportunity?

Admittedly, it can be hard starting new ventures in a conservative town like Dumaguete. For one thing, local business is dominated by a few families who have made their fortunes and the tried and true formulas of retail, transport, construction, and real estate. But of the three -- academe, business, and government -- local business is the most pliable because they are the most predictable in their motivations, which is to increase their fortunes. Aspiring entrepreneurs simply have to be more creative in their approach. Don't they teach that in marketing classes?

Of the local government what can be said? Say that local government lacks foresight (flyover), morally bankrupt (proposed ordinance rewarding confessed killers), devolves to demagoguery (ordinance 88), ignores environmental issues (dump site location, lights on acacia trees), or is just plain medieval (banning a controversial movie): but who put them into office in the first place? This I find unbelievable: a sector comprising more than 20% of the population of the city and contributing over P2-B to the city economy annually cannot parlay these numbers to represent their interests. Tricycle drivers, it seems, have a more effective political machinery than the academe.

It should be fairly obvious by now that the thrust of my argument points to the universities and colleges as the source of these new ventures. Why should the onus be on academe? Why not on local government or on local businesses? Because to those whom much is given, much is demanded. Because the currency of these ventures is not money or influence but ideas, passion, and daring, three things which institutes of higher learning are supposed to breed.

Fortunately, we're starting to see changes in this dismal landscape of an academe indifferent to the practical needs of its host city. Dr. Perry Mecqui of Foundation University began what's turned out to be a very successful marathon clinic, one that attracts hundreds of runners every Sunday. Ian Casocot of Silliman University organized the Literatura Festival (of which I hope there will be more). Boni Comandante put up an innovative venture out of his graduate thesis and is giving back to the community by funding new business plans.

These are the initiatives we need to transform the city. After all, a university town is to a large extent what its university population makes it.