Thursday, January 12, 2012

How UST awarded doctorates in the 19th Century

The Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas in the 400 years of its existence has upheld strict academic standards. Let us take the example of the academic career of our of our heroes, and that of Jose Rizal, Reverendo Padre Jose Burgos. Fr Burgos together with fellow secular priests Gomez and Zamora, was accused of mutiny by the Spanish military courts  and executed in 1872. This marked the birth of the Filipino national consciousness and the Filipino nation.

Of the three, Fr Burgos was the most academically qualified, He had eight degrees, three undergraduate qualifications, three licentiates (equivalent to a Masters) and two doctorate degrees in Sacred Theology and Canon Law.

Burgos had to defend his theses starting in his Bachelor of Theology and he had to undergo the famous "Noche Triste" literally "Night of Sorrows" when his examiners gave him the propositions to defend the next morning in the Reelection exam. Burgos did this for all his degrees except for the Doctor of Sacred Theology where the examiners found nothing much objectionable in his thesis so he did not defend it. For the Doctor of Canon Law degree, he had to have the Noche Triste and defend the dissertation for five hours the next day!

Where the Rector Magnificus once confered doctorates in the old UST Campus

This all was done in Latn! The examiners then dropped their ballots in a silver vessel and counted by an auditor. In Burgos case, the decision to award the doctorate was unanimous or "nemine discrepante". He was then invested with the doctor's regalia at Santo Domingo Church. This was a solemn ceremony preceded by a  procession of the doctoral candidate flanked by the rector and the dean. Burgos then petitioned the rector to confer the degree which the rector did by  imposing the cap and gown. Burgos then embraced all the members of the faculty.

That was how the UST conferred doctorates then. But while many things have changed with UST graduations  more in accordance to modern customs, one thing remains unchanged. All doctoral candidates have to defend their dissertations in an examination that could last for 5 hours! While they need not undergo a Noche Triste, the effect is still the same since I don't know of any doctoral candidate who could sleep soundly on the eve of his/her defence!

That was until Ms Marites Vitug reports that UST conferred Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona a PhD in Civil Law summa cum laude allegedly without submitting or defending a dissertation! Ms Vitug searched for the dissertation and found only a paper published in a journal. UST says it accepted this as equivalent to a dissertation but a quick check of the electronic link says the document is private. duh! (one can access it at Vitug's site but it is hard to read) PhD dissertations are public documents which anyone can access although the library may have restrictions on how one can access it and for how long. In most cases a person has to legally declare he/she accessed the dissertation. This is to prevent plagiarism (which is an issue and controversy another justice of the Supreme Court got embroiled in!)

Padre Burgos' biographer Sol H Gwekoh was able to access Burgos' dissertations and writings at the UST library and readers can't access Corona's paper. duh again!


Being a university, the country's oldest and most revered, UST has complete academic freedom to set examination standards. But perhaps in UST's history only two people have been awarded earned doctorates without defending their dissertations, Burgos and Corona. The question is whether Burgos and Corona are comparable at all!

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