Assoc. Prof. Pilar I. Romero, PhD, Dean of the College of Education, was one of the plenary speakers in the two-day virtual in memory of the late Zenon Cardinal Grocholewski, a former Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s legate to the University’s Quadricentennial Celebration in 2011. Romero’s presentation, entitled “The Wealth of the Catholic University in the Far East World in the Example of the Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomas in Manila, the Catholic University of the Philippines,” dealt with the need for Catholic universities to “re-evaluate how the confluence of the three elements of instruction, research, and student life preserve and enhance their Catholic identity and their institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family.”
Cautioning against utilitarianism in instruction
Romero raised concerns regarding the “pitfall of a utilitarian type of education,” dictated by market-related concerns, which force education to be equated with economic growth and performativity. Because the labor market is now global, the desire to “homogenize” and standardize education becomes apparent, possibly threatening the unique Catholic identity of schools. This, Romero highlighted, was also observed by Pope Francis himself, who “admonished those who are engaged in the education of the young to leave behind superficial approaches to education and the many short-cuts associated with utility, test results, functionality, and bureaucracy.” Recognizing the response of the Asian bishops to this problem as well as the rise of consumerism and materialism, Romero cited how the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences put emphasis on the protection and enhancement of “common values,” promotion of “transformation at moral, religious, and societal levels,” and the need for governments, whether interfering directly or indirectly with education, to prioritize “ethics first before knowledge.” Focusing on the UST experience, Romero narrated how UST navigated the journey toward balancing market-driven concerns and preservation of its Catholic identity chiefly through revisiting its graduate attributes, collectively known as the Thomasian Graduate Attributes (ThoGAS), which are explained in the SEAL of Thomasian Education. The SEAL, which stand for Servant leader, Effective communicator and collaborator, Analytical thinker, and Lifelong learner, shows congruence not just with 21st-century skills but also infuses the element of mission: they call on graduates to be agents of social transformation as servant leaders. This addition, Romero said, “ensures that the University’s institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family is sustained by the graduates it forms.” The ThoGAS complement the existing Thomasian core values of competence, commitment, and compassion, which are also seen in program-level outcomes. Once the ThoGAS were established, instruction was revisited. Banking on its autonomous status as recognized by the Philippine government, the University continued to offer courses beyond what government curricula mandated. In particular, Theology courses, which adopted its own signature pedagogy, became opportunities for achieving “integral evangelization.” The Praxis-Oriented Approach, or Pro-App which Romero formulated, is also used in courses to infuse Catholic social teachings in discussing topics across disciplines, prompting students to respond to issues with a Catholic grounding.
Making research not just widespread but meaningful
On the aspect of research, Romero acknowledged that higher education institutions are now pitted against one another through the different rankings initiatives by external parties, which look into research productivity as a major indicator. This measure, however, must not make Catholic institutions lose sight of the true purpose of research: “to assist Catholic educational institutions in the relentless effort in pursuing their purpose.” Focusing on researches that not only get published but also serve the purpose of service to society, Romero shared three examples from UST: the pioneering researches done by Vice-Rector for Research and Innovation Maribel G. Nonato, PhD on the native pandanus species which have since been investigated by local and international researchers; the nationwide study of catechism in the Philippines led by Prof. Clarence M. Batan, PhD; and the nationwide study to generate baseline data on Catholic educational institutions’ engagement in faculty training, research, extension service, and advocacy, which is led by Romero herself. Another research-based advocacy/project that Romero highlighted is the years-long effort of the Department of Elementary Education to educate the “developmentally vulnerable – children with special needs.” After conducting the nationwide study, Asst. Prof. Maripia P. Rabacal and her team have since been engaged in conducting research-based training for public and private school teachers alike, helping them address the needs of their students. With these as examples, Romero underscored the need to “transform research undertaking into vibrant vehicles for evangelization,” so that “the entire academic community becomes convinced that our engagement in research is not solely for personal and professional gains, but more importantly, it is a potent means for fulfilling our mission of service to society.”
On a vibrant faith-based student life
Romero echoed observations in Asian countries that the number of young people actively engaged in the Church is declining. Citing Fr. Jason Laguerta of the Archdiocese of Manila, there is also “noticeable absence of many young people in the Church” in the Philippines, attributing this to the incongruence between liberal thinking and the teachings of the Church and how such are taught—“preachy, unappealing, and boring.” Reflecting on the UST experience, Romero stated that liturgical activities, Theology courses, and the presence of Catholic student organizations are complemented by putting faith in action, through the community engagement activities of the different academic units. She cited the projects of the Faculty of Engineering, the Nutrition and Dietetics department, and the Secondary Education department, which allow students to “craft sustainable solutions to the concerns of partner communities.” Such service-oriented activities serve as a common ground for students of different backgrounds, united in achieving a common goal. “At the heart of these engagements with partner communities is the respect for the dignity of each person that the students learn in their Theology courses,” Romero said.
Engagement in community activities “immerse them in social realities that are outside the ambit of their own milieu. By this immersion, they become socially aware and involved and are given the opportunity to embrace the Church’s preferential option for the poor,” Romero said, highlighting the University’s institutionalized community development efforts at the University and unit levels. Recognizing COVID-19’s adverse impact on the University and its stakeholders, Romero said that a “state of disequilibrium” was a consequence felt even in a big institution like UST. This disequilibrium, however, provided a chance for “renewal” and “an impetus to revisit our core.” Such will be made possible only if all the stakeholders engage in meaningful dialogue and move forward together while keeping in mind the true identity and mission of the institution: to be a Catholic institution of higher learning blessed with Unending Grace.
Romero is a sought-after speaker and a seasoned University administrator, having served as both an academic unit head (as the pioneer Principal of the Senior High School and now the Dean of the College of Education) and as a university-wide administrative official (as Assistant to the Rector for Administration and Assistant to the Rector for Planning and Development). Her extensive years of experience in the academe, backed with her academic preparation in education and theology, has allowed her to promote advocacies and institutionalize programs not just in UST but also in external organizations like the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines.