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Opinion: The University for Peace, Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Oliver Rizzi Carlson holds an MA in Peace Education from the UN-mandated University for Peace and is Editor of the Global Campaign for Peace Education Newsletter. He facilitates learning spaces with youth on the culture of peace and infrastructures for peace, and is Representative at the U.N. for the United Network of Young Peacebuilders.

EL RODEO DE MORA, Costa Rica, Jun 18 2015 (IPS) - You’ve probably never heard of it. When, in 2007, I tentatively searched the web for “peace education” and Google told me that a U.N.-mandated University in Costa Rica was offering a master’s degree in precisely that, I was dumbfounded. As soon as I set foot on campus, I fell in love with UPEACE.

Now that you know about it, 35 years from its creation, the University for Peace as we know it may disappear. The U.N., which picks unfit foster parents for the University’s Council, over the years has, through neglect and negligence, denied it its life-giving source: dialogue.

Like an engineering school building crumbling under the weight of its own tectonic deficiencies, the University for Peace is dying of its own, festering conflicts.

Things have degenerated to the point that one Council member this year ended up stepping on students staging a peaceful sit-in – in order to avoid dialogue.

With the latest slash of principles, the University for Peace may well die a death by a thousand cuts.

The University was founded via the U.N. General Assembly in 1980, and 40-some States are signatories to the International Agreement establishing UPEACE. Its Mission is “to provide humanity with an institution of higher learning for peace … [to] promot[e] among all human beings the spirit of understanding, tolerance and peaceful coexistence … contribut[ing] to the great universal task of educating for peace … [for] the full development of the human person … through the interdisciplinary study of all matters relating to peace.”

The Charter further highlights its “autonomy and academic freedom” and “its profoundly humanistic purpose.”

These guiding precepts are visionary and exciting, and UPEACE is a uniquely important institution for the progress of peace. But the University’s governance structure is grossly inadequate to fulfill its grand Mission.

Like an engineering school building crumbling under the weight of its own tectonic deficiencies, the University for Peace is dying of its own, festering conflicts.

UPEACE has always had many problems, but they have continued only because of UPEACE’s inability to leverage its rich talent pool through dialogue.

This year, instead of finally addressing these long-standing issues meaningfully, Council members used them as a pretext to impose a radical curriculum change, delivered by fiat, and without justification, deepening the lack of dialogue that is eating away at the fabric of the University. What’s more, this deeply misguided curriculum would do away with UPEACE’s competitive advantage and set the University a couple of generations back in peace scholarship.

The issues that precipitated this situation are old. The lack of institutional accreditation, very short MA programmes, haphazard academic quality, aging campus facilities, high tuition fees, financial difficulties and the absence of an endowment fund have made UPEACE hardly competitive and unable to fulfill its Mission.

However, the reason these problems have not been tackled is mismanagement, bolstered by an absolute lack of transparency or accountability, inexistent job security, and the absence of continuity, institutional memory, alumni relations or a unifying alumni network.

This structural paralysis, in turn, is due to a tyrannical concentration of power in the hands of a few, the Rector and Council members, who generally have no personal experience with, ties to or interest in the University or the field of peace studies.

Ultimately, since UPEACE is unknown globally or even in Costa Rica, its obscurity has allowed its many problems to intensify.

At this point, we need a robust, public conversation.

Over the years, there has been no lack of people within the UPEACE Community who have tried to contribute their rich expertise and promote dialogue to address all of those issues, especially this year. However, the job insecurity and lack of continuity have not allowed people to speak up or have an impact, and UPEACE’s problems have only worsened.

The real, predominant issue is structural – the lack of a standing infrastructure for dialogue.

Through such an infrastructure, the amazing potential of the University could become apparent to its biggest critics.

This would require the Council to empower those who have the knowledge, experience, expertise and interest in UPEACE necessary to make it flourish, allowing UPEACE to become the inspirational example it can be. Instead, egos battle for power and UPEACE’s budding potential withers away because of a lack of proper attention to dialogue.

The tension between those attracted to UPEACE by its Mission and those involved with it because of its U.N. origin becomes apparent.

Some of us even wrote our MA theses on the need for an infrastructure for dialogue at UPEACE, and proposed Charter amendments as early as 2009, but those efforts, too, fell on deaf ears.

What has happened in the past academic year is perhaps the last straw in a continual process of neglect of the principle of dialogue that should instead be at the core of UPEACE as an organisation.

Consistent with each graduating class, last year’s students expressed their frustrations with UPEACE through a 63-page report and delivering scathingly honest speeches at graduation.

Special Representative of the UNSG Judy Cheng-Hopkins, Council member Graciana del Castillo and Max Bond of the United Nations University (UNU) unilaterally decided the UPEACE academic programme was to blame.

Admittedly without any background in academia or personal knowledge or experience of UPEACE, Cheng-Hopkins and del Castillo secretly put together a single MA programme to replace all existing MA programmes. They tried to impose this on faculty, shunning any dialogue and threatening to close down the University by depriving it of its U.N. affiliation.

The putative new and unsubstantiated curriculum was leaked to the alumni in July 2014. Numerous letters, online petitions and meetings followed, calling for an open dialogue and decision-making process on an equal footing with other members of the UPEACE Community.

In November 2014, Cheng-Hopkins, a former Assistant U.N. Secretary-General, came to campus unannounced and avoided answering any of the important questions posed by students who went to meet her. She remained so far removed from reality that when students decided to organise a peaceful sit-in to ask for dialogue, she literally stepped on them instead, even kicking one in the head as she forced her way through.

A video documents her two-day visit, and much more has happened since, all of which has been gathered on this website.

Calls for dialogue intensified. Even as the video was sent to all Council members, they continued to ignore our letters. Those mentioned above also failed to respond to a request for comment on the present article.

In January 2015, some Council members finally came to campus. They indulged us in our little game of “dialogue” and ignored, yet again, our comprehensive plan for University-wide dialogue on institutional as well as academic reform.

Instead, they eventually decreed an unclear and largely redundant set of committees to steer a process of input-giving that they had devised before the January meeting. Although the radical academic changes looming on the horizon would now be postponed until the 2016-2017 academic year, the “dialogue” would only focus on academic matters. The outcome of what has been a haphazard and disappointing process will be pitted against the initially secret curricular reform, with one of the two chosen at the Council meeting taking place June 18 and 19.

The only Council member who seems to have an understanding of the need for institutional reforms to sustain dialogue is Mercedes Peñas. Unsurprisingly, she is the only alumna on the Council – and she is not on it because of her alumna status, but because she happens to be the First Lady of Costa Rica. Not everyone is so fortunate.

Instead of politically appointed figures, the Council should have many more alumni, who know and care about this unique institution and can understand and devise ways of facilitating dialogue thanks to which all UPEACE Community members can engage in collective decision-making for the good of the institution.

Having too heavily relied on its U.N. origin in the past, UPEACE has now been given an ultimatum by its wardens. It will either have to give its last breath to the U.N., or it may have to lose that august logo and start the slow, gradual path of real work to academic redemption.

I think it’s a false choice; but I believe UPEACE would be much better off disowned and free rather than slave to a bureaucratic logic that is incompatible with the real, hard work of dialogue essential to innovation, peace, and education. After all, that is its Mission. If nothing changes in its structure, the University for Peace as we know it will be gone.

Given the importance of education for peace, this would be a unique loss to the field of peace studies and the development of the new and innovative approaches to peacebuilding we so desperately need.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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