A top university in Mexico becomes a battleground over academic freedom
For the last 17 days, dozens of students have turned one of Mexico’s top public research centers into a campsite.
Tents line the entrance to the Mexico City campus of the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, better known as the CIDE. For students unwilling to brave the cold nights, classrooms have been cleared to make room for sleeping bags.
“CIDE resist,” says one protest sign. Another invokes Britney Spears’ recent legal victory: “If Britney could, CIDE can too.”
The occupiers are calling for the dismissal of the center’s new government- appointed director, who caused anger by demoting several administrators and disparaging the school as a bastion of neoliberalism — a serious insult in the leftist rhetoric of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
“We weren’t prepared to do this,” said Ximena Millán Cruz, a 21-year-old studying political science and international relations. “This wasn’t our first option, and if it was up to us, we wouldn’t be here.”
The saga has turned the small institution into the latest battleground over academic freedom in Mexico, with the president and Nobel Prize laureates among those speaking out.
The students have the support of many professors, some of whom worry that López Obrador is trying to impose his politics on them.
The president, who won a landslide election on a populist platform of fighting corruption and prioritizing the poor, has repeatedly disparaged academics as a privileged group.
He has accused the CIDE and the massive National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM, of staying silent in the face of the country’s corruption, saying they house conservative academics who “don’t run risks of any kind to be able to ascend the social scale.”
His critics say it’s more than rhetoric. They have expressed alarm at how federal prosecutors recently sought to jail 31 scientists for organized crime and financial crimes — charges rejected by a judge.
They also point to the elimination of public trust funds that were used for scientific research, a move the president said was aimed at fighting corruption.
“I think we are in the worst of the possible situations,” said Antonio Lazcano, a biologist at the UNAM who has been an outspoken critic. “You can’t do quantum physics with traditional herbal medicine.”
María Elena Álvarez-Buylla Roces, the head of Mexico’s National Council for Science and Technology, which oversees the CIDE and 25 other research centers, denied that the government was threatening academic freedom.
“We have given historic support to universities to generate scientific investigation,” she told The Times, pointing to a recent announcement that all students at its centers will receive free tuition.
The CIDE was founded in 1974 as a think tank to advise the government on economic policy. It quickly absorbed leftist intellectuals who had fled military dictatorships in South America. In the 1990s, a new director transformed it into one of the most prestigious research centers for social sciences in Mexico, requiring all professors to have doctorates.
“In terms of education, it’s as good as Harvard,” said Mauricio Tenorio, a historian at the University of Chicago.
Its professors are published in top academic journals and sought out as media experts in Mexico. That’s why even though CIDE is small — with only about 500 undergrad and graduate students — what happens there carries weight.
The former director, Sergio López Ayllón, who resigned last summer, said in a recent interview that the head of the science council had made it clear that she expected the directors of the research centers to be committed to López Obrador’s agenda for Mexico.
“I think the CIDE has a responsibility to do investigations that support the public policies of the government,” he said. “It has always done that, but with autonomy.”
In November, an interim director, José Antonio Romero Tellaeche, an economist from the College of Mexico in Mexico City, made clear he shared many of the president’s views.
In a document outlining his plan for the school, Romero said that too many professors had gotten their doctorates abroad and that the CIDE had stopped prioritizing national social issues. And he suggested that the school’s rigorous selection process reinforced the class divisions in the country.
In the days that followed, he demoted the CIDE’s academic secretary, who claimed in an open letter that she was targeted for refusing to suspend teacher evaluations until a permanent director was in place.
That director turned out to be Romero.
The same day Álvarez-Buylla appointed him, students began calling for his dismissal, and for the first time in the school’s history, went on strike.
Romero declined to be interviewed, responding to a request by emailing a quotation from the U.S. linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky criticizing the mass media as a tool of corporate power.
Álvarez-Buylla said that the CIDE “favors a neoliberal vision” and that there’s opportunity “to begin enriching it with other traditions and more critical thought.”
She blamed groups like Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, a civic organization that has been critical of the president’s administration, for “using this process of the CIDE to deepen their adversity against the federal government.”
As for the strike, she said the government intended to have “a lot of patience” to communicate with the student body.
“We are not going to suppress, we are not going to try by force, nothing by force, everything through truth and law,” she said.
The students are ready to wait.
At their base in front of the CIDE in Mexico City, the loud whoosh of highway traffic mixes with student chatter. Several tables have been pushed together under a tarp, where students work on their final exams and plan their next actions.
The occupiers take turns going on security rounds each night. At one point, they lost internet access. Professors and alumni have brought meals and moral support, one day commissioning mariachis to sing to the students.
“It’s been a fairly exhausting experience,” said a student who declined to provide her name for fear of facing repercussions.
At least publicly, the students have focused their protest on Romero, arguing that his appointment had violated standard procedures and that he did not respect the school.
“If he had spoken to the students, he would have known that many people supported his ideas because they believe in the fourth transformation,” Cruz said, using the president’s term for his political agenda. “He lost that support with his attacks against the community.”
Sebastián Ocampo, a 22-year-old studying economics, said he thinks that students have tried to separate themselves from the ideological battle because it’s “more complicated terrain” and discussing it could create internal friction.
But alumni and professors are more blunt.
“It’s inevitable not to see this as isolated actions but as offensives against universities, against the scientific community,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a journalism professor.
He rejected criticism that the institution has not invested in the country’s social issues, pointing out that graduates of his department have exposed corruption and that the school’s drug policy program has gained national attention for investigating use of force by government security agencies.
Jean Meyer, a historian who has worked at the CIDE since the early 1990s, said the new director represents “an inadmissible intervention of the government in academic life.”
In a letter of support to students, five academics — including two Nobel Prize laureates from the United States and another from France — wrote that governments should facilitate “but not control education and the production of high quality academia for political ends.”
Both the students and the Science Ministry insist that they want dialogue but meetings have been repeatedly canceled.
On Monday, a small group of students gathered outside the Mora Institute research center, which they picked as a neutral meeting spot for negotiations.
A young woman spoke into a microphone, calling for the dismissal of Romero and declaring that CIDE is united in its cause.
“More science, less obedience!” the students chanted. “Álvarez-Buylla, science isn’t yours!”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for the L.A. Times biggest news, features and recommendations in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.