December 1933 was half over when educator Fernando de Azevedo met with Julio de Mesquita Filho, director of the newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo. Speaking on his own behalf and that of Armando de Salles Oliveira, the interventor (federally-appointed administrator) of São Paulo State, Mesquita asked Azevedo whether he was still interested in working toward the establishment of a university. “What I was asking for at the time was not a new study about the university problem in general, but the actual decree-law that would institute the first university in São Paulo [USP],” he wrote in a two-page article for O Estado de S.Paulo on January 25, 1954. “I went right to work and in less than a week had a draft of the decree-law ready. We thought it was advisable and best from the political standpoint to submit it for evaluation by a committee, whose members would be judiciously selected, before sending it on for consideration by the state interventor, Azevedo recalled.
Members of the commission in addition to the author of the draft included professors Almeida Júnior (the Education Institute), Teodoro Ramos and Francisco Fonseca Teles (the Polytechnic School), Raul Briquet and André Dreyfus (School of Medicine), Vicente Ráo and Waldemar Ferreira (School of Law), Henrique Rocha Lima and Agesilau Bitancourt (the Biology Institute) and Julio de Mesquita Filho. After a week of debates, a few changes were made in the draft and it was sent to Salles Oliveira. As the governor had wished, the decree that established the University of São Paulo (USP) was signed on January 25, 1934, the 380th anniversary of the city of São Paulo. “He [Salles Oliveira] was willing to remove all obstacles in order to open, in São Paulo, the biggest apparatus ever assembled in Brazil to renew its culture and work toward the advancement of science,” Azevedo recalled in the article written 60 years ago.
The history of the founding of USP, seen in such a concise form, appears simple and problem-free. Of course nothing could be that easy. Establishing a university in São Paulo along the lines desired by Mesquita, Azevedo, and Salles Oliveira, its principal founders, took time and required traveling a road that presented obstacles at every turn.
The Last Country in the Americas
Ever since the beginning of the 19th century there had been discussions and proposals about the establishment of universities. In 1823, for example, José Feliciano Fernandes Pinheiro, from Santos in the state of São Paulo, was a member of the Constituent Assembly representing the state of Rio Grande do Sul. He advocated the founding of a university in Brazil so that students would no longer have to go to Portugal to study, as Ernesto de Souza Campos wrote in his 1954 book entitled História da Universidade de São Paulo (History of the University of São Paulo), recently republished by Edusp. His argument didn’t take hold, but at least a commission was set up to propose the founding of a law school in São Paulo and another in Olinda, in Pernambuco State. Both became reality on August 11, 1827, by a decree issued by Dom Pedro I.
“Brazil was the last country in the Americas to lay the foundations for education under the university regime,” Souza Campos wrote. In his study, he reports the figures on organizations of that kind as they existed at the end of the 19th century: 78 in the United States, 12 in Canada, 4 in Colombia, 4 in Bolivia, 2 in Mexico, 2 in Peru, 2 in Argentina and 1 each in Guatemala, Venezuela, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Cuba. The University of Bologna, in Italy, considered to be the oldest in the western world, dates from 1088 (the 11th century). The first university in Brazil was the University of Rio de Janeiro, established in 1920, followed in 1927 by the one in Minas Gerais (now the Federal University of Minas Gerais-UFMG).
The desire to have an institution of higher learning in São Paulo that would accommodate several separate colleges had always been present in the conversations that Julio de Mesquita Filho (1892-1969) had with others, such as Fernando de Azevedo (1894-1974). Azevedo’s 1925 book, A crise nacional (The National Crisis), addressed early on the deficiencies in all levels of Brazilian education.
Mesquita studied law at São Paulo’s Largo São Francisco School of Law. In 1915, he started his career as publisher of the evening edition of the newspaper, known as the Estadinho, which was published until 1921. He then took over as managing editor of the newspaper. When his father, Julio de Mesquita, died in 1927, he assumed responsibility for the Estadão. His main interests besides journalism were politics, education, and science. He admired philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and said he learned from the articles by Arnaldo Vieira de Carvalho (1867-1920), founder of the School of Medicine, and from conversations with psychiatrist Franco da Rocha (1864-1933). He was extremely active in all political movements until his death at age 77. In July 1932, he was one of the civilian leaders of the Constitutionalist Revolution against Getúlio Vargas—whom he had supported in the 1930 Revolution—calling for free elections and a new Constitution. When the São Paulo forces were defeated, Mesquita and his brother Francisco were arrested and sent into exile. They returned to Brazil in 1933, thanks to negotiations arranged by interventor Armando de Salles Oliveira (1887-1945).
Salles Oliveira’s career is unusual. He was an engineer with a degree from the Polytechnic School and a shareholder and president of the company S.A. O Estado de S. Paulo, which published the newspaper. He was also married to Raquel, a sister of Mesquita Filho. Therefore he was aligned with the ideals of 1932, but had never held public office. “Given the tortuous paths of politics, Vargas thought it best to make amends with São Paulo. And so in 1933 he appointed Salles Oliveira as interventor,” says historian Shozo Motoyama, of the USP Interuniversity Center for the History of Science in the book USP 70 anos – imagens de uma história vivida (USP at 70 – Images of a History a Living History) (Edusp). According to the historical chronology of O Estado de S. Paulo, prepared by that newspaper and available in its online archives, the engineer Salles Oliveira accepted the post only on two conditions: that Vargas would grant the Mesquita brothers amnesty so they could return to Brazil and resume their positions at the newspaper, and that Vargas would call elections for the next year—both of these happened.
The movement in favor of the founding of the university had gained support in the decade prior to the above events. In 1926, to supplement the debates about the subject, Mesquita Filho asked Azevedo to coordinate a survey about education. Questionnaires were sent to experts in every field, people like Reynaldo Porchat, Arthur Neiva, Teodoro Ramos and Francisco de Fonseca Teles, among others. On reading the responses to the questionnaire, Mesquita saw his concerns confirmed. “The main problem we are dealing with, problem number 1 and of primordial importance for Brazil country was, unquestionably, our higher education.”
Azevedo, Mesquita’s main partner in that fight, was from São Gonçalo do Sapucaí (Minas Gerais State). He had been a professor of Latin and psychology in Belo Horizonte, taught literature at the Normal School of São Paulo and educational sociology at the USP Education Institute (which was ultimately abolished) and became a full professor of sociology and anthropology at the School of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters (FFCL-USP), now the School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH). In Rio, he accepted the post of director general of Public Instruction in what was then known as the Federal District, serving from 1926-1930; in 1933 he was given the same position in São Paulo. He founded and directed the publishing company Companhia Editora Nacional. In 1932, he wrote and was the first signatory of the Manifest by the Pioneers of Education (A reconstrução educacional do Brasil) (Reconstruction of Education in Brazil), which set out the guidelines and laid the foundation for a new education policy.
It is no wonder that the efforts around those topics and the dedication by Mesquita, Salles Oliveira, and Azevedo, working together, had supplied the final push toward the founding of USP in 1934 along lines different from those of the institutions of higher learning that had been operating in isolation. “All the colleges and universities established prior to the early thirties had professional objectives. None of them were exclusively intended to provide a general education and permit the pursuit of studies of a disinterested nature,” Heladio Cesar Gonçalves Antunha explained in his thesis, written in 1971 in order to qualify for an associate professorship at the USP School of Education. It was later published in the book Universidade de São Paulo – Fundação e reforma (University of São Paulo – Its Founding and Reform) (CRPE/MEC, 1974). The reference to “studies of a disinterested nature,” means basic science as contrasted with the more utilitarian and practical applied science. “USP stood out as a pioneer in that it introduced, in a systematic fashion, ‘disinterested’ and leading-edge research in Brazil,” Motoyama wrote.
It had been known since the outset that the university would be a union among the schools of law, medicine, pharmacy, and dentistry, as well as the Polytechnic School and the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture. The FFCL was established at the same time as USP. Salles Oliveira described it this way: “The grand plan for the university (…) could not be executed in a single stroke. The government had to start somewhere. So it decided to begin by immediately organizing a principal component, the FFCL, which is an essential institution in any university system because it focuses on free and disinterested culture and on scientific research (…).” One of the ideas was to concentrate in the FFCL the basic courses offered by all the other units, in order to give students a common foundation. That battle, however, was lost.
Selected as president was Reynaldo Porchat (1868-1953), a former director of the School of Law, “the first and greatest we ever had,” Azevedo wrote in 1954. To hire the professors for the FFCL, Mesquita suggested to Salles Oliveira that he designate Teodoro Ramos. Thus the first São Paulo university began with the union of traditional colleges, but only a few years later it had been joined by 13 teaching staff and talented researchers who had been recruited in France, Italy, Germany and Portugal in the fields of physics, literature, philosophy, sociology, mathematics, geology, mineralogy, chemistry, botany, and zoology. The numerous successes achieved by USP in education, research, and extension services, 80 years later, are more than ample proof that those who fought for its creation were right.