On September 9, 1918, dozens of students occupied the head office of the National University of Córdoba in Argentina, reopened the institution that had been closed and without a dean for a month, and placed their leaders, Enrique Barros, Horacio Valdés, and Ismael Bordabehere, in command of the following schools, respectively: medicine, law, and engineering. The occupation lasted only a short time—the Army was called in and arrested 83 students who were later freed. Three days later, the minister of Public Instruction, José Salinas, arrived in the city as an intervenor for the university. He disassociated the university from the Jesuits who had founded it in 1613 and rewrote its statutes, incorporating the demands of the students for autonomy, participation in administration, and modernization of curricula. Various tenured professors who opposed the movement quit.
The arrival of Salinas ended the rebellion that had started one year prior and whose catalyst was a current problem—the dissatisfaction of medical students with the closing of student housing—which triggered a movement that went beyond the university limits to reach other countries in Latin America. There was a break in an autocratic and clerical academic model, which had been adopted during the Spanish colonization and still prevailed at the University of Córdoba, founded when Argentina was part of the vice-kingdom of Peru.
“The students protested against the method of teaching, which was based on repetition and obedience, and on its almost religious character, administered in cloisters,” explains Denise Leite, researcher at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and a student of the Reform in Córdoba. She remembers that the Argentinian city was a conservative refuge, famous for resisting the fight for independence 100 years earlier, and was not aligned with the modernization happening throughout the country, which at the time had an urban middle class emerging and more than half the population living in the cities. “At the University of Córdoba, teaching was authoritarian, the professorships in many cases were hereditary, and there was a denial with respect to science. In medicine, for example, teaching was done orally and did not offer practical experience or patient visitation.”
The principles of the reform of Córdoba were released in June 1918 in a declaration written by lawyer Deodoro Roca and titled “From Argentinian youth in Córdoba to free men in South America.” The document exposed the teaching methods “flawed by authoritarianism,” which contributed to keeping the university separated from the modern disciplines and those of science—ideas of Charles Darwin were prohibited—and identified tenures as the root cause of “a show of senile immobilization” and being a “refuge for the mediocre.”
The list of demands included student participation in administration, open attendance in class, an end to tenures, university extension, social assistance for students, and university autonomy. Among other outcomes of the reform, new professors were hired, even though the tenures were maintained, and an autonomous model known as co-governance was created, which would be adopted by other universities throughout the country: through the inspiration of the Córdoba reform, the management of public post-secondary institutions in Argentina follow a tripartite model whereby decisions are made by professors, students, and alumni.
Such ideas were echoed throughout the continent. “The university reform was a common parameter in all Latin American countries. The young people of Córdoba presented a diagnosis of teaching and knowledge production and brought a new agenda for the social and
economic reality,” explains historian José Alves de Freitas Neto, researcher at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and author of an article about the Reform in Córdoba published in 2011 in the magazine Ensino Superior UNICAMP (UNICAMP higher education). In other countries of Latin America, delegations of students were formed and met in a world congress in Mexico City in 1921, recalls historian José Luís Beired, researcher at the Assis campus of São Paulo State University (UNESP) and specialist in Latin American history. He notes that the phenomenon could not be compared to any other places in the world. “The student-led movement, which became a social movement, emerged in Latin America long before May 1968 in France or the mobilization of students protesting the Vietnam War at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States. It is interesting that it arose in a region that is less developed and not as modern, but it was the result of the emergence of the students and young people as social and political actors, which would be one of the hallmarks of the twentieth century.”
While the reform in Argentina was restricted to universities, in other countries where the movement reverberated, as in Peru, Cuba, and Venezuela, it gained political character and was radicalized, notes Beired. “There was a spillover effect bringing the movement to society at a moment when the middle class was emerging in Latin American countries and questioned being ruled by an oligarchy that, following the example of what happened at the University of Córdoba, blocked their political and economic ascension,” he affirms. He mentions, as an example, the assault at the Moncada prison in Cuba in 1953, where alumni of the student-led movement, which included Fidel Castro, tried to take the military bases and overthrow the government of Fulgêncio Batista, in a foreshadowing of the revolution that would take place in 1959. Another example was seen in Peru with the creation of the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), which was founded in 1924 by student leader Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre and is still a left-of-center political party today.
The impact in Brazil was slower and more timid than in its neighboring countries, mainly because the country’s first universities would only be founded in 1920 in Rio de Janeiro and in 1927 in Belo Horizonte. In 1928, a declaration was released by the students for their Brazilian colleagues. “It was inspired by the reform in Córdoba: it defended democracy in the election of university authorities, the participation of students in administration, teaching and administrative autonomy, and in the university having more contact with society through outreach projects,” underscores José Luís Beired. “But it is signed by ‘students,’ not by some organized group. It took them some time to form a solid environment in terms of student mobilization in Brazil so that the reform would enter in the order of the day.”
The late founding of Brazilian universities, from the perspective of Beired, resulted in their being established without many of the vices against which the reformers protested. “USP was founded in 1934, following a secular university model and a focus on research. The issue of autonomy had less opportunity to grow as Vargas’s government [1930–1945] was centralizing and there was no favorable environment for political initiatives or reformers at the university,” he says. Demands, such as modernization of the academic environment, would be contemplated, for example, in the establishment of the University of Brasília in 1962 and with the end to university tenures in 1968. “There was a gradual development that was still adjusted by authoritarian moments.”
Beired mentions texts from the 1960s written by anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro, founder of the University of Brasília, and for whom the Córdoba agenda, for the most part, had already been carried out in Brazil, although it was still necessary to move ahead on issues highlighted by the reformers, such as university engagement in the country’s social and economic development. “According to Darcy, there was still a need, for example, to expand research and technological innovation to increase university interaction with society, as well as involve it in resolving educational problems,” he points out. “This continues today.”
According to Denise Leite of UFRGS, the ideas of Córdoba molded the personality of the Latin American universities. “It means having a vital university with students who seek participation both within and outside its walls and professors who are not hidden away in ivory towers,” she explains. For José Freitas of UNICAMP, one reason for the reform of 1918 being a point of reference to this day is that it involved defending the issue of autonomy and that it would be used by universities, at different times and in different countries on the continent, to deal with limitations in economic order and pressures imposed by government. “Autonomy was never a simple issue, in part because it sought to articulate demands like social insertion of the university with control mechanisms of administrative instances by the students, professors, and employees,” he concludes.Republish