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A diverse university

At the age of 40, Unesp is gaining ground in research and graduate programs and remains a model in 24 cities

Unesp_241-03The 12th floor of the building that houses the administrative offices of the president of São Paulo State University (Unesp), in downtown São Paulo, is the site of a very busy place: a meeting room that overlooks 9 de Julho Avenue and that is equipped with video cameras and two large wall-mounted flat screen TVs, against the backdrop of a huge Unesp logo. Here, deans and office staff have to compete for time slots in which to hold videoconferences with participants scattered across the 24 cities that are home to Unesp institutes and academic units. The physical distance separating virtual meeting attendees can reach 805 kilometers – the case of both the Ilha Solteira campus, on the border with Mato Grosso do Sul, and the Guaratinguetá campus, in the Paraíba Valley. “The videoconference system was expensive when it was set up some years ago, but it’s had an impact at this university, which was born decentralized,” remarks Marilza Vieira Cunha Rudge, vice-president of Unesp.

Coordinators of graduate programs from a certain field appear on the TV sets one day while managers of academic units are seen discussing administrative matters the next. “The possibility of meeting at a distance not only cuts costs and breaks down barriers. It also allows us to share experiences and has helped in shaping Unesp’s identity,” says Rudge, professor at the School of Medicine on the Botucatu campus. She points out that it took time for Unesp – which turned 40 on January 30, 2016 – to build this identity. Until a few years ago, students and faculty did not yet see themselves as part of the university but would instead say they belonged to one of the isolated institutes or schools of arts and sciences distributed across cities like Jaboticabal, Araraquara, Franca, and Assis, each with its own academic history and culture. These units were brought together in 1976 thanks to a law sponsored by then governor Paulo Egydio Martins. “Today, everybody says they’re with Unesp,” the vice-president reports.

Formed from a consortium of regional institutions, Unesp blazed a unique trail to become one of Brazil’s leading research universities. But it still held onto its position as rural São Paulo’s paradigm of knowledge production and public higher education, with 37,000 students enrolled in 134 undergraduate courses and a faculty of 3,880. “If we draw a circle with a radius of 100 kilometers around each of these 24 cities, we’ll see that we cover almost the whole map of the state of São Paulo,” says Julio Cezar Durigan, Unesp president. “If the University of São Paulo (USP) was created to be a great university and the University of Campinas (Unicamp), to be a modern university, Unesp had a different proposal: to be the university of the entire state of São Paulo. This raises several logistical issues, but our interaction with all of these regions adds a richness that knows no price.”

Accounting for 8% of Brazil’s scientific production, Unesp published an average of 2,927 scientific papers per year from 2011 to 2015, according to Web of Science data. This level represents a tripling of scholarly publications compared to the 2001-2005 period (see infographics on pages 32 and 33). From 2007 to 2014, the number of papers published in collaboration with foreign authors doubled. The institution also excels in researcher training. In 2014, its 141 graduate programs granted 1,970 master’s degrees and 999 doctorates, a figure surpassed in Brazil only by USP. The quality of Unesp programs is on the rise. The latest triennial assessment by the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes), released in 2014, assigned more than half of Unesp programs its highest scores – 5, 6, and 7 – for the first time ever.

In October 1975, Governor Paulo Egydio Martins submitted the bill establishing Unesp to the São Paulo legislature

Unesp public domain imageIn October 1975, Governor Paulo Egydio Martins submitted the bill establishing Unesp to the São Paulo legislatureUnesp public domain image

The dean of research at Unesp, Maria José Soares Mendes Giannini, emphasizes that some units are especially well known for their scientific production, but all have contributed to enhancing Unesp’s academic performance. “The institutes of Chemistry, in Araraquara; Theoretical Physics, in São Paulo; and Biosciences, in both Botucatu and Rio Claro, stand among the units producing the most internationalized research,” she says. The latest edition of the Webometrics Ranking of World Universities identified the most cited Brazilian scientists according to Google Scholar Citations (GSC), Google’s academic indexer. A number of Unesp researchers figure at the top of the list, like Sérgio Novaes and Nathan Berkovits, of the Institute for Theoretical Physics (IFT); José Arana Varela, professor at the Araraquara Chemistry Institute and vice-director of the Functional Materials Development Center (CDMF), one of the FAPESP-supported Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDC); and Célio Haddad and Mauro Galetti of the Rio Claro Biosciences Institute.

Several of the 14 campuses that were conjoined in 1976 had already achieved renown in research and teaching – Araraquara, for example, in the areas of pharmacy, dentistry, and chemistry; Botucatu in medicine; and Jaboticabal in the agricultural sciences. Over the years, Unesp came to encompass another 10 cities by opening units in municipalities such as São Vicente and Tupã and incorporating institutions like the University of Bauru (UB), which offers courses in the sciences, engineering, arts and communication, and the Institute for Theoretical Physics, located in the state capital of São Paulo, in the mid-1980s. “The IFT was an internationally respected research institution that began suffering from the lack of federal funding,” recalls Jorge Nagle, Unesp president from 1984 to 1988. “With around 15 physicists, its scientific production surpassed that of all Unesp physicists. Incorporation was very important for both IFT and Unesp,” he says.

On January 30, 1976, he ratified the bill at an outdoor event in Ilha Solteira

Unesp public domain imageOn January 30, 1976, he ratified the bill at an outdoor event in Ilha SolteiraUnesp public domain image

Nagle says that while he was in office, it was possible to modify the structure of the young university for the first time. “Power was concentrated in a university board that had few full professors, who are generally resistant to change,” he remembers. “Even though the institutes were under the umbrella of one university, they considered themselves separate.” The support of then governor André Franco Montoro was important in giving the institution direction. “We managed to obtain funding to hire another 40 full professors, and we wrote new by-laws, allowing students and staff to participate. This helped revitalize the board and got more units involved in the decision-making process.” Acquiring the funds to maintain the university was a taxing mission. “University presidents had to trudge from department to department to get funds for new projects and initiatives, and they had to negotiate the budget with the government every year,” he says.

The picture changed in 1989 with the advent of university autonomy under the government of Orestes Quércia, which guaranteed São Paulo’s three state universities a fixed share of tax revenue. “Autonomy engendered a new understanding of what a university is,” says President Durigan. “Before autonomy, the president did nothing but rush about with projects to justify the next year’s expenditures. Autonomy made it possible to plan the institution’s future, and this changed Unesp’s profile, through co-responsibility.”

The leap in scientific production and in the quality of graduate programs came in the 2000s. In 2001, Professor Marcos Macari, who had experience helping put together and coordinate the well-ranked graduate program in animal science at the Jaboticabal campus, was appointed dean of Research and Graduate Studies. He adopted a strategy to lend substance to the institution’s 180-plus master’s and doctoral programs. “I was very familiar with how the rules worked at Capes, which was then assigning grades of A, B, and C to programs. I noticed that many Unesp programs were receiving poor evaluations because they weren’t following these rules,” he recalls. The first step was to gather data on each program and embark on a pilgrimage across campuses. “There were programs with solid groups that were publishing in good journals, but interspersed among them were professors whose scientific production was uneven or nonexistent and who dragged the evaluation down.”

Unesp_241-02Macari visited all of the programs and met with their professors. He took along slides illustrating the performance of each faculty member. “I spoke very frankly: these professors need to leave the program because they’re not producing scientific scholarship and are jeopardizing the evaluation. You can imagine the ruckus this caused,” he says. “Sometimes a professor had put a huge effort into setting up a program, and along came the dean, saying he should be disqualified. I explained that my mission was to show how the system works,” the professor observes. The results appeared after two years of work. “Many folks who were not publishing left the programs. And many folks who were already producing knowledge started publishing.”

The embryos of some programs that are now firmly entrenched at Unesp can be traced back to that period, like the university’s offer to supplement funds when researchers secured funding for their research projects. “At first it was 10%, but we had to change that when researchers began receiving sizeable amounts of funding, for thematic projects or from Finep, the Brazilian Innovation Agency,” he explains. Unesp also offered to pay article publication fees and the cost of translating papers into English. “Folks liked these funds and ended up taking advantage of them. And we fought so the authors wouldn’t forget to state on their papers that they were with Unesp. Back then, researchers often said they were with their academic unit but not the university.”

Macari laments that he was unable to bring one of his ideas to fruition: the creation of virtual research groups. “Since campuses are spread over a number of regions, Unesp has similar graduate programs in different places. There are three veterinary, three agronomy, and three biology programs. The idea was to bring the researchers from these programs together virtually, so they could develop large projects jointly. Nobody got on board, except for a master’s and doctoral program that connected researchers from Presidente Prudente, Araraquara, and Bauru, at the initiative of Professor José Arana Varela,” he says.

In 2006, Macari became president of Unesp and decided to split Research and Graduate Studies into two separate offices. He invited José Arana Varela, professor at the Chemistry Institute of the Araraquara campus, to head research. “We devised new incentives to get researchers to publish in high-impact journals, like Nature and Science,” says Varela, now Chief Executive Officer of the FAPESP Executive Board. “For every paper published, the researcher received a certain sum, and he could spend it on any of his group’s activities: sending a student abroad, taking a trip, or using it in the lab.” Around that time, Varela helped establish a center for technological innovation to assist researchers in obtaining patents and crafting technology transfer agreements with businesses. “It was an arduous task and soon proved much harder than publishing papers,” he remembers. The center was the embryo of the Unesp Innovation Agency, founded in 2010 and coordinated by Varela after he stepped down as dean of research. “In structural terms, we designed the agency to be lean and efficient, and it worked pro-actively. Its virtue was in forging a culture of innovation at the university.”

Unesp_241-01Likewise in 2010, a number of programs to incentivize scientific production and academic quality entered into Unesp’s Institutional Development Plan (PDI), whose budget reached R$55 million; in 2016, it was set at R$35 million in response to an overall drop in state tax revenue. The goal of the PDI is to ensure that funds for strategic university programs are reserved and guaranteed in the budget. Some 20 initiatives have received support. One of these tried to encourage the mobility of graduate program faculty, which sparked some controversy. Programs that had earned grades of 5, 6, and 7 from Capes earned the right to send one of their faculty members abroad for a month to work on collaborative projects and they were also allowed to invite a foreign professor. An even bigger incentive was offered to programs that had been awarded lower grades: those that earned a 3 could send a faculty member abroad for up to six months. “They complained that we were protecting the weakest programs, but that’s not how we saw it. For these programs, spending just a month abroad wasn’t enough. More time was needed to make ties outside,” says Rudge.

At the same time, the university invested in renewal. In the second half of the 2000s alone, over 1,000 new professors were hired. Vacancies for professors were also opened up in departments associated with graduate-level excellence programs, with the idea of enhancing critical mass and stimulating growth. These investments in a skilled faculty paid off. In 2001, only 40% of Unesp teaching staff were involved in graduate programs. Today, the figure is around 80%. Funds were also directed toward fostering the university’s internationalization, and agreements with foreign universities grew from 30 to 250 in 10 years. Support offices for researchers were also opened at all Unesp units to reduce work on project administration and free up faculty to conduct research.

Unesp_DSC_0241Unesp public domain imageSince scientific production at Unesp is heavily concentrated in the life sciences, programs were established to fund research in the fields of engineering and the humanities. Investments were made as well in recouping faculty members who had gotten wrapped up in teaching and management and left scientific production aside. “One of our strategies was to offer them resources, including undergraduate research scholarships for their students, so they would engage in lines of research and in graduate programs,” recalls Dean Giannini. In the field of research, four inter-unit centers were created, devoted to advanced studies on the ocean, bioenergy, biotechnology, and public policy, and a virtual network of multi-user laboratories is now being assembled. “Researchers from different units can use these laboratories’ facilities over the web,” she adds.

The goal for the coming years is to expand the scope of PDI objectives and initiatives by devising similar plans at both the unit and department levels. “This will make it possible to extend the same incentives across all campuses,” says President Durigan. Other challenges must also be faced. Unesp has worked to serve increasingly larger numbers of students from public schools; by 2018, a system will be in place that reserves 50% of new admissions for this category of enrollee. For Vice-President Rudge, highly talented young people must also be attracted in order to lend impetus and greater diversity to the academic environment. “We need to guarantee these young people space at the university,” she says.

President Durigan foresees an agenda of challenges over the coming years. He says, for example, that the approach to teaching must be changed. “Student education should be aimed more at problem-solving,” he explains, citing a pilot project in civil engineering currently underway abroad that shunned formal classes and engaged students in the search for solutions to practical problems, under a professor’s guidance. Durigan also thinks research at Unesp needs to change. “It doesn’t make sense for one department to have more than 30 lines of research. Greater focus is needed; a maximum of five lines that have an impact on society should be defined and faculty mobilized to embrace them.” And in the field of extension, less emphasis should be placed on providing services to the community and more on what he calls “innovative extension,” defined as the transfer of knowledge to society and the private sector. If Unesp succeeds in meeting these challenges, says the president, it will be able to transform itself into Brazil’s greatest university. “Since we’re young and we’re spread over a number of cities, we still have a lot of time and room in which to grow,” he says.

This is the first in a series of reports on the 40-year history of São Paulo State University – Unesp