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Eunice Durham

Eunice Durham: Flexible university models

A leading figure in research on higher education, the USP anthropologist reviews her career

Eunice DurhamLÉO RAMOSContributions by anthropologist Eunice Ribeiro Durham, 83, to knowledge about the educational system in Brazil were made in two spheres. In the academic field, she coordinated the Center for Research on Higher Education (NUPES) at the University of São Paulo (USP), an interdisciplinary group that from 1989 to 2005 helped guide the debates about Brazil’s university system by producing comparative studies and reflections on the subject. In the public sphere, she twice held positions at the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC).

From 1990-1992, Durham chaired the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes) and was secretary of higher education for the state of São Paulo. From 1995 to 1997 she headed the Educational Policy Secretariat, a planning body where she was able to expand the scope of her concerns about elementary/intermediate and high school education. Hers was not just a case of a researcher who put her theoretical experience to work in government, “People say: ‘knowledge is power,’ but I have found that power is also knowledge. At the ministry I gained a global view of the system and the different dynamics within which it operates that I had never obtained from the social sciences perspective,” she says.

A critic of academic corporatism and the gigantic size of today’s public universities, Eunice Durham advocates a higher education system that is diverse and flexible, one that brings together different types of institutions—public, private, and technical—as well institutions of different sizes. Universities should be able to satisfy regional demands and serve the masses with good vocational training while also meeting requirements for the training of researchers. Durham is a professor emeritus of the USP School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences, where she spent her entire career. She taught in the political science and anthropology departments, and retired from the latter as full professor in 2005. She is currently a researcher at the Center for Research in Public Policy, successor to NUPES. In the following interview she recalls her career path and identifies the sources of some of her ideas.

Rural and urban anthropology
Educational policy
USP School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (undergraduate, master’s, PhD, and postdoctoral studies)
USP School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences
Scientific production
Wrote or organized eight books. Author of 31 book chapters and about 50 academic articles

How did you become interested in anthropology?
One of the most difficult moments in my life was when I had to choose what direction to take after high school. I had many interests. I wanted to study architecture, mathematics, physics, or veterinary medicine. And I liked anthropology. My father had a small library and one of his books was by Bronislaw Malinovski. I became enchanted with anthropology.

[This is the] Malinovski who would much later become the subject of your postdoctoral thesis.
Even today that book is considered a classic in anthropology. I talked to my father, who was a professor at USP, an educator. He suggested that I take social sciences because it included mathematics and statistics and had anthropology. I resisted because I didn’t want to be a teacher. He said: “You’re wrong. If you study veterinary medicine, you’ll spend all your time with animals that are sick or were hit by cars. If you study medicine, you’ll also be involved with people who have problems. But being a teacher is very good. You’ll be dealing only with people who are young, idealistic, and much happier.”

Giving classes was what the graduates in social sciences were doing?
The common practice was to teach sociology in normal schools. But you could also teach geography and history. And so I thought that teaching might be a good plan and I signed up for social sciences. The courses in anthropology and political science were what most fascinated me. I had an extraordinary political science professor, Lourival Gomes Machado. I didn’t like sociology very much. My professor was Florestan Fernandes, and it was all too theoretical. When I finished, I was invited to work as a volunteer assistant professor in anthropology.

Volunteer professors worked for free, right? For how long did you do that?
Three years. I worked with Egon Schaden, my advisor and boss. I also taught at the Sedes Sapientiae Institute, where I earned a salary. Meanwhile I continued my career at the university. I was an assistant professor of anthropology and obtained my master’s degree and PhD in that field. It was a troubling period because it coincided with the installation of the military regime. The campus was invaded and the students mobilized in opposition to the dictatorship. I did my PhD almost immediately after I got my master’s, and I had a son, too.

Your master’s research was about Italian immigration in Brazil. Why that subject?
My master’s was sort of superimposed on my doctoral studies. As was customary in those days, the subject was selected for me by the department chair. Since the study of foreign immigration to Brazil was one of his fields of research I was assigned to that area, along with Ruth Cardoso (who years later would become First Lady of Brazil). I did my research on Italian immigrants in Descalvado, the city where my family lived in the inland region of São Paulo State. The research covered a period of many years and was also somewhat historical. Anthropology was being accused of not taking history into account and being overly centered on specific time periods. For those who work with Indians, there wasn’t much that could be done to avoid that. Indians don’t have historical documents, they have legends. That wasn’t true of the immigrants from Italy. I did a survey of Italian immigration and demonstrated that Descalvado was well worth studying. I took a census and discovered that at least 70% of the residents had at least two Italian grandparents, which means they were truly the replacements of the original population. I had already finished my work when anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro set up an enormous research project on urbanization and the transformations that had occurred in contemporary Brazilian society. He invited me to participate, which I thought was very irresponsible of him because I had so recently graduated. My thesis wasn’t even written yet. But he was an interesting and very persuasive person. He told me: “Don’t worry. I’ll guide you.” But I never got any help. He assigned me the part on rural-urban migration and that became my doctoral dissertation. In the meantime, the campus of the School of Philosophy was invaded. In 1968, a significant number of professors, especially those in political science and sociology, were stripped of their political rights.

In 1995, Durham greets Hillary Clinton who was visiting Brazil, introduced by Ruth Cardoso, then First Lady of Brazil

Personal archivesIn 1995, Durham greets Hillary Clinton who was visiting Brazil, introduced by Ruth Cardoso, then First Lady of BrazilPersonal archives

And so you went into political science.
Ruth Cardoso and I both did. I liked political science but wasn’t very familiar with the culture of that field. In those days, we had to teach classes in whatever came our way. The head of the department developed the curriculum and sent us out to give classes or lead seminars. We simply had to study the subject and plan the class. I studied a lot, then, about the formation of the modern state. Ruth and I worked together and began to study urban social movements. Our work followed what was a tradition in the sociology and human geography of the era: we wanted to help people understand Brazil. Italian immigration was crucial here in São Paulo. Rural-urban migration is also important, for everyone in Brazil. Urban social movements were something new.

Among the results of your research, you emphasized the influence of the family in immigration. Why?
I wasn’t interested in the family when I started my research. But while studying the Italians, I realized that the family was crucial. The original intent of the immigrants was to settle in rural areas. Later came upward mobility, which depended heavily on what I call “primitive accumulation.” It was accomplished by having a number of children, all of them working. On the coffee plantations, the father collected everything and built up an initial stock of capital that he used to buy land or move the family to the city and start a business. Later, when I started studying rural-urban migration, the family made another appearance. The procedure followed in the qualitative interviews was based on the question, asked of the patriarch: How did you happen to come to São Paulo? What gave you the idea of coming here? And the answer was always the same, something like: “We were very poor. I didn’t have a job, my brother came over, my uncle came over, then I decided to come and I lived in their house.” Then began the process of bringing over the rest of the family. This meant that work was organized around the relationship between geographic space and social space. I had no alternative but to assume that the family was very important in Brazil, although the students of that era didn’t find that issue very interesting.

Why not?
In 1968, my course was about family and kinship, a crucial theme in anthropology. But the students were committed to working toward a socialist revolution. It was hard to hold their attention. When the month of May came around, I asked them: “Is there anyone here who didn’t give their mother a present on Mother’s Day last Sunday?” Well, everyone had given presents. I said: “You see? You can’t just study revolution, you have to know what society is based on in order to change it, and the family is important.” You had to be rather clever to convince the students.

How did you make the transition from immigration to the study of social movements?
Before getting into political science I was already becoming interested in student and university policies. The entire battle by students and the less traditional professors centered on the need to reform the university. I supported the students, but thought that the path they were taking, the road to launching a socialist revolution, would not end in victory for anyone. The movement was going to end, as it did end, destroyed because the students had neither popular nor political support for a revolution. They didn’t understand anything about Brazil and very little about history. That was the time when they invented the equality-based curriculum. The professors would confer with the students to decide what courses would be given. Those courses were optional. I wanted to be with the students and I offered to help.

What year was that?
It was about 1967, shortly before the invasion of the building on Rua Maria Antônia, when we moved to the main campus. I had never been in favor of the pedagogy that had as its slogan: teachers and students learning together. That’s not true. The students don’t know about anthropology. How are they going to decide what to study? That part of my story is kind of funny. I was trying to write my dissertation about rural-urban migration. Almost all the students and the younger professors were Marxists. I argued with the students who were living through the huge social transformation called urbanization that involved a tremendous change in the population and created immense problems. In order to plan a future for Brazil, we had to understand who we were going to be dealing with. Was it a traditional population? Did it have new values? I managed to convince the students to study that.

You didn’t present yourself as a Marxist?
No. Marxism isn’t of much use in anthropology. In fact the book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, by Engels, is wrong from the anthropological standpoint. And there was no class struggle among the people called “primitives” that we were studying then. But I did quite a lot of work with Marxism. I read a lot, because I couldn’t converse with the students and try to influence them a little if I couldn’t speak their language. After 1968, we left the sheds where we had been housed temporarily after the invasion of the Maria Antônia facility and moved into a new building. That was when I started giving a course on the concept of culture. All the students felt defeated, but were still fiercely Marxist. I had to find a way to show them that I was familiar with Marx; otherwise they wouldn’t pay attention. I recalled an essay by José Arthur Giannotti entitled O ardil do trabalho (The labor trap), a really beautiful but very difficult to read work about Marx’s conception of labor. I asked the students to read it. From their perspective it was a legitimate item on the reading list, purely Marxist. That was interesting, because they were unable to understand the article. I never would have assigned it to first-year students had it not been for my maliciousness as a teacher. I gave a class on the subject. That legitimized me, because I knew Marx—and knew more than they did. I learned a lot from the students. They are able to denounce a lot of things that are wrong, but unable to propose realistic solutions.

With her friend and then-Senator Darcy Ribeiro on the campus of the University of Brasília, in the mid 1990s

Personal archivesWith her friend and then-Senator Darcy Ribeiro on the campus of the University of Brasília, in the mid 1990sPersonal archives

After you took up political science, did you get more involved in the university?
At the time of the death of Vladimir Herzog in 1975, I was returning from the excursion to the Cathedral of the Holy See to attend the ecumenical service and I met other colleagues who said that there would be a meeting of USP professors after the service. I had to take a position. I was at that first meeting, which established the Association of USP Professors, ADUSP. I then began to get seriously involved with university policy and realized that I knew very little about the university. We were against the military, against the department chair but in favor of the department, but there wasn’t much communication among the faculty members except to try to protect students and colleagues. I decided to study the issues. I found a marvelous book by Simon Schwartzman, Formação da comunidade científica no Brasil (Formation of the scientific community in Brazil). I was acquainted with other works about the university, but Schwartzman’s was something else. The idea wasn’t to create an ideal model but to examine the true dynamics of the university. If we were to build an ideal model, everything would always be wrong because in practice, no one builds the ideal model.

How did your vision of the university evolve?
The first big change in my way of thinking was the recognition that the university cannot be treated as a synonym for higher education, which is made up of a diversified system of institutions. The university has to be analyzed in that context. I also always saw clearly that excessive politicization of the university was not a good thing. The role of the university is to work along more scientific lines, in favor of the advancement of knowledge. That knowledge must be of a certain kind, based on constant self-assessment. It is a mistake to treat the university as if it were a community. The university is a bureaucratic organization based on the division of labor. If people don’t understand that, we will keep on working with the ideal that everyone should contribute equally. The university cannot be understood that way. The person who serves the coffee has one view of the university, the legal advisor has another view. And the work of the researcher has another view entirely. They are not the same thing. The university is more like a theater than a community. But the tradition in Brazil is to put everything into the same bag. I’ll give you an example: at a certain point, Sao Paulo Governor Franco Montoro (1983-1987), appointed me as the government representative on the board of the University of Campinas (Unicamp). There was a serious problem there with music and the orchestra. The musicians were outstanding, but the university couldn’t pay them decent salaries because none of them had a PhD. It was an absurd situation. I decided that we needed a more flexible, less bureaucratic university. The function of a bureaucracy is to make a rule that applies to everyone, because that makes it easier to govern. Being amenable to flexibility and diversity is not common among bureaucrats. And our professors had become true bureaucrats.

Is it too much to require that every university professor have a PhD?
There is a distinction that must be maintained within the professional area. In law school, for example, you should have accomplished practitioners of law teaching the classes, not just people who have the theoretical knowledge. You are not going to produce researchers, you are going to train lawyers. I was good friends with a director of the Polytechnic School, Décio Zagottis, a very courageous man. We had a meeting in ADUSP about full-time employment. He wanted to split the full-time hour regime into two levels, one of which would be defined as fewer hours, giving people a greater opportunity to work outside Polytechnic. I argued against that. As he was leaving, he said: “Eunice, I’m a specialist in large structures. Basically, big bridges and big buildings. How am I going to learn to do that within the university? I can’t practice building bridges here.” To me, that argument was decisive.

How do you resolve that at a research university?
Research is the entire ethos of USP. And research is largely an experimental undertaking not directly connected with the practice of a profession. That is a fundamental distinction: there should be different career ladders. The other aspect is a distinction between human and social sciences on the one hand and exact sciences and mathematics on the other. Human sciences represent a different kind of knowledge than does exact sciences but it is important. When I was a student, there were no books about Brazil written by Brazilians. The big leap forward was taken by Florestan Fernandes and others who began to study this country. But the capacity for prediction in social sciences is small. My favorite example is that no one predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall. Remembering this is important because it makes us a little more modest about the work we are doing. I like the human sciences and consider all of them essential, but I believe they have become too ideological.

What was it like to work with then-chancellor José Goldemberg?
That was an effervescent period, from 1986 to 1990. During the long military period and the battle for reform, we had created an illusion that it was because of the military that the university was not moving forward and that if we got rid of the military, the institution would be liberated and enter a period of great innovative transformation. The military regime fell, but nothing happened. Goldemberg believed we could bring about a major transformation. He was innovative and courageous, a man dedicated to improving the university. He assigned me procedures or problems to discuss. Working with him was very stimulating. He didn’t want fame for fame’s sake. He wanted to do important things.

And what was there to be done at USP at that time?
A lot of things. For example, USP was just beginning to become computerized; without that it would have been impossible to develop a reasonable policy for the institution. When Goldemberg arrived, there were practically no computers. There was an immense architecture in the chancellor’s office with bookcases of files so big that a motor had to be used to move a stack so you could find something. But there was no basic data about the university, such as number of classes, students, and faculty.

Publishing the list of the professors and their productivity caused a huge uproar…
I warned Goldemberg not to publish that list, but it was leaked. A preliminary survey should not be published verbatim, it should not give people’s names. You have to analyze the statistics and work with them. At any rate, it served to raise the issue of evaluation and faculty members began to pay more attention to their scientific production. Goldemberg was courageous in his opposition to the excesses of the student and faculty movements. All those strikes, corporatist demands, students invading the office of the chancellor without expressing any clear goals—these were things he fought vigorously against. As did I.

NUPES came along right afterward. What was its principal contribution?
NUPES was a new way to conduct research into higher education, a less ideological research effort based primarily on gathering and analyzing facts and data, taking into consideration what was happening in the rest of the world. Our first research project involved five Latin American countries and researchers from each of them. We concluded that our problems were the same: career ladders, full-time work, the degree of diversity in the system. But the solutions were different and had been reached at different times. Everyone was trying do assessments, everyone wanted university reform. I think NUPES did a good job. Simon Schwartzman’s leadership was essential, in that respect. We stopped talking about a university and began talking about the higher education system. A comprehensive research project was organized, focused on educational policies in Latin America, in order to cease looking at Brazil as isolated from what was happening in the rest of the world. The major topics of that period were present in the work of a commission appointed by then-president-elect Tancredo Neves. Schwartzman was the spokesman for that commission. There were the problems of autonomy, of evaluation, of diversification in the educational system. Diversification was the subject on which we were most continually defeated by academia.

There was that community-centered ethos, which I call elitist egalitarianism. The idea that there could be one career path for engineering and a separate one for researchers in basic science was widely criticized. As was the idea that, within a higher education system there should be some institutions devoted to education oriented towards the labor market, others simply for teacher training, and still others for education/research. These are needed because offering education for the masses at a university whose primary objective is to conduct research doesn’t work well. There have to be other institutions that can serve a heterogeneous mass of students. Not everyone wants to do research in physics or chemistry, or even specialize in education. A significant percentage of students want the kind of education that prepares them for the labor market. I criticize the idea that university education is meant only to prepare researchers like us, i.e., future university professors.

What is the problem with that concept among educators?
The problem is more serious in pedagogy, because rather than training teachers we are training school administrators, theoreticians, or researchers. The curriculum is not oriented towards teaching, but only to thinking about teaching. The curriculum directives as defined in 2004 are absolutely shameful. In six or eight pages of directives there is not a single mention about the early grades of elementary school and what the teacher should do there. Research is the only thing that is valued in teacher training and, in general, that research in educational methods is pretty poor. Everyone says that a relationship between education and work is indispensable, but that’s just a mantra. The Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) has even gone so far as to prohibit inclusion in the curriculum of any subject that involves real work. Education is a professional field. It’s to train teachers.

The Directives and Foundations Law discussed in the 1990s proposed a different path, right?
That law was drafted by Darcy Ribeiro, then minister of education, and he understood people. He established the Superior Normal School. São Paulo as a whole was changing its educational system and creating college-level normal courses. That lasted about six years. It was just getting going when the 2004 proposal for curriculum directives came along, determining that all teacher training has to correspond, in terms of curriculum directives, to the existing program in pedagogy. This meant there couldn’t be any more Superior Normal Schools. Since it was part of the law, I complained. I was able to reach the minister of education and tell him it was absurd, but it did no good.

What are the shortcomings you observe among teachers?
In practice, they don’t know how to teach children to read and write. They themselves write poorly. They don’t know basic mathematics and don’t even know how to teach arithmetic. They are very poorly prepared, starting even earlier, back in elementary school. And there is no procedure for reinforcing their training. In my contacts with teachers, I have met many dedicated people. But their training is questionable. How can they teach children, based on that kind of training? The colleges, most of them private, serve the lowest common denominator in their teacher training courses: the students who come from the public schools. Our public high school education is very poor. There are students who have plenty of potential, who are the first generation in their families, very poor families, to attend university. They arrive there after a long and difficult road. We find that we have to compensate for their earlier deficiencies, by reinforcing their mastery of the subject matter of the early grades of elementary education.

Doesn’t the fact that the career is not attractive have to do with salary?
I won’t say that salaries are not important, but the career ladder is structured in such a way that it’s impossible to pay teachers well. There are so many parallel benefits that it has become too expensive for the State. The number of teacher absences per month is extremely high. In addition, there are justified absences, at least five or six a year. When you add these up, you can see that a teacher is absent on average the equivalent of a full month of classes, not counting strikes. The career path is poorly designed. Teachers and professors earn extra pay for length of service, or if they have a master’s or degree or PhD. But none of that has much to do with pedagogical competence and dedication to teaching. Except when they are hired, there is no specific procedure for evaluating merit because teachers are not re-evaluated once they are in place. This diminishes their value as human beings. You find teachers who are not very refined, and especially now, because of the adoption of computerization, you find students who know more than the teacher. It’s humiliating for a teacher to try to find something on the computer and see students come up with the answer in an instant.

With Minister of Education Paulo Renato Souza at a 1997 meeting at UNESCO

Personal archivesWith Minister of Education Paulo Renato Souza at a 1997 meeting at UNESCOPersonal archives

I’d like you to talk a little about your experience in the MEC. What did you learn from it?
I acquired a view of the entire system that I didn’t have before, coming from the social sciences. I had a lot of contact with scientists, physicians, engineers. Heading up the Capes agency afforded me a chance to do what was perhaps the best work I had ever done, although it was just for a year. One of the challenges was reducing the time it takes to earn a master’s degree. All over the world, a master’s degree is something secondary, intended to improve one’s capabilities in practical terms. The professional or career development master’s degree is defined in the legislation on graduate studies. But that idea never took hold in Brazil, because everyone started their graduate studies by getting a master’s. The master’s degree gained respect because it was what was available. But our master’s is as theoretical and general as the doctorate. To move Brazil a little further into the world order, we proposed reducing the length of the study grants. It was terrible. It was the only time that the faculty of the School of Philosophy wrote a letter putting me on notice that I was interfering in university autonomy. It was amusing, because I asked for a hearing with the faculty.

How did you answer them?
I explained that I wasn’t interfering with the university but with the duration of the study grants offered by Capes. Nothing would prevent the university itself from giving out grants that are valid for more than two years, if it wanted to. The grants are not from the university. They are from Capes. Also while at Capes, I was proud to have invented what was then called the “seating fee.” I don’t know what they call it today, although it has been maintained. When I took over, graduate courses were few and far between. All the money budgeted for research by Capes had been cut off. And so I came up with the “seating fee” because I discovered that you can never cut the study grants. We added an extra amount to the grants, a fee to entitle the student to a seat in the course, to help the department maintain it. It could be used for anything except to pay personnel. There were programs for which the first settlement of accounts even included toilet paper. That caused a scandal at Capes. I said: if we’re short of toilet paper, you should just buy it because you can’t function without it. The fee wasn’t much, but we saved a lot of graduate study programs. That money enabled them to have the microscope repaired, get different departments together to buy a computer, or improve the electrical system to prevent power failures, for example.

In the 1990s there was growth in the private sector, but not necessarily in terms of quality…
The problem is that private institutions satisfy a demand from the general public. If the public education system doesn’t satisfy the demand from the masses, the private sector will grow. It has never needed government incentives. An evaluation based simply on the analysis of the programs, as is done for accrediting courses, doesn’t help any. Everything you require on paper, they are already doing. The professors are the problem, their working hours, how much they are paid, their true competence. For many fields of knowledge, for example, it’s not so important that the professors have law degrees, but rather that they have experience, and that the students are learning. That’s the problem, and it was addressed by Minister Paulo Renato Souza who developed the Provão (or “Big Test,” the popular name for the National Curriculum Examination, which evaluated higher education curricula). The evaluation was merely indicative, but since it was a universal examination that every student had to take at the end of the semester, it was a tool used to see how much they had learned. The Provão had a positive effect. Institutions began to be concerned about the results of the exam and they gave extra classes to prepare their students for it. There was a real effort to improve the quality of the programs. The schools that got a good rating advertised that fact and increased their enrollment, while the very poor ones lost students.

What do you think of the University for Everyone program, Prouni?
It’s not a bad idea, but it saved institutions from bankruptcy that were losing students because of the Provão. Under the Prouni, a private institution increases the number of students by 10% without hiring new professors or changing the class size or the program, without increasing the number of classrooms, and gets an enormous reduction in costs through tax exemptions. I think it’s possible for government institutions to collaborate with private ones. But we should give preference to the ones that are providing a good education. The worst thing is that we don’t know how much Prouni is costing us. That was one of the crucial problems the Labor Party (PT) had in handling education. At MEC, I myself coordinated the FUNDEF (Fund for Maintenance and Development of the Fundamental Education and Valorization of Teaching). We knew exactly how much went to every student anywhere in Brazil. The project was completely transparent. But the resources of the fund that replaced it come from different sources and go from preschool to high school. The distribution among those levels of schooling is uncertain. I could never figure out how that calculation is made. Prouni doesn’t demand much of the institution. The same thing happened with the education credit program. There are private institutions that survive because of it; 70% of their students have that credit. The state pays the monthly fees and the student has to repay the state The institution has no obligation. The private sector has never received so many benefits.