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The impact on the academic world

Some three hundred professors were driven away from Brazilian universities by the dictatorship, a period marked by the structuring of graduate level education

Army invasion of UnB in 1968: the university in the federal capital was one of the most persecuted during the dictatorship

Cedoc-UnB ArchiveArmy invasion of UnB in 1968: the university in the federal capital was one of the most persecuted during the dictatorshipCedoc-UnB Archive

In early 1964, Thomas Maack, a young physician working as an assistant professor at the Physiology Department of the University of São Paulo School of Medicine (FMUSP), had to perform a daily routine that was as prosaic as it was necessary before beginning his work at the medical institution located on Avenida Doutor Arnaldo, in São Paulo’s western zone. He would take the streetcar at the corner of Consolação and Maria Antônia streets, carrying in his arms his work materials and a red basket that he used to carry his daughter Marisa, then not even a year old, to to the day care center at Hospital das Clínicas. This was a stop he had to make before going to the university. On June 8 of that year, a little more than two months after the military coup, the 28-year-old physician was arrested in his laboratory, accused of subversive activity inside the university. Among the “evidence” of his leftist activities was the color of the basket he used to carry his daughter. The imprisonment of Maack, who was born in Germany, came to Brazil at the age of one and had a brilliant academic career at Cornell University medical school in New York, lasted more than six months, one of the longest of all the university professors persecuted by the military regime. He was held for five months alongside longshoremen and other workers in the ship Raul Soares, an old passenger ship that had been transformed into a floating jail, which was anchored a short distance away from the port of Santos.

Dictatorship special issue

He was cut off from outside communication for a good part of this time. Maack said he was not physically tortured, although the psychological pressure applied by agents of the dictatorship to denounce university colleagues was a frequent companion. In fact, he was a leftist militant, but his political activity in unions, political parties and at the National Student Union (UNE) was basically conducted outside the university. “I thought I would be held for a few days and then released. However, since I refused to name names, they held me longer,” Maack recalls. He was fired from USP, along with six of his colleagues from the Medical School, in a decree signed on October 10 by Adhemar de Barros, then governor of São Paulo. In response to a writ of habeas corpus obtained by his attorney, he was released on December 15, 1964, shortly after being transferred from the ship to a regular prison in Santos. The day after he was released, the military, informed of the judicial-administrative lapse, tried to re-arrest him. But it was too late. Maack, his wife and daughter had already begun their flight, which involved going through Curitiba and Paraguay and ended in the United States. In 2010, Cornell granted him the title professor emeritus of physiology and biophysics, after more than 40 years of dedication to that institution.

Maack’s forced removal from USP is one of an estimated 300 cases of university professors who were forced to retire or were removed from their functions during two major purges conducted by the dictatorship at Brazilian universities. The final numbers on these purges are still inconclusive, due to the scarcity of documents and studies on this topic. The story of the former physician at FMUSP is neither the least severe nor the most dramatic of the stories involving persecution of university professors. However, it is illustrative of the modus operandi of the dictatorship, then in its early days, in its persecution of university professors. During its 21-year history, the authoritarian regime arrested, tortured and killed intellectuals and members of academia. Still unexplained even today, the disappearance in 1974 of Ana Rosa Kucinski, a professor at the USP Chemistry Institute, then 32 years old, and of her husband, physicist Wilson Silva, figures among the most tragic, and still unsolved cases carried out by the authoritarian regime during its most violent moments. It is worth remembering that among the activities of journalist Vladimir Herzog, who was killed at the premises of the Second Army in São Paulo in 1975, were the classes he taught at the USP School of Communications and Arts (ECA) and at Armando Álvares Penteado Foundation (FAAP).

The Ship Raul Soares: physician Thomas Maack spent five months imprisoned on the vessel near the coast of Santos

Archive / Estadão Content / AE The Ship Raul Soares: physician Thomas Maack spent five months imprisoned on the vessel near the coast of SantosArchive / Estadão Content / AE

In extensive interviews given over the past 14 years to Pesquisa FAPESP, renowned researchers have told of episodes in their lives in which they were attacked or lost their jobs at the university because of the dictatorship. In an interview given to issue number 59, in November 2000, physicist José Leite Lopes, who resigned from his position as scientific director of the Brazilian Center for Physics Research (CBPF) in 1964 because of the coup, went to France, returned to Brazil three years later and was removed by the AI-5 in 1969, took stock of the effect of military regime on his field of work: “Well, they removed Schenberg, me, and several others. There was a lot of protest and letters were sent by French and American physicists. Yang sent a letter to Costa e Silva (military president Arthur da Costa e Silva), but the so-called revolution was implacable. Later, Minister Velloso (João Paulo dos Reis Velloso, Minister of Planning) thought that it was all nonsense and brought in people like Sérgio Porto and Rogério Cerqueira Leite, who left the United States for Unicamp, which was founded by Zeferino Vaz in 1970. So, even during the dictatorship, a lot of people were working, the group in Campinas, the people in Recife, who began to develop things. If there was any real backwardness, it was in our training,” says Leite Lopes, who died in 2006, in the interview.

One of the most active Brazilian researchers in the field of biochemistry in recent decades, physician Isaias Raw was, like Thomas Maack, a professor at FMUSP when he was arrested in 1964, accused of subversive activity. In an interview given to Pesquisa FAPESP in July 2005 (see Issue No. 113), he remembered the psychological impact his 13-day imprisonment had on his family. “How do you explain to your young children that the police are wrong and you are right? You can’t do that. There is no explanation,” Raw says in the interview. He continued his career in Brazil until 1969, when he was stripped of his position and then went abroad for an extended period (he worked in Israel and in the United States) before returning to Brazil permanently in 1980.

In certain cases, repression by the dictatorship at the universities led top-notch researchers who were spending time abroad to delay their return to Brazil, sometimes permanently. Married physicians Ruth and Victor Nussenzweig, whose work towards a vaccine against malaria is still considered a landmark,we were forced to make this choice in April 1964. They were already at the Medical School of the University of New York (NYU), where they remain to this day (he is now 86, and she is 85).  A few days after the coup, they visited FMUSP, where both had earned their degrees and were professors, considering a possible return. “Then I realized that it was this colonel who was really calling the shots at the school. If he was in charge at the school, he would be in charge of me. I realized that I had no power. The colonel didn’t care if I was a professor or not. I saw that I couldn’t stay in Brazil. Ruth and I returned to the United States,” Victor told the magazine in an interview granted in December 2004 (see Issue No. 106), remembering a meeting with a military officer assigned to FMUSP.

Physician Roberto Salmeron in the 1960s: career in France beginning in 1968

Personal archive Physician Roberto Salmeron in the 1960s: career in France beginning in 1968Personal archive

Two major purges
Researchers of this period schematically indicate two points at which there were major purges of professors at the universities. The first took place in 1964, in the months following the coup, and the second was in 1969, after the issuance of the AI-5 and Decree 477, which made it possible to summarily expel university students, staff and professors, who were entitled to practically no defense. The Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature and Human Sciences at USP was severely affected by this second purge, and names like Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Bento Prado Jr., José Arthur Giannotti, Florestan Fernandes and Octavio Ianni were forced to retire. “Since universities were seen as centers that radiated leftist thought in the country, they were one of the first targets of military leaders, alongside unions and rural workers’ organizations,” says historian Rodrigo Patto Sá Motta, of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), the author of a six-year study on this topic that led to the recently released book As universidades e o regime militar (Universities and the military regime), published by Jorge Zahar. Motta estimates that over a thousand students were expelled from the universities between 1969 and 1979. The best known episode of this facet of the regime occurred in 1969, when 250 students were expelled from the University of Brasília (UnB), which was invaded several times by the military during the dictatorship.

Beginning in 1970, some 35 Special Safety and Information Advisory Councils (Aesis or ASIs) were put in place at the major universities in Brazil, with employees instructed to do surveillance and supply the National Information Service (SNI) with information on what was going on the academic environment. Spies from the military regime, who disguised themselves as students, attended the universities and in some cases were even uncovered. In June of 1976, during a meeting in the auditorium of the USP Geography department, the students caught a stranger who was preparing to secretly record the meeting. There was a confrontation, and the stranger disappeared from the university and was never seen again. According to Motta, the structure of military spying at institutions of higher education, which was condemned in the mid-1970s at meetings of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), was officially terminated in 1979. Nonetheless, at some universities, such as the Federal Universities of Maranhão, Paraíba, Sergipe, Amazonas, Santa Catarina, Espírito Santo, Santa Maria and Fluminense, and the State University of Londrina, it took years for the spying apparatus to be dismantled, and Motta found evidence that some ASIs were still operating during the first half of the 1980s.

In his book, which is probably the most extensive on this matter, Motta presents an overview of the persecution, surveillance and repression that took place at Brazil’s universities and discusses the higher education reforms implemented by the authoritarian regime, such as the extinction of the department chair position, encouragement of graduate study, the agreement between the Ministry of Education (MEC) and USAID (United States Agency for International Development), the alterations made to the university entrance exam system, and the old Rondon project. This latter initiative was responsible for sending hundreds of thousands of university students to develop extension activities in the interior of Brazil, especially in the Amazon region, between 1967 and 1989. It was criticized by opponents of the military regime as a form of ideological takeover of young people. This historian conducted research in 22 libraries and archives in Brazil and abroad, such as those at USAID itself and the National Archives and Records Administration II, in addition to poring over the literature on this topic and conducting interviews with more than 50 university professors who were removed by the dictatorship at some point from their work. “This is in no way intended as praise of the dictatorship,” says Motta. “But it took some aspects of university reform, a demand that had already existed before 1964, and implemented them in an authoritarian way.”

3 Researcher spouses Ruth and Victor Nussenzweig: return to Brazil cancelled because of the coup

Léo RamosResearcher spouses Ruth and Victor Nussenzweig: return to Brazil cancelled because of the coupLéo Ramos

This UFMG historian compiled numbers that demonstrate the size of the investment by the military in the country’s universities and graduate school system. “They needed to train technical staff for their development projects for Brazil,” says Motta. In 1960, there were 93,000 students at Brazilian universities, just over half of whom went to public institutions. In 1964, the year of the coup, this number rose to 142,000 students. In 1984, as the curtains were being drawn on the dictatorship, this number reached 1.4 million university students; of these, 570,000 attended public institutions and 830,000 attended private establishments. The military governments created 12 new federal universities during the first 15 years they were at the helm of the government, although they fostered an even greater increase in enrollment at private institutions. 

A similar movement took place in the area of graduate studies. In 1961, there were only six graduate courses. Over the course of ten years, from 1964 to 1974, this number rose from 23 to 403. In 1984, the last year of the dictatorship, there were 792 Master’s degree courses and 333 Doctoral degree courses in Brazil. Between 1964 and 1976, the number of graduate fellowships granted by the federal agencies (Capes and CNPq) jumped from around 1,000 to 10,000, according to Motta’s study. Also with a view towards fostering scientific and technological research, the military governments created the Brazilian Innovation Agency (FINEP) in 1967, Embraer in 1969 and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Company (Embrapa) in 1973. “For the first time in Brazil, science and technology development was treated as a priority by the government,” economist João Paulo dos Reis Velloso said about the creation of FINEP in an interview published by Pesquisa FAPESP in July 2008 (see Issue No. 149). Reis Velloso was the Minister of Planning from 1969 to 1979, in two administrations during the period of the military dictatorship, those of generals Médici and Geisel.

“The military carried out an ‘Americanization’ of teaching and research in Brazil, which was a model that was gaining ground, even in Europe,” says Luiz Antônio Cunha, full professor at the Faculty of Education of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and the author of works that analyze the effects of the dictatorship on higher education, such as A universidade reformanda: o golpe de 1964 e a modernização do ensino superior (The university undergoing reform: the 1964 coup and the modernization of higher learning), published in 2007 by Unesp. “But it would be wrong to think that everything good or bad began with the military dictatorship. Since the end of World War II, Brazil had begun work on improving its higher education and research, and there were enclaves of modernity before the coup: first, the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA) was founded in São José dos Campos, then the USP School of Medicine in Ribeirão Preto in 1952 and finally, UnB was founded in 1962. At these institutions, the required chairmanship position was circumvented by the novelty of the departmental regime, teaching was closely linked to research, the professors dedicated themselves to their academic work on a full-time basis and stricto sensu graduate programs took their first steps.”

Photo taken in 2008 of former professors at FMUSP who retired or were dismissed during the dictatorship: Michel Rabinovitch, Erney Plessmann de Camargo, Isaias Raw and Luiz Rey (in the front, from left to right); Pedro Henrique Saldanha (with glasses) and Thomas Maack (in the back)

Personal archive Photo taken in 2008 of former professors at FMUSP who retired or were dismissed during the dictatorship: Michel Rabinovitch, Erney Plessmann de Camargo, Isaias Raw and Luiz Rey (in the front, from left to right); Pedro Henrique Saldanha (with glasses) and Thomas Maack (in the back)Personal archive

The professors who were the target of persecution did not always have a clear perception of the overall and long-term impacts of the measures implemented by the dictatorship at the universities and in the national research system. “It is impossible for me to evaluate the effects,” says Michel Rabinovitch, today 88 years old, who was a professor at FMUSP in 1964 and had to leave the country after receiving threats by the dictatorship. “Perhaps the impact was more specific, and weaker than in the case of the Argentine universities.” Parasitologist Erney Plessmann de Camargo, one of the seven FMUSP professors forced out along with Thomas Maack, emphasizes that one of the effects of the coup was psychological. “The spirit of the university was demoralized; and pride in and freedoms at the university all suffered,” Camargo. “And denunciations and betrayals increased.” On the other hand, there were also gestures of extreme solidarity, such as the spontaneous renunciation in 1965 by 223 professors from the University of Brasília (UnB), almost 80% of the faculty at that young university, because the dictatorship persecuted and fired 15 professors. The book A universidade interrompida: Brasília 1964-1965 (The university interrupted: Brasília 1964-1965) by physicist Roberto Salmeron, another victim of persecution by the dictatorship who had a brilliant career at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and at the Polytechnic School of Paris, narrates the saga of UnB during the time of repression (see also the interview he gave to Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 100, in June 2004, regarding his professional career and dismissal from UnB).

Outside the Rio-SP-Brasília circuit
There are few studies that focus on what happened at universities outside the Rio-SP-Brasília circuit. One of these rare studies is the master’s thesis by historian Jaime Valim Mansan, defended at Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul (PUC-RS) in 2009, Os expurgos na UFRGS: afastamentos sumários de professores no contexto da ditadura civil-militar (The purges at UFRGS: summary removal of professors within the context of the civil-military dictatorship) (1964 and 1969). In the study, Mansan counts 41 professors and 5 students who were driven away by ideological persecution of the university. “In some cases, they were forced to retire. In others, they were dismissed or left of t  their own accord,” says Mansan, who continued to study the topic of the dictatorship and universities in his doctoral studies.

Beginning in 2012 with the creation of the National Truth Commission, several Brazilian universities, such as UFRJ, UnB, Unicamp, Unesp and the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), instituted truth commissions to investigate what had happened on their campi and to their professors, staff and students during the dictatorship years. USP, the largest university in the country, created its own commission last year. It is estimated that 47 people with ties to the university (professors, staff, students and ex-students) were killed or disappeared during the dictatorship, which is equivalent to more than 10% of all those assassinated as a result of persecution by the military regime. “Our first priority is to understand the institutional apparatus installed in the university by the dictatorship to keep watch over it,” says historian Janice Theodoro da Silva, a retired professor at USP who is currently at the forefront of the commission’s work. “It seems as if there were 10 people in this sector, but they say that the records of the informants were destroyed.” Theoretically, the commission, which still has no researchers working on it, is expected to end its operations is May of this year. But it is likely that a request will be made for it to be extended. Initiatives like this and the opening of new archives on this period are a way to encourage more researchers to examine the relations between the dictatorship and universities.