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Marcelo Knobel: Learning from autonomy

For the chancellor of UNICAMP, stable funding and liberty in management boosted the quality of universities in the state of São Paulo

Marcelo Knobel: management marked by the creation of new admission strategies for the university and by engagement with topics that mobilize society

Léo Ramos Chaves

The dean of the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), Marcelo Knobel, took office in April as the president of the Council of Deans of the State Universities of São Paulo (CRUESP). In the next 12 months, he will coordinate the work of the council, which brings together the directors of the University of São Paulo (USP), São Paulo State University (UNESP), and the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), as well as the directors of the Department of Economic Development, Science, and Technology and the Department of Education, seeking to strengthen the interaction between the institutions and propose solutions to problems related to higher education and research. One of the tasks for the council is the commemoration of 30 years of autonomy for state universities, which was established by decree by the then-governor Orestes Quércia in 1989, guaranteeing resources and management stability to the institutions.

Knobel will also be one of the key spokespersons for the universities in a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission established by the São Paulo Legislative Assembly to assess alleged irregularities in the financial management of the institutions. “It will be an opportunity to show the impact of the work of the universities, which is not well known,” he confirms. Born in Buenos Aires 51 years ago, Marcelo Knobel is a professor of the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute and assumed the role of chancellor for UNICAMP in April 2017. His period of management is marked by initiatives that are innovative both in terms of societal involvement and university admissions—for the first time, students are being accepted if they did well in science olympics, without having to pass the entrance exam; and they also organized an entrance exam for indigenous students. Last month, UNICAMP created a commission to focus on issues related to the promotion of human rights. In the following interview, the dean speaks about the challenges facing the university as well as CRUESP.

What will be the focus of your work with CRUESP?
CRUESP is going through a very good period. The three deans work very well together and we meet monthly to discuss common problems. There are groups charged with discussing topics related to graduation, postgraduation, and research, and they have been working very hard. This year we have the commemoration of 30 years of autonomy for the state universities of São Paulo, which is a special moment for all three institutions. Now, the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission [CPI], which was created by the Legislative Assembly, is faced with the challenge of analyzing the management of the universities and the transfer of funding. We do not have anything to fear and we plan to use this opportunity to show the greatness of the São Paulo system of higher education to the delegates who often possess a certain lack of understanding of how the universities operate. Furthermore, we will show society and its representatives the importance of having universities of the caliber of the three São Paulo state universities.

To what do you attribute this lack of understanding?
It is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to São Paulo. A recent study by the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation, and Communications undertook to survey national knowledge about scientific institutions. The results were disastrous. Only 4% of the Brazilian population could cite an institution that does research in Brazil. Naturally, we need to blame ourselves. The universities have a communications problem, and they do not know how to communicate to the general population and to politicians the importance of the initiatives they develop using societal resources.

What is the outcome of the 30 years of autonomy?
The São Paulo state universities have grown and reached the level of the best institutions in Latin America. The quantity of publications has increased exponentially, as well as the growth in the number of students (see the Data section on page 11). Thirty years ago, 50% of the faculty at UNICAMP had doctoral degrees. A program was launched to improve the quality of teaching, and today 99% of our professors are PhDs. We now have more students graduating and have been able to produce more research despite a reduction in personnel. We can now plan and think about how to grow. From the perspective of human resources training, research, community outreach, and health care at university hospitals—in all sectors, the states have progressed and this is primarily due to the autonomy granted to the universities. At UNICAMP, for example, we have a complex of five hospitals that serves more than six million people in the metropolitan region of Campinas. The autonomy created a process of constant learning, with both successes and errors.

What kinds of errors?
Recently, we thought that the economy and tax collection would grow very rapidly, which did not happen. In my opinion, and which is shared by my colleagues at CRUESP, decisions were made that threatened the financial situation of the universities and the result was a complex crisis that we had to resolve. USP created a large-scale program for voluntary discharge. At UNICAMP, we did everything to reduce payroll, reorganize procedures, and improve management. And the same took place at UNESP. Even during a crisis, autonomy showed us that it is possible to overcome difficult periods through internal discussion, planning, and transparency about what is happening inside.

Recently, you said that the universities are in danger. Why?
There are threats to our autonomy, liberty in professorships, and the model of public universities established throughout the country. Often this is due to a lack of understanding about the work of the university. We are living in a moment of extreme polarization and many decisions are based on ideological concepts. As public universities, we should work more closely with society and show the impact of our work. Without public universities, Brazil has no future.

In a court action related to political intervention on campuses during the election campaign, UNICAMP made a presentation to the Federal Supreme Court in defense of free expression of ideas in the academic setting. Why?
The universities have two fundamental principles. The first is autonomy and the second is academic freedom. These principles cannot be relinquished. The professor, the researcher, the employee, the student—all must have the freedom to express their ideas. Of course, there needs to be respect for the ideas of others, as well as for physical integrity and the freedom to come and go as one pleases. The conversation should be an academic one, based on proven scientific facts and/or well-established data, all done in an ethical, honest, and polite manner.

Public universities are being accused of being ideological. Has tolerance been lacking within the university?
This should be something that is held sacred at the university but, sadly, it does not work this way, not even in our families. How many people have spent Christmas away from their families because of political controversy? We are a reflection of society. But here must be a place that favors respect for different ideas, the opinion of others, and institutional ways of making decisions in college entities.

Would charging monthly fees be a solution for funding universities?
No, but I recognize that this issue is polemic. In my opinion, charging monthly fees is not really a solution. This is not how a university will solve its financial problems, or the government, for that matter. Consider the case of MIT—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—a university that is a benchmark in research. It is a private institution in which only 10% of costs are covered by tuition. The rest is funded by government projects and by a very large heritage trust, which is maintained thanks to the tradition of philanthropy in the United States. It is not a miracle. Good research is expensive and complex, and requires public resources.

How do you rationalize the expenses?
The Constitution states that universities should dedicate themselves to teaching, research, and outreach. We need to rethink the model. In my opinion, what should happen is a diversification. We should have some public universities focused on research and a larger number focused mainly on teaching that would be more affordable while still offering high-quality education. We could have different models, such as what exists in the United States, for example—with its community colleges and liberal arts colleges, in addition to technical courses and other professional disciplines—such that the students can choose different paths and careers.

Are endowment funds an option?
The legislation is very recent and one of the key points was unfortunately vetoed by the President of the Republic, which would have created the possibility of tax exemptions for donors from endowment funds. But there is still room to work. The idea is to create trusts that would facilitate projects that would not otherwise be realized, or allow universities to maintain balance in times of financial turmoil.

UNICAMP has a good relationship with the production sector. Could partnerships with companies help with funding?
UNICAMP has a portfolio of more than 1,000 patents, of which approximately 14% are licensed. Generally, this number varies between 3% and 5% in other universities. The licensing of technologies is important, but in order for this to become an extra source of funding, it must be much larger or have a spectacular product in terms of profit. It is a possible path, but we should not focus solely on this strategy. The goal of technology transfer is not to generate cash. It is to cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit of professors and students, and to generate knowledge that benefits humanity. If the university makes some money, that’s a bonus.

UNICAMP is also a benchmark for the creation of startups. What is their impact on the university?
There are about 700 of these companies with close to R$6 billion in annual earnings. We also use this data to show society that investment in public universities generates concrete results. The budgets of these companies are more than double the amount the university receives each year. The impact goes far beyond this. The startups maintain ties with the university and this generates very positive returns. It results in students being hired by them or having the goal and desire of creating their own companies.

Does a university have the responsibility to engage, as UNICAMP did, in assisting with the Brumadinho disaster and the massacre at the school in Suzano?
Universities have a commitment to society, which can take various dimensions. The key purpose is to show how invested resources are returned to the society itself. Another dimension involves these specific actions, since we have specialists in almost all areas of knowledge and understanding. Some researchers have the ability and desire to go into communities and work directly with the public. Others can work to communicate about science. Each one makes his/her own contribution. This guideline does not only seek a response to disasters, but also action for prevention and training.

UNICAMP has created admission strategies that go beyond the traditional entrance exam. What will change with these initiatives?
The idea is to bring the best students from all over the country and attract something that is fundamental to the university—new cultures, other ways of thinking and seeing the world. Diversity of knowledge is oxygen for a university of excellence. The society that funds us needs to be reflected here inside. UNICAMP woke up to this concept at the beginning of the 2000s, when PAAIS was created—the Program for Affirmative Action and Social Inclusion—which was innovative but only progressed to a certain point. It is a program that allowed for bonus points to be added to entrance exam grades and which stagnated at an admission level of 30% of students from public schools, representing 18% to 20% of black, brown, and indigenous students. There was an attempt to raise the bonus, which increased the average number of students coming from public schools, but this created an enormous skew for high-demand courses. Students from private schools were rarely able to get in. We decided that new alternatives must be sought.

And how did you arrive at this new combination of admissions options?
In 2016, there was a strike, with students demanding ethno-racial quotas. We decided to face this issue by broadening the participation of black, brown, and indigenous students in the university—increasing social inclusion and maintaining excellence. Prior to this, a very innovative program ProFis was created to address the acceptance of young people from public schools to the university without the need to take an entrance exam. Now in 2019, we have a program of ethno-racial quotas that is different from federal universities—they are not only for students from public schools. Furthermore, we created the indigenous entrance exam. We carry out exams in various locations throughout the country and today we have 23 different ethnicities represented by our 70 indigenous students. Now there is also the possibility of admission for students who win a medal in science olympics. We also created the Sérgio Vieira de Melo Professorship, which enables refugees to request admission to the university without having to take the entrance exam.

Doesn’t attracting students of a heterogeneous profile require efforts such that they resolve learning deficiencies?
This is a serious challenge. The deficiencies of basic education are a serious problem. The university must monitor entrants, identify their difficulties, and eventually adjust course curriculums to adapt to this reality, which, after all, is the reality we live in.

Isn’t there a risk that these students will not be able to remain there?
In addition to eventual academic difficulties, we also face other challenges, primarily financial ones. We have invested a lot in residence programs, including scholarships for social support, accommodation, transportation, and meals. We have made efforts to understand course dropout rates and to reduce them as much as possible. Naturally, widening the profile of students at the university makes these challenges more complex, but it is vital that we face them so that our university continues to improve.

Does this not damage excellence?
Our goal is to attract talented young people that would not otherwise enter the university through traditional means. In the state of São Paulo, we have close to 600,000 young people who graduate from public high schools. The three state universities together offer about 12,000 spaces. The funnel is too narrow and many good people are left out. The idea is to better take advantage of this talent. We want opportunities to make a difference in the lives of these youth and of the country itself.