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Rupture in the University

40 years ago, 79% of the professorsof the innovative UnB resigned in protest against the military intervention and the expulsion of teaching staff

In his speech of thanks on receiving the title of doctor honoris causa from the University of Brasília (UnB), physicist Roberto Salmeron told the audience that the date on which the event was taking place was an extraordinary coincidence. Precisely on the day on which he was being honored, October 19, 2005, one more anniversary was happening of an unprecedented event in Brazilian university life. 40 years ago, 223 professors resigned in protest against the interference of the military regime in academic life and the expulsion of 15 faculty members. With a staff of 305 professors, UnB lost 79% of its teachers in a single day.

The university had begun its activities in April 1962 and was still right in the middle of being structured, with buildings in construction and without all the courses being open. Although Brasília was created by Juscelino Kubitschek, the ideal of a university enclosed within the city was always a part of the project by urbanist Lúcio Costa, who reserved an area specifically for it in the Pilot Plan. “Lúcio Costa was aware that a university would be needed for the germination of intellectual life in the country’s new capital”, says Salmeron, an active participant in the discussions about UnB and, years later, the coordinator of its Science and Technology Central Institutes and the Physics Institute.

In France since 1968, today retired from the École Polytechnique of Paris, in 1999 he published A universidade interrompida: Brasília 1964-1965 [The Interrupted University] (Editora da UnB, 476 pages, out of print). Motivated by the climate of change of the time, the specialists invited to discuss and to plan UnB thought of a more advanced model of university, which was applied and later adopted by other teaching institutions.

UnB was divided into eight central institutes and colleges. Each one of them grouped together all the activities of teaching, research and any other intellectual creation in its area. The students had a basic education for two years. Those who wanted to follow a scientific or artistic career would continue in the institute. But if they chose another profession, they would move on to the proper college, as of the third year. For the first time, the credit system was created, under which approval in one discipline was recognized throughout the university – if the student changed his option, he would not need to study the disciplines once again.

The teaching career ought to be based on full time production and creativity. “That may seem trivial today, but it wasn’t in the 1960’s”, tells Salmeron in his book. The outdated positions of chair professor and their assistants were extinguished and the positions of instructor, assistant, assistant professor, associate professor and head professor were created. Since the beginning, undergraduate courses were taught, as well as postgraduate courses, something very uncommon in Brazil those days.

Everything was going well, and professors and students worked with enthusiasm, in spite of the precarious conditions. But on March 31, 1964 the military coup took place. The rector, Anísio Teixeira, who had replaced Darcy Ribeiro, was exonerated, and Zeferino Vaz put in his place by the military. Nine days later, the first of the various invasions of UnB by the army took place, on the allegation of subversion – the first in 1964 and the last in 1977. After 15 months, Vaz was replaced by Laerte Ramos de Carvalho. Faced by a strike of the students and a stoppage of four hours by the professors on October 8, 1965, the new rector asked for the presence of military troops in the university and dismissed 15 faculty members. The professors reacted: 223 of them resigned. During another invasion, in 1968, the situation was even worse, with the death of a student.

But even with all these crises, the university was able to pick itself up, and it became important. Geneticist Antonio Rodrigues Cordeiro, the coordinator of the Central Biosciences Institute, one of the 15 dismissed by rector Carvalho, remembers those days with regret: “UnB would have become bigger and progressed far more quickly if there had no been the brutal interventions of the regime”.