Transformative School Leadership:  Sharing My Experience at Ateneo de Davao University

ADDU Leadership

[Address: Center for Educational Measurement Conference on “Leading Our Schools to Success.”]


“Leading our Schools to Success” is a wonderful theme for a conference, and I congratulate the Center for Educational Measurement (CEM) for choosing it as its theme.  I have been requested to talk on Transformative School Leadership and about guiding change towards valued institutional goals.  Talk about leadership, even of a school, is always profoundly personal, even if leading a school one must move from personal convictions to actualization of institutional goals that resonate with those personal convictions.  With your indulgence, therefore, I will be speaking personally – even autobiographically – in order to account for convictions and goals that have underpinned my school leadership.  But I will also explain how my personal convictions became part of the transformative education that is practiced at Ateneo de Davao University today.

The convictions of the leader

I am on the nineteenth year of being President of a Jesuit university. After 12 years at the Ateneo de Naga University, I am on my seventh year at the Ateneo de Davao.

When I was still preparing for the priesthood at the Ateneo de Manila during the late 60s (a long time ago!), I was part of a group of young Jesuit scholastics and priests who strongly criticized the educational apostolate.   Influenced by liberation theology, we believed that education was but part of a superstructure that reinforced the economic conditions that produced it.  Ateneo de Manila, we charged, was but catering to the rich.  We believed that we had given up family and fortune to become Jesuits to face the scandalous conditions of the poor and confront the structures in society that create them poor and keep them poor.   We believed work in the educational apostolate was betraying that intention.

I remember as a young adolescent peering from the comfort of our home in Mandaluyong over a wall into the squalor of squatters – before the more politically correct “urban poor” came into use.  We had electricity, they did not; we had running water, they did not; we had a garden filled with santol and kaimito trees; they did not.  Their children played in front of their shanties naked; we did not.  We went to Ateneo and to Maryknoll; they did not.  As a youth, I was deeply impressed by the anomaly of this situation.  “Justice” and “social justice” were yet not part of my vocabulary.  But in this situation which deep within I felt ought be otherwise, I think as a youth I was experiencing social injustice.  And I knew somehow that we who were not part of their poverty were somehow complicit in it.

We were not rich.  We were renting the house we were using.  But we were not poor.  Yet there were poor people in our home who cooked for us when we were hungry, washed our dishes when we were full, cleaned our house when we were busy, cared for us when we were sick, went to market for us when we were still sleeping, but did not sleep in the beds we enjoyed, did not sit at the table we gathered around, and did not enjoy the same food we enjoyed because they had prepared it.  Even as a youth I felt a great inner discomfort at this situation.  In school, we were taught:  God created us.  God loves us.  We are all part of the family of God.  But at home I was experiencing a situation I knew ought be otherwise.  Because God created and loves us all equally, in my own household I was experiencing social injustice.

I had a friend who was very rich.  His name was Wahoo. His father was a manufacturer of cement.  He lived in a posh house in Forbes Park and drove his own car. I admired him because he was intelligent, simple, softspoken and kind.  What he would do, I would want to do.  On weekends, from the luxury of his home in Forbes Park he would commute in a public bus all the way to Sapang Palay in San Jose del Monte.  Then, Sapang Palay was a resettlement of misery.  Their homes had been demolished in the slums of Manila, their remains loaded onto NHA trucks with their erstwhile inhabitants, and dumped onto a lot of Sapang Palay.  There they were told to rebuild their houses and their lives with hardly anyone to help them.  Wahoo would help them.  He would go there on weekends to help in whatever way he could.  Clad in a simple white T-Shirt and fading jeans, he would climb up shanties to help the elderly with their roofs; he would talk to young and old, eat with them and drink with them; he would love and be loved.  I used to go along with Wahoo on these visits to Sapang Palay.  Somehow, I wanted to be like him.  I too wanted to help the poor.  I too wanted to do what I could to work against social injustice.

Social Justice in the Jesuit Mission

That is why as a Jesuit I didn’t want to get involved in the university which seemed to cater to the rich. In time, as my Jesuit formation allowed me to personally appropriate the Jesuit mission, I felt within a quiet elation when what I learned of this mission resonated with my response to the social injustice situations in my youth.  The Jesuit mission is about the service of the faith.  But in the span of my Jesuit life, the implications of that mission have been unraveled.  General Congregation 33 (GC 33) insisted that the service of the faith is inseparable from the promotion of justice.  GC 34 amplified this insight further into an internally interlocking, symbiotic mission in the service of the faith which promotes justice that is sensitive to cultures and engages in inter-religious dialogue, the key insight being that one cannot engage in any one of these areas without getting involved in all others.  GC 35 added the environment.  Most recently, GC 36 re-stated this from the perspective of reconciliation:  the three-fold reconciliation with God, with humanity and with creation.  As all of these brought the Society of Jesus to a deeper appreciation of its mission, I think I felt my own commitment to social justice – rooted in a personal discomfort with and rejection of inequalities in our society – affirmed and strengthened in my personal acceptance of the Jesuit mission.   It was deepened as I spent my first two years as a Jesuit priest as priest-in-charge of San Pedro Resettlement Area in Laguna, and years later as priest-in-charge of the Sambayanang Kristyano ng Kristong Hari, where with the people and Cardinal Sin we fought inhumane and unjust demolitions and worked for the passage of the Housing and Urban Development Act into law (1992).

All this is important for our topic, I believe, because leadership inevitably involves the leader.  It involves understanding what makes the leader lead.

There is a spirituality involved here.  I do not immediately mean something as mature as Carmelite or Cistercian or Franciscan spirituality. I mean something more immediate, and perhaps for many not even articulated, and much less reflected on or even criticized.  I mean that which differentiates a leader from just his or her body, that which makes him or her as a human being tick.  I mean that which makes a person who encounters a mother and a child who have slept all night on the sidewalk react the way he or she does. Some respond with dismay because their sense of order and cleanliness on the streets is violated by this unsightly spectacle.  Others respond with disgust because the welfare and humanity of the mother and child are violated by the conditions that force them to sleep on a cold and dirty sidewalk.  Some people react to a baby as just yet another mouth to feed, others respond to a baby as a precious gift and responsibility from God.  Some people respond to the scent of a flower with awe, others hardly even notice it.  What makes a human being tick is the set of human relations he or she has been blessed or cursed with in life, the set of gut values that have been shaped from one’s childhood, within one’s family, barkada and community that are profoundly personal.  What makes a human being tick, his or her spirituality, is that which moves the leader to lead, and distinguishes his or her leadership from that of another.  It is that which shapes one’s choices, enables one to take risks or isolates one from them, opens one to growth or condemns one to being stunted, helps one to welcome criticism and grow from it, or forces one to avoid criticism, and react to it whenever it must come.   The spirituality in my leadership – what makes me tick – is what began as a profound disturbance at the discrepancy between the way the poor lived and the way we lived, and matured into an personal acceptance of the mission of the Jesuits:  the commitment to work for social justice as demanded by faith and understanding that today social justice is not possible without the transformation of our culture and the dialogue between religions that accepts diversity of faiths.

University Leadership

I never wanted to be a university president. But in 1999 when Fr. Rolly Bonoan, President of the newly-recognized University of the Ateneo de Naga, passed away without permission through a heart attack, his job passed to me.  It was at Ateneo de Naga where I learned how to be a University President.  I learned not only about how to read financial statements and the complexities of construction.  I learned how to appreciate a university community of scholars and academicians that comes together to pursue truth in academic freedom.  I learned how a Jesuit university in academic freedom appropriates the mission of the Society of Jesus:  the service of the faith, the promotion of justice, sensitivity to cultures and inter-religious dialogue.  I learned that as a leader I did not have to have all the answers, and that there was much to be learned from listening.  I learned that leading a university that had appropriated the Jesuit mission meant working with lay-persons who were as committed to the Jesuit mission as any Jesuit could be.  The university mission statement was not just words that adorned walls for the appreciation of accreditors.  It meant the university community itself being transformed by values of faith, justice, resilient cultures and religious dialogue and the spiritual insights of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  It meant a courageous commitment to social justice through the key university functions of instruction, research, and outreach.  In Bikol, this involved them in the struggle against poverty and in the fight against environmental destruction through mining.  I learned therefore that the way ADNU operated impacted transformatively first on the university community, then consequently on the community beyond the university.  I experienced poor students become engineers and nurses and computer animators and witnessed how they pull their families out of poverty.  I experienced how teachers inspired by the positive influence their university had on the communities around it recommitted themselves to university work for the personal satisfaction of the work.  In all this, I learned the university was not the institution that but preserves the status quo as I had once feared, but was a powerful institution if appropriately led for social transformation.  Leading a Jesuit university was about leading a powerful institution for personal and social transformation.  It was about an opportunity to help shape a university in accordance with what made me tick – a deep desire to pursue social justice based on personal faith.

Shared Passion, Shared Mission

Even after my twelve years at ADNU, I was wary of ADDU.  ADNU had no unions. ADDU had four.  ADNU had a history of people coming together to solve shared problems.  ADDU had a history of strikes.  ADNU was in a city of some two hundred thousand people;  Davao had 1.5 million.   For me, ADNU had been a good and gentle teacher.  ADDU was a challenge.

I knew I could not lead alone.  Even before I was inaugurated President, I gathered together a group of some sixty people.  The criterion for invitation was passion.  I asked my assistants to gather together all those in the university who were passionate about anything.  I didn’t want the yes-people.  I wanted those who had strong convictions.  I said, let’s talk.  So in the Davao Eden resort the Davao eagles gathered, passionate people all.  They came from the unions, the outreach institutes, the grade school, the high school, the colleges, the law school, the students, the staff, the administrators, the alumni.  They came curious about who the new university president was, as I came curious about who they were.  For five days, we discussed four questions:  What is your personal passion?  Are you able to express this at the Ateneo de Davao?  If yes, how do you do so.  If not, why not?   What resulted was genuinely profound.  People who were battle scarred from the conflicts with management through the unions expressed their dismay and hurt.  They had been trained by the Jesuits in social justice.  How was it that they were now on the opposite sides of the bargaining table?  People who were once friends expressed how difficult it was to repair damaged relationships. People who used to know the Ateneo de Davao as a place where each knew everyone else were dismayed by the segmentation of the university into groups that did not communicate with each other.  Teachers who had an eros for research expressed dismay at being held back from research.  Faculty who had a passion for the environment expressed their isolation in their engagement.  People who were focused on teaching had complaints about the cramped facilities of their work spaces.  As I listened to the frustration and the complaints, it was clear to me that all was rooted in a manifest appreciation for the university and its mission.  So in that privileged moment in Eden which had been dubbed, “Shared Passion, Shared Mission,” I worked to understand whether we did share mission, whether we did share a mission as a university that was not only about instruction, but also emphatically about research and outreach, and that as a university, we shared appreciation of being Catholic, Jesuit and Filipino.  We came out with no document in that Eden experience.  But we did come to a meeting of minds, a convergence of spirit, which defined our universitas, our community, from within.  We decided that what made us tick was the same, a shared passion, a shared mission in our community to search for and serve truth through the service of the faith, the promotion of justice, sensitivity to cultures and the protection and preservation of the environment.

When we left the gardens of Eden and came back to our classrooms and offices, we allowed the acknowledged shared passion and shared mission to shape the reformulation of our Vision and Mission statement.  In our identity-statement we clearly acknowledged ourselves to be a university – a community of scholars and researchers pursuing truth in academic freedom.  But we also declared ourselves to be Catholic, Jesuit and Filipino.  The mission statement was a declaration of how our university identity manifests itself in our mission:  in the formation of leaders for the Church and society in Mindanao, in the promotion of faith that does justice, in cultural sensitivity and transformation, and in inter-religious dialogue, particularly with the Muslim and Lumad communities of Mindanao.  ADDU would promote communities touched and transformed buy the faith.  It would promote social justice, gender equality, good governance, the creation of wealth and its equitable distribution.  It would engage vigorously in environmental protection, the protection of biodiversity, and the promotion of renewable energy.  It would promote educational reform.

Walking the Talk for the Environment and for Peace

The mission statement was longer and more detailed than usual in such statements.  But that was because it gathered together the actual convictions and commitments of people belonging to the community.  What however soon became evident was that it was not just words.  It was not just a poster on the wall for accreditors.  ADDU was suddenly in the thick of public opposition to the large-scale open-pit SMI mines in Tampakan, South Cotabato.  It took the side of the Blaan people opposing SMI’s destruction of their homeland.  It took the side of the lowland farmers whose rice fields would be threatened by permanent destruction from the toxic effluence of the mine.  It disputed the claim that a pit 500 hectares large and more than 800 meters deep – the depth of two Empire State Buildings place one on top of the other – would not adversely affect the environment.  It took the side of the Philippine environment whose old-growth forests and biodiversity would be adversely affected by the mining project.  It took the side of the Philippine nation whose interests are adversely affected by implementation of the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 – which some have described as treasonous.  Our opposition was determined and effective. We gained many friends among environmentalists, including the social action groups of the Archdiocese of Marbel.  But because we were effective we also gained many enemies, foremost among them the Chamber of Mines.  We also lost friends.  The chairman of our Board of Trustees, whose family had financial interests in Tampakan, resigned.

ADDU also got quickly involved in the peace process.  It took its mission commitment to inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue seriously.  As a Catholic and Jesuit university, it is the only Jesuit school in the Philippines with an AB in Islamic Studies focusing on the political economy.  Soon after the Shared Vision, Shared Mission event, it set up its Institute for Muslim Identities and Dialogue in Southeast Asia under the leadership of Datu Mussolini Lidasan.  Before coming to Davao I was not sensitive to the historical plight of the Filipino Muslim community.  I soon learned that its struggle – whether for independence or for genuine autonomy – was ultimately a struggle for social justice – or for a righting of historical injustice – and for a homeland.  This was the struggle of a proud people whose culturally rich sultanates under the crescent moon were formed centuries before the arrival of the Spaniard and the Cross.  In Mindanao, through the actions of the Spaniards, the Americans and in time, what many do not understand, even the Filipinos, they were in their native land relegated to the wrong side of history.  In the Treaty of Paris they were sold by Spain to the US, even though Spain had never conquered them and so were not Spain’s to sell.  They were mesmerized and deceived by the Americans in the Bates Agreement, massacred by the Americans in Bud Bagsak and Bud Dajo through Generals Wood and Pershing who considered them barbarians, marginalized and minoritized through the creation of the Moro Province ruled from Zamboanga, then later the Department of Mindanao and Sulu ruled from Manila, where under the civilian governor Frank Carpenter, they were “Filipinized” by subjecting them to the rule of Christian Filipinos from the north. Through the Agricultural Colonies Act under the Americans (1913) and the Colonization Act under the Commonwealth (1935) they were pushed off their lands and subjected to a land registration system that was foreign to them, alienating them permanently from their lands. Closer to our times, they were subjected to the Jabidah Massacre.   The misunderstanding and discrimination is rooted in their culture inseparable from their diverse receptions of Islam persist to this day.  It can be said the contemporary struggle for a Muslim Homeland through a constitutionally mandated Bangsamoro Basic Law begins there.  ADDU has involved itself deeply in this struggle, making the Bangsamoro struggle its own.   It continues to do so in its research, its instruction, the Madaris Volunteer Program, the Mindanao Peace Games, and the ongoing advocacy of a meaningful Bangsamoro homeland in the Philippines.

Our Vision and Mission Statement committing us to self-transformation and the transformation of society is not just words;  it are the soul of the university as it is the soul of my leadership and I daresay the soul of all who teach, who research and serve the Mindanao community from the university.  It is the soul behind what I approve or disapprove, promote or discourage, reaching back in me to that discomfort in my youth with the reality of squatters on the other side of the wall, or the unequal of the poor right inside our household, or the idol I found in a Wahoo Taylor who decided he had something to contribute to better the lot of the poor.  The faith-based commitment to social transformation in the university is the soul which we nurture through a program that promotes Ignatian spirituality on all levels for the University, for faculty, staff and students.  The programs are not mandatory, but because they are highly appreciated they are highly subscribed.  They involve our community in three-day, five-day, eight-day and recently even thirty-day silent retreats.  We have carefully trained lay faculty members who guide these retreats. We have a facility and staff in Samal, the St. Ignatius Spirituality Center, dedicated exclusively to silent retreats;  we open this not only to Catholics but also to Muslims seeking silence to find the will of God.  Ultimately, the institutional faith-based commitment to social justice is the commitment of the members of the community that finds the energy, stamina, generosity, courage and self-sacrificing dedication to fight for the common good in their quiet listening to God in their lives during these retreats.

The ADDU Graduate:  Our Most Important Contribution to Social Change

Meanwhile, the spirit and insights of the Shared Passion, Shared Vision experience in Eden have been re-articulated by similar representations of the various units of the university in another Eden experience this time in the ADDU Strategic Plan for 2015-2020.  Here, once again, beginning from the Vision and Mission of the University we move through five core principles, through nine mission goals, through nine key result areas and accompanying key performance indicators, unto an articulation of the profile of our graduate.  We call the Strategic Plan “AFIRE for Social Justice and the Common Good”, calling forth from us the Administration, the Formation, the Instruction, the Research and the Engagement that ultimately produces our graduates for the common good, declaring that our graduate is our most important contribution to social change and transformation.   We expect that our graduates, rooted in faith, would:

  1. Be educated leaders in society for the common good, especially for Mindanao;
  2. Express their faith through works of justice;
  3. Positively contribute to belief in a secular world;
  4. Engage in dialogue with peoples of different faiths and cultures, and work for peace;
  5. Live out and promote environmental stewardship;
  6. Have an entrepreneurial spirit; produce wealth and ensure its equitable distribution in society;
  7. Work for and with vulnerable communities for their development;
  8. Serve the Roman Catholic Church;
  9. Lead in the promotion of educational reforms.

To recap:  I had been requested to talk about transformative school leadership and about guiding change towards valued institutional goals.  I said that leadership has something to do with the leader, and what makes the leader tick. My early personal commitment to social change through experiences which confronted me with I perceived to be social injustice helps account for what makes me tick as a university leader.  This early commitment was reinforced in my appropriation of the mission of the Society of Jesus which involved a faith-based pursuit of social justice inseparable from sensitivity to cultures, inter-religious dialogue and environmental responsibility.  Our university was Jesuit because it appropriated this Jesuit mission, calling for the appropriate transformation of the university community and the community beyond.  This shaped the mission and vision of the school.  It shapes its strategic planning, including the institutional goals as articulated and pursued.  Most of all, it shapes the day-to-day real activities that demonstrate the truth of the mission and vision: like the public protest of the university against large scale mining, and the sustained  advocacy of the university for a Bangsamoro homeland. Like our efforts in instruction and formation to sensitize our students to the demands of the common good and make this the mark of their ADDU sui generis leadership when they graduate.

Not a Rose Garden Without Thorns

I would mislead you were I to give you the impression that this is a rose garden without thorns.  We do have our problems of miscommunication, underachievement, fatigue, discouragement and overwork.  We have our problems with competition and our challenges in our relationships with the Department of Education and the CHED.  We still have ongoing problems in our college faculty union, which have reached external bodies such as the DOLE and the courts. We are disappointed when despite our formation programs there are those who would seem to sacrifice authentic joy, social purpose and personal development in their work for issues of compensation, benefits and power. It is for this reason that I am deeply grateful that in running the university I am not alone.  I run the university with a host of faculty members, staff, administrators and students who truly love the university, who fight for its just rights, and make it function as it does.  I also run the university inspired by the example and dedication of other educational leaders in the CEAP, the COCOPEA, the PASUC and PAASCU who network and bond in the service of education in the Philippines.

Because we are not perfect, because we are a human organization whose excellence is dependent on the freedom and dedication of our co-workers, because good people can get tired, suffer fatigue, and must address challenges beyond the university in their homes and communities, because the roster of our co-workers is vulnerable to the market both local and foreign, because people resign or retire and new people come with unusual ideas or different cultures of work, and ideals of excellence may flag, I am a great believer in quality assurance and in the ASEAN Quality Assurance Framework.  We must assure ourselves and others that what we claim is true and can be evidenced.  This demands quality assurance based on an external quality assurance agency, on external processes and standards, on an internal quality assurance culture, operating within a national qualifications framework.  Of these, I believe that the most important insight of quality assurance is that it is the educational institution that has the first responsibility for quality.  Because the institution must find truth, communicate truth and serve the community in truth, it must take first cudgels for the quality of its activities.  Because we are serious about our institutional goals, quality assurance is indispensible.

Thank you for this opportunity to share something of my leadership and my life with you.  In my youth I never dreamed of this role.  I wanted to be a fireman.  But having had the privilege of university leadership, I would now not want it otherwise.  In the Philippines, we have yet to realize the full potential of an integrated self-governing higher educational community where public and private universities work together to improve higher educational delivery for Philippine students.  We have yet to experience a higher educational community that in academic freedom not only outputs the professional expertise and social leadership of the country today, but also stands as a critical promoter and fierce protector of the common good with all its challenges and complexities.  But what we have yet to experience is part of the challenge of educational leadership on our watch.  Thank you to the Center for Educational Measurement for the invaluable service you render education in the Philippines.  As we continue our service, may God continue to disturb us in the many who are poor and ignorant, may he strengthen us in our educational institutions, and in our commitment to truth may he grant us peace!


About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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