Saturday, May 1, 2010

Marilou Gilo-Abon, dynamic educator and practical visionary

The first woman president of the Nueva Vizcaya State University had just started her second term when illness struck her down. The woman of science who was also an advocate of the arts passed away on her birthday, April 23, also Shakespeare’s and Cervantes’ death anniversary

THEY DO NOT make university presidents and administrators like the late Marilou S. Gilo-Abon (1955-2010) anymore, if they ever did.

Many, if not most, educational administrators are content to emphasize, and remain on the level of, the ceremoniousness associated with the job, upon appointment to such positions of institutional leadership. Not Abon.

She was, in her illustrious life and productive academic career, recently and sadly cut short by serious ailment, a genuine luftmensch, but with a decisive twist. She was, without it being a patent contradiction, both impractical and practical.

As the eminent art critic and historian Dore Ashton notes, using the word in reference to the singularity of avant-garde Filipino artist David Medalla, luftmensch in English means “impractical visionary” and is therefore a redundancy.

“Was there ever a practical visionary?,” Ashton asks.

Abon, whom I have not known for very long but I now feel I have known and been dreaming about for a lifetime, was one such practical visionary.

Like all visionaries, she was or could be seen by envious, conservative or spiteful competitors and peers as possessing an essentially impractical side to her person. It is their inadvertent contribution to enlightenment, if so, to count her among the few real luftmenschen in our midst.

Yet although a certifiable dreamer, she moved about the world of action with elfin ease and grace. Her almost impossible dreams and visions as an academic leader she willfully put into practice, against all opposition, skepticism, even hostility from entrenched interests.

I have worked under many educational administrators locally and abroad (who predictably, and in due course, ossify into Kafkaesque bureaucrats) but none or precious few could come close to approximating the sheer iconoclasm and irreplaceable style of Abon’s academic leadership.

At the time of her untimely death on April 23, incidentally her 55th birthday, she was completing the first year of her second term as president of Nueva Vizcaya State University (NVSU), a two-campus state university system in Nueva Vizcaya in the capital town of Bayombong and the nearby large and vegetable-trading municipality of Bambang.

Granted a charter as a state university through legislation sponsored by Rep. Carlos Padilla in 2004, NVSU was the result of a merger between the older Nueva Vizcaya State Institute of Technology of Bayombong (established 1916) and the younger Nueva Vizcaya School of Arts and Trades, later Nueva Vizcaya State Polytechnic (founded 1946), in Bambang.


Specialized, like most regional higher education institutions (HEIs), in the agricultural and practical sciences (technology and trades), NVSU expanded phenomenally, under Abon’s unusual and dynamic leadership as its first charter and female president beginning in 2005, to include an extension campus in Hong Kong (2008) and a splendid variety of faculty/student exchange programs with sister universities and institutions in Thailand, Hong Kong, China, Australia, Singapore, Spain and Israel.

Degree programs in ecotourism, hospitality management, veterinary medicine, and environmental science, among a host of others which she deemed pertinent to the needs of the province, were set up one after the other during her first term (2005-2009) alone, in addition to the consolidation and upgrading of NVSU’s traditional strengths in forestry, the agricultural sciences, and education.

Herself an accomplished research scholar in social statistics and development studies, Abon saw to the establishment and staffing of enterprising research and extension programs or centers at NVSU, sensitive to the peculiar natural and cultural configurations of Nueva Vizcaya as a rice/vegetable and citrus-growing province, and as home to a dazzling array of ethnolinguistic groups like settler Ilocanos, migratory Tagalogs, and some 19 indigenous communities like the Ilongot, Kalanguya, Isinai and Gaddang.

Examples include a Center for Environmental Resources Management and Sustainable Development, a citrus center, and an innovative program in fisheries.

A Bambang Studies Center, in a gesture toward local and regional studies that has been the most lively transdisciplinary research development in the Philippine academy since the 1980s, was on the drawing boards by the end of her first term and the beginning of her abortive second.

For some of these enterprising initiatives, the university recently received citations from the Council of Higher Education in outstanding research and extension, and in an exemplary case of excellent institutional governance, from the Department of Budget and Management and the Commission on Audit for its vauntedly scrupulous accounting office and practices.

Unlike literature program

More astonishingly, NVSU was close to instituting an unlikely AB Literature program in late 2009, the resultant context within which I and a number of colleagues from the University of Santo Tomas Faculty of Arts and Letters developed a working relationship, indeed affectionate friendship, with her.

One might ask what business a regional HEI otherwise niched in the practical sciences and technology has dreaming of, and intending to establish, a humanistic and impractical program like literature among its degree offerings?

Indeed, some parochial elements in and out of the university and the province might have scoffed at the more general visibility, lately, of a presumably sleepy and narrowly-gauged NVSU, in the field of culture and arts development.

After all, it organized, in coordination with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Likhaan Center of the University of the Philippines, a “Pagpupugay sa Gawad Pambansang Alagad ng Sining sa Panitikan” and literary studies conference in August 2009 to honor National Artist Edith Tiempo, most famous daughter of the province and the Gaddang people.

At the August 2009 conference, Abon asked me and Univesity of Santo Tomas professors Ferdinand Lopez, Ralph Galan, Jack Wigley, and Inquirer Art and Books subsection editor Lito Zulueta to deliver papers on the aesthetics and politics of Tiempo’s oeuvre to a capacity crowd of faculty and students from its two campuses and other Nueva Vizcaya colleges.

In fact, at its recent and spectacular 6th Charter Anniversary celebration which I and the same group of UST professors, with the addition of dancer and poet Nerissa Guevarra, attended and participated in, and which an already visibly ill Abon gamely and bravely presided over, a cultural performance troupe from Hunan Agricultural University (one of NVSU’s sister institutions) was in town to stage performances of classical and modern Chinese/Tibetan dance and to deliver dance lessons to interested participants.

‘Art in sciences’

The answer or explanation is not difficult to find.

Featured in a December 2009 number of Women’s Journal, as part of its Women in Service to Education series, Abon expounded her belief, as then dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Central Luzon State University, one of several key positions she occupied at that university before accepting the NVSU presidency, that “there is art in the sciences and science in the arts.”

One might recognize this as a modern restatement of the ancient Greek notion of poeisis, in which, as the Women’s Journal interviewer paraphrases Abon, “art and science are fused, and not poles apart, much like being two sides of the same coin.”

Muñoz itself, the “Science City” where Central Luzon State University (CLSU) is located and whose artistically inclined incumbent Mayor Nestor Alvarez, a biology PhD and former CLSU Arts and Sciences dean, Abon counted as a very close associate and friend, has become an unusual center for culture and arts development in the Philippines, among whose most striking events in recent memory were the series of public-access conciertos performed there by world-renowned classical pianist Cecile Licad.

Tulips and beauty

In the tribute and necrological rites organized by the CLSU College of Arts and Sciences and held on April 27, to honor Abon, close friend and colleague Dr. Carmelita Ramos testified that upon Abon’s arrival on the CLSU campus at age 21 to begin her academic career, “We already noticed that distinctive sense of style for which she would be known and which she would characteristically exhibit all her life.”

It was a self-fashioning which, for Ramos, marked Abon out to be an aesthete, somebody who made art a way of life and “beauty a manner of becoming” (translated from the Tagalog).

In his poignant and moving response to the CLSU testimonials, Abon’s son, Rhys Carlos, alumnus of UST’s distinguished architecture program, confirmed that Abon raised him and his sister Kaye (a recent UST literature graduate) with an eye to beauty and the development of artistic sensibility.

“In our afternoon conversations, while I was growing up,” Rhys recounts, “she once told me that for flowers, she favored the tulip. I never asked and she never explained why.”

Reflecting upon his mother’s life, Rhys said “I am now only beginning to understand why this was so, why she loved this flower. Tulips are fragile but, precisely for that, are such things of beauty.”

Likening his mother and the beauty of her life to the tulip, Rhys noted how the tulip starts out as a tubular blossom “but can be seen at its most beautiful once it spreads its petals and begins to wilt.”

One lesson then that he wanted others to take from his mother’s momentous life and early death is that “death is what makes life meaningful, and that things are beautiful exactly because they never last.”

The Women’s Journal feature on Abon observes that one of the most striking characteristics that one is likely to impress anybody about her, on meeting her for the first time, is “her way with words.” I told Rhys after the tribute how much of his mother I saw in him and his sister Kaye. But he did not need to remind me how he prefaced the tulip anecdote with the disclaimer that “My metaphorical predilections are as nothing, compared to my mother’s speech.”

I do not know of any architect who speaks in this literary and beautiful manner, or at least it is not everyday that one comes across somebody like that who does.

But then again, why wonder when it was somebody like Abon who raised him, and sought to convince others in the regional and science academy, and perhaps people like me now in the literary and humanistic academy, that “there is art in science, and science in the arts”?

“Think of me as a dream,” Franz Kafka once wrote (and it is my favorite artist David Medalla’s favorite quote). As an academic, I have always dreamed about and wished for an institutional superior and leader like Abon to be at the helm of our educational institutions.

Like a dream she had come to life, no matter how briefly, in my own waking world, and in the many worlds she had touched and graced with her bounteous gifts. But like a beautiful dream, no matter how deep the sense of loss, she must come to pass, and be allowed to fade away so hauntingly.

Oscar V. Campomanes of Ateneo de Manila University and the UST Graduate School is a native of Bambang, Nueva Vizcaya.

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