When I got back from lunch today, I found out about the news all my classmates were fussing about. It's still fresh, being published less than 4 hours ago. In colossal letters, the headline cuts deep and to the chase:
There it laid, among money laundering schemes and corruption scandals, the once renowned name of my university, providing newsworthy content for crime pages, instead of science and technology papers.
It might look unfair, at first. UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) has several thousand professors and researchers, and many more students working across many, many fields: arts, nature, technology, education, health sciences, social sciences, law, business, philosophy. It has amassed a long-standing reputation among college-seeking students after decades of constantly being at the top of national rankings:
- First at the Ranking Universitário Folha 2016;
- Fifth at the General College Index (IGC) 2015, by the Brazilian Ministry of Education;
- Second university with most graduate programs awarded with the highest grade at the Plataforma Sucupira, by the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology.
While simultaneously showing up strongly at international ones:
- Times magazine places it at the top 800 universities in the world;
- ShanghaiRanking gives it a top 400 at its Academic Ranking of World Universities 2016;
- Quacquarelli Symonds is more specific and rates UFRJ as the #321 Top University.
As such, it has become a dream for millions of students, professors and researchers to be able to join UFRJ one day. It used to be a dream of mine, as well. Since whatever happens on campus hides behind a curtain of academic tradition, it is easy to overlook most warnings as biased rumors. It is only natural to expect the worst not to ever happen to yourself, dismissing any reports as isolated cases. However, the truth is that UFRJ has built a strong tradition on abuse, as well. This complaint about racism is far, far from the first to ever surface out of the deep waters of university rumors. In fact, I was at this specific's professor - everyone knows his name, but no one is brave enough to spell it out - exactly six years ago, at my very first semester at the Computer and Engineering undergraduate program. He made the same racist jokes, back then, and many more: sexist jokes, anti-Semitic jokes, elitist jokes, xenophobic jokes, ableist jokes. In fact, those were not casual jokes, or meant as analogies for the students to better grasp the subject. Most of the time, his remarks felt out of place and unnecessary, and often made understanding class topics harder for those less familiar with his level of prejudice. Of course, in my time, we were not only scared, but also not directly affected, since 80% of student body used to be of the white male variety. Affirmative actions have changed the environment over the years to a more diverse one, and this vitriolic reaction seems to have stemmed as a direct result.
What surprises me every time, however, is society's reaction to those situations. A fairly aware citizen, at this point, should not be that skeptical towards complaints about criminal demeanors by staff members. In fact, if I was a parent, I'd be wary of sending my kids to a university that has a history of not only embracing Impunity, but also actively obstructing justice whenever possible:
- On May 29th, 2012, TV Globo's Profissão Repórter denounced an UFRJ Physics professor in national television of continuously raping an underage girl while abusing her family's trust. After a long, painful lawsuit, that girl's family managed to convince a court to issue an arrest warrant after him. Since it took so long to act, he managed to escape and run from justice, as expected. What went unnoticed by the excellent production crew, however, was the fact that he was still a professor after the university was notified. In fact, as an engineering student myself, I attended many of his classes without realizing he was a sexual offender. Even months after running away, the Institute of Physics kept him on his website (and probably on payroll) for several months, before allowing him to escape on a leave. From the university, not a single note was issued. The entire issue was so handsomely swept under the rug that it took me several minutes of web searching to find a mention about it. His name? Still nowhere to be seen;
- On March 27th, 2013, it was Ericksson Rocha e Almendra's turn to show up on the papers, after calling foreign students as from "culturally inferior regions", via e-mail, to thousands of engineering students, many of them had just arrived to the campus. This was their first contact from the head of UFRJ's Engineering School, a warning of how they would be seen by the faculty, elegantly calling them barbarian morons, for doing no more than shaving their heads as a rite of passage for getting accepted at UFRJ. Almendra's did apologize for the fact, but no other move was done by the University. A few years down the road, Almendra would rise as a superintendent after siding with the winning party for the Dean office;
- On April 26th, 2013, O Globo stamped Anatoli Leontiev's name on its papers. A Calculus professor, affiliated to the Institute of Mathematics, Leontiev made the headlines after refusing to teach as retaliation against a protest, run by the students, demanding better transportation infrastructure. Despite the fact that students inside the classroom were not a part of the protest - otherwise, they could not be inside -, he decided, unilaterally, to punish all students with an absence. He did the same to his other class, five hours later, despite spending a whole hour arguing with students. When cornered by their sound reasoning, Leontiev did not hesitate: "This is my University! Mine! Not yours!". This time, it didn't go unnoticed: a note, mentioning an alleged investigation, was indeed published, but nothing came out of it, of course. In fact, Leontiev was promoted less than a year later;
- On January 11th, 2016, O Globo takes the initiative again to report on another UFRJ professor. This time, the offender is Adlène Hicheur, an associate professor at the Institute of Physics. Despite being exonerated from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) due to his terrorist affiliations, this proved to be no obstacle for an institute that had agreed to house and hide a pedophile just a few years before. The article is very straightforward about the staff instance on the subject: "Our position is that we got involved with a person whose performance was praised. He was never embarrassed among his coworkers, who were aware of his previous imprisonment". In fact, the faculty seems completely focused on the professor's well-being, while oblivious to the exposure of thousands of students to an international criminal.
Still, perhaps, racism accusations might seem surprising to society in general. In fact, judging by the 63 comments wrote so far, most readers even seem to side with the professor in this matter. Maybe some of them are just abhorrently as that professor, I must recognize, but many are just blindfolded by UFRJ's sparkly reputation, and its aptitude to sweep its faults under the rug. I am still going to glance over those comments and analyze them, as an insider, because it looks like a powerful exercise on empathy, but this is topic for another post. For now, UFRJ criminals and uninformed citizens stand united on the foxholes, battling together against the winds of change. After all, as George Orwell had successfully predicted in his wonderful Nineteen Eight-four:
"Ignorance is Strength."