Exclusive Interview: How Rosario, Colombia’s Oldest University Keeps Making An Impact 350 Years After Its Founding
Colombia’s oldest university, Universidad del Rosario produces many of the country’s political, business and legal leaders. Still, the university continues to innovate and take an active role in Colombia’s social inclusion efforts, such as participating in the government’s “Ser Pilo Paga” scholarship program, which finances the university education of the country’s top high school graduates of low and moderate resources.
On the innovation front, the university won first place in EMC Corporation’s EMC Heritage Trust project, which will provide Rosario $15,000 USD to digitize 950 manuscripts in the university’s possession from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, including historically important papers from Spain’s King Phillip IV and King Carlos IV.
Considered an elite university within Colombia and abroad, Rosario manages to pursue both academic excellence as well as a societal mission. Finance Colombia’s executive editor Loren Moss was able to sit down with Universidad del Rosario’s Rector José Manuel Restrepo Abondano to gain his insights on Rosario’s role in Colombia’s society.
Finance Colombia: Tell me the history of Rosario. What makes Rosario unique?
José Manuel Restrepo: Maybe to start with, the university has the longest uninterrupted history in the country. Even before Colombia was a republic, because Rosario was created in 1653 when this was the “Nuevo Reino de Granada,” when it was a Spanish colony. And, it was also created with a very singular characteristic: the students were members of the board of directors of the university, which means that the governance rested with the students. Today this system still exists. The 15 best undergraduate students of the university elect the dean every 4 years and also elect the university’s board of directors that is called the ‘conciliatura’. This means that Rosario is a university where the student is truly the owner and protagonist of the university. The third characteristic is what I call the perfect combination between tradition and innovation, past and future. What does that mean? It means that there are roots that have been constructed during the course of history that are reflected in many facets of the country.
More than 30 presidents of the Republic have been educated at Rosario. No one else has that kind of record. Secondly, we actively participated in the botanical expedition, which was the first scientific expedition of its type that took place in this region of the world. And when I say directly I mean that our professors and students led this effort. We participated in the construction of the Republic, when the Republic of Colombia was created, with graduates that were fundamental participants of that moment in history. We participated in independence, we participated in the Constitution of 1991 and we are actively participating in the peace process and in the post-conflict initiatives. Those are only some examples of what our historic tradition has been. But simultaneously it is a university that is committed to research. Today, it is ranked between 5th and 6th place with respect to production of research in the country. It is an institution that it is also committed to being international with dual degree opportunities, with academic exchanges for students that are currently linked to the university. That also has been an effort with respect to innovation in pedagogic practices, because the future is not what we teach, but how we are going to teach it.
And that makes a difference. And the third thing is that the history of medicine in the country has also been linked to the history of the university. Rosario had Colombia’s first Faculty of Medicine. 1671 was when the first Faculty of Medicine of this country was established. Today the Faculty of Medicine has the biggest hospital in the Andean region. It is the hospital of Méderi, and it is our hospital. And the truth is that it has been recognized for being an institution that has been committed to social, political, legal and economic issues, and simultaneously with health matters, rehabilitation and human development.
Finance Colombia: Speaking about becoming international, what alliances do you have with other academic institutions or with the private sector?
José Manuel Restrepo: I am going to give to you some examples but most of the programs have a dual degree. Our undergraduate program in psychology has a dual degree with the University of Bologna, that is the oldest western university. Our law school has dual degree programs with The University of Paris, the Faculty of Economics has links with Tilburg University, dual degrees. Each program designs a strategy of internationalization that includes many chapters. One is how to attract students from abroad to come here. As of today, more than 170 foreign students are in Rosario for a period of time. How many students travel from here to abroad? How many teachers come from abroad? In the statistics of percentages of international professors we are in the top two of the country. Because we do look to attract international professors, which is also a way to capture better human talent for research activities.
Each semester we focus on a region of the world. Last semester we dedicated it to South Korea. So there were a bunch of activities, both curricular and extracurricular around, focused on South Korea as a theme so the students can live the experience as if they were in South Korea. Also through visits and international trips this effort is achieved. Through the practice of a second language and the commitment of the student to develop ability in a second language, classes being taught in a second language. And in general, let’s say to achieve that, the international culture permeates the academic activity. Through lectures. Through academic exchanges, through professors, etc.
Finance Colombia: Social inclusion is a theme here in Colombia that is very important. What are the programs and the initiatives that Rosario has in respect to that topic? Because it is my impression that Rosario has a reputation of being very…
José Manuel Restrepo: Elitist.
Finance Colombia: Yes, first thing people might think is that it must be very expensive, and that it is where only presidents’ children go to.
José Manuel Restrepo: Starting many years ago, the university has had a strategy, and the strategy is that education is not about admitting good people and graduating good people. That can be done by anybody. Better said, the bad one would be the professor that does not manage to give the student some added value. A student with good grades from school that also graduates from the university with good grades also is likely to not even need professors. His professors can be bad, either way he is going to make it. Our commitment is more with the added value. I know that I admit students in a very high proportion from median levels of the population, and also from low socioeconomic levels. Because of that, 20% of the students are on scholarship. Also because of that is that we allocate 18 billion pesos to a scholarship program. But the value that one should give as educators is to transform that student that is potentially good into an excellent one. That gap is what educating is. Any other thing is not to educate. Any other thing is simply to pass through a university.
With those ideas, and having discovered that value that we have had, we said: hey, we do have a commitment that can be extended to another part of the country’s population? And because of that we decided to get involved with programs of the national government such as “Ser Pilo Paga.” We admitted students that came from much more lower economic strata. Levels 1 and 2 of the population, because we were able to add value. And those are Rosario values. So we are now admitting a larger proportion of students in those economic conditions, so long as they have human potential. Talent. Because what is going to make a difference in the future of an elite university is the academia and talent. It is not going to make a difference if you come from a high, low or medium economic strata. What makes a difference in the future is the talent of your people. What we are then, is an institution that governs and manages talent. So we decided to go though that path, and precisely it is in that direction that we have been designing all of our academic programs.
Finance Colombia: How do you assure that those students of low income feel included in academic life, because that is very important?
José Manuel Restrepo: There is an accompanying program. But there is a characteristic that Rosario has and it is that historically, it has been a true university. “Unity in the middle of diversity.” And the diversity is everything. Diversity of gender, ideological diversity, political diversity, religious diversity, diversity in race. Rosario I think has the capacity, contrary to other institutions, that people that think differently and are different do not stay at either side of the bridge but instead find each other in the middle of it. And in that capacity a country is being constructed. Because the country is not a country of “Strata 6.” The country is a diverse country by nature. So what we have been doing with the accompanying program is taking advantage of that characteristic of Rosario, that the student understands since he starts the first day of classes. The same student later converts himself into the mentor tutoring the young ones that come let’s say, from the program “Ser pilo paga.” We build up an accompanying program with students, consisting of basic skills improvement with a mentor that is a graduate student. The graduate student accompanies the young student and transfers to him what I call “social capital.” Because yes, in our society the social capital matters a lot, doesn’t it?
Finance Colombia: True.
José Manuel Restrepo: So we have to transfer to him that capital. And the way to transfer it is with an excellent graduate student that can soon be a judge, or a company president, or a well-known doctor, so that he accompanies that young student and gives him that social capital. There is a commitment.
Finance Colombia: There is a saying about Harvard that says that it is not that Harvard has a better quality education than other universities, but it is the people you get to know, the contacts that you make.
José Manuel Restrepo: And it is what has to be given. And it is given through mentors; students and graduates that play as mentors.
Finance Colombia: Something like 50% of Google’s professionals are from Stanford because Google’s original owners are from Stanford and they looked up their friends. That was a good example. In what way can the private sector, the business sector here in Colombia, work together with Rosario?
José Manuel Restrepo: I tell them that there are 3 paths. The path of training in leadership. The path of innovation and the path of commitment with the country. In the path of leadership it is all about accompanying us in a strategy that is just this. To try to find shared resources, shared efforts to admit talented people with economic difficulties, and being able to accompany them until they finish their academic careers.
Second: Innovation. I am convinced that the business sector and the private sector have to participate more actively in the generation of new knowledge. In giving it an added value so that the productive sector can be more profitable. So we have been developing a strategy around innovation: Innovation on subjects such as diseases…rheumatoid diseases, autoimmune disease, where we have, I would say, the best researchers of the country and the region; and in second place, in tax matters. These are just examples. In transitional justice matters, in competitiveness matters, in the same matters of placement and reintegration derived from the peace process. So we work with actors from the private sector so that they become partners in a strategy that fosters innovation.
And the third way is the country’s commitment. Commitment with a different national vision. This nation has the greatest potential I would say, of all of Latin America if we take advantage of it. And the best way to take advantage of it is not only a government effort, but an effort from the government, private sector and academia to allow this country to become a fairer one. So it develops its justice system, develops its issues of political parties, of government, of institutions, of competitiveness, of production, and poverty reduction, of inequality reduction. Bringing assets to the country and that is not done alone.