Opening Ceremony for the 2023-24 Academic Year

The University needs to know what it is in order to be what it

In my first words as Rector, I would like to thank our Chancellor and President of the Foundation for placing his trust in me. I joined CEU 17 years ago at his request. I did so by becoming Vice-Rector of the Elche Campus when he was Rector of the University. It is once again at his request that I now have the honour of speaking to you all as the Rector of the University myself. Thank you, Mr President: your faith in me is an honour and a responsibility.

I would never have suspected back then that the Rector would become the Chancellor, and that the Director of the Elche Campus at that time, Francisco Sánchez, would one day be the General Manager of the University. Still less could I have expected to find myself between the two of them, some might say between a rock and a hard place.

For similar reasons, I would also like to thank the Board of Trustees of the San Pablo CEU University Foundation. After a long meeting with the Board – my first – in which a range of projects and difficulties were discussed, it was memorable and moving to see how it ended with a prayer for the Rectors to take the right decisions and be strong in dealing with difficulties. My sincerest thanks for governing this institution while showing warmth and collegiality. Having trust placed in you in this way does not constitute a burden, but it is a responsibility, an intensely personal duty which I must fulfil.

I could go on and mention the many reasons to feel gratitude towards the Director General, the General Secretary, the corporate directors and their associates, the rectoral team and the Governing Council, the deans and their associates, the heads of department and the University's lecturers. But I have spent sufficient time by now working with them closely to have already thanked them several times.

So, after thanking the President and Board of Trustees, the people to whom I would now like to express my sincerest thanks are the people and managers working within the University's services. And I mean all of them, those who work in cleaning, maintenance, administration, secretary's offices, IT, HR, quality assurance, internationalization, research, languages, communication, the guidance service, the careers service - all of you. During my time as a CEU lecturer, I have encountered so many hard-working and helpful people fulfilling their roles with kindness and responsibility, that I have become convinced that they are some of the most valuable assets the University possesses.

You should know that your work does not go unnoticed. We are all aware that the proper functioning and flexibility of the University depends on the work that you do, which sometimes means working under difficult conditions or having to respond to emergencies. Thank you. All the lecturers and students at the University are in your debt, a debt we recognize through our gratitude and respect. Thank you.

I would like to turn now to thank the Regional Secretary for Universities, Esther Gómez, for her words and for being present with us today. It is less than a week since the President, Carlos Mazón, visited us, showing great warmth and manifesting his desire to boost the university system as a whole, without distinctions or ideological considerations. That is to be celebrated, and we hope we can enjoy a sincere, loyal and friendly relationship with the regional government, particularly the Department for Universities. We do not expect privileges, merely fairness. We do not expect favouritism, but equality before the law and the treatment of our students and their families as citizens with the rights that are due to them.

This University, as with all the others, public or private, makes a valuable contribution to the Valencian university system and society. Therefore, it deserves recognition and support. Please believe me when I say, Regional Secretary, that we desire to collaborate constructively. You can call on us for any initiative which will contribute to improving the service we provide to our students and the well-being of the community we live in.

At this point, and with all the important things having been said, I could bring this speech to an end here.

The General Secretary of the University has already laid out all the activities undertaken by CEU UCH over the past year. Our task now is to continue the work which has already been done. And over the almost four months of my mandate so far, I have already had the opportunity to lay out the new plans and projects for the future to all the lecturers, departments, faculties, those with managerial responsibilities, researchers, professors, new hires and our young lecturers coming from our development plan. Thus, I do not need to say all that again.

However, if I were to finish here, the Chancellor would fail to see his worst fears realized when he named a philosopher as Rector. So, I will take this time to offer you some philosophical considerations about the University.

The idea that I want to put forward is that the University needs to know what it is in order to be what it is. If the University neglects or becomes confused about what its mission is, then it ceases to be a true university, even if the administrative and financial framework remains, generating money, teaching and issuing degrees.

But it is the need to know what you are to be what you are, and to not lose sight of your purpose, which is what distinguishes an institution from a mere organization. Organizations have targets and they organize themselves to achieve these targets. But institutions have a purpose which goes beyond mere organization: they require governance and a life of their own which favours purpose over targets, placing the emphasis on what is truly important and making this the basis for the life of its community.

Think, for example, of what would happen to the Church if it confused its mission with the objectives it could achieve through efficient management. To retain its essence, the Church must constantly seek to maintain the legacy of the past while also bringing it up to date to reflect the lives of the people currently within it.

Universities were born out of the very heart of the Church, ex corde ecclessia, and so they must also preserve the value of knowledge while also bringing it up to date, remembering that its value derives from that most human of desires, the desire to know. The communication of knowledge can transform it into something which can shape the very lives of the recipients. For a university to be a university, it must have a community of lecturers working on the creation of knowledge, and on sharing it and communicating it amongst themselves and with students.

As lecturers, we all know how enjoyable it can be to communicate what we know. But what really enabled the desire to know and to communicate knowledge to become associated with the stability of an institution, was for knowledge to be combined with the generosity of communication, rather than for knowledge to be hoarded as a source of power and a weapon for domination. That, it seems to me, was what Christian charity added to the natural desire to know, perfecting it by enabling it to be communicated and transformed for the common good. This then took on an institutional form: a university. At heart, a university is based on the gift of freedom possessed by a person who seeks out knowledge for its own sake and communicates it to others out of a desire to share something of value.

None of the above would make sense if this effort to acquire knowledge neglects the fact that the truth is something we all aspire to. That is the legacy which universities of a Christian inspiration must not forget. It is a legacy which makes all Catholic universities part of the same community: they have the same purpose despite any different targets and objectives they may have. This community extends to all universities worthy of the name in the institutional sense, in other words, if they are places where knowledge continues to be communicated, freely shared and shared in.

So, Christian charity channelled the desire to know by reinforcing its close connection with the desire for knowledge to be communicated. This not only gave rise to the institution of the university, but it also gave rise to a way of life, a professio, a profession, which is also where the word professor comes from.

Without the transformation of knowledge through communication into a service we can offer to others, there would be no university. Knowledge would not have circulated freely between communities of scholars who welcomed students into their midst. The West would not have experienced the progress it has, based on knowledge, rigour, and communication, nor would it have been possible to facilitate social mobility on the basis of ability and personal development through academic study.

The nature of the university as an institution is precisely to freely facilitate such study and such communication. But this also means that we cannot let knowledge be measured in terms of mere utility in this place. Of course, we do look for useful knowledge through applied research, knowledge transfer, problem-solving and cognitive innovations. Of course, we make great efforts to improve what we call employability, which we achieve by ensuring our graduates are professionals who can quickly adapt to the working environments of our economic and productive systems, enabling them to realize their plans for life.

We know that that is the reason young people come to us and that it is only by fulfilling this demand that we can be economically viable. We are firmly committed to this and we are constantly striving for ways of improving how we do this.

But if we only did that, however well we did it, then we would have turned our backs on what makes us what we are. We would have confused our mission and purpose with the targets we aim for to remain viable. And then no governance would be necessary – just organization and administration. Then, lecturers could simply be organized into professional administrative structures which might even be more effective in achieving these targets than the system whereby lecturers are temporarily seconded from their fields of study to take on the governance of the institution.

But then we would have lost – or be at risk of losing – that appreciation of knowledge for its own sake and of the enjoyment and excitement inherent in freely sharing it with others. We would have forgotten that at a university the most important and valuable thing is not the organization, the management, or the leadership, but rather those who know and those who want to learn: the lecturers and the students. We would have forgotten that the magisterium – what the master, the teacher, the lecturer does - is the most important thing. Not for nothing does this word derive from magis, the Latin word for "more". Administration and the counterpart of magisterium, ministerium, derive from minister (“servant”), which in turn derives from minus, meaning "less".

The university and its governance as an institution is, in a way, the ministerium of the magisterium: it administers what is necessary for studies to be undertaken, for the scholarly activities of lecturers and students to take place. Everything else, as necessary as it may be, is an added extra, even if we must toil to make such extras a reality.

That is where the centuries-old tradition of universities being governed by lecturers comes from, rather than by professionals trained in administrative activities. What university lecturers acknowledge when they show deference to those who lead them in this way is the fact that a university cannot be reduced to a mere organization with targets. It is something greater: an institution in which knowledge and its communication have value for their own sake and for the benefit of others: our students. So, when university lecturers honour one of their own in this way they are not paying tribute to power but rather to authority: socially recognizable knowledge. Power is achieved by depriving it from others, but we only achieve authority when others award it to us.

If knowledge is unable to maintain its authority over power, the truth becomes irrelevant as we will be faced with a society in which only might is right. Without the authority of knowledge established through study, no relationship between lecturers and students would be possible either, as the authority of the former derives exclusively from the fact that they are more advanced in their studies than the students are.

Education and the desire to know is what brings them together and what distinguishes them is that they are at different stages of life. Some are older, the others younger. But the usual pattern of things is inverted at university, for it is the older ones, the lecturers, who are here to serve the needs of the young. And here again Christianity sheds extra light on knowledge and this notion of those who teach being here to serve others: serving others is the highest calling. University lecturers need the assistance of many others, and the university itself as an institution, to do what they do, to study, to perform research, and to serve their students.

Only in this way, with knowledge transformed into a gift, into a service, can we convince them that the greatest meaning they can give to their work is to put themselves at the service of others.

That is why, and I am drawing to a close now, these ceremonies to open the academic year are so much more natural for a university than a closing ceremony. In order to begin again, we must not feel so tired by our daily work that we feel weary in our hearts; when we begin something, we need that aspiration to excellence, to demand of ourselves the effort required to do things as best as we can, for every lecture to be as good as can be, and even to get better, if possible, day after day, year after year. The novelty will never wear off if we do our best to give the best possible class and truly put ourselves at the service of our students.

So, let us be happy then: gaudeamus igitur. Let us be happy to begin again, to go back to the start that always feels fresh: the desire to do everything we can to serve our students and provide them with the gift of knowledge.

Dr. Higinio Marín Pedreño