Lessons learned from foreign lands

By  Michael Higgins
  • March 13, 2009
Annual meetings of the Administrative Board of the International Federation of Catholic Universities might not be expected to generate a great deal of media interest.  After all, discussions about policy, statutes, bylaws, applications for membership, budgetary matters and issues of scheduling and personnel are the general meat of most such comparable meetings: dull fare for everyone save those empowered to care.

The meetings — which I have been attending now for a decade — are, however, more than simply banal and managerial in their design. Among the key benefits of the week-long sessions are the rich opportunities that arise because of exposure to other university constituencies and challenges, the recognition of the common themes that unite us and the common threats that lurk ominously on our collective horizon and the energizing possibilities inherent in academic collaboration, student exchanges and shared research projects.

But as can be expected, the host countries and the host universities provide splendid moments of surprise, enlightenment and, occasionally, exposure to the underside.

St. Joseph’s University in Beirut, Ramon Llul University in Barcelona, Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, Institut de Catholique in Paris, St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., and Sacred Heart University in Fairfield all had their unique charms and impressive diversities. So, too, with the meeting at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, Colombia, an impressive Jesuit institution of higher learning with over 24,000 students, where the hospitality by the Javeriana staff and administration was unconditional, genuine, and effusive.

In addition to the rigourous debate that occurred around the morphing role of the university in the global landscape, I found myself profoundly affected by two discrete incidents.  These incidents will leave their mark on my Colombian experience and, hopefully, deepen it.

Shortly after arriving, on a major boulevard contiguous with my hotel, I was robbed by three men, one of whom showed me his police badge.  There were hundreds walking past me seemingly oblivious to my plight. And I can understand why. The “sting,” and it was a masterfully executed “sting,” was structured around a conversation and ploy that had about it a layer of legal authenticity. This was no brazen holdup. There were no guns, no rough stuff, no physical threats. It was all so official and authoritative. But it was a lie and suffused with an incipient violence that left me unnerved for some time.

When I reported back to my colleagues, the Colombian contingent were shamed by what had happened — as if they were personally responsible — and every effort was expended to ensure my personal sense of safety was rebuilt and that I tasted a real Colombian welcome at every level and at every opportunity afterwards.

 I don’t relay this story to single out Colombia for judgment or opprobrium. Nor to suggest that urban violence is greater in their capital than elsewhere — I have been much more seriously threatened in Washington and Rome — but to remark on the amazing sense of solidarity and sympathy that I felt first hand from my colleagues, and from the Colombians most of all.

Attending IFCU meetings is more than a duty; such meetings can provide an epiphany of care and collegiality that enfleshes all our talk about compassion and international communion.

The second incident occurred at the end of the week at our closing luncheon when representatives of all the Colombian universities — there are between 40 and 50 in the country — gathered with the board to explore new ways of strengthening our “network of networks” ( I know it sounds a bit like former Prime Minister Joe Clark’s “community of communities” and there are strong similarities). I sat beside the  president of Universidad Catolica de Manizales, Octavio Barrientos Gomez, and he spoke warmly of his time in the diocese of London, Ont., when Gerald Emmett Carter was bishop. (I told him that Douglas Letson and I were Carter’s biographers and came to know him quite well). Fr. Octavio lived in residence at St. Pius X parish and came to love not only the immediate local community but Canada as well. He told me that he named his small cottage just north of Medellin, his birthplace, Canada House. An experienced traveller, Fr. Octavio is firm in his conviction that Canada is the most beautiful country in the world.  I tried not to disabuse him, especially considering that Colombia is itself a staggeringly attractive physical environment.

As you can see, there are not a few surprises — unsettling and heartwarming — in an otherwise predictable management landscape. That is what helps to make these meetings interesting and revealing.

Travelling to distant lands, as Francis Bacon rightly observed some five centuries ago, is the greatest teacher.

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