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A Tale of Three Universities

June 1, 2018

Our Featured Article today is a look both to the past and the future, as well as a meditation on how the former influences the latter.  It is especially relevant as we wind down the academic year and prepare to say farewell to those who are graduating.  It is also especially poignant as the Southeast Asia Center girds itself to say goodbye to Adrian Alarilla, SEAC’s Graduate Student Assistant for the past year.  Adrian is responsible for the weekly “Where in SEA,” has written many of the featured articles (including this one), conceived of and organized our first ever film festival (SEAxSEA), and just generally made events and Center life more creative and enjoyable.  We will miss him terribly but wish him the very best as he enters the PhD program in History at the University of Hawai’i. One consolation: he promises to come back to run the second annual SEAxSEA festival in 2019!


Stoic sentinel of UW’s Red Square, the bronze statue of George Washington looks towards the west to the Olympic Mountains, and perhaps even beyond, to the Pacific. As I approach my impending graduation and begin to contemplate my next journey, I can’t help but follow George’s gaze. This August, I will be moving to Honolulu to embark on my PhD in History at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and this step into new terra incognita fills me with fear and trepidation, but also excitement. At the same time, this gaze into the future is also a gaze into the past. Further beyond Hawai’i, on the other side of the Pacific, is my motherland, the Philippines, whom I have been living away from since 2007. Unable to be there in person, I settled for studying it from afar with the MA program in Southeast Asian Studies. As I move to Hawaii, I will be one step closer to home.

And yet, a nagging thought from the back of my head persists: as a fairly new US citizen whose gaze now more closely matches George Washington’s, I can’t help but reflect on my own positionality and even my possible complicity in studying Southeast Asia and the Pacific Basin through the western gaze, similar to Jose Rizal’s “specter of comparison,” the experience of double-vision that comes with having lived in many different places in one’s lifetime. And as much as I look forward to being back in the islands again, I can’t help but wonder about how my mind was molded by these universities that I have also come to call home, and how these universities were in turn molded by their early histories and the motives of their founders. So I decided to jump into the UW archives one more time to see what I can find.



The University of Washington

“Those pioneers who lifted first axes against the forest were keenly aware of their own educational limitations. Paradoxical at it may seem, after the log cabin shelter and the first essential field their attention centered on the establishment of school. Their children must have better advantages than they had themselves enjoyed. This commendable aspiration accounts for the immediate rise of the public school and it also helps to explain the surprisingly early ambition for a university.”

At the special collections reading room in the basement of Allen Library, you can read “A History of the University of Washington” by Edmond S. Meany, a UW alum, professor of botany and history, and Washington state legislator, whom the Meany Hall for the Performing Arts was named after. He traces the government’s interest in establishing a university in the region as far back as 1854, barely a year after the Territory of Washington was incorporated. The Territorial University of Washington, as it was first called, was founded in 1861, and the first building was erected in downtown Seattle, where the Fairmont Olympic Hotel now stands today. The only remnants of the original building are the four ionic columns on its façade, which are now part of the Sylvan Grove Theater. At the time of the university’s founding, Seattle was barely ten years old, and was still a new frontier town filled with unsavory characters, and according to a university catalogue of the time, “the territory is still in its infancy; society is only in its formative states… the restlessness of the people have an unfavorable influence, adverse to a thorough and systematic course of study… The Institution will aim to supply as far as possible the present needs… to furnish practical and beneficial knowledge, touching the natural productions either upon or beneath the surface of the soil…”

The Washington Territory finally became a state in 1889. By then, the university had grown, and Seattle along with it. As urban development began encroaching on the downtown campus, Meany headed a committee to look for a new and bigger campus far from downtown. They found a perfect spot close to Union Bay, which used to be traditional fishing and hunting grounds for the Duwamish people, who had by then been largely driven out of the rapidly expanding city. The University was relocated into the new, 703-acre campus in 1895, where the main campus still stands today. The university grounds became the location for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, which celebrated the continuing western expansion of the US across the Pacific and the acquisition of new territories such as Hawaii and the Philippines. To quote Byron’s poem “Destruction of Sennacheric,” which inspired the official school colors of UW:

“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.”


University of Hawai’i

“Hawaii at the beginning of the twentieth century needed an institution of higher learning. The further integration into the United States desired by those who had sided against the Hawaiian monarchy, if it was to work politically, required the further development of American culture here. Across the nation, every state and incorporated territory except Hawaii and Alaska had a college. Without one of its own, the far offshore Territory of Hawaii would present itself as not only remote and exotic but also as backwater and uncultured, territorial indeed.”

Hawai’i was a sovereign kingdom that permitted Europeans and Americans to run plantations and landholdings on her islands. In 1893, in retaliation to Queen Liliʻuokalani’s announcement of a new constitution that would consolidate her powers, these western businessmen overthrew the monarchy and demanded the annexation of Hawai’i to the US. In 1898, the kingdom was annexed and became the organized, incorporated Territory of Hawai’i, and the capital of the kingdom, Honolulu, became the capital of the territory. Being a territory allowed the American landowners to do many things that would be illegal in actual states. For example, in the mainland, the Chinese (and later, Japanese and Filipino) exclusion acts prohibited the hiring of Asian laborers. But because these laws didn’t apply in the territories, plantation owners could hire as much cheap labor from across the Pacific as they wanted.

The plantation owners initially had concerns about the effects of a public college on their labor supply and on their tax burden, as noted in “Malamalama: a history of the University of Hawai’i” written by Dr. Robert M. Kamins, who was an Economics professor in UH-M, and also headed the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau. The University found funding through the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890, which promoted the establishment of land-grant colleges that “teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts… in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” And when the first campus was opened on Young Street in downtown Honolulu in 1908, many of the founding professors came from Cornell, the federally supported land-grant institution of New York State.

While the original downtown campus grew, the 41-acre piece of land (roughly one-sixth of the present land area of UH-M) in Manoa Valley on the outskirts of Honolulu was being prepared. The area used to be farmland for the native Hawaiians, and later, the occasional Chinese immigrant. In a report to the regents dated May 8, 1911, it was noted that “rapid progress is being made in bringing the lands into service but… the Hawaiians now dwelling on the land are an obstacle. They are scattered over the land in about seven groups. One group tills the land. Some of them carouse and loaf a great deal… we must remove the squatters from the land… at once.”

The drafted master plan of the university was traditionally Western, with straight rows of rectangular buildings that made no concession to the flowing contours of Manoa Valley. “The campus buildings that were to come, columned neoclassical forms derived from the temples of Greece and Rome, asserted the culture of the Occident. And their orientation to the north, rather than to the axis of Manoa Valley, which guides the trade winds, failed to maximize the natural cooling of the campus. A pattern was set that would make for heavy dependence on air-conditioning when that technology became available in the years to come.”


The University of the Philippines

“The University of the Philippines has found its prototype in the State University of the several commonwealths of the United States of America… the superlative success of local self-government depends upon a well disciplined and highly cultured citizenship… What an awful, solemn and inspiring duty rests upon the people of the Philippine Islands to Americans, to Europeans, to Orientals, and to the Universal Man! In the University of the Philippines they are given an agency for immense contribution to universal human betterment.”

Hot off the heels of the annexation of Hawaii, the US purchased the Philippines (which had by then declared itself as an independent, sovereign republic), as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, from the Spanish, who were more willing to concede defeat to the Americans than to the Filipinos. The Filipinos, who had just finished fighting the Spanish, were raring to fight the new colonizers, and although the Filipino-American War was said to have ended by 1902 according to the US government, many rebel groups continued to fight in the hinterlands until the 1920s. But in the capital of Manila, the Americans were busy establishing a government to manage the new unincorporated territory of the Philippine Islands under the stewardship of the Americans. Aware of the need for the employment of middle-management, however, as well as the insufficient numbers of Americans who can occupy such positions in the bureaucracy, as well as the increasing demand for professionals such as doctors, engineers, lawyers, and most especially nurses (an occupation that continues to be the career of choice for many Filipinos until today), the Pensionado Act was passed in 1903 to provide funds for qualified Filipino students, called Pensionados, to acquire their college degrees at American schools at the expense of the territorial government, so that upon their return in the Philippines, they would administer the government. In fact, the Filipino American Student Association at UW (FASA sa UW) was established by such pensionados in 1917 (the organization recently celebrated their centennial). In addition, the territorial government passed the University Act in 1908, endeavoring to establish a university of higher learning and professional training in the Philippines.

The early years of the university are commemorated by a book published during the university’s diamond jubilee in 1983, “University of the Philippines: The First 75 Years (1908-1983),” edited by Oscar Alfonso. It notes that the very first campus was planned in the Exposition grounds in Ermita, next to the Philippine General Hospital. This first campus focused—and continues to focus—on medicine and nursing, while a satellite campus in the mountain city of Los Baños two hours south of the city focused on agriculture. An editorial in 1910 lauded the new university, saying that “it would be possible to create here a great institution based upon high western ideals and yet fitted to its larger environment… We have already the great beginnings of what may be a great institution worthy of help and encouragement of all who are interested in making Manila the intellectual center of the Orient.” Thus the university cultivated an incipient Filipino nationalism, but based upon western ideals of liberal democracy.

The 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act officially marks the beginning of the transition of the Philippines from American territory to independent nation. It made the Philippines a Commonwealth of the US, and the US-appointed governor-general was replaced by a democratically elected native president, Manuel Quezon, who came into power in 1935. Ostensibly inspired by his visit to Mexico City, he dreamed of a sprawling new capital city to commemorate his presidency, as well as the promised independence of the Philippines. The selected site was located further inland, on what used to be sparsely inhabited farmland and woodland, north of the now-congested city of Manila. He commissioned William Parsons, who also designed the main hall of the University of the Philippines Manila, to design the new metropolis. Part of this plan was the establishment of a larger campus for the university in the new city, located in an area called Diliman. Diliman literally means “dark place,” and was a swampy wooded area which freedom fighters used as a hide out when escaping the Manila government.  A whopping 1,200 acres was acquired for the new main campus of the University of the Philippines, where it stands until today, in Quezon City.


I grew up along Kalayaan Avenue (Kalayaan means Freedom) in Diliman, Quezon City, in the shadow of the University of the Philippines. I entered its hallowed halls in 2003, a bright-eyed, idealistic young Filipino who dreamed of nothing else but to help his country. When I was petitioned by my mother in 2007, I left UP, and the Philippines, behind, but have always dreamed of one day coming back. I have learned a lot while living here in the US, and especially studying here in UW, under the auspices of my beloved professors and with the support of my cohort. My experiences and research opened my eyes and encouraged me to think critically about the world around me.

Today, UW, UH-M, and UP are, for the most part, liberal-leaning universities and sites of learning that encourage everyone to learn more about the world. But it is also important to keep in mind that they were established as integral instruments of American western expansionism and imperialism. These institutions are beacons of knowledge and enlightenment, but they also displaced native, non-Caucasian people and established western ideas and ways of thinking in the “Orient.” Although these institutions and their curricula have changed and evolved across time, I feel it is also important to reflect upon how much of their original frameworks have remained the same and how they continue to reproduce the same conditions as when they were first established over a century ago. I write this not only for myself, but for my fellow academics. As scholars, we have to act mindfully not only towards our areas of research but also towards these institutions which support our research. Wherever I go, I will keep this lesson close to my heart.