Academic freedom: Both right and obligation — SC

Published February 28, 2021, 12:10 PM

by Rey Panaligan 

Can institutions of higher learning, in enforcing their academic freedom, change the rules in their Student Handbooks in the middle of the schoolyear or a course?

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO - AUGUST 17: A general view shows a row of empty chairs inside a classroom as students begin classes amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on the first day of the fall 2020 semester at the University of New Mexico on August 17, 2020 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the university has moved to a hybrid instruction model that includes a mixture of in-person and remote classes. According to the school, about 70 percent of classes are being taught online. Sam Wasson/Getty Images/AFP
(Sam Wasson/Getty Images/AFP)

Doing so, the Supreme Court (SC) ruled, “is capricious and inconsistent with an institution of higher learning’s contractual obligation to afford its students a fair opportunity to complete the course they seek to pursue.”

The SC said: “Academic freedom accords an institution of higher learning the right to decide for itself its aims and objectives and how best to attain them.  It is both a right and an obligation.”

“However, when the institution acted with grave abuse of discretion or patent arbitrariness, its actions may be nullified by the courts,” it stressed.

The SC’s ruling, which cited its previous decisions and released last Feb. 26, dismissed the petition filed by St. Louis University, Inc. (SLU) in Baguio City, which challenged the 2011 decision of the Court of Appeals (CA).

Records showed that Baby Nellie M. Olairez, Shieryl A. Rebucal, Jenny Riza A. Banta and Brando B.  Badecao enrolled with SLU’s College of Medicine in the first semester of school year 1998-1999.

At the time of their enrolment, SLU imposed as a requirement for graduating medicine students the passing of a Comprehensive Written Examination (COWE). 

Under the 2001 edition of the SLU College of Medicine’s Student Handbook, all candidates for graduation are required to take a  written examination consisting of 100 multiple-choice type questions for each of their 12 subject areas. 

A student who obtains a failing score in any of the subject areas shall be required to take a remedial examination for that particular subject area alone, the handbook provides.

But on Sept. 3, 2001, the SLU – through College of Medicine Dean Elizabeth Fe-Dacanay — issued a revised COWE such that aside from one written examination graduating students should take two oral exercises.

The revised COWE also provided that those who pass the written examination will take the two orals tests, but those who fail should render at least two months of extended clerkship.

On Oct. 19, 2001 pending results of the written examinations, fourth year medicine students asked that they be allowed to join the graduation in April 2002.  SLU President Fr. Paul Van Parijs allowed them.

On Feb. 19, 2002, fourth year medicine students were informed that nobody passed the written examinations, but their scores were not released. They were also given varying months of extended clerkship.

Olairez and her group and other fourth year students protested the conduct of orals.  When their pleas landed on deaf ears, Olairez and her group filed a case before the Baguio City regional trial court (RTC).

While the case was pending with the RTC, Olairez and her group were able to complete successfully their clerkships and were able to attend the April 13, 2002 graduation ceremony.

But SLU refused to release the pertinent documents, like graduation certificates and transcript of records, so they could report for their 12-month post-graduate internship at the Baguio General Hospital and Medical Center.

The Commission on Higher Education (CHED) intervened and issued them the academic requirements for the degree of Doctor of Medicine.

On July 16, 2003, the RTC issued a decision in favor of Olairez group. Among other things, the trial court ordered SLU to give the four students all the documents they needed and declared the revised COWE moot and academic as far as the four students were concerned since they have graduated with the degree of Doctor of Medicine as certified to by CHED.

The trial court ruled that SLU arbitrarily changed the requirements for graduation in the middle of school year 2001-2002. It pointed out that graduating students of SLU College of Medicine “have the right to expect that the requisites for graduation contained in their Student Handbook at the time they enrolled and started the school year should be maintained as that is a  contract between those who enrolled and the school.”

On SLU’s appeal, the CA upheld the trial court and ruled: “SLU cannot change its academic requirements at its whim. Academic freedom does not mean that SLU can just change the requirements for graduation at its pleasure.”

Due to supervening events like the students’ graduation and completion of their internship rendered the case moot and academic, the CA said.

Still, SLU elevated the case to the SC alleging among other things that the imposition of the revised COWE is a reasonable exercise of its academic freedom and justified by the public policy on the need to elevate the standards of medical education.

The SC said citing previous rulings:

“Indeed, SLU’s sudden imposition of harsher and more punitive requirements to its graduating students in the middle of what was supposed to be their final school year is not as simple and telling   respondents and their parents to bear with them.

“The records clearly show that when respondents were admitted as fourth year students, one of the requisites for graduation entailed the passing of a COWE which merely contemplated one written examination and, in case of failure thereof, remedial examination which is limited to the subject areas that the students concerned had failed. 

“It bears stressing that when an academic institution accepts students for enrollment, there is established a contract between them, resulting in bilateral obligations which both parties are bound to comply with. 

“SLU’s immediate imposition of the Revised COWE is capricious and inconsistent with an institution of higher learning’s contractual obligation to afford its students a fair opportunity to complete the course they seek to pursue.

“Lest it be misunderstood, this ruling is not an indictment against an educational institution’s right to academic freedom, more importantly its prerogative to seek the achievement of ‘a goal that is of paramount importance in the fulfillment of its mission.’ We affirm in unequivocal terms the commitment ‘to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value’ to the nation. 

“However, the Court cannot condone SLU’s wanton abuse of this right. Our position rests on the premise that ‘when the exercise of a right is unjust, or when there has been an abuse of right,’ courts may interfere and prevent such arbitrary acts, and even to assert the rights impeded by the same.”