A research center in Mexico became a battlefield for academic freedom

During the last 17 days, dozens of students have turned one of Mexico’s main public economic and social research centers into a camp.

Tents surround the entrance to the Mexico City campus of the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, better known as CIDE. For students unwilling to face the cold nights, there are clutter-free classrooms, leaving room for sleeping bags.

“CIDE resists,” says a protest poster. Another invokes Britney Spears’ recent legal victory: “If Britney could, CIDE could too.”

The occupiers are calling for the removal of the new federally appointed director, who provoked the ire of several administrators and dismissed the school as a bastion of neoliberalism, a grave insult to the leftist rhetoric of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Ximena Millán Cruz, a 21-year-old CIDE student, participates in a strike at the Mexico City headquarters.

(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)

“We were not prepared to do this,” said Ximena Millán Cruz, a 21-year-old who is studying political science and international relations. “This was not our first choice, and if it were up to us, we would not be here.”

The conflict in recent weeks turned the small institution into the new battlefield for academic freedom in Mexico, and many, from the president of Mexico to Nobel Prize winners, have intervened.

The students have the support of many professors, who worry that López Obrador is trying to impose his policy on them.

The president, who won a landslide election with a populist anti-corruption platform and prioritizing the poor, has repeatedly referred to academics as a privileged group.

He also accused CIDE and the huge National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) of keeping quiet about the country’s corruption, saying that they are home to conservative academics who “take no risks of any kind in order to move up the social ladder.”

Critics of the Mexican president say it is more than rhetoric and expressed their alarm at the recent intention of federal prosecutors to jail 31 scientists for organized crime and financial crimes, charges rejected by a judge.

In addition, they point to the elimination of public trust funds that were used for scientific research; a measure that, according to the president, was aimed at combating corruption.

“I think we are in the worst possible situation,” said Antonio Lazcano, a biologist at UNAM, who has been an outspoken critic of the current regime. “You can’t do quantum physics with traditional herbal medicine.”

María Elena Álvarez-Buylla Roces, director of the National Council for Science and Technology (Conacyt), which oversees CIDE and 25 other such centers, denied that the federal government was threatening academic freedom. “We have historically supported universities to generate scientific research,” he told The Times, pointing to a recent announcement that all students at those institutions will have free tuition.

Man surrounded by tents

Adán Morales Pedroza, 30, a former CIDE student, accompanies students protesting academic freedom.

(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)

The CIDE was founded in 1974 as a group of experts to advise the government on economic policy, but it quickly absorbed left-wing intellectuals who had fled military dictatorships in South America. In the 1990s, a new director transformed it into one of the most prestigious social science research centers in Mexico, and required that all teachers at the institution have a doctorate. “In terms of education, it’s as good as Harvard,” said Mauricio Tenorio, a historian at the University of Chicago.

Its professors publish in the main national and international academic journals or in some media in Mexico. For this reason, despite the fact that the CIDE is small, with only about 500 undergraduate and graduate students, what happens there has weight.

Former director Sergio López Ayllón, who resigned last summer, said in a recent interview that the head of Conacyt had made it clear that she hoped that the directors of the research centers were committed to López Obrador’s agenda for Mexico. “I believe that CIDE has the responsibility of conducting research that supports the government’s public policies,” he said. “He has always done it, but with autonomy.”

In November, an interim director, José Antonio Romero Tellaeche, an economist at the Colegio de México in the country’s capital, remarked that he shared many of the president’s views.

In a document in which he outlined his plan for the educational institution, Romero said that many of the professors had obtained their doctorates abroad and that CIDE had stopped prioritizing national social issues. He further suggested that the rigorous research center selection process had reinforced the class divide in the country.

Days later, he demoted the CIDE academic secretary, who stated in an open letter that she was attacked for refusing to suspend teacher evaluations until there was a permanent director. Who turned out to be Romero.

On the same day that Álvarez-Buylla appointed Romero, the students began calling for his dismissal and, for the first time in the institution’s history, they went on strike.

Romero declined to be interviewed and responded by emailing a quote from linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky, criticizing the media as a tool of corporate power.

Álvarez-Buylla expressed that the Center for Economic Research and Teaching “favors a neoliberal vision” and that this is the opportunity “to begin to enrich it with other traditions and a more critical thought.” He also blamed groups such as Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity – a civic organization critical of the president’s administration – of “using this CIDE process to deepen their adversity against the federal government.”

Regarding the strike, he pointed out that the government wanted to have “a lot of patience” to communicate with the student body. “We are not going to repress, we are not going to try by force, nothing by force, everything by truth and the law,” said Álvarez-Buylla.

Students are ready for dialogue.

At their base in front of CIDE in Mexico City, the loud buzz of highway traffic mixes with student assemblies. They have gathered several tables under a tarp, where they work on their final exams and plan their next actions.

The occupants take turns conducting security rounds each night. At one point, they lost their internet connection. Teachers and alumni bring them food and give them moral support; one day they commissioned mariachis to sing for the students. “It has been quite a grueling experience,” said one student who declined to give her name for fear of repercussions.

At least, publicly, the students concentrated their protest on Romero, arguing that his appointment had violated common procedures and that he did not respect the institution. “If I had talked to the students, I would have known that a lot of people supported their ideas because they believe in the fourth transformation,” Cruz emphasized, using a term from the president. “He lost that support with his attacks on the community.”

Sebastián Ocampo, a 22-year-old young man studying economics, believes that students have tried to withdraw from the ideological battle because it is “a more complicated terrain”, and discussing it could generate internal friction.

But students and teachers are more direct. “It is inevitable not to see these actions isolated, but as offensives against the universities, against the scientific community,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, professor of journalism.

The teacher rejected criticism that the institution has not invested in the country’s social problems. He noted that graduates from his area exposed corruption and that the school’s drug policy program has gained national attention for investigating the use of force by government security forces.

Jean Meyer, the historian who has worked at CIDE since the early 1990s, claimed that the new director represents “an unacceptable government intervention in academic life.”

In a letter of support to the students, five academics, including two Nobel laureates from the United States and one from France, wrote that governments should facilitate “but not control education and the production of high-quality academies for political purposes.”

Both the students and the Conacyt insist that they want to talk, but the meetings have been canceled several times.

On Monday, the small group of students met in front of the Mora Institute research center, which they chose as a neutral meeting point for the negotiations.

A young woman spoke into the microphone, calling for the removal of Romero and declaring that CIDE is united in her cause. “More science, less obedience!”, The students chanted. “Álvarez-Buylla, science is not yours!”

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A research center in Mexico became a battlefield for academic freedom