Uncomfortable truths

Alejandro Gaviria, President of Universidad de los Andes

Alejandro Gaviria Uribe became president of the Universidad de los Andes on 26 July 2019. He wants Los Andes to be an activist institution, to become involved in Colombia’s debates, to be the place where uncomfortable truths are told, and he wants it to be an instrument of social change. The following is a chronicle of his first days as president.

By: Andrés Ruiz Zuluaga

Alejandro Gaviria received the news of his appointment as president of the Universidad de los Andes at Salto del Tequendama, during an academic visit. Perhaps fate was not responsible for him to be, at that moment, contemplating a wonder of nature. He was probably looking to receive the news (whatever it was), in a place that would stimulate him. He longs to turn el Salto “into a symbol, an allegory of the need we have of possibilism, that we are capable of reversing the damage we have done to our natural environment.”

It was 1:00 p. m. on May 22nd. Three and a half hours later, among hundreds of congratulations over the telephone, WhatsApp and Twitter, Alejandro recorded a video with his first words as president, from the National University (another of those interesting coincidences of fate). At 5:00 p. m., he was scheduled to lecture in the Cátedra Manuel Ancízar entitled Uncomfortable truths in global public health.

He was not wearing a tie –it makes him uncomfortable most of the time–, but he had clear ideas, the ones that seem guilty of untidying his hairdo. His joy was contagious. While preparing his speech, he received hugs from his fellow lecturers (all women). He managed to straighten his white shirt, to hide a wine spot and to tidy up his hair a little.

—I imagine a university where uncomfortable truths can be spoken, a place where society can be a mirror of its own faults, a place which combats the oversimplification of the world and the anti-intellectualism, which seems to be in fashion, — said Gaviria, who holds a PhD in Economics from the University of California.


On July 25, almost two months later, and one day before inauguration, Gaviria Uribe arrived from a joint trip with the Los Andes foundation in New York and visited his first office as president. He found a partially empty space. The main wall, in front of an inspiring picture window to enjoy sunsets, was covered by twenty-eight old maps of Colombia, a legacy of Pablo Navas (the previous president), which immediately unsettled and reminded him of the old Atlas of ancient maps of Colombia, from the 16th to the 19thcentury, which he had bought at a flea market in the United States. He sensed that it would serve as a guide to understand the maps and find their origin.

On one side, on the adjacent wall, there was a crucifix almost a meter in height.

—I don’t like a crucifix in my office, but I don’t want to remove it from the University either—, said the self-proclaimed ‘soft atheist’ as he was moving the crucifix to the reception—. Everybody fits here, and there must be diverse ideas. Pluralism has defined this university since its founding fathers.

On his first day as rector, with the office still empty. Photo: Mario Andrés Ruiz.

First Day as president

The act of inauguration was on a Friday at 4:00 p. m. Gaviria was among the personalities who, coincidentally, had been convened that same day at 5:00 p. m. to participate in a march for the protection of social leaders.

In his speech that afternoon Alejandro said —This university must be an activist, democratically activist, sometimes even defiantly activist —, he, who just a year ago was known as the minister who fought for women’s reproductive rights, banned glyphosate sprays, regulated the prices of medicines and formalized the production and marketing of medicinal cannabis. His struggle to tax sugary drinks is also remembered.

In the possession speech. Photo: Felipe Cazares.
The overwhelming anxiety and pressure of the last days, due to praising, that same praising “he cannot defend himself from as much as he does from criticism” made the waiting even longer. He reviewed his speech several times, while he walked around as if he were speaking to himself in the office of the direction of the Center for Sustainable Development Objectives for Latin America. His computer and books were still there. He was still the director. He made some adjustments to the text and wondered how to finish the ceremony quickly so that he could go to the march and those who wanted to attend could do so as well.

His speech was moving, with a touch of paisa humor so characteristic of him. His accent is more antioqueño in those comments. He recalled how “coincidentally,” he ended up studying his master's degree in economics at Los Andes.

—It was the first faculty I found in my random walk around this campus. Between chance and necessity, the former has always seemed more important to me—, he said, as laughter was heard in the auditorium.

Thirty years have passed between the Gaviria student and the president of the same institution. Fifteen years ago, he was dean of the Faculty of Economics. This July 26, 2019 will be that unforgettable day when the University was challenged to become an “example of diversity, sustainability and intellectual openness, which must deepen its global ties and local influence, and must, at the same time, maintain its ability to innovate and transform itself from within”.

His speech went viral in media and social networks, in which he is very active. He summarized in five points the moral vision of the institution: plurality, socio-economic diversity, sustainability, commitment to research-creation to contribute to national affairs and educational innovation.

With his kids, Mariana y Tomás. Foto: Felipe Cazares.
When he came down from the stage, his family, headed by his children, Tomás and Mariana, and his wife, Carolina, a member of the board of directors of the Bank of the Republic, covered him in hugs for this “second chance” in his life. Gaviria overcame the difficulties of a treatment for lymphatic cancer just last year, when, ironically, he was Minister of Health and Social Protection in Juan Manuel Santos’ government. He left his testimony of this experience in the book Today is still forever.

Another trace of his fight against the invasive disease is marked on his body: a tattoo on his right forearm, which his wife “does not like”, with the phrase Your time is limited by Apple founder Steve Jobs, who lost his fight against cancer. This is his second tattoo. Earlier, through a pact with his daughter Mariana, he had tattooed on his left forearm the phrase Feast on your life, by the poet Derek Walcott.

The also author of Someone has to oppose and At least we have the words, among others, wrote in his book: “Cancer is like life in another sense, more human, more urgent: it compels us to live with the constant awareness of our finiteness; it opens our eyes to our fragility; it brings us out of the lethargy of the days and makes us realize that ‘we just brought the time to be alive.’”

As a newcomer

On Monday at 8:00 a. m., he held his first event as president: the opening of a course on production, trafficking and anti-drug policy in the Andean Region. His words replicated his findings in research and studies on the subject. Gaviria co-authored the book Anti-Drug Policies in Colombia: successes, failures and wrong turns, published in 2011, together with the former Secretary of Security of Bogotá Mayor’s Office, Daniel Mejia.

In his speech, Gaviria mentioned that —If one wants to find out or wants to know how open a society is, the question one must ask is what is its anti-drug policy. The policy defines almost definitely how a state approaches individual liberties — Gaviria was also a researcher for the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the National Federation of Coffee Growers and a consultant for the World Bank.

There he summed up that talking about anti-drug policy is talking about human rights.

—In order to keep a reasonable discussion, after 40 years, about what we have to do on the policies that we will design, we must insist on the commitment to human rights, on the respect for public health, evidence and reasonableness.

At 9:00 a.m., he sat for the first time in his office as president. From his desk, with his back to a library that still had no books, he prepared his first official communiqué with the uniandina community through a videopublished in social networks and on the University website. In it, he emphasized his vision of the University and announced his first actions.

—I’m going to spend the first few weeks talking to professors, students, administrative staff, deans and directors. I want to understand the problems fully, understand our challenges and their details.


In a normal week, the President can sign more than two hundred diplomas. In times of degrees they are more than two thousand. Photo: Julián Jutinico.
Time, always relentless, took away his morning and part of the afternoon by checking emails, signing hundreds of diplomas, tidying up his books and his office. He had lunch with his wife. When he returned, in one of the few instants he had to think, he drew a structure on a sheet of paper, something like a map of the maps on the wall, which altered his researcher instinct and his passion for history.

The phone calls from his family in Medellín changed his facial expression; they unsettled him. His father, Juan Felipe Gaviria, former Minister of Public Works and Transportation and former mayor of Medellin, was in a complicated medical condition.

At 4:00 p.m., he had his first meeting with the uniandina community. The chosen ones: students. In this case, Juan Camilo Reyes, president of the Uniandino Student Council, and Jean Paul Bernier, representative of Architecture. They expressed concerns such as the price of tuition fees or the lack of self-criticism in the institution. Alejandro, attentive, asked some questions and drew organizational charts to understand, in detail, the structures of the General Assembly of students. In the end, they reviewed the presentation that the president and the Student Council would make at the Welcoming to the new students that Thursday. Gaviria committed to improve the communication between institutional government and students. That same day he created an Instagram profile of the Presidency.


With a group of students, analyzing the maps in his office. Photo: Mario Andrés Ruiz.
Before letting them go, he showed them his maps with his academic instinct, and pointed out the changes to the drawings and his strokes between one century and the other, while reflecting together on how geography has defined many social, cultural and economic aspects of Colombia.

Confronted with reality

On Tuesday, once again, he began the day by opening an event: “History and challenges of the asbestos ban in Colombia.”

—This demonstrates the power of the academy as an instrument of social change. The power it has when it transcends the dialog of specialists and engages in the democratic debate for the sake of all – He highlighted this alliance between the academy, the civil society and the political forces that brought this project forward.

On the way to his office, a phone call changed his face. He was told that his dad was in the hospital. He had slept very little and it showed on his face, but “he had to go ahead.” His first Presidency Committee was waiting for him, and then a lunch to welcome the students sponsored by the “I want to study” scholarship.

In the committee with the four vice presidents and the general secretariat, without thinking, he got away from protocol. He did not sit at the head of the table, which was intended for the President, and he made emphasis on having short meetings. He needs time to think. He listened to them; he reiterated his vision of the institution, talked about his joining process and his visits to allied universities in The Triad: the Tecnológico de Monterrey (Mexico) and the Catholic University of Chile. He stressed the importance of partnering with private enterprise and having a permanent contact with other universities, especially with the public ones. Likewise, he highlighted both the relevance of the University in being a member of Ascun (Colombian Association of Universities), and of carrying out research and academic initiatives that really contribute to the country over those that only add up articles in order to raise indicators.

–There are so many other uncomfortable truths about the modern university: its role in the perpetuation of certain privileges, its lack of curiosity about the world, its excessive specialisation, its obsession with rankings and the transformation of research into an industrial activity (“no one reads here because everyone is too busy writing articles that nobody reads,” said one of my fellow economists in a moment of naïveté) –he had said in his inauguration speech.

One of his main challenges: to stop the rise of tuition fees. He proposed solutions to make the campus less restrictive for visitors: “We must be more open to the city, the country, the neighbors.” He dreams of a completely open campus. He announced a new podcast to have conversations with professors and to publicize their work and research, and he commented on the changes that he would make in the presentation at the Welcome to students.

–We need to be closer to our students. Entering university is a time of self-discovery, the beginning of an adventure. It must be an inspiring conversation. Students do not need to be shown a presentation full of figures.

At the end of the meeting, he reviewed the maps on the wall with the vice-presidents in order to complete his ‘assignment’ of understanding the origin of each one. His map of the maps already had dates and names of several authors.

In the little time window he had left, he read some e-mails with hundreds of congratulations and signed more diplomas. “I am overwhelmed by so much affection of the people. I did not imagine this,” he said, as he walked to a lunch meeting and a talk with students admitted to the University through programs such as I want to Study and Pa’lante Pacific, which support young students with limited economic resources. “These programs transform not only the socio-economic composition of the student body; they transform the University and bring us closer to the utopian ideal of social mobility,” he said.

At the end of the students' welcome, surrounded by dozens of young people, he gave them books, told anecdotes and advised them not to let their lives be "routinized", and to try "to oppose". Photo: Julián Jutinico.
This is an important point to achieve one of his objectives, as he announced in his speech:

–The University must mitigate the social differences, not amplify them. It must be an instrument of social mobility, not of perpetuation of privileges.

On his way back to the office, he stopped several times to speak with students. His ‘corridor conversations’ are very effective. He usually devotes similar time to everyone; sometimes his talks with students are even longer than his talks with professors, deans or directors. This time he focused on two new female students from Buenaventura. He was worried about how to bring in more young people from different backgrounds and to ensure their correct adaptation to this new city, to this university, to this new world for them.
The university must combat convenient lies, misleading ideologies and hate speeches
Alejandro Gaviria
President Uniandes

It is not just “talk the talk”

Wednesday welcomed him physically exhausted. He still did not sleep well. He thought about cancelling his first Academic Council with deans, vice-presidents, some directors of academic units and representatives of students and professors because he wanted to travel to Medellín. His dad was still sick.

In the end, he attended the Council, which started at 8:30 a. m. where he raised a conversation based on two questions: the most important challenges in each of the faculties and how the Presidency could help to address them. He announced meetings with each faculty in the next few weeks.

He stressed the need for a shared and wider vision on the role of the University in Colombian society and the challenge of educational innovation.

In the afternoon, a new event: launch of the first metabolomics center in Colombia, located at Los Andes. He opened with a joke that at its core revealed a concern, a profound doubt about some particularities of his new position. He does not like to talk about what he does not know deeply, or, as he reflects, he does not like to “talk for the sake of talking”, “talk the talk” … the importance of words.

—Metabolomics… mmm… I didn’t even want to Google it. I’ve gotten used to talking about what I don’t know, but I think that we’re already exaggerating, — joked Gaviria, a civil engineer at the Antioquia School of Engineering. Then he delved into the importance of innovation from the academy and the “sophistication” of the laboratory in terms of diagnosis. Metabolomics analyzes chemical processes involving low molecular weight metabolites.

A freshman welcomes freshmen

In the evening, with the help of a few drops, he slept better and arrived ‘cooler’ on Thursday to open the Welcome to undergraduate students. He kept the audience’s attention thanks to an inspirational speech.

In students' welcoming, beneficiaries of Quiero Estudiar program, who entered the second semester of 2019. Photo: Julián Jutinico.
—You will remember this day forever. Your social environment and the geography of your lives is changing from today. In this auditorium, sitting anonymously, without knowing each other, are those who will be your friends throughout life. Here, magically, the random forces of life are going to meet you, and they are going to meet you forever. You are going to live these years with greater intensity than any period of your lives.

He described the time at the University as an “intellectual adventure.” He advised students to open up and meet new people, from different regions, of different thoughts.

In the afternoon he met with the Student Council and some representatives. He proudly displayed his findings on the maps. He had discovered their origin, their chronological order, and he had already understood the changes over time. In a magical coincidence, one of those he loves so much, the Atlas from the flea market had almost all maps that were on the wall.

In the evening, he got a flight to Medellin and met with his family. On Friday, August 2nd and the whole weekend he was with his father. Juan Felipe Gaviria passed away 26 days later, at the age of 80 leaving him several legacies, perhaps among the most important: intolerance to injustice, rebelliousness and sense of humor.



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