UNAM at a glance
1910, origin and organization of the National University of Mexico
To deepen our appreciation of the founding of the National University of Mexico means seeking out the origins of an identity and the sustaining values that have defined the institution over the decades and which continue to guide the renowned “house of higher learning.” As a long-time teacher in the National Preparatory School, Secretary and Minister of Public Instruction and Fine Arts in the Porfirio Dias administration, Justo Sierra Mendez is doubtless the central figure in the founding of this representative institution.
The year 1910 was an auspicious time, as the Ministry of Instruction launched the new University for the express purpose, as expressed by Sierra himself, “Mexicanizing” knowledge.
The culminating initiative to establish the National University of Mexico begins on April 26, 1910, when Justo Sierra laid out before Congress the institution’s organizational principles and founding rationale. The formula he presents is straight forward: legally, State institutions were to play the role of approving and monitoring university operations, while the University would be endowed with the mechanisms for internal governance. Sierra was lucid about distinguishing between the scientific purpose of the University and government’s political field of action. This conceptual separation of interests is clearly reflected in the University Foundational Act, issued on May 26, 1910.
Justo Sierra’s arguments made considerable efforts to distinguish the new university project from the previous model, while reaping the lessons the latter had to offer with regard to educational goals. As such, Sierra insisted on the secular nature of the new university that would strive to follow the scientific method in the pursuit of knowledge.
In a solemn ceremony presided by President Porfirio Diaz held on September 22, 1910 in the Amphitheatre of the National Preparatory School, the National University of Mexico was officially inaugurated. This event provided the grand finale for the Centennial Celebration of Mexican Independence.
Justo Sierra’ leadership is revealed in his progressive, universalist vision for the university. Sierra emphasized the determined, evolutionary nature of the university community, saying: “… you are a group in a process of perpetual selection within the larger masses, and you are charged with the realization of a political and social ideal that can be summarized in two words: democracy and liberty.”
From 1954 forward, the life of the University has unfolded in Ciudad Universitaria. Years of both dizzying growth and intense conflict take place within its walls. The University enjoyed relative stability in the decades of the ‘50s and ‘60s and was shaken to its core in 1968 by the student uprisings. From the creation of the UNAM Workers Union by Rector Pablo Gonzalez Casanova, through Soberon’s important leadership in the 1980s to strikes in 1986 and 1999, the University’s history is truly a variegated canvas.
Today the UNAM has recovered much of the prestige that had slipped away during the fateful years near the end of the last century. Perhaps the University’s history and its firm embrace to founding values, which have often been the subject of debate at the highest levels, have been the anchors needed to weather these storms. Its educational purpose, autonomy, academic freedom, secular nature and statutory inclusion of student participation are the founding values which continue to underpin and sustain the university against all adversity. So far, most University Rectors have complied with these postulates, which were originally expressed by Justo Sierra at the University’s founding in 1910.