Freedom U, Part I

Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala City (Photo: Harry Díaz)
Seeing is believing: a classical-liberal university in Guatemala

Editor’s Note: In a recent issue of National Review, we published a piece by Jay Nordlinger called “Freedom U: A unicorn of a university in Central America.” This week, Mr. Nordlinger expands the piece in his Impromptus.

For years, people have said to me, “It’s too good to be true. But it is true. It actually exists.” These people are classical liberals, or Reagan conservatives, or in that general camp. And the thing they are talking about is Francisco Marroquín University, here in Guatemala City. It is a classical-liberal university.

And it is virtually the only one in the entire world. A similar institution can be found in Montenegro, and it was inspired by UFM (to use the Guatemalan university’s Spanish initials). But UFM stands pretty much alone.

‐UFM’s mission statement, or mission sentence, is known by heart on this campus, at least by some: “. . . to teach and disseminate the ethical, legal, and economic principles of a society of free and responsible persons.” (A teacher says to me, “Notice that ‘ethical’ comes first.”)

‐When you see Adam Smith Plaza, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. You also see Ludwig von Mises Library. And Friedrich Hayek Auditorium. And, for good measure, Milton Friedman Auditorium.

UFM has not forgotten Professor Friedman’s better half: There is a Rose Friedman Terrace.

‐The university was founded in 1971 by Manuel Ayau and a group of like-minded partners. They were Guatemalan entrepreneurs, and they called themselves “rebel improvisers.” They were fed up with the persistent socialism and poverty in their part of the world. They wanted to create at least an island of liberalism (for which Americans, with our peculiar vocabulary, can read “conservatism,” or “Reaganism”).

They named their university after Francisco Marroquín, who lived in the first half of the 16th century. He was the first bishop of Guatemala, and a pioneer in education. He was especially interested in the education of colonial girls and Indians. He was also interested in free trade and other elements of what would be known as classical liberalism.

‐Inaugurating the university, Ayau gave a simple, thoughtful, and profound address. I will quote a little.

Peace becomes impossible to obtain when someone tries to impose common beliefs on all. It is sometimes said that differences of opinion are in themselves the cause of conflict and must be eliminated, by force if necessary, in order to preserve peace. I believe that the reverse is true. Conflicts occur where diversity of ideas is not tolerated …

Certain ideological positions are mutually exclusive, such as socialism and liberal democracy. Nevertheless, both positions are defended by men and women of good will. These differences of opinion among people will necessarily be reflected in the character of the institutions they create. …

We firmly believe in the capacity of imperfect human beings to be better able to realize their destiny when free and not when compelled by the collective entity personified by the state. …

We believe that a pluralistic and democratic society will always offer the greatest opportunity for progress and peace. … In such a society, precisely because people are free, diverse, and multiple, experimentation has ample room to supplement the lack of human omniscience.

Near the end of his address, Ayau said, “May God help us and show us the road to the truth.”

‐These were terrible times for Guatemala — the early ’70s. Civil-war times. One of UFM’s founders was kidnapped and murdered, by Communist guerrillas. So were other early participants in the university.

Evidently, the Communists did not appreciate diversity in education.

Manuel Ayau himself dodged assassination. He had a bullet-proof vest, and he would switch the cars he drove, and he would sometimes wear a wig. He took a variety of precautions, to stay alive (which he did, until he died at 84, in 2010).

‐Step by step, Ayau built the university he wanted. I’ll tell you an amazing story.

In the early days, a Salesian priest came to Ayau. “We hear you’ve started a university. We’d like to teach theology for you.”

“I’m really trying to find economics professors,” said Ayau.

“Oh, I have a colleague who knows about economics,” said the priest.

“Yes, sure, but we’re interested in free-market economics.”

“Oh, but my colleague is a free-market economist.”

“Great,” said Ayau, “but, more particularly, I’m interested in a school of economic thought called ‘the Austrian school.’”

“My colleague knows about that,” said the priest.

“Okay,” said Ayau, “but, to be very particular, I need someone to teach the vision of Ludwig von Mises.”

“You know,” said the priest, “my colleague always talks about him. I think Mises was his mentor.”

Right here in Guatemala, the priest worked with Joseph Keckeissen: a Brooklyn-born economist who had studied with Mises at New York University and written his dissertation under Israel Kirzner.

Keckeissen became one of the most beloved professors at UFM — a mentor to many. An example both intellectually and humanly (for lack of a better word). Many cherish the memory of “Joe Keck” — including the university’s current treasurer, Ramón Parellada, who studied under him.


‐Today, UFM has close to 2,900 students. Of those who apply, about half are accepted. The students are mainly locals. As I understand it, there is no tradition of dormitories in Latin America. Students live at home. UFM, however, is thinking about dorms.

The university has about 500 teachers, most of whom are part-time. None have tenure. Many of the teachers are alumni of the university.

Instruction is chiefly in Spanish, but students are required to know English, and there is reading in English, as well as instruction.

UFM offers bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctoral degrees. The subjects range from architecture to dentistry to psychology to law. A recent addition is a film program. But everyone takes fundamental courses — a core — in economics and philosophy.

‐The university’s rector, or president, is Gabriel Calzada — who tells me that the place is “ecumenical.” You have the Austrian school, the Chicago school, the public-choice people, the Objectivists, or Randians …

For most of the world, that would be all the points of view from A to B, or A and a half. But, as you can imagine, the fights between these factions are ferocious.

By the way, UFM has a new master’s program in Objectivist philosophy. They are about to graduate their first batch.

‐Whatever field you study here, the accent is apt to be a liberal one. What I mean is, if you take political science or international relations, the accent will be on freedom, democracy, and human rights.

‐Employees of the university may take a colloquium on liberalism, free of charge. This means janitors, gardeners — everyone. No one has to take the colloquium, because people are “free to choose’ (as the Friedmans say). But if they want to know what their employer is about, they may.

‐The university accepts no government aid. Neither does it accept aid from government-linked organizations. The only money it accepts is private.

UFM has turned down some big checks, I’m told, because the sources of those checks were not quite right.

If I have heard correctly, each department of the university must pay its own way — must earn its keep. Must stand on its two feet, financially.

Every year, a coffee shop on campus is put out to bid. In other words: Who wants to run it? At what price?

From what I can tell, UFM practices the principles it preaches.

‐The place is beautiful, ladies and gentlemen — lush. I think of a phrase: “tropical paradise as academic grove.” UFM is set in a ravine, and the buildings blend into the hills. I think of another phrase — a statement by Frank Lloyd Wright. He said something like, “A building ought to be a grace to its environment, not a disgrace.”

When you are in a classroom, you feel you are up in the trees — because you are. The branches are outside your window.

Frankly, I don’t think I’ve seen a more inviting campus on which to study.

‐Guatemala City has a reputation for crime, and I ask UFM’s secretary-general, Ricardo Castillo, about the campus: Is it safe? Yes, he says, very. The biggest danger is that an avocado will fall from a tree and crack a windshield. It happened to a student recently, and she was quite upset.

‐Everything is very neat. The campus is spick and span. There is even what you might call a manicured look. I say to Castillo, “It must take a great deal of money to keep this place up.” No, he says. It takes respect. You have to respect the place, and not trash it. “You don’t have to spend so much money if you take care of things every day.” And, evidently, they do.

More later, ladies and gentlemen — I’m just getting started. Thanks for joining me. See you tomorrow for Part II.


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