Magazine | March 28, 2016, Issue

Freedom U

The campus of Francisco Marroquín University (Harry Díaz)
A unicorn of a university in Central America

Guatemala City — 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 the Guatemalan capital. 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.”)

On campus, you see Adam Smith Plaza. And the Ludwig von Mises Library. And the Friedrich Hayek Auditorium. And, for good measure, the Milton Friedman Auditorium. UFM has not forgotten Milton’s better half: in the form of 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. At the end, he said, “May God help us and show us the road to the truth.”

These were terrible times for Guatemala: civil-war times. One of the founders was kidnapped and murdered, by Communist guerrillas. So were other early participants in UFM. Evidently, the Communists did not appreciate diversity in education.

Today, UFM is flourishing, and true to its founding mission. There are nearly 3,000 students, and around 500 teachers (most of whom are part-time, and none of whom have tenure). Many of the teachers are alumni of the university.

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 liberal economics and philosophy.

Workers on campus may take a colloquium in liberalism, free of charge. I’m talking about janitors, gardeners, everyone. They don’t have to, because they are “free to choose” (in the Friedmans’ phrase). But if they want to know what their employer is about, they may.

The place is beautiful — lush. Academic grove as tropical paradise. UFM is set in a ravine, and the buildings blend into the hills. I think of a statement by Frank Lloyd Wright: “A building should be a grace to its environment, not a disgrace.”

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.

The campus is dotted with art, including a sculpture of Atlas (as in “shrugged”). There is also a modern number called “Infinite Relationships.” It seems to me a bunch of coils or tubes. I’m told it represents the market.

Where the core courses are given is the Henry Hazlitt Center — named after the American journalist who wrote the iconic volume Economics in One Lesson. There is also a room named for Leonard Read, the American educator who wrote the iconic essay “I, Pencil.” Next to one another, I see rooms named for Hannah Arendt, Lao-Tze, and Booker T. Washington.

Booker T. Washington? This especially warms my heart — for when I was growing up, he was often portrayed as a kind of Tom, an embarrassment, in contrast with the proud W. E. B. Du Bois.

Even the levels of the parking garage are named after worthies: specifically, members of the School of Salamanca (in 16th-century Spain). The idea is that car-driving students will eventually learn about these people, almost without trying.

Throughout campus — in virtually every corner — there are quotations and slogans. This bothers me a little at first, because I associate the ubiquity of quotations and slogans with the Left. But if you’re going to have quotations and slogans — they might as well be true and salutary.

The rector, or president, of this university is Gabriel Calzada, an economist from Spain — from the Canary Islands, specifically. I ask him, “How did you become a liberal? Why are you not a socialist, as so many are?” In fact, I put this question to many of the faculty and administration. Everyone has a story, and it’s interesting.

Calzada’s is something like this: When he was in high school, he liked freedom — but he was on the left. He started a trade union of students. He read the usual: Hegel, Marx, Engels — even Bakunin. They didn’t satisfy him.

When he got to college, he had a right-leaning (or liberal-leaning) professor. The young man argued with him in class. One day, the professor said, “Mr. Calzada, would you like to know more?” The young man said, “Yes, please give me more.” The professor then invited him to come to his house weekly, for debate.

He gave young Calzada a variety of readings: left, right, and center. Calzada was drawn to the classical liberals. The first book that made a deep impression on him was by Jean-François Revel: Useless Knowledge (also known in English as The Flight from Truth). Then came Karl Popper, Hayek, others . . .

At UFM, there are plenty of left-leaning students, resisting and quarreling with the reigning ethos, of course. Students are exposed to a wide range of thought. They are free to explore, think, and argue as they will. Most of the time, they gravitate to classical liberalism — either before they graduate or after.

UFM has had an influence on Guatemala. This influence is seen in the liberalization of the telecommunications industry, for example. In the last presidential election, two of the three leading candidates mentioned Mises! (Including the eventual winner.)

Guy Wyld, the president of the university’s board of trustees, tells me a somewhat touching story. Last year, he got a hold of an index of economic freedom worldwide. He looked from the middle of the list down, for Guatemala. He couldn’t find it — for it was in the top-most quartile.

While other universities in Guatemala and the rest of the region may not like UFM, they have to respect it. UFM has been called “the Harvard of Central America.” Not long ago, President Calzada was at a meeting of university officials and associated others. One of the university officials lit into him as a tool of Big Business, a defender of privilege, etc. Later, the official asked to speak to him privately.

“Listen,” he said, “my son is approaching college age, and there is of course no other place for him to go but UFM. Do you think you can get him in? Also, how about a scholarship?”

One of the most sparkling personalities at UFM is Carla Hess, who, appropriately, leads a program called “Spark.” It seeks to encourage the entrepreneurial spark in human beings. She herself grew up during the civil war and was taught by Maryknoll nuns. They preached Communist revolution to the girls in their charge. Most of these girls came from wealthy families. Some of them ran off with the rebels. But Carla did not. Why?

For one thing, her father had always impressed on her a respect for life: “Thou shalt not kill.” Also a respect for private property: “Thou shalt not steal.” You never take what’s not yours — even a rubber band at school or work. This girl could not join the rebels.

She tells her students that they can be victims or achievers — their choice. They may say, “I was born in Guatemala, so how can I be or do anything in the world?” That is a mentality that UFM seeks to erase.

Carla Hess also leads rope courses and other physical activities up in the hills. They teach lessons such as, “What is the difference between central planning and spontaneous order?” In creative ways, students learn that one is a lot more effective than the other.

To speak personally: I like a campus without any intellectual or political slant. But if our universities — thousands and thousands of them — are going to be dominated by the Left, what’s so bad about one classical-liberal university in all the world? Even ten or 20?

I realize I’ve sounded like a cheerleader in this article. But readers will forgive me because there’s so much to cheer.

One of the things I notice at UFM is a strong, strong contrast with the trend of things in America. I notice no sense of entitlement. Quite the opposite. I notice eagerness, curiosity, and gratitude. At home, we have safe spaces and trigger warnings. These things would be laughable here — even incomprehensible. Last fall, I did a report from Brown University, where students had started a secret Facebook group so that they could discuss things freely. There is no such need at UFM. Everything is open and on the table.

I meet a student from rural Guatemala who won a scholarship here. In previous times, he picked beans on a coffee farm to support his family. A sense of entitlement would be utterly foreign to him.

A final thought: When I was growing up, I think I was led to believe that the capitalists, classical liberals, or free-marketeers were selfish, materialistic, greedy. They preached a gospel of dog-eat-dog. In due course, I realized that they were among the most caring people on earth. They want people to be prosperous, free, and well.

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