The war UGM has to win
Next month (August) along with millions of other Indonesians, Pratikno will return to his roots in the mudik ritual that concludes the Ramadhan fasting month.
In Dolok Gede, an isolated village west of Surabaya, he’ll pay respects to his relatives, catch up with old friends and neighbors, and bring news from the outside world.
In Pratikno’s case it’s a local-lad-makes-good classic. Once he worked picking worms from tobacco leaves. Now his hands mould future generations of the nation’s best and brightest.
He’s rocketed from dirt floor cottage to panelled executive suite, a stellar journey. Yet his conscience remains troubled.
“I feel guilty because others may not have the same chances,” he said. “I experienced the equality of poverty and broke through. Now the barrier is the inequality of prosperity.”
Last year political scientist Professor Pratikno was elected Rector of Yogyakarta’s internationally renowned Universitas Gadjah Mada. This year he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Adelaide’s Flinders University. Next year he may reprise his 2009 performance as TV moderator for the presidential candidates’ national debate.
So how does a boy whose family had little money and less influence scale the academic summit? Having schoolteacher parents committed to learning was critical.
“Unlike our neighbors we had no land and no stock,” he said. “There was only one way out – through education.”
That was limited. Classes with 13 kids were in a joglo (traditional wall-free building) with no place for books. So they were stored in the family home of knowledge-famished Pratikno.
Despite decades of reading texts and writing theses he still recalls a short story called Nimba air, mandi sendiri. It was about a child drawing water from a well to wash alone.
“We didn’t even have a well in our house,” he said, “Electricity wasn’t connected until I was studying for my PhD. My father hoped I’d return home to teach – but I wanted to keep going.”
Skip the years of boarding alone far from family, selling books with Chinese friends to make ends meet, excelling in maths, winning scholarships, studying overseas – at first in Britain then Australia.
Later setting up an NGO, the Asosiasi untuk Demokrasi dan Kesejahteraan Sosial (Association for Democracy and Social Welfare), pushing for transparency and accountability in politics and public administration.
Now the question: This man has lived struggle. For him it’s not a political slogan. So how will Professor Pratikno, 51, improve Indonesia’s oldest and largest public university and the lives of its 54,000 students?
“In the past student selection was biased towards candidates from Western Indonesia, urban areas and elite families,” he said. “This is changing. Fortunately gender bias has gone; 55 per cent are women and they’re our top students.
“I’m worried about ensuring the bright poor from remote areas have entry. We tried affirmative action. It failed. We need other solutions.
“At UGM I want an egalitarian campus, a closeness between professors and students. We’re promoting an inter-disciplinary approach so students are mixed in different faculties and better facilities.
“The learning environment should be quiet and humble – there’s no place for arrogance. Yogya is friendly, particularly when compared with Jakarta. We are multicultural.
“On their first day a student should find a friend from another faculty and religion. We are building a dormitory where the boarders will be from all faiths. We must promote tolerance.”
That may not be so easy. Last year, Pratikno’s predecessor banned a book discussion by Canadian liberal Muslim Irshad Manji following threats from fundamentalists.
More recently Professor Pratikno ignored the advice of his security section and allowed a debate on West Papua. Violence followed.
“Today’s student generation is so much better than in the past,” he said. “They are clever, ambitious and much more confident.
“Yet student organizations can be training grounds for radicals. I tell my staff that in the contest of ideas we are competing with other ways of thinking.
“It will be ridiculous if we fail when we have the capacity to make our values acceptable. This is our challenge. We have to win this war.”
UGM wants to attract overseas students. Australia is encouraging young people to study in Asia to build regional knowledge. It should be a win-win. However Indonesian study visas are hard to obtain, another example of the gap between initiators and bureaucrats.
UGM is a major research university and Professor Pratikno wants more partnerships with industry, to ensure practical developments of campus scholars’ work. Like Jakarta transport ticketing systems, new batik dyes, landslip alerts and flexible timbers for earthquake zone homes.
In other areas there’ll be an emphasis on publishing academic papers, marketing expertise and patenting inventions.
As part of UGM’s role in society it will send a ‘White Paper’ to presidential candidates asking questions about their vision for Indonesia. “It will be an invitation with empathy,” said Professor Pratikno.
“UGM is the most neutral place to debate national issues and bring people together on serious matters like governance and corruption.
“We are not seeing consistency in Indonesian political leadership. Academics, scientists and technologists have been excluded from the decision making – that has to change. Too many departments operate apart and don’t coordinate.
“Indonesia has made a peaceful transition to democracy. We are not Egypt. But we still have a problem at the local level where there’s sometimes violence and a refusal to accept the democratic process.
“How can we optimize our knowledge?” he asked. “How can we link not just with business but also with ordinary people, to help improve their lives, pioneering new ways of using technology? Hi tech, but high touch.”
Emphasising the need for cross disciplinary approach is the promise of geo-thermal technology using the nation’s natural resources. This is being hampered not by failings of science but community resistance and political divisions.
“We have the expertise to confront these challenges,” Professor Pratikno said. “I see UGM as a tree offering shade and fruits to benefit all.”
And deep roots, right down to Dolok Gede.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 July 13)