National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)

views updated

National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)

The Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico, the precursor of UNAM, was patterned after Spain's University of Salamanca. It was founded by royal decree on 21 September 1551 and opened officially in Mexico City on 25 January 1553. It offered courses in theology, scripture, canon law, jurisprudence, arts, rhetoric, and the Justinian Code, all of which were taught in the scholastic tradition that stressed dogma over the discovery of truth. During the colonial period, it added chairs in medicine, Native Indian and Asian languages, and astronomy and astrology, first held by the legendary savant Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora. By 1636, when the first university in the United States (Harvard College) was founded, it had already awarded more than 8,000 bachelor's degrees.

During the later colonial period, the university continued in its role as firm supporter of tradition and order. When it failed to support the Spaniards against the Creole insurgency in 1810, Viceroy Venegas De Saavedra expelled its faculty and students and converted its buildings into a barracks. As part of his anticlerical program, Vice President Valentín Gómez Farías closed the university in 1833. President Antonio López de Santa Anna reopened it in 1834 and reorganized it in 1854, but it was closed once more by President Ignacio Comonfort in 1857. Félix Zuloaga reopened it in 1858, but Benito Juárez shut it down again in 1861, an action that Emperor Maximilian upheld in 1865.

On 26 May 1910 Minister of Education Justo Sierra Méndez created the modern university, the National University of Mexico, which was allied with the National Preparatory School and the schools of law, medicine, engineering, fine arts, and advanced studies. In 1929 the word "autonomous" was added to its name, but true independence from civil authority was not granted until 19 August 1933. After replacing university leadership on 30 December 1944, President Manuel Ávila Camacho proclaimed new regulations on 9 March 1945 whereby the university was reorganized to include a wide array of educational institutions that incorporated the schools of philosophy and letters, sciences, law, political and social sciences, economics, business, medicine, and the National Library. As a result, UNAM became a de facto agency of the government and received increased financial support.

Ensuing years saw peace with government and steady funds. The opening of a new campus in 1952 reflected the determination to build a true university out of diverse professional faculties. Ten years later, rector Ignacio Chávez instituted educational reforms to strengthen academic requirements but faced a confrontation between academic modernizers and students. UNAM's low point came with the 1968 government slaughter of over 300 protesting students. Seeking to shore up its legitimacy, the government financed systemwide growth of 13 percent per year in the 1970s, which was cut in half in the 1980s before slowing to a trickle the following decade.

This growth stripped UNAM of its overwhelming dominance. It fell from 50 percent of enrollments in 1960 to 30 percent by the early 1970s to 12 percent as of 2007. States founded or greatly expanded their own public universities and technical institutions. In 1973 the government created another public university with several branches right in the federal district. Meanwhile, a surge in private universities wrested away privileged applicants, status, and graduates' job prospects—breaking the near monopoly UNAM graduates had possessed on obtaining top political positions. The power shift called pointed attention to UNAM's laxness: automatic access for its own preparatory school students; free tuition; scandalous attendance and teaching policies; and so forth. Rector Jorge Carpizo's sober assessment of the need for change revived the student movement, albeit temporarily, in the late 1980s. And tangible progress made by UNAM in academic matters was undermined by rapid growth (from 40,000 students in 1960 to 135,000 in 1994, and double that with the preparatory level) that left it with more unprepared students and fewer key resources per student. Still only one-eighth of its professors are full-time, about half the national average.

Despite these problems, UNAM remains Mexico's preeminent educational institution. It is much larger than any other such facility in Mexico; has more top professors, graduate students, and especially researchers; garners one-fourth of the system's total resources; offers the most fields of study (sixty-one); and still boasts all modern Mexican presidents as alumni. If reforms of the 1970s failed to bring envisioned pedagogical innovation, they at least brought decentralization, with new campuses and activities. Even the main campus has diversified, as shown by an array of research units.

Whether UNAM can be "national" in more than mere nomenclature depends not on recapturing its past status, but on whether it leads or lags behind the higher education system's modernization efforts to establish quality, evaluation, merit-rewarded performance; private-public partnerships; and internationalization. However, policy reforms to those ends have met with resistance. In 1999, the rector of UNAM tried to raise fees, but a group of students launched a strike disrupting classes for several months. While many Mexicans found the strikers' demands unreasonable and the federal government arrested the protesters, the activities did limit privatization attempts.

See alsoÁvila Camacho, Manuel; Education: Overview; Sierra Méndez, Justo; Sigüenza y Góngora, Carlos de; Universities: The Modern Era.


Thomas Noel Osborn, II, Higher Education in Mexico: History, Growth, and Problems in a Dichotomized Industry (1975).

Daniel C. Levy, University and Government in Mexico: Autonomy in an Authoritarian System (1980); Dirección General de Asuntos Personales, UNAM, ed., Diagnóstico del personal académico de la UNAM (1984).

Roderic A. Camp, Intellectuals and the State in Twentieth-Century Mexico (1985).

Daniel C. Levy, Higher Education and the State in Latin America: Private Challenges to Public Dominance (1986), pp. 114-170; Rollin Kent, Modernización conservadora y crisis académica en la UNAM (1990).

David E. Lorey, The University System and Economic Development in Mexico Since 1929 (1993).

Additional Bibliography

Aranda Sánchez, José María. Un movimiento estudiantil contra el neoliberalismo: UNAM 1999–2000. Toluca, Mexico: Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, 2001.

Babb, Sarah L. Managing Mexico: Economists from Nationalism to Neoliberalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Mendoza Rojas, Javier. Los conflictos de la UNAM en el siglo XX. Mexico City: Centro de Estudios sobre la Universidad, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México: Plaza y Valdés, 2001.

Ordorika Sacristán, Imanol. Power and Politics in University Governance: Organization and Change at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003.

                                        Daniel C. Levy

About this article

National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)

Updated About content Print Article


National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)