OLD IS GOLD

Colombia 2020 | EDUCATION | INTERVIEW

Universidad Santo Tomás has combined its experience as the oldest Colombian university with an emphasis on digitalization, innovation, and social responsibility to become a major reference point.

Fr. José Gabriel Mesa Angulo O.P.
BIOGRAPHY

Fr. José Gabriel Mesa Angulo O.P. studied theology with a master's degree in communication at Pontificia Universidad Gregoriana. He holds a PhD (cum laude) in communication science. In addition to Spanish, he speaks English, French, and Italian. He was appointed General Rector of Universidad Santo Tomás in 2019.

Can you tell us about the history of Universidad Santo Tomás?
Universidad Santo Tomás was the first university in Colombia, founded in 1580. We are over 440 years old, while the second oldest is around 360. We are in a historic reality that includes present and future realities. The order that manages the university is the Dominicans friars. The university has nearly 30,000 students and employs more than 4,000 people between academics and administrative staff. We could say that it is a big company that supports the country's growth.

What has been your contribution to Colombia?
There have been a few important moments in our history. We were the first university in Colombia that took a step to ensure there was an educational institution during the colonial era. For example, the first “Muisca" grammar was written by Dominicans. That connection between the indigenous worlds and Spain took place through knowledge. Academia was important to protect the human rights of the indigenous. Then, during the independence period, we Dominicans were heavily involved; the priest of Bolívar, as a matter of fact, was a Dominican. The third moment was when the industrial revolution took place, because the university in the 20th century emerged as one of the most important educational institutions in the country. Some presidents, ministers, and many judges graduated from Universidad Santo Tomás. This university has been part of the country's main historic moments, though we are going through the digitalization processes that the world is experiencing.

How does the Christian philosophy play a part in the educational spirit of the university?
The Christian humanism is a paramount factor to education. We support humanism, particularly Christian, which has an essential trace. For us, the philosophical learning is important. We have organized for more than 40 years an international congress every two years about Latin American philosophy. The Christian humanism and the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas are a universal thought. Saint Thomas particularly focused the structure and thinking method. The main role of universities is to boost knowledge, and we structure knowledge through Thomas Aquinas' way of thinking.

How is Universidad Santo Tomás focused on developing all the different regions of Colombia?
We are a Multi-Campus University. We are highly committed to the development of the regions in Colombia. The university has campuses in Tunja, Villavicencio, Medellín, Bogotá, and Bucaramanga. We have presence in other 18 cities, through Universitary Attention Centres, which support the long, open, and distance learning process to provide education to people who live in more remote areas. That has helped us get closer to these people and has been a fundamental component for us. We also focus on e-learning and new developments. Thus, we continue to invest in technology and have excellent laboratories. For example, we have a new lab about water in Villavicencio, where people from all over that region go to conduct research. Another important factor for us is social responsibility. In Bucaramanga, for instance, we have dentist chairs that attend low-income people in the region. This is a Catholic university, which means our interest is not in generating profits, but serving the people. We have approved a new master's degree in language learning and is conducted via e-learning. E-learning allows us to provide services abroad.

What is your view on the educational sector in Colombia, and what new courses are you planning to launch?
We are working strongly to better spread information in every process. Digitalization is taking us in that direction, so we look at programs related to public policy, for example. We are working on business, statistics, and engineering in order to adapt our programs to those environments where information is paramount for decision making. We are focused on environment and society matters. All our research revolves around those topics.

What are your next goals for 2020 and beyond?
I am not interested in being the “best university" in Colombia, but in being a reference for what it means to be a relevant university in this country. If someone wants to focus on what teaching means, this is the university. That is more important to us than being the first in rankings. We want to be a reference in terms of society, teaching, and providing human values to our students and the country as a whole. And we can only achieve that through quality. Quality is the only road we can go through if we want to achieve things for society. We were the first private university certified as Multi-Campus, and we have international certifications being part of a network of Latin American universities. We should look closer to North America, with the US and Canada, because there are many developments taking place there. However, there is a language barrier, though we are working on that to improve our networking with those universities.