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‘Unique challenges and opportunities’ drive incoming DLSU President Br. Bernard Oca FSC in new role

Br. Bernard Oca FSC officially began his term as the 24th DLSU President last August 1. After three years of serving as the University Chancellor, he will succeed Br. Raymundo Suplido FSC, who has led DLSU since 2015

A seasoned administrator in La Salle campuses across the country, Oca looks back on his tenure as University Chancellor for the past three years and looks ahead to his vision as President during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

What was your initial reaction when you first received news of your appointment as University President? Were you looking forward to being granted the position? 

When Br. Ray texted me, congratulating me as the new President of De La Salle University last week, I was actually—I don’t know if the correct word is “numb”. There was a process for the search [for] the University President, and one of [the steps] was the interview for those who were nominated…That was over a month ago. After that, I completely forgot that there [was] this eventual choice because I was so busy with many other things. 

So when the text of Br. Ray came, then I realized, “Oh, my God. This is it.” It was really a surprise that I was the one chosen because [while] there was a possibility that I could be the President because I’ve been the Chancellor for the past three years, there is also a possibility that I would not be because I do not know if they found other nominees that are more in their standards [or] would be better as President. So I wasn’t too sure if I will be the one who accepts it. 

You began your term as University Chancellor back in 2018. How would you describe your experience in the role for the past three years?

First, it was very challenging. I had not been with the University for almost seven years. Even if I live in the [DLSU] campus, I was president of De La Salle [Santiago] Zobel [School] so I was not involved in the campus as much. 

When I became the chancellor, I had to learn their responsibilities and try (sic) to live up to those responsibilities…There are many things that I have to learn, there are so many things that I have to do, and many responsibilities now on my shoulders. But the challenges made things very exciting for me. I felt fully alive meeting all of these challenges sometimes. Even when I was first Vice President in the 90s, De La Salle University just has this energy that pushes you to do your best because it’s very exciting. 

But also, it’s humbling because you realize that there are many things that we have to learn, that you are not a “Superman” that will be able to solve everything and make decisions that you’re not too sure if they’re really the correct decision. 

In our last 10 Questions interview with you in 2018, you mentioned that the University’s financial situation after the K-12 shift was one of the major problems that needed to be looked into. How has the University under your chancellorship sought to address this issue in the past years?

The financial situation is still a challenge today because not only are we just coming out [of] the K-12 lean years, but the pandemic challenges our finances a little bit more. But then, from that time, what we tried to do was look at the expenses of the University and find ways and means to decrease expenses and increase revenues. 

Marketing the University, to me, was very important so that we will have more students applying…It was helpful that the University is just one of two universities in the Philippines that is in the Times Higher Education (THE) rankings

The services of the University, especially during this online distance learning…I think we were able to address or to meet the needs of the online distance learning compared to other universities. I think this type of service, by word of mouth, made many parents and future students consider applying and enrolling in De La Salle University.

One that is close to my heart is trying to improve our UAAP standing because there is a correlation between championships and doing well in the UAAP and students applying to the University…so that we continue our relationships with former students and continuously working with other universities and industry partners as well as civil society.

Looking back, would you say that you were able to fulfill all your major plans as Chancellor? Are you planning to continue them now as President?

I don’t think I have accomplished everything that I wanted to accomplish as Chancellor because the University is a living institution, and therefore, challenges and opportunities come about and these are things that you’d like to address or take advantage of, to help the University. 

So yes, I will still continue many of the things that I have started as Chancellor because really, the Chancellor and the President work very well together. So as President, I will still continue some of many of the things that I have been doing as Chancellor.

In our previous interview, you said that the Chancellor did the “nitty-gritty” work, while the President performed more ceremonial functions. As President, will you still be as hands-on with administrative work? How different will your workload be?

Okay, first, I must correct if I really said that the President is only ceremonial because it might look like he’s (Suplido) just the Queen of England. I would have to apologize to Br. Ray if I ever gave that impression. 

Yes, I would like to continue to be engaged with the University. One of the things that I [was] known for, when we were still having our face-to-face status in the University, was I would always be walking around. Whenever I have free time in the office, I would like to go around meeting the students, going to offices, [and] saying hello so that I feel the environment, the energy, also finding out from the ground what is really happening. I will not be a University President that just stays in the office. 

But the day-to-day details, I will not be too concerned [with] because as President, you look also at the bigger picture. So you are more strategic in the sense that you see how the University can move strategically. You have the added thing now beyond being Chancellor of going outside the University, also collaborating with local and international agencies, universities, to promote the University and see how the University can contribute in solving the social problems of our country as well as the world. I will probably have more meetings, and I will have more emails. But that is part of the job.

Aside from your upcoming role as DLSU President, you are also presently serving as the president of De La Salle Santiago Zobel School, Jaime Hilario Integrated School-La Salle, and De La Salle Araneta University. How have you balanced your responsibilities across four La Salle schools?

Thank God there is Zoom because I can have meetings almost one after the other through all the different four schools. But how can one person be the head of all of these institutions that have [also] their own unique challenges and opportunities? Well, I have a good team of lay partners who help me very, very much. I cannot say that I am the one doing it. I am just probably like a conductor in an orchestra, and I will rely a lot on the expertise, integrity, and wisdom of my team. That is the way I think I will be able to manage. 

There is also the West Luzon cluster that has been created by De La Salle Philippines, and this West Luzon cluster is really all the four schools. I think [this] is part of the reason why I am the head of all the four so that these four institutions will be able to synergize. I think my role as President of all the four, with the help of the lay partners in all of these different institutions, can strengthen each institution more by the synergy that we will be able to fulfill.

Now that you will be holding the position of University President, how different would your approach be in addressing challenges faced by the University compared to when you were Chancellor? How would you also differentiate yourself from your predecessor, Br. Ray?

I am more outgoing than Br. Ray. He is a little shy. So my personality is such that I will be more visible. 

Again, I will be dependent on the team that I have so that even during the times that I’m not inside the campus, the University is still running very efficiently. And I hope that I will be able to communicate that I am approachable to people so that they can talk to me about what’s happening to them every time they see me. So I think that is something that will be a little different. I will not promise that I can solve everything, but I promise I will listen.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly brought many challenges to the University, with some complaining that the turnaround time for offices is slower than before. How do you plan to address these kinds of operational concerns?

The past three years we have [had] the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) project. We are about to conclude the actual implementation and going live regarding the Enterprise Resource Planning of the University. We are hoping that this will considerably improve the efficiency of the processes of the University. One of the things that I really wanted to do was to make the processes efficient because I myself am a little impatient and if things are not going as fast and as efficiently as they should be, I get a little annoyed. 

I think that the ERP project is a major project that the University has undertaken so that we will have a more efficient way of running the University in the areas of HR, finance, and student life. A little more patience and hopefully we will be able to do everything, even with just a cell phone.

There have been talks of possible face-to-face classes in the upcoming Academic Year, especially as the University rolls out its own vaccination program. Do you have plans on how to move forward with the transition to a limited face- to-face setting?

If you have a chance to see the University now, you will see that there are arrows in the corridors: one going one way and the outside you have it going another way. There are designated entrances and exits. There is the protocol that we have when you enter, the taking of the temperature, and then also for exit purposes, we have a lot of places to wash your hands.

We are very concerned about the air quality because we know that the virus is aerosolized—it stays in the air. We are going to continuously monitor the air quality in the different classrooms and in the different offices. We have determined the number of people, maximum number of people expected in the offices, in the classrooms, in the library, and the whole University. 

Then, of course, we have the prioritization of the vaccination rollout. Our faculty, staff, and students have registered, and depending on when we are going to get the vaccines, we will try to make this as efficient as possible so that those who are fully vaccinated will have a better chance of entry into the University and participating in face-to-face activities. 

And then there is one also that Vice Chancellor for Administration Dr. Arnel [Uy] mentioned to us [about] a debriefing or a cycle of psychological first aid for people who have gone out of their locked-in area and are moving [back to] the campus so that they will be more psychologically aware and prepared once they go face-to-face.

As the 2022 national elections draw near, how will you ensure that the DLSU community will remain politically-engaged members of society?

With the help of [SLIFE], we are going through a very active voter education program. But in the long term, what is important is not only voter education, but political education. I think that many of our young people—and Filipinos in general—need to be educated regarding what it means to choose their leaders, what qualities to look for in leaders, but at the same time, develop their own leadership skills so that they will be able to serve the nation and society. It can be in government but also in any area that they have chosen to devote their lives to. 

It’s also a vocation that we would like to encourage that we, Lasallians, are called by God to really be evangelizers and evangelizing is bringing the good news, transforming society, [and] making people experience the Kingdom of God, here and now. And that to me is very important. 

Hopefully, our education is also going to be relevant in that area [since] many of our programs are outcomes-based. There are a lot of service-learning components in the different courses. And hopefully, this will open us up to the realities of what’s happening in our country–the social situation, especially the poverty that is facing us, so that our education becomes relevant. Our education has attempted to solve social problems and hopefully contribute to the social development goals of the United Nations that will improve our society, especially our world. 

Hopefully, the students [and] our community will become a voice for the voiceless and the powerless. And the issues of today will be part of the education that we have in our classrooms and in our curriculum. 

*This interview was edited for length and clarity.

By Julianne Cayco

By Helen Saudi

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