Protests and Controversy at Universidad del Atlántico

Desks stacked up outside the entrance to building A at the University of Atlántico. Photo: Mathilda Shepard

The Dean of Nutrition and Dietetics is not a nutritionist: what this tells us about internal politics that have led to protests at the University.

The Ciudadela Universitaria that houses the University of Atlántico’s main campus is awash with posters calling for the resignation of Alberto Moreno Rossi as Dean of the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics. Moreno Rossi, who was appointed by the University’s eleven-member Superior Council has faced intense opposition from students and faculty who assert that he is not qualified for the position. To protest his appointment, a group of Nutrition students organized a strike by blockading the entrances to buildings A, B and C with piles of desks and chairs. With classrooms and offices inaccessible, students in the department have not had class for two weeks. There is talk of potentially canceling the semester if academic activities do not resume soon.

On the surface, it may be difficult to see why Mr. Moreno – a biologist with an impressive research resume and prior administrative experience – would inspire such outrage on the part of students and faculty. In order to understand the controversy, we should consider the recent history of political turmoil at the University.

The appointment of academic deans is governed by Article 40 of the Superior Council’s General Statute, which stipulates that 1) the candidate must have at least three years of administrative experience, and 2) he/she must have attained an undergraduate or graduate degree in “one of the knowledge areas related to the Department.” The Superior Council rejected all of the candidates put forward by the Nutrition faculty on the grounds that they lacked sufficient administrative experience; however, professors and students complain that Mr. Moreno also does not fulfill the requirement of possessing a degree related to Nutrition. As student representative Lucy Saavedra explained to El Heraldo, relevant fields of study include “Clinical Nutrition, Public Nutrition or Food Science […] Biology is important, but it’s just one component, not an area.”

It might be tempting to reduce the whole issue to a disagreement over the meaning of “related” areas: while the Superior Council argues that biology is “related” to nutrition, students and faculty interpret the clause more narrowly as referring to the sub-disciplines mentioned by Saavedra above. However, conversations around campus reveal a more far-reaching and fundamental debate over the political process of appointing university officials. When asked why the Superior Council might select a biologist instead of a nutritionist as dean of their department, multiple Nutrition students quipped that the Council makes decisions not based on merit, but rather on “influence.”

Distrust of the Superior Council is a recurring problem at the University. Violent demonstrations broke out last August over the body’s decision to oust then-Rector Rafael Castillo Pacheco and designate Rafaela Vos Obeso as his replacement. The selection of Dr. Vos Obeso, in blatant disregard for the results of student and faculty elections favoring Castillo Pacheco, fueled accusations of cronyism and undemocratic practices.

Whether such allegations are true is difficult to verify. But many protesters see a link between Moreno Rossi’s current position and the circumstances surrounding Dr. Vos Obeso’s controversial appointment last fall. One poster displayed prominently at the University’s front gate asks Mr. Moreno to recall that “Rafaela Vos Obeso went through the same situation as you, and she stepped down out of respect and dignity. Please, FOLLOW THE EXAMPLE!,” in an apparent reference to the Rector’s recent reminder to the community that she only intends to stay in office temporarily.

The current controversy over Mr. Moreno’s appointment is indicative of the continuing perception of University politics as insufficiently transparent and democratic. It has also reignited debates over the proper way to voice dissent, with many affected students arguing (as they did during last November’s university-wide strike to protest budget cuts) that the right of some students to protest interferes with the right of others to receive an education. The supporters of the classroom blockade strategy counter that drastic measures are the only way to get those in power to respond to their concerns, and indeed last semester’s strike led to productive talks with the administration that gave rise to an agreement satisfying many of the protesters’ demands. It remains to be seen how the controversy over Moreno Rossi’s appointment will play out; in the meantime, Nutrition and Dietetics classes are cancelled, and debates over university politics continue.

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Mathilda is a graduate student in Spanish at the University of Virginia. She is currently living in Barranquilla, where she works as a Fulbright English teaching assistant at the Universidad del Atlántico. Having studied Spanish and Persian, Mathilda’s research interests are focused on comparing conflict and development dynamics in Colombia and Afghanistan.