Along the busy Taft Avenue in the City of Manila stands an impressive 3-storey structure housing one of the country’s prominent universities. While its prestige is not along the levels of that of the so-called “Big Four” of the Philippine universities, its contributions not only to education but to Philippine society as a whole is something that cannot be denied.
It also has quite a history as well, from its glory days in the past to the crisis it experienced in recent years which threatened the existence of the university itself. As it approaches its centennial in a few years’ time after surviving that close call, it is time for the Urban Roamer to take a look at this venerable institution: the Philippine Women’s University.
The history of the Philippine Women’s University began on June 9, 1919 when educator and civic rights leaders Francisca Tirona Benitez along with six other women, Clara Aragon, Concepcion Aragon, Paz Marquez Benitez, (sister-in-law of Francisca Benitez) Carolina Ocampo Palma, Mercedes Rivera and Socorro Maraquez Zaballero, founded the Philippine Women’s College, with Francisca serving as its first president. It was a time when women’s rights and empowerment began to take hold in the national consciousness in the wake of the success of women’s suffrage rights in other countries, especially in the United States early that year. (the Philippines would later approve women’s suffrage in 1937) Thus, the college aimed to prepare women for “life service and leadership.”
The college first offered primary and secondary education. later followed on with education, commerce, and philosophy. Early on, it already had the distinction of being the first private educational institution to have a student council in 1922. In 1926, the building we know today was constructed to house the growing college which became a university by 1932. The war years from 1941-1945 briefly halted the university’s operations as the administration temporarily converted it into a hospital to serve those affected by the war, especially the Battle of Manila in February 1945. It would be a year later when PWU reopened its doors to the public.
GROWTH AFTER THE WAR
It would be in the postwar years that PWU would blossom as an educational institution and beyond. It became a renowned women’s university in Asia by the 1960s as many women from neighboring Asian countries enrolled in the university But perhaps one of the most prominent developments happened in 1948, when PWU reestablished its primary and secondary education and established the Jose Abad Santos Memorial School or JASMS, named after the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos who also served as Chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees. JASMS would evolve to become one of the most prominent high schools in the country, partly because of its unorthodox educational methods. You can read more about it in this article here.
Then in 1957, under the auspices of PWU President (later becoming senator) Helena Benitez, daughter of PWU’s founding president, a dance troupe by the name of Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company was established within the university halls. It quickly made an impression when it debuted the following year at the Expo 58 World Fair in Brussels, Belgium. It soon became a household name as it became the country’s de facto ambassador for dance and culture in various engagements here and abroad. In recognition of its invaluable achievements. the Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company was designated by legislation (through Republic Act 8626) as the country’s national folk dance company in 1998.
A UNIVERSITY IN CRISIS
The following years however saw a decline in the university’s fortunes. It was a slow and steady decline as the university accumulated debts that would come to haunt back the institution in the 2000s as the bank threatened to foreclose the PWU and JASMS properties over these debts that were left unpaid at the time. In a bid to save the institutions, in 2011 the Benitez clan entered into a deal with Eusebio Tanco of STI Holdings, the firm behind the STI Colleges network of schools. The deal enabled STI Holdings to bail out PWU by acquiring PWU’s PHP 230 million bank loan debt, as well as provide additional funds to pay for salaries, retirement, facilities maintenance, upgrade of laboratory and learning facilities, and other operational expenses. STI also helped via professional and technical support to establish PWU’s financial, accounting, and human resources system.
The agreement originally was for Tanco’s STI Holdings to get a 40 percent share in PWU after six months in exchange for the bailout. However, the shares were not issues, so Tanco considers the money he used to buy out the bank loan and other financial help he gave as a loan that the Benitezes to repay with accumulated four-year interest, making them in default at PHP 925 million. So now comes Tanco wanting to foreclose PWU and JASMS to save these “mismanaged and underfunded” schools from bankruptcy, to rehabilitate them and also recoup his firms’ money. On the other hand, the Benitezes acknowledged the bailout and the failure to issue him the promised 40-percent shares because the clan wanted to pay Tanco all the money he gave plus “reasonable interest.” However, the Benitezes cried foul over the amount Tanco was charging as being “usurious and too exorbitant.”
Things came to a head in 2015 as STI Holdings went to court in February to order the foreclosure of PWU’s properties, a move averted when PWU entered into a rehabilitation program in March that year to straighten out its internal issues, including planned debt payments to STI Holdings. The move prompted renewed discussions between the Benitezes and Tanco over the future of PWU.
The result was an agreement reached early this year in which STI Holdings agreed to be paid in kind as payment for the loan. Thus, PWU will remain under the Benitezes and will still keep the Manila campus while STI Holdings gets to acquire the PWU property in Davao and the prime JASMS property in Quezon City. This entails that JASMS in Quezon City would have to move to a new location by 2017. While there are some challenges needed to be addressed, the agreement marks the end hopefully of the bitter war that has put PWU on the brink of its existence.
Having been able to survive what could be considered the worst chapter in its history is something Philippine Women’s University should be thankful for as it is about to celebrate its centennial in 2019. On the part of the Benitezes, they are looking forward to PWU’s centennial with a renewed sense of hope in continuing the legacy started by Francisca Tirona-Benitez and her co-founders in providing quality education. We can only hope that this time, PWU is truly back on track and be an example of quality education once more.
Acknowledgements as well to the Philippine Women’s University and the Philippine Star