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University of Santo Tomas

A golden university

By PAULO ALCAZAREN, The Philippine STAR Published May 08, 2021 5:00 am

The University of Santo Tomas just celebrated its 410th founding anniversary. It is the oldest university in Asia. Founded by the Dominicans in 1611, it is older than Harvard University by three decades and is Yale University’s senior by a century.

I found an old article in the defunct Asia magazine from 57 years ago that featured the institution. It painted a really good historical introduction as well as a contemporary snapshot of UST in 1964.

 The deans of the 14 colleges of the UST in 1964 pose in front of the Arch of the Centuries

The piece noted that the first classes were held in 1619, eight years after the school was established, and went on continuously except for two interruptions: the Revolutionary war of 1898 and the Second World War.

The UST was affiliated with the University of Mexico and patterned its statues after it. The university was the premier educational institution in the country even after the end of the Spanish colonial era. Several noted graduates were listed, including Jose Rizal, Claro M. Recto and the president when the article came out, Diosdado Macapagal (who received two doctorates from the UST).

 The university’s school of medicine is world-renowned.

The writer noted how conservative the UST was in the 1960s. Although coeds were already allowed to enrol in the 1950s, they used separate corridors and stairs. College students were also required to wear uniforms and followed strict dress codes (especially the women).

The UST was also still a religious school. The seminary, part of the sprawling campus, provided education for would-be priests. Prayers were said in classrooms and masses were (and still are) a regular part of academic life.

 UST coeds in their distinctive uniforms of the 1960s

The university was also known then for its sports teams in football and basketball. It also had a renowned ROTC program with a model company that used uniforms patterned after Buckingham Palace guards. I guess Manila was much cooler in the 1960s than today.

The stats of the UST in 1964 were cited. The campus had 15 buildings and hosted 30,000 enrollees. It was known then, as it is now, for its excellent school of medicine, as well as for law, business, the sciences, engineering, fine arts and architecture. Almost all my professors in architecture at the University of the Philippines in Diliman in the ’70s were UST graduates.

 The whole campus is a nationally declared heritage site. Photos by Dick Baldovino

From the 1950s onwards they produced many luminaries in Philippine architecture: Leandro Locsin, Francisco Mañosa, Gabriel Formoso, Engracio Mariano, Felino Palafox, Bong Recio and Meloy Casas, as well as landscape architects IP Santos and Dolly Perez.

The article stated that, “the most popular courses (in 1964) are those that provide the easiest access into the world of business and the profession. At the University of Santo Tomas, the course in Philosophy — a favorite for centuries — now attracts only a few hardy souls. Courses in commerce are booming. The Spanish Dominicans who run the university are imperturbably providing for the new needs of a new generation of Filipino students as they have done for earlier generations these past three centuries.”

 The UST Model Company in 1964 dressed in Buckingham Palace-style uniforms

The UST campus is the largest consolidated campus in Manila. It moved to its current 21.5-hectare site in the 1930s after three centuries in Intramuros. Its old complex there was reduced to rubble in the battle for Manila in 1945.

I remember that the campus was one of the greenest within urban Manila. The University of the Philippines in far-off Diliman was considered a suburban campus back then. Today the UST campus has filled up with more buildings, as its enrollment has boomed to over 45,000, along with three secondary-level schools, as well as multi-level parking garages.

 The UST provided education for those going into the The university’s school of priesthood.

The UST campus still keeps most of its central green and in recent years created a plaza mayor in front of its main heritage building. Nearby is the UST Quadricentennial Square and Alumni Park (with an Orlina sculpture — Ramon is a UST alumnus from the College of Architecture).

Modern additions include the Thomas Aquinas Research Complex, the Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati Building, the UST Tan Yan Kee Student Centre, and the Buenaventura Garcia Paredes, OP Building , which houses the UST Alumni Center and the College of Tourism and Hospitality Management.

 My sketch of the UST’s Plaza Mayor and the Main Building in 2020

The entire UST Manila campus is a heritage site, being declared a National Historical Landmark by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines in 2011. The National Museum also listed four of the university's oldest structures as National Cultural Treasures.

The University of Santo Tomas has been an architectural landmark, a center for educational excellence, and cultural anchor for Manila for over four centuries. It looks set on keeping this role for a few more.