Robina and the Art of Courtship

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This piece came out in the Yellow Pad column of the BusinessWorld on July 14, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

Robina Gokongwei-Pe’s life is marked with attention-grabbing stories.

Robina is the daughter of one of the wealthiest Fiipino tycoons.  She represented the Gokongwei family in publishing the once-esteemed Manila Times, only to sell the paper after being sued by then President Joseph “Erap” Estrada for libel and after writing a front-page apology to him.

Students of her generation recall her as a student at the University of the Philippines (UP), majoring in Economics, and a sportswriter for the activist Philippine Collegian. On their way to school, she and her cousin were kidnapped and eventually rescued by a military team led by Panfilo Lacson.  The kidnapping led Robina to terminate her studies at the country’s premiere university, and she moved to the United States for her studies, obtaining a degree in journalism.

We also remember the nasty, bizarre but funny tale that a Gokongwei-owned Robinsons store housed Robina’s twin who assumed the form of a half-woman, half-snake.

All told, Robina’s low-key yet colorful life makes her interesting news. It is thus not surprising that her speech on the occasion of the UP School of Economics’ recognition day became the talk of the town.  Many blogs and email groups have posted and discussed Robina’s speech.  The Philippine Star also published the speech as part of its series on UP’s centenary.

The School of Economics invited Robina to be the guest of honor for the graduation ceremony and asked her to talk about how the economic principles she learned apply to her current life, especially as an entrepreneur.  And in her own words, what she wrote and spoke about was “chopsuey.”

She enumerated and tried to apply some concepts and principles—supply and demand, competitive advantage, cost-benefit analysis, monopolies and oligopolies, opportunity costs, diminishing marginal returns, and competition.

Robina’s speech was light and humorous, but it misapplied the theories and principles in some instances.  Perhaps, the misapplication was deliberate to make the speech wry and witty. I leave it to the curious reader of economics to find out her mischievous take on economic principles.  (The speech can be downloaded from the UP School of Economics website: www.econ.upd.edu.ph.)  Maybe, the lesson is that one need not master economic theories to become a respected and accomplished businesswoman.

At any rate, Robina’s speech was well applauded.  If the person who delivered the same speech was Romy Neri—the non-economist who became economic planning secretary—he would have been booed.

One would suspect that the School of Economics invited Robina to be its guest of honor because she has the riches. In Robina’s case, being the guest of honor didn’t require her to have a good grasp of economics.  It was thus odd that the School suggested to her a topic “about matching economic theories with reality.”

Making Robina the graduation day’s guest speaker is the first stage of the courtship.  It is the School’s wish to cultivate a long-term friendship and partnership with an alumna who has the wherewithal. Given the government’s serious fiscal constraint, the whole UP can no longer, and should not, fully rely on government subsidy, which has likewise been heavily politicized.

And so, we can speculate that the School’s next step is to invite Robina to a lavish dinner on campus, prepared by one of Manila’s best, not necessarily glamorous, chefs. The professors at the School are fastidious with their food and their wine.  Expect them to bring out the merlot (shiraz is too masculine for a dainty lady like Robina), and they may serve sherry to go with the dessert consisting of sweet mangoes.

The most challenging part of the dinner is the conversation; I just hope the professors will not talk about economics this time.  Rather, they have to think of how they can express elegantly and politely but subtly and indirectly how their relationship with Robina can move to a higher plane.

The scene described above is enacted in academic settings throughout the world.  Steven Pinker in The Stuff of Thought (2007) has this to say:

“Soliciting a benefactor ?for a large donation has much in common with sexual courtship. A sumptuous meal is mandatory, establishing an atmosphere of warm conviviality. Throughout the proceedings an aura of friendship is maintained, and much enjoyed by the target of seduction. Sometimes entertainment is supplied (that would be me, and other presentable professors). For most of the evening the business at hand is never mentioned, though it is very much on people’s minds. The seducer has to be careful not to let the evening slip away without making his move, but not to make it too early, before the mood is right. One difference is that at the moment of truth a dean can’t very well sidle up to the donor and nonchalantly slip his hand into the donor’s checkbook. But ‘the ask,’ as they call it in the trade, has to be couched with delicacy, with the donor called a ‘leader’ and a ‘friend’ and the altruistic nature of the ‘gift’ repeatedly point out.”

That such meeting has to be couched in indirect, opaque, polite language is to escape the taboo of what Pinker describes as a “cynical analysis of the transaction—that the university is selling the donor naming rights, prestige and a simulacrum of friendship with interesting people.”

But let’s extend the game.  What if in the course of the dinner conversation, Robina would suggest a model of partnership patterned after the Gokongweis’ bequest to Ateneo de Manila?  The Gokongweis’ gift translated into naming the Ateneo business college the Gokongwei School of Management.

Will the UP economics professors accept and grudgingly rename the School the Gokongwei School of Economics?  That means kissing goodbye to the “academically/politically correct” of naming the school after its venerable dean and internationally acclaimed professor, the late Pepe Encarnacion.

Forget the question. Robina will not extract such a rigid concession from the School of Economics.  She loves UP, but economics is not her cup of tea. She is happy and content with her “chopsuey” economics.

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