Learning from chaos

| Written by MPRO_admin

“I love chaos. That’s why I love being Executive Vice President of UP. You can quote me on that.”

With good humor, a booming laugh, and an enthusiasm that fills up a room, Dr. Teodoro “Ted” Javier Herbosa—trauma surgeon, UP College of Medicine professor, disaster medicine and emergency medical care specialist, and former Department of Health (DOH) undersecretary—explains what just might be his main qualification for the job of UP’s first EVP in decades: “I love blood, guts and gore. My line is trauma, and I get excited in a chaotic environment. I get bored with routine. . . so I’m the ideal guy to put in an environment of chaos.”

UP, a chaotic environment? When university leaders around the world have compared managing academics to herding cats? Say it isn’t so.

“I step in, and there’s the conflict over general education already,” Ted points out with a laugh, describing the situation that greeted him upon his appointment as EVP. For him, it was all “very interesting.”

A UP EVP for the 21st century

It is also in a sense quite new. As the first EVP since the time of UP President Edgardo Angara, Herbosa has the task of dusting off the position and updating it to fit the realities of a massive university system in the 21st century.

“The EVP is the alter-ego of the President,” he explains. In a corporation, the equivalent of the EVP is the Chief Operating Officer, who sees to the day-to-day operations of the company and makes sure everything is well coordinated and running smoothly, as well as performing any other tasks designated by the President.

“We’re still in a state of flux. Because we haven’t had an EVP in a long time, I have no model to follow. All the previous EVPs came before the chancellor system,” Ted continues. Now, however, we have a system in which the chancellors of UP’s eight constituent units customarily report straight to the UP President. “It’s an interesting model. I noticed the chancellors are not used to it. Like them, I’m also looking for my sweet spot.”

He is also well aware of the challenges of running a university. “It’s a little different from my position as undersecretary,” says Herbosa, who served as DOH undersecretary from 2010 to 2015, where he achieved the DOH’s objective of implementing universal health care coverage. Although, as a government agency, the DOH is much larger than UP, the chain of command was hierarchical, with Herbosa serving as chief of staff directly under the DOH secretary. “It’s very linear. It’s like a military organization. Civil servants follow the mandate of authority.”

This is in clear contrast with an academic institution like UP, where every decision is subject to debate and every opinion has an equal and opposite opinion. However, before Herbosa became DOH undersecretary, he was already a faculty member of the UP College of Medicine and a doctor at the UP-PGH. His background as a UP teacher stands him in good stead. “My style of leadership is very liberal, so I think I will fit well in the academic world. I grew up in an academic environment in UP Manila, so I understand this. The opinions of different people, all looking at the same thing from a different light—it’s enriching.”

Enriching, sure, but it can also be frustrating. He laughs: “I like that. ‘Frustrating but enriching.’ Well, I’m an optimist, so that’s one thing that got me to where I am in terms of positions.” 

Twists and turns

Optimism, coupled with a willingness to take risks, to learn new things, and to get out of his comfort zone. For example, he describes himself as a baby-boomer who is also a techie, having founded the Philippine Medical Informatics Society in addition to being certified for COBIT 5 for governance and IT management during his time in the DOH, making him the highest-ranking Filipino government official with that certification. But the path that Herbosa’s life took, which eventually led him to the position of UP EVP, also featured some surprise twists and turns.

“I didn’t plan to be EVP of the University,” he confesses. “I just wanted to be a good teacher. And now I’m here.”

As a matter of fact, neither did he plan on becoming DOH undersecretary.

“You know what I planned? I wanted to be Director of the PGH. I didn’t get it, but I did become DOH undersecretary, the director of many hospitals. Then I said, I want to run for UP Manila Chancellor. But because of politics, I decided, never mind, I’m done with this leadership role. Then here comes the UP President asking me to be his EVP.” He adds, laughing, “Funny how life goes.” Few people know that Ted and his lawyer sister Tess, the Securities and Exchange Commission chair, are descended from Jose Rizal’s elder sister Lucia, who married an Herbosa.

Life’s plot twists actually began during his childhood. For one thing, he didn’t start out wanting to be a doctor. “I wanted to be in Fine Arts, because I drew a lot and very well.” As a medical student tasked with drawing the organ specimens they were studying, his classmates used to laugh at him for putting such an inordinate amount of effort into sketching and shading his drawings. “Eventually, my mother killed that, because she said I would only end up starving. I sometimes say, if only my mother were still alive, she’d know how much I pay for paintings now.” Ted and his wife, Grace, channel their love of art now into collecting choice artworks and appreciating good art.

Later in high school, Ted realigned his life plans and entered a Benedictine monastery with every intention of becoming a monk. “I was in the abbey for, like, six months. But then my mother and oldest sister convinced me to go to college first, and if I still wanted to become a monk after that, then they said they would even pay for my education.”

So out of the monastery and into UP he went, becoming a BS Biology student in Diliman. And the boy who had heretofore attended an exclusive boys’ school discovered something that pretty much nixed his plans to become a monk: the opposite sex. “I had a girlfriend by second year college,” he says with a laugh.

He entered UP in 1975, at the height of student activism. “UP was like an independent island, like an oasis of free thought and free thinking. I joined rallies, of course, because everybody was joining rallies. You joined the boycott because when there was a call for a boycott, no one went to class. Even the professor didn’t go to class.”

He was in his second year in residency in surgery when the first EDSA revolution broke out in 1986. “We were one of the first to go to EDSA. We brought an ambulance with a team. We were scared it would get worse, so we wanted to be ready to provide healthcare. We witnessed history change.”

From trauma surgery to emergency care

The days after the EDSA revolution brought a new sense of hope, a kind of energy he channeled into being part of the administration and helping develop the country. During Dr. Alfredo Ramirez’ term as chancellor of UP Manila, the PGH Trauma Unit was created, and Herbosa joined the team. Chancellor Ramirez sent him to take an international postgraduate sourse in Surgery in 1991 at Tel Aviv University, on a scholarship offered by the Israeli government.

Aside from the training, Ted, who had once aspired to monkhood, appreciated the chance to study in Israel for another reason. “That scholarship brought us on weekends to all the holy sites, so I had a second certificate of pilgrimage to all the holy sites—Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Mount of Beatitudes. I value that more than the international diploma from Tel Aviv University.” He even made a wish during his visit to the Wailing Wall. “I put my wish there to marry my girlfriend. And when I came back home, we got married.”

When he returned from his training abroad, he joined the UP Manila faculty and as a teacher in the PGH’s trauma division. He also served as part-time head of trauma in the Jose Reyes Hospital. Prior to his stint as undersecretary, he also served the DOH under then Secretary Juan Flavier by developing a disaster program called the STOP D.E.A.T.H. Program (Strategic Tactical Option for the Prevention of Disasters, Epidemics, Accidents and Trauma for Health). The program drew the attention of the World Health Organization, which offered him a scholarship to the University of Geneva in Switzerland, where he earned a diploma in Emergency and Crisis Management, the first such program in the world.

Using a module he developed as his thesis in the University of Geneva, Herbosa developed an elective course on disaster and crisis management for medical students, although he eventually had to give up teaching the course because too many students were enrolling in it. He also established the Fellowship Program for Trauma and Residency Program in Emergency Medicine and headed the Emergency Department in the PGH.

His stint as DOH undersecretary had him handling mostly policymaking and administrative work. For example, he was charged with pushing for the sin tax as a health bill, with managing the DOH’s public-private partnerships, and with IT development in the DOH. But his expertise in emergency medical care and disaster medicine came to the fore in 2013 when Super-Typhoon Yolanda struck. As chair of the Disaster Management and Rehabilitation Taskforce for Yolanda, he coordinated and managed 180 foreign medical teams in the wake of the most devastating tropical cyclone recorded at landfall.

“That was the highlight of my being a disaster expert,” he says. “Imagine, the strongest typhoon in the world, and your boss tells you, ‘O, ikaw bahala dyan.’ And to have this level of gratification—we had no epidemics, no diarrhea outbreaks. We did fairly well. I think we can do better,” he adds, “but we showed the world what we could do with good coordination.” 

UP and the four Cs of disaster management

There were plenty of lessons to be learned in the aftermath of Yolanda. “You always learn in a disaster. You always learn in a war. Chaos is a good teacher,” Herbosa says, reflecting a principle in trauma surgery and emergency care. And among these lessons gleaned from managing crises and medical disasters are some that can well be applied to UP even in a non-crisis situation.

“I think UP has a very unique role in the development of the country and of human society in the Philippines,” Herbosa says. “We’re always regarded as the kontra sa gobyerno. We educate our youth by showing them what’s wrong with the government. We are always opposing. Speaking as a guy in disaster work, you can’t do that in a disaster.”

There are three Cs that are key to disaster management: collaboration, coordination, and communication.

Regarding the first C, “I think we as a national university should learn to collaborate with each other in the different specialties, and with other universities,” Ted says, adding that the increasing number of research collaborations and partnerships between UP and foreign universities is a very good sign.

On the second C, coordination: “I think the way to work is to work with government and work for government. We’re a government-funded institution; we are part of every administration that comes in. We don’t have to be political, but we can be coordinated,” He said.  One example is the training of local government officials being done by the National College of Public Administration and Governance—services that directly impact communities and transcend political parties and administrations. He also mentions the many UP medical alumni who are now serving the people as department heads and directors of public hospitals. “I’d like to see UP continue to do that.”

On the third C, communication: Ted emphasizes the need for people in UP to cross disciplinal boundaries and communicate with one another. For instance, he says, he took a tour of UP Los Baños, and discovered a lot of health-related research being conducted and products being produced there, from nutrition gardens to larvicides—things not a lot of people within the UP System, let alone the greater public, know about. “I see a lot of potential in what UP can offer, but we need to communicate it,” he says. “I think UP is really about all the professors who work here and the great ideas they have.” And these kinds of hidden treasures are what we must share with the world.

He adds a fourth C, which is not quite disaster-related but very much aligned with UP’s purpose: creation and innovation. “The University’s role is really to create new knowledge that is relevant to society. That is my vision of what a university does,” Herbosa says. “So we need to collaborate, coordinate and communicate to create and innovate.

“I think the way to lead our professors, our National Scientists and National Artists, is to lead from the back. Academic administration, they say, is a paradox. How can you administer professors and National Scientists and National Artists? You can’t. You just allow them to blossom. So my job, and even the UP president’s job, is to make sure they continue to be in an environment that allows them to be creative.”

And where else is creativity born if not from chaos?
(Celeste Llaneta. UP MPRO)