Gunman fires on student protesters at South America's oldest college

People climb over a gate to exit Lima's University of San Marcos during protests to demand new elections for the head of the university on Jan. 4, 2016.
Janine Costa

LIMA, Peru — Egg-throwing and shoving matches with cops aren’t exactly unusual at student protests around the world.

But it’s not every day that gunshots ring out across campus. And what seems almost unprecedented is when the bullets are fired by someone siding with the university authorities — and, as is being alleged here, the gunman is being paid by the university rector. 

That’s what just happened at the National University of San Marcos in Peru, founded in 1551 and said to be the Western Hemisphere’s oldest continuously operating school.

Irate students were protesting Rector Pedro Cotillo’s refusal to step down in line with a 2014 university law that requires new rectors to be elected by faculty, and universities to undergo independent external revues of their academic quality.

They stormed the campus in protest this week despite the efforts of the gunman and other anonymous hoods to keep them out. 

Here’s a report from local TV news, showing the gunman — apparently wearing a wig — discharging a pistol at the students. He appears around 25 seconds in. No one, fortunately, was hurt, but the gunman escaped without a trace.

In the end, Cotillo was ousted from the job that he’d been clinging to, barely, after a day of fast-moving events at the University. Once the students had retaken the campus, faculty members named a new rector and Cotillo checked into a clinic claiming to feel unwell. 

It was an ignominious finale to a last-ditch rebellion led by Cotillo and several other university leaders against the attempt to improve the rock-bottom standards at many Peruvian schools.

Previously, there was no regulation whatsoever of academic quality at universities here, with the result being that many professors don’t just lack PhDs but also Master’s degrees.

Meanwhile, some private schools have been making huge profits while Peruvian students and the national economy have suffered.

In one infamous case, Luis Cervantes, the rector of Garcilaso de la Vega University, was revealed to be paying himself 2 million sols — nearly $600,000 — a month. 

That’s eight times the salary of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, for the leader of a university once ranked No. 4,430 in the world.

Satirical website El Panfleto, Peru’s equivalent of The Onion, published a spoof that summed up a widespread perception of that kind of university executive here, joking that armed robbers had attempted to steal San Marcos’s safe but instead were tied up and mugged by Cotillo. 

Ricardo Cuenca, an expert in higher education and director of the Institute of Peruvian Studies, one of the country’s top independent research centers, said there was no question the old system badly needed reform, with something like 95 percent of Peruvian schools failing to meet international standards.

“Peruvian universities’ interpretation of ‘autonomy’ has been too intense. It allowed no regulation at all,” Cuenca told GlobalPost. “It’s the same for the public and private universities. The only difference is that some private universities here have been making a lot of money out of this system.”

Among other things, the new law, passed by congress in July 2014, requires professors to have graduate degrees and, with occasional exceptions, to retire at 70. 

Ultimately, Cotillo’s last-ditch stand against it was always doomed. Any new diploma he signed would have lacked legal validity, removing any reason for students to want to study at San Marcos. That, more than the student protests, may have been what placed him on the losing side in the battle for Peruvian higher education.