Thesis for sale: Benilde students say they paid P20,000 to pass
MANILA, Philippines – One evening in January 2019, AK Paras met his friend Andy Tan (not his real name) at the gym. Both senior students in the Export Management Program of the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde (CSB), they had only one topic for small talk as graduation neared: thesis.
The exchange was casual, with Paras saying he had gone on a leave of absence since June 2018 to work on their family businesses. Tan voluntarily told Paras that his thesis group had paid P20,000 to guarantee passing the class. He admitted contributing P5,000.
The story bothered Paras, whose father helps vet appointed officials for a government office, but he shrugged it off. It was only one case, he thought.
Eight months later in September, Paras dined with friends in Poblacion, Makati to celebrate an engagement. One of his companions was Enzo Santos (also not his real name), another senior in CSB’s Export Management Program. As they were dining in an open food court, the topic of conversation steered towards thesis once more. Echoing Tan’s narrative, Santos said his group also paid P20,000 to pass their class.
Both bribing incidents apparently occurred in the October to December trimester of 2018. Their thesis groups were different but the faculty member they accused of masterminding the scheme was the same: thesis coordinator Ariel Pineda.
CSB prides itself with being the pioneer school in the Philippines to offer the degree Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a Major in Export Management. In the private sector, the program’s alumni have landed in key positions in local and multinational shipping companies, while in government, they have secured posts in one of President Rodrigo Duterte’s most despised departments for alleged corruption: the Bureau of Customs.
Pineda was a well-known professor in the Export Management Program, Paras said. He was not “legendary” in the jargon of college kids looking for legacy professors, but he knew what he was talking about and he communicated it well to his students.
A matter of integrity
Paras decided to persuade his friends to file a complaint. But the two were afraid that if they stood up, their college credentials would be withdrawn.
On October 3, 2019, Paras went ahead with what the two had told him and filed a complaint with the student government, which, in turn, forwarded it to the CSB administration.
“If we do not speak up, who else will? It’s also my personal crusade to fight corruption. It's very much against the values of La Salle,” Paras told Rappler in an interview on December 4, 2019.
The latest CSB Student Handbook counts “integrity” as among the primary values that make a good student. The school defines integrity as “the consistent upholding of one’s commitment to the common good in thoughts, words and deeds.”
Three months since filing his complaint, which we obtained a copy of, the investigation is still ongoing with no sanctions for either the alumni involved or Pineda, who has since been promoted to become the Export Management Program’s chairperson.
Rappler sought the side of Pineda through his official email address on January 2, but he said he still had to “consult” with his “superior.” We followed up on January 3, January 19, and January 23. We also called the Export Management Program to reach him on Thursday, January 23, but he was not in the department. There were no further replies to our emails as of posting time. We will update this story once we get a reply from him.
Based on chat conversations between Paras and Tan shown to Rappler, the alumni themselves had asked if they could bribe their way through in their thesis project.
To aid in his complaint, Paras asked Tan via Facebook chat how the transaction happened.
“Sobrang daming groups throughout ilang years (There were so many groups throughout many years),” said Tan in an exchange they had on Sunday, September 29, 2019 beginning at 6:29 pm.
Paras asked whether Pineda “offered” the cheating route to their group. Tan said they wanted it.
“Kami yung lumapit bro. Yung mga students na tamad kasi bro gusto,” Tan said. (We approached him. It was because the lazy students wanted it.)
Tan told Paras they had to ask around and that Pineda “chose” which groups he would allow to pay him, adding that, “'Pag mga babae 'ata ayaw niya 'pag mukhang madaldal (It seems like he didn't want women who looked chatty).”
Tan then said in the chat that they did not directly give the money to Pineda, but instead to a “middleman” so that Pineda wouldn’t be traced as the final recipient.
“It’s bigger than it looks pre. Bro buong school bro. Hawak niya buong faculty. Plantsado na lahat 'yun bro,” Tan said. (It’s bigger than it looks. It’s the entire school. He has the entire faculty in his hands. It’s all already arranged.)
In their chat, Tan admitted further culpability, adding that his and his group mates' parents knew about what they had done.
“Kasi 'yung students naman may gusto, hindi naman si Pineda bro e. So kami yung mahuhuli dun,” Tan said. (The students wanted it, not Pineda. So we would be the ones who would get caught in the end.)
The same evening on September 29, 2019, Paras sent a Facebook message to his second potential witness, Enzo Santos, to aid him in filing the complaint.
Instead of conversing via Facebook chat like Tan, Santos called Paras at 11:21 pm. The call lasted 18 minutes. In his complaint, Paras recounted that Santos said he would only cooperate if he was assured of getting his diploma even after coming out with his story.
The next day, Paras called Santos again through Facebook. Paras further recounted in his complaint what Santos had told him, confirming that there was a middleman identified as a certain Matthew Cotas, an Export Management student, too.
In the same complaint, Paras said that "Mr Cotas created a Facebook messenger group chat last October 11, 2018...for purposes of communication on how the bribe money will be given to Mr Pineda." Santos also told Paras that the first message in the group chat came from Cotas when he said “G?” – short for game, or willingness to engage in the "anomalous transaction."
Santos then said they were instructed to deposit P20,000 to a BDO checking account belonging to someone else. As proof, Santos forwarded a photo of the deposit slip to Paras. The transaction was completed on October 15, 2018 at 4:20 pm. Paras attached the deposit slip as evidence in his complaint.
Santos graduated in March 2019, while Tan graduated in October 2019.
Rappler sought the side of Tan and Santos on December 3, and Cotas on December 9, through Facebook. We reached out to all of them again on January 23 through their Facebook messenger accounts. We obtained Tan's cellphone number and sent him a text message on January 23 for comment. They have not replied as of this writing.
The thesis for the program is called the export project. It's a two-trimester subject divided between export project 1 and export project 2. The first requires aspiring exporters to craft and present a detailed feasibility plan, and the second, usually the easier one, entails accounting.
Because of project 1's difficulty, they heard about more students trying to bribe their way out. This was the case for the group of Tan and Santos.
Preparing a feasibility study is a burdensome task. Rappler obtained a 2016 syllabus, which indicated the goal of the project as students studying the feasibility of exporting a product to another country. The feasibility study also required students to pretend to be a company, define goals, invent their company structure, pitch a company location, have a vision and mission, and present diagrams for market matrices.
The other parts with their own branches of requirements included: marketing the product, producing them, and projecting financial assumptions for their imaginary business.
After completing requirements, the students have to defend the feasibility project before a panel, comprised of two people who are either a faculty member or a professional. These panelists can pass, fail, or ask for revisions from students. They usually ask for changes, entailing multiple returns for presentations to mirror the real process of pitching in the industry.
These panelists are invited by the thesis coordinator – in the case of Tan and Santos, it was professor Pineda.
Stories of short-cuts
Rappler spoke with a frequent panelist, Tom Salazar (not his real name), who said he had seen two instances where the process was violated under Pineda as thesis coordinator.
He remembered one group in 2017, which, despite his asking them to revise their thesis, did not do so. Salazar refused to pass them, but another professor asked him to approve the students' project.
"It was really rude. But then I signed, and was like, 'Oh well, if that's how things work here,'" he said.
In November 2018, he remembered being asked by Pineda to sit in as a panelist again. Even before the presentation of the students started, the panelists were given the approval sheets. For that defense, Salazar said it was the department secretary who distributed the approval sheets.
"She told me, 'Sir, just sign the approval sheet, so that you wouldn't be bothered anymore,'" Salazar recalled the secretary telling him. When he asked why, the secretary said it was Pineda's instruction.
Puzzled by the clear breach of the process, Salazar said he walked to the office to confirm that this was really Pineda's instruction. Salazar said Pineda confirmed it.
Paras’ complaint has become the most high-profile probe in the school in recent years as it involves no less than a program head.
When Paras consulted student council officers, one of them who spoke with Export Management students said that the scheme was already an “open secret.”
Using Facebook, Paras even reached out to the former president of CSB, Brother Dennis Magbanua, who then put him in direct contact with the chancellor's special assistant, lawyer Domingo “Sonny” Reyes Jr.
With the endorsement of the student government, Paras filed the complaint with Siegfred Javelosa, the dean of CSB’s School of Management and Information Technology (SMIT). Javelosa then called on students to step forward. In his November 2019 letter to Tan and Santos, he promised immunity if they complete the complaint filed by Paras.
“[The] Export Management Program is currently riddled with bad reputation,” Javelosa said.
“I have heard of an administrator who continuously receives payments and victimizes their thesis advisees. This corrupt practice cannot be tolerated by our school. We are an educational institution with values and we cannot allow our students to be victims of this unacceptable practice,” Javelosa said.
He then warned that if the scheme wasn’t stopped, more students would be victimized and that it would eventually lead to the “downfall” of the program.
CSB has issued a notice to explain to Pineda. Once he responds, the college can decide on the appropriate sanction. According to CSB’s Personnel Manual seen by Rappler, there are 3 possible offenses: offenses against CSB’s interests and approved policies, offenses against persons, and offenses against public morals. After evaluation of the case, the school can reprimand, suspend, or dismiss Pineda.
Last January 2, Rappler emailed Javelosa as CSB’s School of Management and Information Technology dean, to seek his comment since the program falls under him. Receiving no reply, we called his office on January 23. He declined to give comment, but said he would reply to Rappler's email. As of writing there has been no reply.
Rappler then reached out to Brother Edmundo Fernandez, the current president of CSB. In a statement sent to Rappler, he confirmed they were investigating the case.
CSB's full statement reads:
"The De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde is a Catholic educational institution that believes in fairness, objectivity, and consistency in all its dealings. To this end, the right of every member of the community is respected and upheld at all times.
Recently, there had been media releases circulating both in Facebook and the on-air platform regarding a complaint filed by a former student of our college against a chairperson of a program through the student central government.
The College would like to state that the case is currently being investigated by our college authorities with utmost diligence in full compliance with the due process of the law and appropriate actions will be undertaken based on substantial evidence gathered.
As a Christian institution, we will exert effort to uncover the truth and will exercise prudence in the investigation process within the bounds of the law and with due regards to the right of all the parties concerned."