The plan of the Order of Saint Augustine to establish a school in Iloilo was conceived as early as the 1880’s.
Months later, permission was granted by both civil and religious authorities. On May 13, 1890, Fr. Manuel Diez Gonzales, apostolic commissary, communicated the approval of the Order. This was followed by the respective approbations of the Bishop of Jaro, Msgr. Leandro Arrue, given on September 4, 1890, and that of the Government on October 3, 1890.
The Provincial Chapter held in Manila in 1893 appointed Fr. Manuel Gutierrez to take the lead in building the school, which the latter initiated by purchasing a lot. But the cornerstone of the school was not laid until 1895 when Fr. Fernando Llorente, the famed architect of the beautiful Janiuay (Iloilo) cemetery, took over the construction project. Fr. Joaquin Diaz, after putting up the Oton church, subsequently finished Llorente’s work.
But the fruit of the magnanimous labors of the Augustinian builders was not used for its raison d’etre. The American troops invaded in Iloilo in 1899 and transformed the school building into a garrison. The structure was so heavily damaged that it had to undergo a major overhaul in the first months of 1904.
On July 15, 1904, the school finally opened. It started as an exclusive school for boys, most of whom were internos or student-boarders. Secondary education and a two-year course leading to Associate in Arts were the first offerings.
In July 1912, the pioneer Augustinian administrators, headed by the first rector Fr. Bernabe Jimenez, incorporated the school with the University of Santo Tomas in Manila in a bid to seek government recognition for its courses. Eventually, the school became independent of the University of Santo Tomas and was legally incorporated as the Colegio de San Agustin de Iloilo on February 5, 1917.
In the subsequent years, the Augustinian community enhanced its efforts towards educational capability. The Fathers learned English and endeavored to adopt the language as a medium of instruction. Highly competent teachers were hired. The curricula were enriched. Laboratories were put up and equipped with modern apparatus. Books were acquired and facilities improved. The walls and the main gate stretching along General Luna Street were built. In 1931, the Colegio’s lot area was expanded by 2,810 square meters more.
In 1935, the College of Liberal Arts was opened with a two-year Preparatory Law course as its initial offering. This major feat was followed by the opening of more colleges, to wit: College of Commerce, 1936; College of Law, 1939. The opening of the College of Education in 1940 also marked the first time the Colegio admitted female students.
Adversely, these big developmental strides had to be put to a halt for a time because of the outbreak of the Second World War. The Japanese invaders ordered the closure of schools, only to have them reopened (with strict censorship) in June 1943. The air raids and bombings in 1944 left the Colegio’s buildings in ruins, except the Urdaneta Hall.
With the declaration of independence in 1945, the Colegio eagerly braced itself for the reopening of classes. Students flocked to the Urdaneta Hall and to some improvised classrooms to resume their academic pursuits.
Significantly, the havoc wrought by the Second World War only catapulted the Colegio to greater heights, for the post-war period was marked with the massive improvement of the Colegio’s physical plant and academic system.
In 1946, the Colleges of Pharmacy and Technology were opened. These were followed by the Normal School in 1948 and the Graduate School in 1950. Capping these developments was the grant of “University” status to the Colegio de San Agustin on March 1, 1953, making the institution the first University on Western Visayas, and, to date, the only Augustinian university in the Asian-Pacific region. This important rise of the Colegio has been largely credited to Fr. Dolse Garcia who served as rector for two terms, 1939-1946; and 1949-1954.
The higher status of the school made imperative its further expansion and academic progress. In 1953, the College of Dentistry was opened (later phased out), and B.S. in Chemistry was offered in the College of Technology. New courses, B.S. in Medical Technology and B.S. in Foods and Nutrition, were introduced in 1962. These academic innovations reached greater scale with the opening of the Conservatory of Music in 1968, the offering of Ph.D. in the Graduate School in the same year, the eventual opening of the USA College of Nursing in 1974 (which was originally a consortium between the University and the St. Paul’s College of Iloilo), and the introduction of more courses and fields of specializations. In the schoolyear of 1973-1974, the College of Education and the Normal College were fused to become the present day Teachers College.
The growth in the institution’s student population – which reached as high as almost 13,000 in the late 1970’s – was corresponded by an improvement in infrastructure. Replacing the temporary structures and quonset huts put up after the Second World War were the Herrera Hall (Administration Bldg.), constructed in 1948; Mentrida Hall (Chapel-Library), 1954; Blanco Hall (Technology Building), 1954; Lopez Hall (Gymnasium), 1958; Rada Hall (Liberal Arts, Teachers College, Law, Graduate School), 1963; Gamboa Hall (High School), 1965; Aguirre Hall (Commerce), 1973; Mercado Hall (Rada Annex), 1974 and much later, Mendel Hall (Science Building), 1982.
In a thrust to extend its services beyond its walls, the University inaugurated its own broadcast station, DYSA-Radio San Agustin, on October 30, 1965. Later, on December 6, 1980, adopting a comprehensive community service package for the poor, it launched the Tilipunan Community Development Program in Tanza, Iloilo City.
When the University of San Agustin was eventually placed under the care of the Augustinian Province of Sto. Niño de Cebu in 1984, it had already established a reputation for excellence. It has produced a number of topnotchers in government-regulated professional examinations, notably in pharmacy and medical technology, law, engineering, nursing and architecture. Its students have won national and regional acclaim in journalism, the arts, leadership, academics, sports, and other fields. Its College of Liberal Arts was accredited by the Philippine Accrediting Association of Schools, Colleges and Universities (PAASCU) as early as 1977, the first one of its kind to be accredited in Western Visayas. Its School of Law became the first accredited law school in the Philippines in 1979. The Teachers College and the College of Commerce were given the same recognition in 1980, and 1983, respectively.
But to the minds of the administrators under the new province, much had yet to be done. During the term (1983-1988) of Fr. Bernardino Ricafrente, the first rector to be addressed “President,” more developments were attained. The Office of the Campus Ministry was created. The Research and Development Center was established and efforts towards the production of scholarly works were intensified. The USA Graduate School put up extension campuses and the High School Department was given PAASCU accreditation. A University Five-Year Development Plan was drafted. Moreover, the institutional sports program was strengthened.
In 1988, Fr. Mamerto Alfeche assumed the presidency of the University, becoming the first Ilonggo University head. Under his administration, more emphasis was given to academic pursuits. The necessary steps towards the accreditation of the Elementary Department and the College of Pharmacy Medical Technology were taken. Manuals for personnel, human resources development, and students were printed for a more systematic implementation of policies. The USA Libraries’ resources were enriched through book donations from the University’s alumni and external agencies. There was also a remarkable development in the University physical plant. A new USA Bookstore was put up and the Medical Laboratory was extended. The construction of the USA Alumni Hall was started while the buildings in the campus were repainted and embellished. Spaces near Aguirre, Rada, Blanco and Urdaneta Hall were transformed into mini parks, provided with concrete benches and tables.
At the beginning of school year 1992-1993, Fr. Eusebio Berdon, fresh from his two-term stint as the first Prior Provincial of the Province of Santo Niño de Cebu, took his oath as the 18th University president. Under new set of administrators, major innovations were put in. Among these were the offering of a two-year Junior Computer Secretarial course, the accreditation of the College of Pharmacy and Medical Technology and the Elementary Department, the adoption of the open shelves system in USA Libraries, the establishment of the Singapore-linked USA-ATS Computer-Aided Design/Computer Aided Engineering Center and the Canada-funded USA Regional Center for Public Management. Offices were renovated and improved, and construction at the USA Extension site for the High School and Elementary departments was begun. The development plans of the previous administrators have been integrated and improved.
In February 1994, the University of San Agustin began the year-long celebration of its 90th Year as “Beacon of Virtue and Science,” as the bastion of excellent Catholic education in the center of the Philippines.
In July 1995, the USA HS Department transferred to the USA Extension Campus in Sambag, Jaro.
In 1996, Fr. Mamerto Alfeche, O.S.A. again assumed the presidency of the University. Under Fr. Alfeche’s leadership, major infrastructure/constructions like the covered walk and the Fray Luis de Leon Building were built on campus. In the same year, the ownership of the Alumni Building was turned over to the university by the USA Alumni Association. A gymnasium, and later a church, at the USA Extension Campus in Sambag, Jaro, were also built.
In view of the rapidly emerging disciplines and ever-expanding knowledge base, the university renamed the Research and Development Center as the University of San Agustin Center for Research and Publications (UCRP). In pursuance of the same goal, the University launched the Professorial Chairs programs. The College of Pharmacy and Medical Technology was granted Level II accreditation.
Rev. Fr. Rodolfo M. Arreza, O.S.A. took over the presidency in 2000. In Fr. Arreza’s term of office, the USA Graduate School passed the level I PAASCU Accreditation.. In the same year, the university took a big leap as it expanded its research operations, giving birth to four research institutes which are specialists in nature, to wit: the Institute for Augustinian Studies (IAS), the Villanova Institute for Social Research and Cultural Studies (VISReCS), the Mendel Institute for Science and Technology Research (MISTeR), and the Institute for Social Development Issues and Initiatives (ISDII). The Johann Gregor Mendel Research Laboratory for Chemistry was also opened.
To complement the extension services of the Community Service Center, the University created in 2001 the Martin de Rada Human Rights Desk, which engages in human rights education, and in advocacy for public and social policies that promote the welfare and secure the rights of the society’s marginalized sectors. It also opened the Center for Alternative Law, which provides legal advice to indigent litigants and provides pro bono representation, when necessary. These consultancy services are maintained by the UCRP’s Institute for Social Development Issues and Initiatives, which also runs the Local Governance Resource Bureau and the Business Reference Bureau. Also opened were the Fray Luis de Leon Creative Writing Desk, the Statistical Analysis Bureau at the Villanova Institute, and the Catholic Heritage Desk at the Institute for Augustinian Studies, which is a repository of relevant archival documents from the parishes of the Archdiocese of Jaro.
The University explored and established linkages with other organizations. As a result, it has undertaken joint projects with the British Council, the Office for Cultural Cooperation of the Government of Spain, the Scalabrini Migration Center, the National University of Singapore, the Ateneo School of Government, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Philippines-Canada Local Government Support Program, the University of Sto. Tomas, the Department of Science and Technology, the Asian Institute of Management, and the Department of Trade and Industry, among others.
Fr. Arreza also created the USA Centennial Commission, in preparation for the University’s centennial celebration in 2004.
In 2001, the University was granted deregulated status by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), in recognition of its excellence in instruction, research, and extension services. In the same year, accreditation was given to the College of Engineering and Architecture (Level II) and the College of Nursing (Level I).
In June 2002, Fr. Manuel M. Vergara, O.S.A. assumed the presidency of the University. Among his first projects is the review of the current five-year development plan of the University, the view of crafting a new one. Sensing the need to explore other avenues for service and for fund generation, the new president created the Continuing Education Center, the Institute of Foreign Languages, the Center for Culture and the Arts, and the USA Testing Center. The university has also intensified the exploration of more linkages and networks. The USA signed memorandum of agreement with the Assumption University, Bangkok, Thailand, the University of Santo Thomas and the Center for Community Journalism and Development.
In 2004, as the University enters its second Century of Christian service the commission on Higher Education granted its autonomous status. The new status is in recognition of the University’s “enormous contribution in the growth and prominence of tertiary education in the country and in the Asia Pacific”. With the new status, the University can now open new courses and establish campuses without prior approved from CHED. In addition, it can offer extension classes and distance education courses to expand access to higher education and to establish affiliation with recognized foreign higher education institutions.
Today the University of San Agustin continues to make its presence felt distinctly as it remains committed to give quality Catholic-Augustinian education to its students, produce knowledge through research, and nurture its social conscience through extension services to the community.