Fidel Nemenzo entered the bid for the chancellorship in 2020 with the banner of being both an academician and a former activist. His credentials flaunted his many research publications and a doctorate in mathematics, while his colleagues spoke of his activist days during Martial Law.
He carried these banners as he envisioned UP Diliman (UPD) as both a bastion of academic excellence and freedom, writing in his vision paper in 2020, “Academic excellence can only thrive under conditions of openness and respect for diversity. This means that the freedom to question, to think, to write, and to speak is granted to all [...]. This freedom is essential for the life of the mind and for UP’s dual role as knowledge producer and social critic.”
These two roles were heavily tested under Nemenzo’s term owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Duterte and Marcos rule. With the state’s intense attacks on the rights to health, education, and freedom of speech, people were left to rethink what exactly is the place of UP as a national university in a society rigged with inequalities and leaders who do not listen to science.
It was against this backdrop that Nemenzo endeavored to be the chancellor he vowed to be. Under his term, he promoted the expansion of knowledge in the university, as well as supported his constituents in the fight for academic freedom. But his contributions would be marred by his lack of resolute actions in administrative matters on academic policies and security concerns, among others.
Excellence At a Cost
As the national university, UP places a premium on the pursuit of academic excellence—a feat that goes beyond world rankings or number of publications. To be a bastion of academic excellence is to be a producer of knowledge that answers the needs of the people genuinely and scientifically.
Nemenzo understood this. In his vision paper, he outlined the importance of interdisciplinary teaching, research and extension, as well as the welfare of the constituents, recognizing that the issues UP education tries to address are complex, thus requiring the collaboration of different fields.
Following the mandate of UP as a public university, UPD took multiple initiatives amid the global health crisis. Nemenzo established the UPD COVID-19 Task Force, comprising experts from various fields to research policies and responses related to the virus. The task force conducted information drives and formulated a plan for academic transitions. The university also provided housing for medical workers and acted as an isolation center for those affected.
UPD under Nemenzo also instituted two new doctorate programs to produce more experts equipped with a good scientific mindset: a tricollege PhD program in data science and a PhD in artificial intelligence (AI). These programs are products of collaboration between different science and technology disciplines.
But, as Nemenzo said in 2020, “compassion and academic excellence are twin values that our community upholds.” Amid the successes of his administration, it became more of a struggle to reconcile the two values as his term went on.
For instance, as students and teachers grappled with the pandemic in 2020, his office only issued a case-to-case basis suspension guidelines in the name of academic excellence and freedom of the teachers. But tailoring the suspensions to the situations of each student means the students must plead their cases, which, given the physical and mental toll of disasters, is impossible to do.
“This kind of passive and unresponsive leadership, exemplified by CHED and DepEd, is one that we do not need,” read the statement of UP Ibalon, a UPD organization of students from Bicol, at the onset of Super Typhoon Rolly in November 2020.
Students urged the university to delay the start of the second semester when COVID-19 surged, and Typhoon Odette devastated Visayas in December 2021. Yet the administration did not heed their calls, despite having the power to do so as a constituent university. Instead, a two-week health break that lacked clear implementation plans was declared. This placed the responsibility of rescheduling and catching up on studies and classwork on the part of the students and teachers.
As the storms and the pandemic raged on, there had been a growing need for free and functioning psychological services for the UP constituents. But Nemenzo failed to institutionalize the PsycServ, an initiative of former Chancellor Michael Tan, offering free psychosocial services for UPD. This was one of the plans of Nemenzo in his vision paper in 2020. The institutionalization of the PsycServ would ensure that its operations would be permanent and official, owing to the security that it would live on despite changes in leadership and the ability of the UPD to hire more psychosocial therapists.
Further issues on the need for institutional support and resources also surfaced amid the mismanagement of UPD varsity teams—another point emphasized in Nemenzo’s vision paper: “We will continue our support for our varsity teams and sports programs and strengthen community pride and team spirit.”
In 2022, the UP Pep Squad coaches faced criticism for imposing unapproved fines and resorting to physical and verbal aggression towards the cheerdancers. The shift to remote learning also highlighted the inadequate support provided to UP athletes, including a lack of training space, financial assistance, and sports equipment. Recently, the UP Women's Volleyball Team also accused their manager, Angela Villamil, of mistreatment and requested to be transferred to a new management team. Nemenzo’s office and the College of Human Kinetics did not grant the request for transfer, saying that “they would study and address the players’ concerns regarding their team manager.”
These issues unearthed during the pandemic are longstanding dilemmas of UP athletes. To address these, Nemenzo's administration launched the UP Office for Athletics and Sports Development to support the student-athletes on March 1. But in a heartbeat, the UP System vetoed Nemenzo’s picks to lead the OASD, leaving the office’s status still in limbo.
Quality education is ever only achieved through academic excellence coupled with the concern for the welfare of the constituents. After all, how may the shapers of the nation be effective if the university that is supposed to mold them has already broken them?
In Defense of Freedom
The very nature of UP’s pursuit of academic excellence leads it to understand more of the conditions of society—conditions that require every student to go beyond the academe and be at the forefront of the fight for the rights of Filipinos. It is for this reason that the state is hellbent on attacking the university.
Indeed, under Nemenzo’s term, UP faced the staunchest efforts by the state to silence dissent: the stronger efforts of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict to red-tag dissenters, and the abrogation of the UP-DND Accord, which bars state forces from entering the university without prior notification.
Against this setting, Nemezo’s administration proved to be a genuine supporter of academic freedom.
In 2020, during the first year of the pandemic, people rallied at the University Avenue to register their dissent against the anti-poor policies during the quarantine. When the UP Board of Regents questioned these mass gatherings, Nemenzo asserted the rights of the people to free speech: “UP Diliman allowed the mass gatherings because this is what is expected of UP as a national university—to uphold and protect the rights to freedom of speech and expression.”
Nemenzo was also quick to respond and condemn any violations against UPD constituents. For instance, when Melania Flores, a professor at the College of Arts and Letters, was arrested in February at her home within the campus, he immediately released a statement citing the UP-DILG Agreement and condemning the violation.
Apart from these, the University Council, headed by Nemenzo, released statements on social issues such as the national elections, removal of alleged subversive books from libraries, and foreign ownership of public services, among others. Under his term, UPD also continued to become a safe haven for the displaced Lumad youth during the pandemic.
But while his pledges reinforce the academic freedom of UP, issues regarding security continue to hound the campus.
In November 2022, the UPD Police had only 19 members, leading to concerns about university safety as officers are being overworked. Meanwhile, in 2021, Femjeg security agency laid off 140 UP security guards due to the removal of the provision on the absorption of workers from UP's terms of reference, in addition to low wages and maltreatment. UPD officially terminated its contract with Femjeg a year after the fiasco.
The concerns of the security personnel of the UPD are not solely up to Nemenzo to solve, as issues on the budget of the university as well as the administration of the UP system are huge factors to consider. However, the problem could have been avoided in the first place if Femjeg was not allowed to bid as the security contractor given anomalies in its compliance with the labor code—an issue supposedly handled by the UPD Public Safety and Security Office.
The task to uphold academic freedom is not an easy one as bureaucratic hurdles and power plays are in place. But, at a time when attacks against dissent are bustling, the UP constituents only deserve the strongest defense from its leader.
To Reckon and Rectify
Nemenzo’s term was beset with arguably the worst conditions of a global health crisis and a repressive government. Crisis after crisis tested the university’s commitment to academic excellence and the pursuit of knowledge that answers the needs of the Filipino people.
Nemenzo left a legacy of leadership with a strong resolve in the defense of academic freedom, and one that is close to the entire UPD community. But his legacy was also rigged with his lack of proactive actions in some areas that ultimately placed the welfare of the students, teachers, and workers in jeopardy.
It is important to reckon with these shortcomings. Afterall, to perform the role of UP genuinely and effectively as a knowledge producer and a social critic means to acknowledge the mistakes and areas that could be improved, and from there, recalibrate and do better—such are the demands of the UP constituents from their leaders.
It will then be the challenge of the next chancellor, Edgardo Carlo Vistan II, to build on the achievements of Nemenzo, and reckon with the aspects that need to be improved upon. Vistan must embody a leadership that balances academic excellence with compassion and accountability.
With a Marcos and Duterte tandem in the Malacañang, the incoming chancellor must be an even stronger defender of academic freedom, and foster a university where people have the liberty to question and defy conventional norms and behaviors without the threat of retribution or punishment.
The UPD community will see to it that the next chancellor will only be met with a more critical gaze and a higher expectation needed to grapple with the conditions of the present. ●
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