It’s one thing to have convictions, it’s another to, as Fidel Nemenzo has, shed blood for them.
Back in September 27, 1984, rallyists at Welcome Rotonda in Quezon City were in the middle of a violent dispersal by the government. The protesters, with the likes of Sen. Lorenzo Tañada among them, had to stand their ground through everything from water canons, tear gas, and gunfire. Nemenzo, then a student leader, was among the protesters and was hit by a bullet from behind, hitting his liver. He almost lost his life if not for the timely intervention of friends and Tingting Cojuangco who happened to be near him.
Even after such an experience—or perhaps because he had survived it—Nemenzo continues to hold fervently on to the belief that one must take a stand when the moment asks for it. It is this perspective that he hopes to pass on to the students of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, the state university’s flagship campus and seat of administration, for which he was just appointed as chancellor.
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The son of an activist and a former UP president, Nemenzo graduated from Diliman in 1985 with a degree in Mathematics. He even pursued further math studies at Sophia University in Tokyo. In the early 1990s, he went back to UP to teach, and he would become one of the campus’ most beloved and awarded mathematics professors. He is the incumbent vice chancellor for Research and Development of the campus and is the convenor of the Center for Integrative Development Studies’ Data Science for Public Policy Program. He succeeds current Diliman chancellor Michael Tan.
In the vision statement he submitted for his candidacy to the chancellor post, Nemenzo expressed his desire to promote and position the institution as an inter-disciplinary hub. He wants UP Diliman to work with the government, industries, civil society, social movements, and communities to come up with practical, forward-thinking responses to questions on policy and technology gaps.
“This means bringing together the best minds in different disciplinal clusters to produce innovative and integrated solutions to development changes,” he says in his vision statement. “We shall build on the gains of previous administrations, learning from the successes and shortcomings of the past, to provide the resources, policy support, and environment to enable the university to attain academic excellence in teaching, research, and public service.”
Free and progressive
Known for his progressive take on issues, Nemenzo’s appointment was met with approval and celebration within the UP community. His candidacy was widely supported by alumni associations, student organizations, faculty, and labor groups, who commend him for his pro-student stance on excellence and freedom.
He says he wants to pursue academic excellence while making sure Diliman remains a safe, smart, resilient, and sustainable campus. In the past, he has spoken publicly against anything—such as the red-tagging of students—that might go against this goal.
For Nemenzo, academic freedom means being able to challenge established ways of thinking and acting without fear of repression or punitive action. “This freedom is essential for the life of the mind and for UP’s dual role as knowledge producer and social critic. This role should be recognized as a distinct duty to the nation,” his vision statement says, adding that the freedom to think and speak out creates an intellectually vibrant environment.
“An important goal of UP education is to sharpen their critical thinking so that they are able to discern and distinguish truth from lies, and right from wrong. This is why we must defend, and will defend UP as a safe space where free thought and free speech are practiced responsibly, and where collegiality and respect prevail.”
Gender equality is another issue that Nemenzo wants to help put into light. “While UP has been a pioneer in advancing women and gender programs, there remains an urgent need to strengthen existing programs and support for forefront offices such as the Diliman Gender Office, the Office of Sexual Harassment, and Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, including mechanisms at the college and unit levels,” he says in the vision statement.
Nemenzo also wants UP to be a psychologically healthy environment for students, faculty, and staff. This, he says, will be tackled using evidence-based approaches and mental health research. “I will continue and push for the institutionalization of the PsycServ program and ensure that the facilities and resources necessary to respond to the mental health needs of the community are provided.”
Other issues that he wants to work on within his three-year term as chancellor include working with the government in relocating the campus’ informal settlers and providing them adequate housing. He also wants the campus to be prepared for disaster, have ample campus security, and a thorough infrastructure audit.
“Diliman is home not only to more than 25,000 students and employees, but also a diverse ecosystem of decades-old trees and hundreds of species of flora and fauna,” he adds in the application to chancellor. “We need to reiterate our commitment to the protection and revitalization of this environment, whose open green spaces define the overall visual image of the university community, making it unique in Metro Manila’s urban landscape.”
In the same vein, Nemenzo wants to work with experts to transform the campus into a model that confronts the impact of pollution and climate change. “To this end, we will facilitate UP Diliman’s transition to becoming a plastics-free campus and a renewable energy champion.”
Fighting for others
“Fidel Nemenzo as the 12th UP Diliman Chancellor should not be a surprise,” says Dr. Merce Planta, an associate professor of history at Diliman, who has known the incoming chancellor for two decades.
Planta says the new chancellor has many traits that make him perfect for the post: his track record as a mathematician; his familiarity with the social sciences, having started out as a philosophy major; his love for the humanities and the arts; his commitment to progressivism and long and deep roots in UP, an institution he professes to love unconditionally. “It tells of a person who is intelligent and capable, passionate, calm in the face of great trouble,” Planta, who authored the book Traditional Medicine in the Colonial Philippines, 16th to 19th century, expounds.
“As an academic who is aware of the changing landscape of universities in the 21st century, Fidel is also a devoted, firm, and yet, compassionate intellectual and leader who can prepare and steer UP Diliman into the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” she continues.
Planta describes her friend as someone “who always goes out of his way to attend to those he cares about. He loves mathematics—he can drown you with the number theory and the search for the ‘perfect prime,’ as much as he can talk about Marcel Proust and Reuel Aguila,” she says. “In other words, he enjoys and engages in the life of the mind and knows how to commit to things he deems worthy.”
Dr. Wendell Capili, a UP professor of English, Creative Writing, and Comparative Literature and Nemenzo’s neighbor on campus, describes him as “very idealistic, very kindhearted and very accessible, not just to his fellow academics, but to all types of people, including jeepney drivers, non-academics, security and utility staff members, and students,” he says.
“As a colleague, he thinks outside the box. He revitalized the UP Science and Society program by inviting experts from disciplines outside science and technology to team-teach with him,” he continues. “He is kind and accessible but he is also very ethical. He very sensitive to the common good of people around him. he does not thnk too much about what he needs. Instead, he is driven, more inspired to fight for the rights of others.”
Nemenzo says he has devoted his life to the university. “In all these years, I have had the privilege of learning from and collaborating with some of the best and most creative minds in the university, while being mindful of the issues and challenges that our community faces every day,” Nemenzo says. “I have thought long and hard about the life and future of this university, and I treasure this opportunity to lead and shepherd the energy and talents of our faculty, REPS, staff and students toward realizing our ideals, values and dreams as Iskolar ng Bayan, Iskolar para sa Bayan.”
Banner photo from Jun Madrid, UP Media and Public Relations Office