The Public University in an Age of Alt-Facts: Remarks on Receiving a Higuchi Award

Brief remarks on the university in an age of misinformation, delivered today when I received a Higuchi Award.


It’s a great honor to be joining Professors Christer Aakeröy, Judith Carta, and Randolph Nudo in receiving recognition for our research. It’s especially meaningful to be receiving this recognition right now, at a moment when facts and the notion of policy based on facts are being pushed aside in favor of — oh, let’s call it alt-truth. As I’m sure you know, the incoming presidential administration has nominated a climate-change-denier to head the EPA. And yet, here we are today, honoring scientists, as we should be — honoring a pioneering scholar in rehabilitation medicine, and an international leader in crystal engineering and supramolecular chemistry. light bulbMeanwhile, in decisions being made outside of our hallowed halls, the nominee to oversee our nation’s public education system wants to dismantle it, replacing it with unregulated, for-profit charter schools. And yet we’re here today honoring a national leader in early childhood special education. As we should be. This incongruity between what we’re celebrating now and what we face in the very near future makes the Higuchi Award feel even more special — a bright light in the gathering darkness.

I have been feeling lately — and I would imagine that my fellow Higuchi honorees may share this feeling — that our work has become much more urgent than it was before November 9th. My next book — which is on racism in children’s literature — will appear a few months into an administration with a White supremacist Attorney General, a White supremacist Senior Advisor, and an Islamophobic National Security Advisor.1 As we’re entering this period of backlash, I continue to believe that diverse, inclusive children’s literature is one of the best places to imagine a better future. Stories we encounter when we are young, when we are selves in the process of being formed, have a lasting impact on the people we become. Stories tell children that they belong (or don’t belong) not only to a broader community of readers, but also in their neighborhoods, their schools, and their country. As we face a concerted federal effort to revoke civil rights, we can — and we must — nurture a new generation that is less susceptible to bigotry and the many wounds it inflicts. That’s something we can do in children’s literature, and anywhere in higher education.

Whatever our role in the university system, I think we now must imagine ourselves as keepers of values that we probably have taken for granted. We know that evidence-based reasoning, that carefully tested knowledge, that peer-reviewed scholarship best serves the public interest, and we will need to defend this value repeatedly over the next four (and possibly eight) years. We know that, to create new knowledge, we will also disagree, but that we will do so with civility and respect for those we disagree with. This value — of respectful disagreement and the compromises that may result — we will also need to defend, and to model for our students. We know, too, that knowledge is created by people of all races, genders, sexualities, abilities, and faiths (or absence of faith). Indeed, intellectual labor thrives in diverse communities such as those at KU and K-State. We will need to defend this value, too.2

So. Thanks to KU and the Higuchi family for supporting these values by supporting our research. My personal thanks to Jim Guikema for assembling my nomination, to Elizabeth Dodd for her support, and to Karin Westman for her love, encouragement, and extraordinary patience over the past 23 years. And thanks to all of you, not just for coming today, but — through your roles in Kansas higher education — for continuing to work for a state, a country and a world where research matters, where facts matter, where education matters, and where all of us can receive the same inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Thank you.

— Philip Nel, Univ. of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, 13 Dec. 2016


Endnotes

  1. Scott Pruitt is EPA nominee; Betsy DeVos is Secretary of Education nominee; Jeff Sessions is Attorney General nominee; Steve Bannon is Senior Advisor; Gen Michael Flynn is National Security Advisor.
  2. Third paragraph draws from Greg Downey, “The presidential election of 2016 and the values of a research university.” Greg Downey 9 Nov. 2016.

Final note

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t post something as (frankly) inconsequential as a thank-you-for-this-award speech. But, in these dark times, I have been finding it helpful to read others’ affirmation of our core values. We need to keep speaking out. We need to affirm our shared humanity, our belief in civic discourse, our certainty that facts matter. It is in this spirit that I’ve decided to post these remarks.

3 Comments »

  1. Caroline McAlister Said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 6:57 pm

    Congrats!

  2. Philip Nel Said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 9:11 pm

    Thank you!

  3. Harald Prins Said,

    December 15, 2016 @ 10:05 am

    Phil– Your comments are pertinent to our mission in pursuit and defense of truth. This is not a time in history to be intimidated and public universities are no ivory towers. I laud you for your principles and courage. Wishing you continued success as the people in Kansas and everywhere in the world need principled and productive scholars like you.
    With respect and in admiration,
    Harald

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