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New College professor named one of three ASU President's Professors


December 02, 2008

José Náñez, a psychology professor in the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University’s West campus, has been named a President’s professor, in recognition of the level of excellence he brings to the university.

Náñez is one of three earning the high honor, joining a pair of Tempe colleagues – Margaret C. Nelson, associate dean of Barrett, the Honors College and a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and Max Underwood, a professor in the School of Architecture in the School of Design.

The executive director of community outreach through ASU’s University Student Initiatives, Náñez began teaching at the West campus as an assistant professor of psychology in 1988 after teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater the year before.  As a cognitive neuroscientist, he pursues research in visual perception and neuronal organization and emphasizes what he calls an “education of the heart.”

“My parents taught me that in Mexican American culture, there are two kinds of education,” says Náñez, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s in psychology from California State University-Chico, and his Ph.D. in experimental child psychology from the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.  “One is education of the mind, which is received in formal settings, such as a university, and through life experiences.  The other, and much more important from a cultural perspective, is sociocultural education – education of the heart.

“A person high in education of the heart knows how to respect his or her elders, regardless of financial or occupational status, and his or her place within the culture.  An individual high in education of the heart is a law-abiding citizen with the collective best interest of his or her culture and society at heart.

“However, if this person fails to give back to their community freely with open hands, gratefully and enthusiastically, then his or her education has been wasted, at least from the perspective of my traditional Mexican American cultural mores.

Náñez has passed along valuable life lessons to his students, notably those who have gained entry to prestigious graduate schools and those who might not have even considered pursuing a college degree without his influence.  He is known for creating new strategies to improve student outreach, drawing on two decades of engaging students in his classes.

“This award is special for me because it represents recognition from the academic community at ASU that I have achieved excellence in my teaching and student mentoring endeavors,” he says. “To be recognized by your own university that you love and its president for excellence in teaching is very important because, by extension, you are also being recognized for your research, service and overall scholarly achievements.  Excellence in research contributes to excellence in teaching and vice-versa.

“Together, both impact the quality of service a faculty member provides to his or her students, the university community and the external community.”

His teaching and outreach service to the community has not gone unrecognized.  Náñez serves as the faculty advisor for a Hispanic fraternity at ASU and the Hispanic Honors Society. Among the notable awards he has received are the 20th Anniversary Champion in Education Award from INROADS in 2008, Outstanding Commitment to ASU West Students Special Recognition Award in 2003, three-times a distinguished nominee for the Parents Association Professor of the Year, and a winner in 2006.  His scholarly collaborations with some of his field’s brightest minds have been published in such top scientific journals as Nature, Nature Neuroscience, and Proceedings of the national Academy of Science.

“The most important lesson I can offer my students is that they should set their life aspirations high, work harder than anyone else to achieve them, and once you have done this, give back to the communities of which you are member,” says Náñez, who serves as president of the Arizona Association of Chicanos for Higher Education (AACHE).

“I follow the simple motto, ‘Leave every place you go better than the way you found it.’  Make a difference for having been on this earth.”