Campus News

Op-ed: New UK Cooperative Will Help Navigate Crises Through Humanities, Social Sciences

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Mark Cornelison | UK Photo.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 30. 2020) — The following op-ed was published in the Herald Leader Aug. 21, 2020. Karen Petrone is the director of the Cooperative for Humanities and Social Sciences.


Times of crisis can be disorienting and overwhelming, but they can also be opportunities for creativity and growth. In such moments, the humanities and social sciences are well equipped to address and amplify community needs.

Recognizing that we can and must do better in this regard, the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky has created the Cooperative for the Humanities and Social Sciences (CHHS). The goal is to promote partnerships among faculty and graduate students across the university, while facilitating engagement with local, state, national and international communities.

You might be asking — why now? Amid the global protests and social movements against systemic racism, and the public health and economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, what contributions might the humanities and social sciences make?

Fields such as anthropology, fine arts, geography, history, literature, philosophy and sociology can create broader understandings of the human experience and help advance a more equitable and just society.

The cooperative’s programming addresses the theme, “Crises and Creating Social Change.” It brings together knowledge and perspectives from faculty and community members to generate new understandings and action plans — moving the community forward in constructive and hopeful directions.

Humanities help us appreciate current calls for racial justice and address inequities in our nation, in Kentucky and at UK itself. If, as a society, we become more knowledgeable about the 400-year history of racial injustice, we can better understand and initiate broad-based changes that combat systemic racism today.

Philosophy enables us to think about how our current crisis fits into this history and these geographies, and helps us situate calls for abolition, equality, equity, freedom and justice. It identifies those rare tipping point moments of global significance in their potential for expanding human freedom.

Additionally, CHSS will partner with the Gaines Center for the Humanities in a yearlong project to document and memorialize victims of racial violence in Kentucky, in conjunction with the Equal Justice Initiative. This endeavor will provide education and support for concrete policies that promote equality.

Social scientists can be enormously helpful in illuminating our experience of the COVID-19 pandemic and drawing attention to profound social impacts of public health crises. During this pandemic, U.S. deaths and economic hardships have been disproportionately borne by people of color, and acute burdens have been placed on women’s labor through homeschooling and elder care, while the United Nations has reported increased rates of intimate partner violence around the world during quarantine.

Relying on empirical research and data, social scientists are working collaboratively to demonstrate the extensive impact of overlapping forms of structural oppression due to race, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexuality and social class.

In Kentucky, the virus’s spread across incarcerated populations, reduced reporting of child abuse and neglect and high positivity rates among Black and Latinx populations are among the COVID-related inequities that have recently drawn attention. A deeper understanding of these experiences can lead to the development of programs and policies that improve lives.

CHSS invites you to participate in our dialogues and community partnerships. At noon on September 30, we are hosting a workshop for faculty and graduate students led by specialists from UK and the Lexington Herald-Leader on "Writing for a Broad Public Audience," and at 7 p.m. on October 20, we are presenting "Mobilizing the Arts in a Crisis: The Lessons of the WPA for Today." The WPA event, co-sponsored by UK’s Appalachian Center, places UK faculty in conversation with the executive staff advisor of the Kentucky Arts Council.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.