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Crossing borders: How 10 universities are forging new ties in the Americas

The University of Miami’s Shalala Student Center. (University of Miami)

In an era often described with language of disruption and discord, much has been written about the special role universities can play to advance civil society. This typically centers on the way we build campus communities — to expand educational opportunity for students regardless of income, to ensure our campuses remain places for open and honest debate, and to support scholarship that pushes forward our understanding about the most consequential challenges of our times.

At the University of Miami and many similar institutions, we are aggressively pursuing all of these actions. But I believe we must go beyond measures on our own campuses to consider institutional communities across geographic and political borders.

The higher calling for higher education in an era of instability is to chart a bold new course for institutional collaboration. By working across borders, universities can advance resilient, boundary-spanning solutions to our world’s shared problems. Institutional alliances can also serve as models for civil society that may elude national leaders. I believe structural collaboration will ultimately inform our ability to collaborate as individuals.

At Miami, we have begun. In April, a cadre of leaders from 10 top-rated universities across the Americas gathered at the University of Miami to sign an accord forming the first academic consortium spanning the hemisphere. This agreement has profound potential to advance the ways we address global problems by engaging cultural and intellectual resources across Latin America, the Caribbean, Canada and the United States.

The founding universities taking this step together are the University of São Paulo; Pontifical Catholic University of Chile; the University of Andrés Bello (Chile); the University of the Andes (Colombia); the University of Costa Rica; the University of the Americas Puebla (Mexico); the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (Mexico); Cayetano Heredia University (Peru); the University of the West Indies; and the University of Miami. We hope others will join in the future.

At this historic meeting, leaders of the Hemispheric University Consortium identified key ways to begin our work together. These strategies include increasing exchange of students, faculty and researchers across national borders; addressing the lag of technological innovation in Latin America; and working together to address public health problems, climate change, urban resilience, crime, corruption and other challenges that threaten the collective prosperity and security of the hemisphere. There was a clear acknowledgment that our institutions must find new ways to create knowledge, build understanding and find solutions, and that our future is an interdependent one.

These are themes familiar to me in my career in global health. As secretary of health in Mexico, I found it invaluable to informally learn from my counterparts in other countries, to emulate their successes and avoid repeating their setbacks. I was able to formalize that process in 2012 when I was dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In a joint initiative with the Kennedy School of Government, we launched the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program to create an environment where ministers of health (and subsequently of finance and education) from across the globe could come together, share experiences and learn from each other in pursuit of their common goals.

The University of Miami will serve as the Hemispheric University Consortium’s host, leveraging our geographic advantage at the crossroads of North, Central and South America, while fulfilling a key part of our mission. In 1925, the university’s founders envisioned a Pan-American institution with close ties to Latin America and the Caribbean. So many institutions of higher education are speaking about their global impact or global potential, and I believe now is the time to build the practical alliances that can begin to deliver on those ideas, not just for any single institution but on behalf of all.

This new cooperative strategy will challenge our institutions as our cultures and systems bump against one another. We must think beyond notions of higher education rooted in our own cultures and remain open to new ways of pursuing education, research and innovation. This new commitment also will require new organizational capacities. At the University of Miami, we have created a position of vice president for hemispheric and global affairs to energize the work of the consortium. The ongoing technological revolution in education broadens the spectrum of possibilities for global engagement. But the critical glue that will drive this effort is our shared commitment to a world where the open pursuit of knowledge — the core product of universities — is the most powerful force for enlightened social transformation.

Universities have served throughout history to unite people from diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. As incubators of new ideas and venues to cross-pollinate interdisciplinary thought, we have advanced knowledge, discovery and understanding. Now is the time for us to think institutionally about a higher calling that crosses boundaries and fulfills our mission to work together to counteract the many forces of divisiveness threatening our common future.

Julio Frenk became president of the University of Miami in 2015. He served as secretary of health for Mexico from 2000 to 2006 and as dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health from 2009 to 2014. He was previously executive director of Evidence and Information for Policy at the World Health Organization and a senior fellow in the global health program of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.