In an inspiring inaugural address, UM’s first Hispanic president charted a new course for the institution’s next century.
By Robert C. Jones Jr.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (January 29, 2016) – Julio Frenk, the former Harvard dean who became the University of Miami’s sixth president last August, used his inaugural address on Friday to chart a new course for the institution, challenging it to achieve greatness in four defining areas and announcing a landmark gift—one of the largest in UM’s history—that will be the linchpin in the success of one of its ambitious goals.
Noting that a 100-day exercise of observation and listening during the first few months of his presidency showed him the University is “driven by a deep commitment to reach new heights,” Frenk said UM must aspire to be a hemispheric, excellent, relevant, and exemplary institution to fulfill its potential by the time it reaches its 100th birthday a decade from now.
“Miami has long served as a bridge between North and South America, and we can take even greater advantage of our strategic location,” the former minister of health of Mexico said during his investiture ceremony, witnessed by nearly 4,000 people inside the BankUnited Center, among them his predecessor, Donna E. Shalala, and his former boss, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust. “Our bridges must extend from the Old World embedded within the New World and beyond.”
To achieve its potential, explained Frenk, UM will implement a strategy based on broad partnerships and institutional consortia, using research collaborations, new approaches for sharing knowledge, and student exchange programs as the “raw materials” to build bridges between the institution and the Americas.
“We often call the latter ‘study abroad,’ ” said Frenk in his 22-minute address, “but we might better call it ‘study within,’ the opportunity to live inside another culture in ways that both enrich and transform.”
Wearing black academic regalia with an orange, green and white hood, and with the President’s Medallion draped around his neck, a confident Frenk stood at the podium and spoke of the diverse strengths of the University’s 11 schools and college, but noted that despite their differences, UM’s potential stems from the fact that “we are one U.”
He unveiled a “100 New Talents for 100 Years” initiative, which will fund 100 new endowed faculty chairs between now and the school’s centennial.
He also announced an extraordinary $100 million gift from longtime UM benefactors Phillip and Patricia Frost that served as one of the highpoints of Frenk’s speech. The gift, the details of which will be announced in the coming weeks, will support basic and applied science and engineering—fields in which “any university striving for excellence must have depth,” said Frenk.
The gift is also evidence of the Frosts’ exceptional generosity. Thirteen years ago, when UM embarked upon its first billion-dollar fundraising campaign, the couple (Phillip Frost is a member of the UM Board of Trustees) made an astounding pledge that named the music school in their honor.
Calling students the “most enduring legacy” and “energizing force” on UM’s campuses, Frenk said the University will develop a platform to exploit the current revolution in teaching and learning, and he addressed the issue that is often of utmost concern to them—the debt they incur from attending college.
“If education is to fulfill its crucial function of expanding opportunities, we must build a bridge between excellence and access,” he said, committing to increase financial aid at UM to meet 100 percent of student need.
Renee Reneau, a senior majoring in communications studies, was ecstatic to hear Frenk directly address students’ financial needs. “For me, it was the best part of his speech,” she said. “It’s refreshing to have a president who is focused on that. My brother is a freshman here, so I’m excited for him, and maybe someday when I have kids, it’ll be more affordable to go here.”
Hong-Uyen Hua, a medical student at the Miller School who earned her bachelor’s degree from UM, said she was “wowed” by Frenk’s remarks. “Being a beneficiary of scholarships here at UM eased my experience because I could feel free to pursue whatever I wanted,” she said. “If more students could have access, that would advance and enrich the University.”
With his wife, health economist Dr. Felicia Knaul, son, two daughters, two sisters, and a brother-in-law looking on, Frenk said he was committed to advancing the University’s relevance.
“From its very origins, this University has been driven by the dual commitment to excellence and relevance, pursuing the highest academic standards while also serving the local and global communities to which it belongs,” said Frenk. “Today, more than ever before, we must build a sturdy bridge that connects scholarship to solutions.”
As part of its mission of fostering solutions, Frenk said, UM will soon launch an institution-wide effort to expand its expertise in sea level rise, lead the way in the new era of value-based, integrated health care, and help drive the development of an innovation hub that draws on the school’s strengths in the life sciences, nanotechnology, and computational science.
Frenk lauded the University’s storied athletics program, saying academics and success on the playing field “can go hand in hand,” and cited the adoption of recommendations from the Task Force on Black Students’ Concerns and a plan to develop gender-inclusive housing as examples of UM’s commitment to diversity.
But while embracing diversity in whatever form it takes can be an effective way of achieving exemplary status, Frenk cautioned that “diversity by numbers is not enough.” Creating a sense of belonging and promoting empathy are both crucial, he said.
“We need not only virtual connectivity but also real connectedness,” said Frenk, adding that UM will implement policies and practices to foster inclusiveness across its campuses.
He called the subject of diversity deeply personal, noting that his 92-year-old father, a physician in Mexico who still practices medicine, and his family were forced to leave Germany in the 1930s. “I would not be here today if they had not found a welcoming refuge in Mexico, a country that was poor economically but rich in the ways that matter most—tolerance, kindness to strangers, solidarity with those who suffer persecution.”
Frenk is proud to be UM’s first Hispanic president—“Me siento orgulloso de ser el primer rector hispano de esta Universidad,” he said in Spanish—but said he will serve as “everyone’s president.”
He said UM could be a beacon of resilience and a model of renewal. “With resilience and renewal, we can weather the winds of change buffeting higher education and the world at large, and emerge smarter and stronger,” said Frenk.
In additions to thousands of members of the UM community, delegates from 98 universities and learned societies,elected officials and civic and business leaders from across Miami-Dade County and Florida, and diplomatic representatives from 28 countries witnessed the historic occasion.
Student musicians from UM’s acclaimed Frost School of Music performed, and the presidential stage party included Board of Trustees Chairman Stuart A. Miller, academic deans, and UM officers and trustees.
Faust, the Harvard president, praised her former colleague, saying Frenk excelled as the dean of faculty of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “He brought vision, eloquence, a thirst for excellence, and a passion for education,” she said, noting he comes to UM at an “immensely consequential moment for universities.”
“Never before has education been more vital to the prospects of individuals,” she said, adding that institutions of higher education now face a “dizzying array of challenges” such as how they should teach and create fully inclusive environments.
Frenk, she said, always knew “deep in his soul why universities matter.”
The inauguration created a buzz across campus, akin to the kind of excitement that envelopes our nation’s capital during a U.S. presidential investiture, and the University basked in the moment, celebrating the installation of its sixth president with a weeklong slate of events—from a ceremony honoring women’s athletics, to a discussion of historic “firsts” in the institution’s history, to a TED Talks-style series of lectures called ’Cane Talks.
And Greater Miami—the multiethnic, multiracial community Frenk has grown to embrace—shared in the exhilaration of his inauguration, as buildings, billboards, and transportation hubs heralded his investiture in one form or another.
From the iconic Freedom Tower in downtown Miami to the historic Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, some of the area’s most recognizable structures were illuminated in orange and green, the signature colors of the U. Port Miami and Miami International Airport both rolled out signage congratulating UM’s first Hispanic president, the former illuminating its cruise terminal in UM colors.
Even Uber joined the celebration, displaying a message applauding Frenk’s historic moment when passengers in Coral Gables opened the company’s app.
After delivering his inaugural address, Frenk and his family headed to the Student Center Complex Lakeside Patio, where a community reception was held.