President Julio Frenk’s inauguration on Friday will be another benchmark carved into the University of Miami’s history. President Frenk, succeeding President Donna Shalala’s 14-year tenure as the sixth president of the university, will likely lead the university into its second century since its founding in 1925.
This week, inaugural celebrations and lectures will honor not only President Frenk but also the significance of the next 100 years. At this watershed moment, it is necessary to reflect on what kind of campus we would like to return to as alumni.
Although UM is a school that is rarely quiet about its accomplishments, we must also remember where this university stands on the larger scale of American higher education. If we are ever to catch up to our lofty “aspirational peers,” the administration and trustees need to take a critical, holistic look at what the university currently lacks and make deliberate changes to address those gaps.
Some of those changes are already well underway. Hurricanes have longed for a return to our past athletic glory, and it has been refreshing to see an increased attention to athletics. Since President Frenk’s arrival, more money has been put into big hires for the football coaching staff, including the hiring of Mark Richt. That Inauguration Week kicked off with the Celebration of Women’s Athletics also goes to show that athletics are a priority for this administration.
However, we can still do much better. What is sorely needed is a more consistent level of academic rigor and pursuit of excellence across all undergraduate departments, not simply the school’s crown jewel, the health sciences. The university boasts eight schools and more than 180 majors and programs, but how many of these programs are considered competitive and well-resourced compared to programs at peer institutions? We must have the quality to back up the quantity.
Excellence in non-science departments has not been unheard of here. Let’s not forget that Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer was once a member of the English faculty. However, today, the humanities are struggling with competitive enrollment, art students need to trek down U.S. 1 for studio space and classes, theater students have scarce opportunities to perform in university productions and communications students on our own editorial board have explicitly been advised to take less challenging courses, which seems antithetical to the mission of a “top” national university.
The university must start to pay serious attention to all departments to ensure that students can walk away with well-respected degrees and, more importantly, effective educations. When communication majors and foreign language majors feel their learning experiences are just as valuable as their peers in the sciences, a cohesive culture of excellence and mutual respect between disciplines will naturally develop.
On-campus facilities must also improve. President Shalala pushed the transformation toward a more campus-centered community, and the next few years are critical to solidify that transformation. Facilities expansions in parking lots, residential halls, walkways, dining options, campus shuttles, library hours and the number of classroom buildings and student spaces would make the campus experience much more livable, driving up the retention rate for on-campus housing.
The plans for the new residential colleges and architecture building are definitely steps in the right direction. We hope this trend will continue to make UM a better place to live and learn. This will enhance a stronger community among students, increase the significance of the UM experience and perhaps even encourage involvement and giving from nostalgic alumni in later years.
Another major issue for students is that UM fails to live up to the promises of a small, private university in many ways: flexibility, efficiency and personalized attention. When it comes to dealing with administrative tasks, students can very well feel like they are “just a number” in the system. They may be struggling to get into classes or running into dead ends while seeking approval for curriculum changes.
Whether these problems are caused by a shortage of personnel or an inefficient system, challenges like these simply shouldn’t be happening to this extent when our undergraduate population is less than a third that of state schools. The system has to be able to accommodate the spectrum of student academic needs in a smarter, more effective way, especially considering the high cost of attending this school.
That being said, hopefully President Frenk will also make it a priority to freeze the ever-rising price of tuition to ensure that a UM education is still within reach for all qualified students.
The administration and trustees cannot improve on all of these areas by putting out individual fires with task forces or bureaucratic initiatives. Rather, they must nurture meaningful cultural changes toward an overarching ideal of what the university should be. There must be a level of mutual trust between the administration and the university community so more transparent, candid dialogue can take place.
The same conversations that are happening in board rooms should also be happening in residential colleges, classrooms and gliders. If President Frenk can continue encouraging this culture, as he did with his Town Hall meeting and listening exercise last semester, then the campus community will improve along with the campus itself.
As student journalists, we hope to be part of this constructive dialogue. To President Frenk, The Miami Hurricane wishes you the best of luck with your tenure. We hope your expectations for this university are just as high as those we have for you.
Editorials represent the majority view of The Miami Hurricane editorial board.
CORRECTION Jan. 28, 2016: A previous version of this editorial incorrectly identified the late UM professor Isaac Bashevis Singer as the only Nobel laureate affiliated with the university. Dr. Andrew Schally, currently a distinguished research faculty member at the Miller School of Medicine, was awarded a 1977 Nobel prize in Medicine and Physiology for his work on proving the existence of several hypothalamic hormones. Dr. Schally currently teaches pathology and hematology/oncology and heads the Endocrine, Polypeptide and Cancer Institute at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.