Coming to the University of Miami alongside Dr. Julio Frenk, who will be UM’s sixth president, is his wife, Felicia Knaul. She is expected to join the faculty in fall 2015.
She says she is applying for a position like any other candidate.
“No one should have a faculty petition without having a proper review and earning that position. I’m hopeful that I will do well in that review,” she said.
A prominent health economist, Knaul was impressed with the university’s community feel during her visit on Monday for Frenk’s official welcome. She earned her PhD in economics at Harvard.
“Some universities will probably focus more on competition and division, and others on building community. And I can see a community here,” said Knaul, who is also the director of the Harvard Global Equity Initiative, a research program focusing on health equity differences.
Knaul aims to develop more interdisciplinary academic programs. These would draw expertise and students from all over the university – graduate, medical and law schools included.
“I’m hoping to be very much able to contribute at Sylvester [Comprehensive Cancer Center], at the medical school, in Arts and Sciences, in the business school – both as an economist on the one hand … and within the health and global health communities,” she said.
Knaul added that she envisions “an even stronger” Sylvester, which the state of Florida recently recognized as a Cancer Center of Excellence, and wants to take “immense advantage” of the city of Miami and its geography.
“Right up there with global health and global cancer, I see this university as a huge opportunity for the region, particularly Latin America and the Caribbean,” she said.
Knaul has produced more than 170 academic and policy publications as well as written and lead-edited several academic books. These include “Closing the Cancer Divide” and “Financing Health in Latin America: Household Spending and Impoverishment.”
Aside from her roles at Harvard, Knaul founded the Mexico-based nonprofit Cáncer de Mama: Tómatelo a Pecho, a program that promotes research, advocacy and early detection initiatives for breast cancer in Latin America. This came after she was diagnosed with breast cancer herself in 2007.
Survival runs in Knaul’s family. Originally from Canada, she is the child of a Holocaust survivor.
Her father, who was born in Poland, spent five years in concentration camps. After being liberated, he earned a scholarship at the University of Toronto to study business.
“It made me incredibly aware of how cruel this world can be and how important it is for each of us to strive to help others regardless what their religion is, their skin color, their ethnicity,” she said.
A citizen of the United Kingdom as well as a permanent resident of Mexico, Knaul has held senior government posts in Mexico and Colombia and has worked for agencies such as UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the World Bank.
Frenk served at WHO as executive director of Evidence and Information for Policy for two years.
Given her experience in many facets of the health care sector, Knaul once thought about pursuing a career as a physician, but she says she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to get into medical school and become a doctor.
“So I married one instead,” Knaul joked.
Knaul instead found her “niche” in improving health systems financially and fiscally, as well as helping alleviate “the incredible challenge of human suffering.”