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UNAM Rector Proposes New Agenda for International Collaboration
Scenes from the National University of Mexico: medical school graduates; a student demonstration; many campus buildings boast murals that reflect Mexico's rich heritage.

UNAM Rector Proposes New Agenda for International Collaboration

“We need to educate our students and ourselves to become better global participants, able to understand other people on their own terms while also deepening an appreciation for our own heritages. Globalization aided by the development of intercultural competence offers such a promise.”

Colleen Trujillo Email ColleenTrujillo

"As educators, we need to assure that our students possess 'intercultural competence' ... to interact effectively and appropriately across cultures.”

Dr. Juan Ramón de la Fuente, rector of the Universidad Autónoma de México (UNAM), Mexico’s national university, offered a Mexican view of the challenges facing higher education during remarks at a luncheon at UCLA on May 30. He urged educators and university leaders to think about new models for international collaboration. Dr. de la Fuente’s visit to the campus coincides with the 450th anniversary of the founding of UNAM.

Juan Ramón de la Fuente, M.D., is a graduate of the School of Medicine, UNAM, and did postgraduate study in psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, where he was head of residents and an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. He has been a member of the medical faculty of UNAM since 1980. He has held a number of leadership posts, including director of the health research program, coordinator of scientific research, and dean of the School of Medicine. In 1994 he was named Secretary of Health for the government of Mexico, a position he left in 1999 to become rector of the university.

Following introductions by host James W. Wilkie, chair of the UCLA Program on Mexico, Geoffrey Garrett, Vice Provost of International Studies, opened the program with comments on the challenges facing higher education from the view of one living and working in the U.S. In the post-9/11 environment, there is a need, Garrett said, “to understand the world better and rethink America’s role in it.” Universities can play a very important role in this process by helping students understand that the U.S. is part of a global village and by imparting a more sophisticated view of the world. “Education at home, however, is not the end of the story,” Garrett said. “Higher education and research are global phenomena and require international collaboration among higher education institutions. We need to promote global understanding.”


Picking up on the theme of challenges in higher education, Dr. de la Fuente began his talk by reviewing recent economic trends in Mexico. “Mexico has done very well in reframing an important component of its economic policy,” he said. “Mexico has pioneered a way to reshape trade interactions.” He noted, in particular, Mexico’s expanding exports, the growth in the manufacturing sector, the level of Mexican exports to U.S. markets compared to Canada, other Latin American countries, and the rest of the world, and the post-NAFTA increase in foreign direct investment in Mexico.

Recalling the prolonged student strike at UNAM in 1999, he discussed student disenchantment with globalization and with some of the economic policies adopted by the Mexican government. “What is behind those protests? If students are unhappy, we as educators must listen,” he cautioned. “In Mexico the economy shows very good signs,” he said, “but the students don’t see how the global movement will benefit them. We need better human resources to meet the challenges of the new economy.”


De la Fuente next addressed the issue of research productivity and pointed out that Mexico’s contribution to scientific research is very small, accounting for only .64 percent of published articles worldwide in 2000. In terms of the impact of scientific research, by country, during 1996–2000, on a scale of 1 to 7 (7 being highest), Mexico’s impact was 2.21, compared to the U.S. figure of 5.75. “Clearly,” he said, “the United States has learned how to protect its research budget. In Mexico scientific research output is modest, but of good quality.” Although scientific research is not a priority in Mexico, UNAM alone accounted for half of all scientific articles published in 2000.

Concerned about the notion that technology can solve a myriad of problems, de la Fuente pointed to the widening gap between people who have access to the Internet and those who do not. “Technology will not solve all our problems. The important thing is how we use technology and how we make it accessible.”


Despite favorable economic indicators and high-quality scientific research, de la Fuente thinks “something is missing” in higher education in Mexico and elsewhere—attention to the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences. “Are these endangered species?,” he wonders. There is little demand for expertise in these fields in the labor markets and they are ranked as low priority for external funding. But preparation and background in these fields is precisely what is needed, according to de la Fuente, to deal appropriately with global issues.


Educators need to focus on training in various aspects of competence. “Our graduates need to be able to adjust to new environments, work in multicultural teams, speak other languages, and deal with ethnic diversity. As educators, we need to assure that our students possess 'intercultural competence'—the multiple abilities that allow one to interact effectively and appropriately across cultures.”

The challenge for educators is to design educational and training programs for intercultural competence, taking into consideration the role of international students (who serve as a cross-cultural resource for domestic students), faculty preparation, academic mobility for teachers and students, and longitudinal impact studies.

De la Fuente cited the example of Erasmus, a program that supports the activities of higher education institutions in Europe and promotes the mobility and exchange of teaching staff and students, suggesting that such a model might be a viable concept in the Americas. 

The challenge facing higher education today is to “educate our students and ourselves to become better global participants, able to understand other people on their own terms while also deepening an appreciation for our own heritages. Globalization aided by the development of intercultural competence offers such a promise.”

UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale responded to rector de la Fuente’s presentation by noting the “special relationship” between Mexico and the United States and the people of both nations. He reviewed the history of collaboration between UCLA and UNAM. “Our nations and our cultures are so intertwined,” he said, “that it is difficult to think of doing our work other than in partnership with one another.”

Several campus units cooperated to sponsor the luncheon event: International Studies and Overseas Programs, Latin American Center Program on Mexico, School of Public Policy and Social Research, Chicano Studies Research Center, and the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture. Additional support came from the Hewlett foundation and the Consulate General of Mexico in Los Angeles.

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