Julio Frenk’s father and his family escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, fleeing to a country, Mexico, which, while much poorer economically, was much richer in tolerance.
It was a decision that quite probably saved their lives. And to this day the 61-year-old Mexican-born physician who has led Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health for the past six years has always felt a sense of gratitude, making it his life’s duty to give something back as a global citizen.
With his worldview philosophy and strong belief in diversity on display, Frenk was introduced Monday as the University of Miami’s president-elect, ending a six-month search process to find a successor to Donna E. Shalala, who announced last September that she was stepping down from the UM presidency.
Addressing a throng of media during a midday press conference held in UM’s Student Activities Center, Frenk said he is “honored” and “humbled” by UM’s decision to tab him as its next president. He noted that during the search process, he sensed the enormous optimism and ambition surrounding the University’s future, saying that the institution is on a “upward trajectory” to reach greater heights.
It was a search process that Stuart A. Miller, chairman of UM’s Board of Trustees, described as “comprehensive and inclusive” and reaching across all campuses. The process also “opened our eyes to just how much passion there is for the University," said Richard Fain, who chaired the search committee.
Like Shalala, Frenk is a former secretary of health. As Mexico’s minister of health from 2000 to 2006, he reformed that nation’s health system, introducing comprehensive universal health insurance, which expanded access to health care for tens of millions of uninsured Mexicans.
When he takes the reins on August 16, Frenk will become the first Hispanic and only the sixth president in UM’s 90-year history. He will lead an institution that has experienced a period of unprecedented growth under his predecessor.
Shalala, who became UM president in 2001 after serving eight years as secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration, leaves the University at the end of May to head the Clinton Foundation. It will mark the end of a 14-year tenure during which the university entered the top 50 of the U.S. News & World Report’s prestigious college rankings, opened new facilities, hired renowned scholars, and raised more than $3 billion as part of two highly successful capital campaigns. The first, called Momentum: The Campaign for the University of Miami, marked the first time in Florida that any school had raised $1 billion.
Frenk, who first met Shalala almost 20 years ago while working at the World Health Organization, has followed her career over the years and is aware of the legacy and strong foundation she leaves at UM, which, he said, should make his job a lot easier.
The opportunity to continue the upward momentum started by Shalala, UM’s strategic location as the gateway to Latin America, and the institution’s potential to spearhead and lead positive changes of the 21st century were among the key factors that made the UM job attractive to him, he said.
UM’s Miller School of Medicine and the UHealth System, along with the University’s research enterprise also made the job attractive to him.
Frenk said that he intends to start a process of immersion, listening and learning everything he can about the University from now through the initial months of his tenure.
His expertise in public health, he said, will be a tremendous benefit because the essence of that field—a “be ready” approach aimed at addressing issues before they become problems—applies to many other areas.
A basketball player and soccer goalie in his younger days, Frenk said he views athletics as “an integral part of a comprehensive education” and would be meeting with UM coaches later in the day. As a Ph.D. Student for five years at Michigan, he said he became a big football fan, especially when, year after year, his seats in venerable Michigan Stadium moved closer and closer to the 50-yard line.
Shalala, who introduced Frenk at Monday’s press conference, noted that the “Miami es el Mundo (Miami is the world)” theme she spoke of in her UM inauguration address nearly 14 years ago has today come true with the selection of Frenk.