With outstanding grades in all her graduate courses and time spent abroad conducting research, Susan Kaufman Purcell seemed the perfect choice for a job teaching Latin American politics at the university level.
“It was a time when most colleges didn’t have professors who specialized in that area,” recalled Purcell of the late 1960s, when she graduated from Columbia University with a Ph.D. in political science. “So there were lots of good jobs, but the men got those jobs first.”
Purcell became painfully aware of that fact after being passed over for an assistant professorship at the University of Wisconsin, only to find out later that a male classmate, with grades and experience no better than hers, had been hired for the position. “They wanted someone who could run a new Latin American Center” was the explanation Purcell’s friend offered as to why she didn’t get the job. “The implication being that I couldn’t do it,” she said.
Such discrimination would surely have discouraged some from following their ambitions, but not Purcell. The daughter of a Brooklyn lawyer who helped numerous immigrants attain U.S. citizenship, Purcell refused to let go of her dream, applying for other teaching jobs until eventually getting hired as a tenure-track professor at UCLA, where she taught Latin American politics for ten years before moving on to other prominent roles in New York, Washington, D.C., and, Coral Gables, Florida.
It was in Coral Gables that she founded the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy (CHP), a think tank that examined critical issues affecting countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Now, after almost 11 years of raising UM’s visibility in the Americas, Purcell is stepping down, moving on to the next stage of a brilliant career devoted to studying a region that has captivated her since she spent the summer of 1961 in Guadalajara, Mexico, just after her sophomore year in college.
Over the past decade, Purcell, who intends to do some consulting and continue speaking and writing on current Latin American issues, staged dynamic programming that addressed the state of affairs in the region from every possible angle. Among the center’s symposia topics: modernizing Latin America’s economies and political systems; security issues in the hemisphere; the commodities boom and subsequent bust; the growing influence of China in the region; the impact of globalization in the Americas; poverty alleviation; and the illicit drug trade.
“Under Susan Purcell’s leadership, the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami has become a preeminent gathering place for scholars, policymakers, politicians, business leaders, and community representatives to meet, debate, and propose policy ideas for the challenges faced by the nations of our hemisphere,” said Provost Thomas J. LeBlanc. “She leaves behind a distinguished legacy of thoughtful debate and hemispheric-wide influence.”
U.S. and Latin American government officials, consultants, academics, journalists, Wall Street analysts, and even the commander of the U.S. Southern Command served as speakers and panelists. And hot-button issues—whether it was elections in Venezuela and Argentina, political corruption in Brazil, or negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group—often shaped the CHP’s programming, which by Purcell’s estimate came to about 600 conferences, talks, and special gatherings over the center’s existence. Then there were powerhouse speakers—both former and current heads of state and presidents from countries like Colombia, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic—who ramped up the CHP’s reputation even further.
“There was nothing like it,” said Purcell. “Miami is one of the few international cities that doesn’t have a World Affairs Council. So we really filled a need down here. We were one of the few institutions that provided policy-relevant programs on Latin America and U.S.-Latin American relations. If you look at the think tanks in Washington, D.C. that deal with Latin America, we were the only one that was really comparable to any of those.”
Former UM President Donna E. Shalala once called the CHP “the little think tank that could.”
Funding from Congress, the U.S. State Department, a two-year Tinker Foundation grant, and private donations allowed the CHP to thrive and initiate other projects, such as an online publications series that produced task force papers on a variety of topics, a resident and visiting fellows program, and a Hemispheric Cities endeavor that staged conferences in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Peru.
Now the CHP will be absorbed by the new Miami Institute for the Americas at the College of Arts and Sciences. “Dr. Purcell, who is and always will be a leading figure on Latin America, is an award-winning scholar in public policy, U.S.-Latin American relations, and economic and political issues in the region,” said Dr. Felicia Knaul, director of the Miami Institute for the Americas. “She leaves a lasting legacy as director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy and we look forward to continued collaboration and wish her all the best in her next endeavors.”
Local, national, and international journalists covered many of the CHP’s events, most notably its two annual signature conferences—the Latin America Conference and the Latin America and the Caribbean Economic and Political Forecast, the latter held on December 9.
“I never went to a program organized by Susan that I didn’t find interesting and informative,” said Miami Herald reporter and Cuba correspondent Mimi Whitefield. “She really sought out people who were authorities on their topics, and ideas for many of my news stories sprang from her seminars. She invited people who I would have sought out had I traveled to Mexico or Brazil or Argentina or other Latin American countries and conveniently brought them together in Miami, the crossroads of the Americas.”
But Purcell is quick to deflect praise, pointing out the “tremendous teamwork” that enabled the CHP to succeed. Susi Davis, the center’s associate director who came to UM with Purcell from the Council of the Americas, was an indispensable resource. “With the help of our hardworking staff, Susi and I did the conceptualizing and organizing of the programs,” said Purcell.
Had it not been for an academic advisement session she had at Barnard College, Purcell probably would have never gone into the field of Latin American politics. “I wanted to major in biology and become a scientist,” she said. “But my college advisor told me I hadn’t taken the right courses and would need to go to summer school in order to major in that subject.”
The untimely death of her father at the beginning of her senior year in high school left the family in a financial strain, making it impossible for Purcell to afford a summer session of college. So Purcell asked her advisor what major she could select so that she wouldn’t have to take classes over the summer, and her advisor’s answer was Spanish. Purcell had a new major.
Her interest in all things Latin American grew after she spent the summer of 1961 in Mexico. The next year, through a program sponsored by Columbia and three other schools, Purcell spent the summer in Ecuador, living in the Andes in mud huts with a number of impoverished families and studying internal migration.
She would go on to attend graduate school at Columbia, where she earned her doctoral degree. After her UCLA stint, she became a senior fellow and director of the Latin America Project at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Prior to that, she was a member of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, serving under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. She came to UM after serving as vice president for the Council of the Americas.
Reflecting on the past decade, Purcell says she most enjoyed “the opportunity to bring together members of the greater Miami business, financial, legal, diplomatic, academic, and media communities for extremely interesting, informative, and lively discussions of contemporary Latin American political and economic developments.
“I was usually the moderator of our programs, which gave me a chance to interact with both the speakers and attendees at our programs and to get answers to many of the most difficult questions regarding the current situation in the region as well as what the future might hold for the hemisphere.”