New leaders rev up for an unprecedented era in education

Erin Kobetz and Guillermo “Willy” Prado have joined Provost Jeffrey Duerk's leadership team.
By Maya Bell

Erin Kobetz and Guillermo “Willy” Prado have joined Provost Jeffrey Duerk's leadership team.

New leaders rev up for an unprecedented era in education

By Maya Bell
Public health experts Erin Kobetz and Guillermo “Willy” Prado officially join Provost Jeffrey Duerk’s leadership team as the University fine-tunes operations amid the pandemic.

In 2017, just two months into Jeffrey Duerk’s new job as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, Hurricane Irma walloped South Florida, leaving a tangle of power lines and 4 million pounds of debris on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus. Yet, less than two weeks later, classes resumed. 

Now, with the 2020 hurricane season underway amid the coronavirus pandemic that forced the University to plunge into remote learning, Duerk feels a tad sorry for institutions that aren’t as adept at responding to crises. 

“There is,” he said, “a luxury in having to plan, prepare, and recover from hurricanes. There’s a sense of, ‘We can handle this, too.’ Many of the lessons learned in prior hurricanes are being used now in our response to COVID-19.” 

Duerk’s optimism for meeting the challenges of resuming on-campus research and classes this fall as the threat from COVID-19 evolves is also buoyed by the formal addition of Erin Kobetz and Guillermo “Willy” Prado—accomplished researchers who have dedicated their professional lives at the Miller School of Medicine to protecting and improving public health—to his leadership team. 

On June 1, Erin Kobetz, the associate director for population science and cancer disparity at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center who is leading Miami-Dade County’s effort to quantify the local extent of COVID-19, officially succeeded John Bixby as vice provost for research. And Prado, the dean of the Graduate School who for nearly nine years also led the Division of Prevention Science and Community Health, assumed the role of vice provost for faculty affairs from David Birnbach. In what Duerk called “fortuitous choices in these complicated times,” both were selected for their new roles last year, well before the pandemic emerged. 

“Just as the University was lucky five years ago to pick a president who is an expert in public health, I, too, am very fortunate to select a vice provost for research and a vice provost for faculty affairs who have public health as part of their DNA,” Duerk said. “David and John provided a firm foundation of exemplary leadership. Their sage and consistent approach has been steady on the rudder as our research programs and faculty ranks grew under their leadership. Now, with the maturity we’ve gained under their leadership, there’s an opportunity to put the pedal down. With the stability they provided, we hope to demonstrate further agility and speed.” 

Bixby, who led the creation of the University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge (U-LINK), is returning full time to his research lab at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Birnbach, a pioneer in the field of patient safety research and education, is completing research projects and publications during a sabbatical year before retiring after 18 years at the University. 

Like Duerk, Kobetz and Prado are ready to accelerate the strategic initiatives in the University’s Roadmap to Our New Century, which included shaping the educational revolution long before COVID-19 irreversibly changed the art of teaching and science of learning. They’re eager to explore new concepts in team science and new dimensions of teaching, like the remote-learning tools and other innovations that the pandemic has inspired. 

And they’re longtime adherents of Duerk’s service-oriented view of leadership—which includes ensuring that rules and regulations enable, rather than prevent, progress and success. 

“I believe that it’s my responsibility to help people accomplish their potential,” said Kobetz, a professor of medicine and public health sciences who is charged with increasing the University’s research competitiveness. “Our greatest responsibility in academia is really to pave the way for the next generation of scientists and scholars.” 

For the immediate future, Kobetz, the founder of Sylvester’s Firefighter Cancer Initiative who also discovered an alarming rate of cervical cancer in Miami’s Little Haiti shortly after joining the Miller School faculty in 2003, is focused on ramping up the non-critical research and scholarship that were scaled back when the University shut most of its physical doors in March. As she noted, developing the guidelines and protocols that will enable researchers to safely return to their labs required a team effort across the University that can only strengthen its growing culture of interdisciplinary and team science. 

“It provided the opportunity for different sectors of the institution that do not traditionally work together to collaborate around a common purpose,” Kobetz said. “Here the principles of team science apply. There has been co-learning and blending of different experiences and expertise, which is extraordinarily powerful. For me, it is one of the silver linings of COVID. Because we are being forced to adapt, we are evolving in real time and measurable ways.” 

Another of Kobetz’s priorities is integrating the disparate parts of the University’s research endeavors under one umbrella, including compliance and regulation, research administration, research information, and research technology. “With everyone together, we have the possibility of achieving the kind of cross talk that’s necessary to accelerate our scholarly impact,” she said. “We can really develop a strategic plan that identifies our common purposes and what the University of Miami, with its geographic endowment and diverse faculty, staff, and students, is uniquely positioned to do in advancing knowledge.” 

Prado, who earned both his Master of Science in Statistics and his Ph.D. in Epidemiology at UM—the latter in less than half the time it usually takes—is still in a hurry, this time to expand the focus of the Office of Faculty Affairs. As vice provost for faculty affairs, he’ll still be responsible for overseeing the processes for faculty onboarding, faculty promotions and tenure, and diversity, but he intends to make faculty development his top priority and work closely with Kobetz to accomplish that goal. 

“The way I see this job is that I work for the faculty—to facilitate their work and help them succeed and grow,” said Prado, who just began a new appointment as professor in the School of Nursing and Health Studies and will continue to hold secondary appointments at the Miller School and Department of Psychology. “My goal is to change the image of this office and what it means. It’s not where someone goes when they’re in trouble. It’s where someone comes for professional development, which includes leadership training, 360-degree mentoring, networking, grant-writing, team science, and collaborations across the schools and colleges—which Erin and I can focus on together.”

The president of the Society for Prevention Research, Prado knows a good bit about mentoring. He has devoted his research career to preventing social, physical, and mental health problems in youth by developing interventions for their parents. Recognized internationally as a top scholar in the prevention of drug abuse and sexual risk behavior among Hispanic adolescents, he co-developed Familias Unidas, a family-based intervention to reduce health risk behaviors among Hispanic youth. 

As an evidence-based scientist, he’s eager to enhance the Office of Faculty Affairs’ website with a range of resources and to digitize many administrative functions. “We need to do things that make the lives of faculty easier,” he said. “For example, the form faculty have to use to request a sabbatical requires multiple written approvals. We need to streamline the process so that all signatures are captured electronically.” 

Prado also plans to work with the Faculty Senate, Office of the Vice Provost for Research, and Human Resources to continue advancing the Roadmap’s 100 Talents, STEM@UM, and diversity and inclusion initiatives. He envisions creating a pipeline for attracting stellar minority faculty members, graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows onto the faculty ranks. And, he intends to  develop practices and procedures that ensure search committees and applicant pools for new faculty members include underrepresented minorities. “We all know the more diverse our faculty are, not only in terms of gender and ethnicity, but in terms of thought, the stronger we will be,” Prado said. 

But like Kobetz, he also knows he won’t meet any of his goals alone. “All of this isn’t done in a silo,” he said. “It will require collaborations across the University.”

Even as a challenging, new fiscal year and another hurricane season unfolds, Duerk looks forward to all the new collaborations that will expand the University’s toolbox. Thinking back to when he was a child and a fledging engineer, he still remembers his excitement over discovering he needn’t use a hammer to pound in screws. Screwdrivers were invented for that very purpose. 

“It’s going to be exciting to find the right explorers and adventurers who will help us take the University forward and who recognize that this is an inflection point and there is no turning back,” Duerk said. “New adventures require new tools. We’re ready.”