New ‘north star’ guides University

Workers poured the concrete deck for the fifth floor of the Frost Institute of Chemistry and Molecular Science last month. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

By Maya Bell

Workers poured the concrete deck for the fifth floor of the Frost Institute of Chemistry and Molecular Science last month. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

New ‘north star’ guides University

By Maya Bell
The disruption caused by COVID-19 is accelerating innovations, technologies, and initiatives that will lead a stronger, more resilient University of Miami to its centennial in 2025.

The most obvious changes are visible, even concrete, like the roof that will soon top the Frost Institute of Chemistry and Molecular Science. Others aren’t as noticeable—unless you peek inside classrooms where professors who never previously attempted online teaching are experimenting with extended reality platforms to immerse students in new worlds without leaving campus. 

As the University of Miami marches toward its centennial in 2025, the institution is emerging from the yearlong tumult inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic on a new and accelerated course envisioned by the Roadmap to Our New Century. Adopted in 2018, the strategic plan guiding the University toward the century mark prophetically states that priorities are driven by ‘‘our capacity for resilience and renewal in the face of unprecedented changes affecting our community and all of higher education.’’

President Julio Frenk, who unveiled the vision that laid the groundwork for the roadmap at his inauguration in 2016, said the way faculty, staff, and students have navigated and leveraged unforeseen circumstances gives him great confidence that the University is on its way to meeting its potential. 

“The pandemic has been not so much an agent of change as an accelerator of change,” Frenk said. “In some areas of endeavor, including remote learning, telehealth, and telework, we have seen more progress in the past year than we had in the prior decade. We have witnessed—and will continue to embrace—not only our resiliency in the face of challenges, but our ability to truly transform the way we think and interact.”

Jeffrey L. Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, noted that, "in many ways, we have used the pandemic to really accelerate some of the things we were contemplating. We are seeing the evolution of a new north star—a new direction on the horizon,” he added. “The roadmap is sufficiently prescient to anticipate the world would change and has allowed us to be responsive and align us with the new course we need to be on.”

When the highly contagious coronavirus shut down the University during its 2020 spring break and pushed classes online, there was no time to hit the pause button. There was only urgency to refocus embedded initiatives, enabling the University to sustain its preeminent academic health system and adopt unfamiliar pedagogical methodologies and technologies, all while addressing new societal challenges, advancing interdisciplinary problem-solving, even attracting new top talent. Among them: Pratim Biswas, a world-renowned aerosol scientist and member of the Academy of Engineering who assumed the deanship of the College of Engineering in January.

“The happy side of this is we find ourselves well-positioned to come out of the pandemic because we didn’t just come to a halt,” said Gregory Shepherd, the former dean of the School of Communication who is overseeing the roadmap as interim vice provost for academic innovation. “In some ways, Zoom facilitated the work because it became easier to come together. We’ve had the great gift of both faculty and staff time devoted to developing projects, and a lot of mutual appreciation has grown from that.”

That was evident, Shepherd said, in two University-wide initiatives that, still in the concept stage, gained considerable momentum over the past year. The ’Cane Commitment committee, co-chaired by Robin Bachin, assistant provost for civic and community engagement, and Renee Dickens Callan, executive director of student life, is exploring how the University can equip every student with the “practical intelligence” and “soft skills”—such as the ability to be effective team members and creative problem-solvers—they’ll need to navigate the changing workplace and world.

And the Resilience Academy committee, co-chaired by Rodolphe el-Khoury, dean of the School of Architecture, and Sharan Majumdar, professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, began developing the framework for a University-wide academic unit that can address the impacts of climate change and other perils, from all of their many complex facets.

But the empowering forces of disruption and innovation are most evident in the evolving priorities aimed at shaping the education revolution. Along with the Division of Continuing and International Education and Academic Technologies, the University’s new Platform for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (PETAL) and its Institutional Academy for Teaching Excellence stepped up with the workshops, resources, and a new mentoring program aimed at advancing the art of teaching and the science of learning in a new world. 

To date, 170 faculty members have each completed six PETAL workshops, and more than 540 have taken at least one.

“All of a sudden you had to look at how you teach, what you teach, the way you teach, which has not been part of our research-focused training,” said Laura Kohn-Wood, dean of the School of Education and Human Development. “So, what’s so great about PETAL is that it says, ‘We’re going to be excellent in teaching and we’re going to provide the resources so we can be.’”

Soon, the best of the best will be recognized with three new teaching awards, one for mentorship, another for innovation, and the third for experiential learning.

The University also committed significant resources to its XR Initiative, which already boasts more than 40 extended reality projects aimed at enhancing learning, informing research, and improving clinical and commercial operations. Established last year with industry partners and collaborators, it was built on the premise that immersive environments that blend the real world with digital information and virtual, augmented, or mixed reality will shape the future of communication, education, health care, and work.

“These technologies are both immersive and interactive, giving our students access to hands-on learning and experiencing remote places without the incurred risks or costs,” said Kim Grinfeder, chair of the Department of Interactive Media, who spearheaded the initiative. “The possibilities are endless.”

The University’s mission-driven research priorities also gained momentum during the pandemic, some fueled by the urgent need to learn more about the novel coronavirus or the growing awareness of the pernicious effects of structural racism.

In response, the University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge (U-LINK), which was established to foster the kind of interdisciplinary collaborations essential to addressing complex problems, awarded its first rapid-response grants. Drawing 70 ideas in 10 days, the initial grants supported proposals aimed at broadening the understanding of COVID-19 and mitigating its impacts.

The second set, aimed at advancing meaningful dialogue and timely solutions for racial inequalities and discrimination, drew 25 proposals from the most diverse representation of faculty since U-LINK began in 2017. Most of the seven winning proposals focused on local disparities, among them the lack of Black students in the University’s own research labs that has long troubled Ashutosh Agarwal.

An associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Agarwal spearheaded the Joint Academic Nurtureship for Underrepresented Students (JANUS) to address a known cause: Black students who must work to afford their college education usually can’t volunteer in a lab to gain the hands-on experiences they need to pursue advanced degrees and research careers. Today, 10 JANUS scholars are not only gaining that experience through paid internships with some of the University’s most notable researchers, but are, in turn, mentoring underprivileged high schoolers who, the hope is, will follow in their footsteps one day.

The University’s other strategic investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) also have made tangible progress since 2017, when longtime benefactors Phillip and Patricia Frost launched the Frost Institutes for Science and Engineering with a $100 million gift. Their vision was to create a group of interdisciplinary research institutes to address some of the world’s most pressing and complex problems. The inaugural center, the Frost Institute of Chemistry and Molecular Science, broke ground on its five-story wet lab building last October.

Four months later, just before the pandemic brought the world to a standstill, the second Frost center, the year-old Institute for Data Science and Computing (IDSC), attracted a combined $12 million endowment from the Frosts and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The investments will enable IDSC, which evolved from the Center for Computational Science (CCS), to recruit its first fulltime faculty—and help transform the University into a global epicenter of data science through research, education, ethics, and workforce training.

But IDSC, which was built on CCS’s state-of-the-art research computing infrastructure, including one of the fastest supercomputers in the nation, is already positioned to propel Miami’s growing emergence as a hemispheric innovation hub, which the pandemic also accelerated. Combined with South Florida’s warm weather and lower cost of living, the remote-work culture engendered by the new stay-at-home existence has brought an influx of tech entrepreneurs, innovators, start-ups, and venture capitalists to South Florida. And they will, no doubt, look to University graduates for employees who are capable of growing—and growing with—their ventures. 

In addition to the University’s new Master of Science in Data Science program—which already has drawn 70 applicants for the fall—IDSC is spearheading the effort to infuse data science into every instructional program, ensuring that every student graduates with a degree of data-savviness that, just like practical intelligence, they’ll need to find answers to complex problems.

That’s already happening at the ’Cane Angel Network (CAN), which matches University-related start-ups with University-affiliated investors interested in bringing early-stage innovations to the marketplace. Among the roadmap initiatives aimed at promoting innovation and entrepreneurship throughout the hemisphere, the CAN was built from scratch by graduate students who, under the guidance of managing director Jeffrey Camp, wrote the manual and vetting process for introducing promising start-ups to potential investors during the inaugural ’Cane Angel Network—Investing in the Real World course that began last year.

Since then, CAN students have brought five companies to potential investors but, because they collected the same information from many others that didn’t make the cut, they realized they could look for patterns in the data that suggest which ventures are likely to be successful—patterns that will grow clearer as the data grows.

With its hands-on learning and drive to mine solutions from ever-increasing reams of data, the CAN is already following the University’s new north star. Camp doubts he will ever return to the in-person classes—which are called meetings—that launched the CAN course. Assembling medical, law, and business students on Zoom is just too convenient and effective. But from day one, Camp told the students—who are called investment analysts—that their class would operate like an investment firm because, after all, they are dealing with real money, real companies, and real opportunities to make a difference.

Now Camp foresees a future where other classes could offer the same level of experiential learning. “At the end of the day, you’re ultimately teaching someone to do something,” he said. “So, getting past the teaching part to the doing part seems like a natural progression.”