State of the U highlights resilience, future initiatives

President Julio Frenk delivers his third State of the University address. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

President Julio Frenk delivers his third State of the University address. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

State of the U highlights resilience, future initiatives

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
In his third State of the University Town Hall, President Julio Frenk touted the University’s successes in dealing with the pandemic, honored “unsung heroes’’ on the front lines who helped manage the crisis, and outlined major endeavors that will fuel the future.

It had already been a spring semester like no other. With COVID-19 cases spiking across Miami-Dade County, University of Miami students were told in March 2020 that classes for the rest of the academic term would be migrated online. 

Then, as the start of the Fall 2020 semester grew closer, University officials had a daunting decision to make: whether to follow the national trend of continuing to teach virtually or to offer students the choice of returning to campus for in-person instruction. 

The University chose the latter, taking precautions that were so meticulous in their nature that no cases of in-classroom transmission of the virus were recorded throughout the full academic year. 

That decision was just one of many actions, taken during the past two years, that have allowed the University to not only effectively deal with the pandemic but also demonstrate its longtime ability to endure and remain resilient in the face of adversity, President Julio Frenk said Tuesday during his third State of the University Town Hall. 

“The tradition of resilience that has been with us from our founding has been the cornerstone of our response to an unprecedented convergence of crises on the health, economic, and social fronts,” Frenk said. “We have not shied away from tough choices, and we have stepped boldly into our mission.” 


Read: Students react to State of the U address

The University’s president spoke to a live audience of about 125 people inside the Shalala Student Center Ballroom—attendance was limited because of adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols—and to thousands more watching virtually. Frenk reflected on three of those “tough choices”—the decision to hold in-person classes in the fall being one of them—and revealed the ambitious plans the University has in the works, from new facilities and academic units to a focus on tech and the celebration of a major fundraising campaign.

Bold choices 

He recognized the “herculean efforts” of the University of Miami Health System during the pandemic, noting that once the government lifted restrictions on elective procedures, UHealth physicians resumed seeing non-COVID-19 patients—a decision, he said, that helped save lives. 

“The impact of COVID-19 on health outcomes is much broader than the official case and death counts,” Frenk said. “Beyond the lives lost to the virus itself, there have been thousands of deaths indirectly caused by the pandemic due to delays in diagnosis and interruptions in treatment of chronic conditions.”

He praised health care workers for what essentially amounted to operating a hospital within a hospital, simultaneously caring for COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients and continuing specialty care. 

From football and soccer to volleyball and tennis, the University also allowed fall athletic competitions to take place. Evidence and planning, the president said, showed a clear path to proceed with fall sports. “My public health experience told me that ‘let us play’ was more than a catchy hashtag generated by student-athletes,” explained Frenk, a former minister of health for Mexico. “It underscored what my professional training confirmed—that our athletes were safer in the rigor and routine of competing, and they could provide a powerful example for both students and fans to follow.” 

Now, the University has marked a fourth major decision—one profoundly affected by the pandemic, which Frenk described as being an “accelerator” of change. “This demands an adjustment to our strategic plan—and a corresponding quickening of our efforts to execute on the Roadmap to Our New Century,” he explained. 

Following the science 

The University’s mission of transforming lives requires two beliefs, Frenk said. “One is a belief in science and scholarship, the other a belief in people.” 

Following and being immersed directly in the science that emerged in response to the pandemic allowed the University to adapt and progress during the past 20 months, Frenk said. “It meant analyzing risks and intentionally planning to mitigate them—at every turn—with the best evidence available to us,” he said. “That is how we have managed cases arising on campus, how we determined we should shift our student health operations to UHealth, and how our incident management team continues to arrive at policies and guidelines.” 

With more than $31 million in grants for outreach, diagnostics, treatment, and vaccines as well as more than 260 publications related to COVID-19, UHealth and the Miller School of Medicine have been at the front line of coronavirus research, Frenk said. 

“In addition, our scholars across every discipline have engaged and continue to engage beyond labs, conducting applied research in communities and strengthening human connection through the arts,” he added. 

Unsung heroes 

Frenk honored members of the University community who played pivotal roles in helping the institution navigate the COVID-19 crisis. Through video vignettes, town hall participants listened to workers on the front lines describe their experiences during the pandemic. 

One of them was alumna Doreen Ashley, executive director of nursing at UHealth, who has been with the health system for more than 30 years. 

“We did a lot of planning prior to getting our first patient,” Ashley said in her video. “Getting that first patient then became real. Daily, literally, we were making changes. As we learned more, we did more. As the CDC guidelines changed, we changed.” 

Others featured in video segments included Pablo Abreu, operations manager at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, whose efforts helped support researchers on the Virginia Key campus; Joy Beverly, a lecturer in mathematics at the College of Arts and Sciences, one of the inaugural recipients of the Provost’s Teaching Awards and a senior residential faculty member at Pearson Residential College, who shared her approach to mentorship; and Ivan Ceballos, executive director of residential life, who shared his perspective on making the Coral Gables Campus safe for students. 

In addition, the audience heard from Boris Nedeff, director of facilities accounting, who saw to it that the University’s $35 million investment to support the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff during the pandemic was used wisely, such as the acquisition and installation of protective plexiglass shields on desktops and Luis Vidal, senior manager of information technology in the College of Arts and Sciences and chair of the IT Leadership Council, who was instrumental in helping the University community navigate the use of new technology during the pandemic. 

“What our colleagues all have in common is an institutional legacy of resilience, which enables—indeed it compels us—to value both tradition and innovation,” Frenk declared. 

New capital campaign 

Frenk told the audience that while the world has changed, time has not stood still, and the University continues to move forward with major initiatives such as celebrating its centennial and accomplishing the strategic goals outlined in his first State of the U address three years ago. 

At homecoming in early November, he noted, the University will officially unveil its new fundraising effort. Ever Brighter—The Campaign for Our Next Century will be chaired by longtime University benefactor and trustee Stuart Miller, a School of Law alumnus, former chair of the Board of Trustees, and current chair of the UHealth Board of Directors, whose family in 2004 made a landmark $100 million naming gift to the medical school in memory of his late father, Leonard M. Miller. 

With transformational gifts like the one from University trustee Allan Herbert and his late wife, Patti, to name the business school, the campaign, Frenk said, is on pace to achieve greater heights. 

In time, the University will emerge from the pandemic, building not just a new normal but a better one, Frenk said. Much of that process is already well underway, with new initiatives on the horizon that will satisfy the institution’s strategic goals. 

One of them will strengthen the University’s commitment to racial diversity and inclusion. “Last summer, as racial division across the country simmered, we committed to being intentional and passionate in our efforts to help our community begin to heal—together,” he said, mentioning a 15-point action plan to advance racial justice. 

A significant effort in the recruitment of faculty members of color has seen the University hire 14 new Black faculty members this academic year. In the past, the institution had averaged only two to five new faculty members of color per year, according to Frenk. 

Meanwhile, the new Center for Global Black Studies officially launches later this year, and plans are under way to renovate nearly 13,000 square feet on the second floor of the Whitten University Center to meet the needs of several student groups, Frenk announced.

Ramping up UHealth 

Frenk described the University of Miami Health System as being on a “trajectory to preeminence,” even though it sits at the intersection of the two sectors most impacted by the pandemic: education and health care. 

“The experience of the past 20 months has only strengthened our resolve to offer the very best patient care and community outreach,” he said, going on to announce ambitious expansion plans that include a new research building for the National Cancer Institute-designated Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and new outpatient facilities in Palm Beach, Aventura, and Doral in the years to come. 

Noting that UHealth is the only academic health system in the region, Frenk pointed out that the innovative NextGenMD Curriculum makes the Miller School “a leader in developing tomorrow’s physicians through a holistic personalized pathway of excellence.” 

The school is building the Miller Center for Medical Education. Scheduled for a spring 2024 completion, the project, Frenk indicated, “reflects what we know across the University—we cannot have 21st century learning in 19th century classrooms.” 

On the residential housing front, Frenk announced the resumption of planning for Centennial Village, the second phase of a multiyear plan to modernize campus housing. Lakeside Village opened last fall. “We are not shying away from the residential model of liberal arts and science education; we are doubling down on it, enhancing it with everything we have learned through the pandemic about the power of technology to improve educational outcomes,” he acknowledged. 

He said that the new “’Cane Commitment” approach of helping students to become critical thinkers, effective communicators, problem-solvers, and world citizens will be integrated into the first-year experience starting next fall.

And he revealed a new partnership with the educational technology company 2U for a new, fully online MBA that builds on successful platforms for remote learning. 

Frenk also announced the creation of the New Century College, an initiative to experiment and evaluate novel approaches to teaching and learning. “Just as our academic health system continuously improves medical outcomes by adopting treatments that prove effective, we will continuously improve educational outcomes by piloting fresh new programs and mainstreaming to the rest of the University the ones that work,” Frenk said. An inaugural cohort of Academic Innovation Fellows—members of the faculty who are immersed in designing the delivery of content based on matching effective pedagogy to student learning needs—will be critical to the University’s efforts in that area, he told the audience. 

With the need for relevant research never greater, Frenk said the institution will build on the success of its University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge, or U-LINK, creating the new Resilience Academy, which will deliver solutions to climate change impacts and related stressors in partnership with industry, government, universities, and other stakeholders. “Pandemics are as anthropogenic as climate change.” Frenk said. “If we can devise and deliver answers to one, we will be prepared to combat the other.” 

The president called the University a pan-hemispheric institution, saying that, in addition to being a “connector between north and south,” the institution is an access point to Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and, through them, the rest of the Old World. 

He addressed what he called the “current boom of activity in the tech sector,” which offers opportunities to position Miami as a hub from which to “plant and launch.” 

The University, he stated, is continuing a partnership with the Knight Foundation, and this fall will host a series of conversations about Miami at the intersection of tech and democracy. 

Earlier this year, a $4.3 million grant from the Knight Foundation unlocked $6 million in matching funds from Phillip and Patricia Frost, whose $100 million gift in 2017 launched the University’s Frost Institutes for Science and Engineering. “This is enabling us to recruit six exceptional Knight endowed chairs at our new Institute for Data Science and Computing (IDSC),” Frenk indicated. 

One of them is Yelena Yesha, the first Knight Chair of IDSC, who participated on the panel that immediately followed the president’s remarks. It addressed strategies on how the University can make innovation a priority. 

“The idea of becoming the connective University in order to achieve our aspirations will help us to serve as a catalyst for innovation at this pivotal moment in greater Miami’s ascendance on the tech scene,” Norma Sue Kenyon, vice provost for innovation and chief innovation officer of the Miller School, said in opening the panel. 

During the brief discussion, Yesha discussed IDSC’s work in the area of digital therapeutics, indicating that her research group was one of the first to be funded by the National Science Foundation to work on algorithms to diagnose COVID-19. 

Others on the panel included Brian Breslin, director of the Launch Pad, the University’s entrepreneurship center; Niani Mays, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering, who is president of the University’s National Society of Black Engineers; and Willis Jones, an associate professor in the Department of Educational and Psychological Studies at the School of Education and Human Development. 

“The U presents such an interesting opportunity for the local entrepreneurial and tech ecosystem here,” Breslin said. “It’s such a staple of the community, and there’s so many great resources that we have within these walls.” For the University to make an impact, it must share resources and get involved with the broader community, he added.

For Mays, transitioning to an online hybrid format during her first year provided an interesting learning experience. “I think most of all, it has really shown how accessible education really can be,” she said. “I got the chance to meet with so many faculty and so many staff members about the culture here and about all the opportunities available to us as students,” she added. 

“One of the things we often ask ourselves is what does an innovative university look like? What does the university of the future look like?” said Jones, whose area of expertise is in education policy and leadership. “When people think about that question, they certainly first go to teaching, and they go to research. And both of those things are incredibly important. But I also think the truly innovative universities think about innovation across all of their functional areas.”