February 25, 2024

Higher Ed

Eyes on the prize: New leaders at Florida universities

Across Florida, five public universities and a handful of state colleges — along with a number of private schools — installed new presidents over the past year or two.

| 5/27/2015


The University of Miami names its first Hispanic president.

By Mike Vogel

The selection of Mexico’s former health minister and Harvard public health school dean as the University of Miami’s first Hispanic president speaks volumes about how the university and Miami see themselves.

Administrator and physician Julio Frenk, 61, takes over in September from his one-time U.S. counterpart, former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, 74, who is leaving after 14 years to become president of the Clinton Foundation.

Under Shalala, only the fifth president in UM’s 90 years, the school became the highest-ranked national university in Florida on U.S. News’ annual list. The 15,000-student school has been in the top 50 for six years. Shalala led two capital campaigns that raised $3 billion, and oversaw the ambitious expansion of UM’s research work and health care system, which includes its medical school and a private hospital UM acquired under her.

“We have seen our university pole-vault to new heights,” says Stuart Miller, chair of UM’s board of trustees and chairman and CEO of home builder Lennar.

The job of succeeding Shalala attracted so much interest, says search committee leader Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises, that “it gave us an opportunity to punch above our weight” in terms of the candidates it could consider. “We feel we have a builder,” Fain says.

A soft-spoken man who towered over Shalala at his introductory news conference, Frenk is representative of his native Mexico’s own melting pot, a descendant of Spanish immigrants and refugees from Nazi Germany. He earned his medical degree in Mexico and two graduate degrees and a doctorate at the University of Michigan.

As Mexico’s health minister, he led the introduction of a comprehensive universal health insurance program. He also worked as a high-level administrator at the World Health Organization in Switzerland. At Harvard, he transformed the public health school, says Shalala, who has known him for more than 20 years. Frenk quadrupled fundraising at the school and, under him, the school received the largest single gift in Harvard’s history, a $350-million naming donation for the school.

A hole in his resume is handling major college athletics. UM has had its share of scandals, and its once vaunted football team has been lackluster for years. Frenk says he’s not much of an athlete and grew up playing soccer and basketball but became an American football fan while at Michigan. He says he would take time in coming months to learn the community’s expectations for UM sports. He says athletics are integral to university education.

A careful speaker, Frenk demurred when asked about his vision for Miami. He says he will immerse himself before September in the university. “It would be pretentious of me at this point to say here’s my vision,” he says. “My main duty at this point is to listen, to understand, to appreciate the great history and culture of this university, and through that process I’m sure the limits of a vision and the plan of action to realize that vision will emerge.”

Frenk was attracted to UM by the momentum Shalala generated and its unique geographic advantage. UM, like Miami, increasingly sees itself beyond Florida as a world player. Speaking and taking questions in English and Spanish at the news conference, Frenk says, “This university and this city are uniquely global.” He looks forward to building bridges internationally. “This is really the hemispheric university,” he says.

Tags: Education, Higher Education

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