The University of Miami on Friday announced a $100 million gift for science and engineering programs from Phillip and Patricia Frost, the billionaire couple who also are the top donors of the science museum seeking a county rescue for its construction project.
The donation, one of the largest in UM’s history, was revealed during the inaugural address of the private school’s new president, Dr. Julio Frenk, a former Harvard health dean. Frenk pledged a new level of academic ambition for South Florida’s leading university, and touted the Frost gift as a major boost for the effort.
“They have made our journey possible,” Frenk said of the Frosts, “and they will lead the way to our future.”
Frenk, named UM’s sixth president in August, took the spotlight in his first major address as an academic heavyweight, but one without the star power of his predecessor. UM hired Donna Shalala in 2001 after she spent eight years as President Bill Clinton’s health secretary. She’s now running the Clinton family’s high-profile foundation.
In Frenk, UM also has an expert in public health policy: He served as Mexico’s minister of health between 2000 and 2006. Frenk also is the first physician to assume the top job at UM, where the bulk of its $3 billion budget comes from medical revenue from its hospital and doctors provided to Miami-Dade’s Jackson hospital system.
In a county where foreign-born residents outnumber people born in the United States, Frenk touted the diversity he brings to a job that paid more than $1 million when Shalala held it, according to tax records.
“I am proud to be this university’s first Hispanic president,” Frenk, born in Mexico City, said in accented English. “I am keenly aware that each of us holds diverse identities. Each of us is all of us. I commit to serve this university as everyone’s president.”
He is also the university’s first Jewish president. Frenk said his father’s family was forced to leave Germany in the 1930s. They settled in Mexico, and Frenk said he would not be there without his home country’s “welcoming refuge.” The first native Spanish speaker to lead UM, Frenk called Mexico “rich in the ways that matter most: tolerance, kindness to strangers, solidarity with those who suffer persecution.”
If his speech seemed to rap Donald Trump and other GOP contenders advocating a crackdown on immigration, it also took on an effort favored by President Barack Obama: scoring pricey colleges by how much their graduates actually earn.
“Excellence can be undermined by the impulse to measure the value of education through the narrow lens of what might be called ‘instant post-graduation gratification’ — gauging the value of a degree by a graduate’s starting salary,” he said. “At the same time, we must not ignore the legitimate and growing concerns about student debt.”
His speech at the university’s Bank United Center brought Shalala back for the event. She sat to Frenk’s left as he spoke, and appeared to be fully recovered from a September stroke. Frenk left his post as dean of Harvard’s school of public health to take the UM job, and his former boss, Harvard President Drew Faust, flew to Miami to introduce him.
“When he told me he wanted to lead this organization, it seemed a rational, perhaps inevitable, next step,” Faust said. She described him as an influential player in Harvard’s top tier of academic leaders. “Often it was Julio whose voice framed things in just the right way,” she said. “Whose values elevated the discussion.”
Frenk began his tenure at a time of extended recovery for UM, a school of nearly 17,000 students that saw its medical ambitions questioned under Shalala’s leadership.
Shalala presided over major initiatives that reshaped UM's Miller School of Medicine and propelled the school to the top tier, including hiring more than 100 high-profile researchers and creating a biotech park.
UM also purchased a 560-bed hospital in 2007 — the old Cedars Medical Center, now named University of Miami Hospital — across the street from its longtime partner, Jackson Health System, transforming the relationship between two of South Florida's oldest institutions from cooperative to competitive.
The ambitious and costly expansion of healthcare initiatives ultimately led to financial problems big enough to force the layoffs of about 900 full-time and part-time workers in 2012.
“There's still echoes of those layoffs, no question,” Frenk said in an earlier interview. “But I think most of the people who are there now are incredibly engaged and committed.”
He also presided over a shake-up of intense local interest: the firing of Al Golden as head coach of the Hurricanes football team in October and the hiring of his big-name replacement, former University of Georgia coach Mark Richt.
With his inaugural address, Frenk also announced a gift on par with the two largest gifts in UM history: $100 million from the Miller family for the medical school, and $100 million from the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation.
The Frost gift to UM comes as a new private museum that bears their name is pursuing an infusion of county tax dollars to finish its $275 million construction project on the Miami waterfront.
The Frosts pledged $45 million to what used to be called the Miami Museum of Science; it is now called the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science. The private museum has already received $165 million in construction funds from borrowings tied to county property taxes.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he will use a planned yearly $4 million operating subsidy for the museum to instead borrow another $45 million. A separate plan involves using a special Miami taxing district aimed at ending blight in the city to subsidize Frost and other nearby cultural institutions.
The Frosts, already top donors to UM, also have given far more than anyone else to the science museum — aside from Miami-Dade itself. The next largest private donor listed on museum publicity materials is $10 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Gimenez and museum officials blamed the funding woes both on higher construction costs, and on private donations not matching the museum’s needs.
In his speech, Frenk did not reveal what the Frost dollars would be used for beyond a “major new initiative to support basic and applied science and engineering.” He said more details would be revealed later in the year. University press officials said they could not provide details. The Frosts — he made billions in healthcare investments — already have a music school named after them at the university.
Frenk outlined a broad agenda for his tenure at the head of Miami-Dade’s second-largest private employer (behind Baptist Health South Florida, a rival in the county’s hospital industry). He promised a new effort to make UM a research leader in combating sea-level rise. He pledged 100 more endowed positions for a faculty of roughly 3,000, and more efforts in promoting diversity on campus. Frenk also said he would pursue more scholarship and assistance dollars for a university where tuition alone costs roughly $45,000 a year.
“While it may take a while,” Frenk said, “I am committed to boosting financial aid to meet 100 percent of student need.”
Miami Herald reporter Daniel Chang and Christina Veiga contributed to this report.