Miami-Dade County

New UM president Frenk: 'I’m listening'

Dr. Julio Frenk, the new UM president, holds a town hall forum to discuss the job and his expectations going forward.
Dr. Julio Frenk, the new UM president, holds a town hall forum to discuss the job and his expectations going forward. CARL JUSTE

Since occupying his office at the University of Miami’s Ashe Building just last month, new school president Julio Frenk and his upswept, graying coiffure have become an inescapable presence in and around campus.

His visage greeted incoming students at the start of the term from dozens of lamppost banners welcoming the new top man to campus in Miami’s three linguae francae. He’s huddled with the football team at morning practice, cheered from the stands at games, caucused with the faculty senate, taken the trustees to breakfast and lunched at Coral Gables power spot Caffe Abbracci. He has picnicked with students, posed for pics with Sebastian the Ibis, and nimbly fielded decidedly non-puffball questions on a big stage before 1,200 people during a university forum that was live-streamed from the BankUnited Center campus arena.

In orange-and-green UM golf shirts, in a striped UM tie, or with a personalized Hurricanes football jersey draped over his lanky frame, the former Harvard dean — a global authority on public health who served as health minister of his native Mexico, a physician with multiple advanced degrees, including a PhD, from the other U of M, the University of Michigan — has been at enthusiastic pains to show that he now fully belongs to this UM, a highly rated university that’s made gigantic academic strides in recent years but is still not quite up there among the nation’s elite, a rank its leaders dearly hope to attain.

The university trustees plainly believe Frenk can get them there, and the new president makes no bones about it: His job is to help lift the university, which turns 90 this year, to that fabled next level.

“I am supermotivated, I am super-charged,” a beaming Frenk told assembled students, administrators and civic leaders at the close of his town hall talk.

In interviews, talks and forums, Frenk has been happy, in patient and eloquent detail, to lay out his educational philosophy, his view on the critical importance of universities to the world’s future, on the pressing need for true diversity and inclusion on campus, even the rightful place of athletics and, yes, a winning football team, in an institution of higher learning. He’s been confronted with questions about accommodations for LGBT students, about what one student described as the second-class-citizen status of its fine-arts program, about UM’s plans for sea-level rise and, yes, about how soon he can deliver another national football title.

But he’s not quite ready to pronounce himself, to lay out the path he foresees ahead for UM under his leadership.

You won’t hear much definition yet from Frenk on, for instance, the fate of Al Golden, the embattled football coach many alums would love to see gone, or on just how he intends to increase student financial aid, which he calls a top priority, or how he will go about smoothing the sometimes fractious relations between the university’s medical school and private health system with publicly owned Jackson Memorial Hospital, though he readily acknowledges the importance of all those questions.

That’s because he’s listening.

Frenk is dedicating the first 100 days of his administration to an immersive tour that will formally conclude only with his formal inauguration in January. It’s taken him to the university’s three campuses, from the Gables to the Rosenstiel marine-science shool on Virginia Key and the medical school and university hospital at the Jackson complex, to meetings with students and faculty, insiders and outsiders, with elected officials and civic leaders.

Education is the basis of democracy. I cannot imagine a civilized world without universities.

New UM President Julio Frenk

It’s also prompted him to delve into the history of the university and its relationship with Coral Gables. At the suggestion of UM trustee Arva Moore Parks, a Miami historian, he’s even dipped into the notebooks of Coral Gables founder George Merrick, who laid out the vision for a great university nestled in the City Beautiful before he laid down the planned suburb’s first concrete block.

“I’m still intensely in learning mode,” Frenk, 61, said in a recent interview in his office. “I have a lot of experience under my belt, but you can’t just apply it. You have to understand the specifics. It’s easy to arrive as a new person and begin to judge. That’s a mistake.”

Parks said the listening posture is not just for show. She and others who have watched Frenk interact with members of the university’s community say he’s genuinely eager to absorb what others have to say. So far, they say, he’s lived up to the reputation that brought him to UM’s attention — as an academic whose studious approach serves as a foundation for bold real-world accomplishment, which has included creation of Mexico’s national public health-insurance system.

“He’s impressed me and others with his willingness to let people in all corners of the university have their say on any number of issues,” said Sam Terilli, chair of UM’s journalism and media management department and a faculty senate vice-chair, after Frenk brought members of the board of trustees to meet with its members for more than an hour last week. “He has a low-key, gentle ability to listen and disarm members of the faculty senate, who can be somewhat strident in ther positions. The fact that we’re all sitting in the same room and talking is a very good sign.”

Said UM trustee Hilarie Bass, an alumn and donor who served on the presidential search committee, only half kidding: “I suspect in short order he will know more about the decision-making at the university over the last 90 years than people in the institution.” But Bass said that’s only a prelude to the great expectations Bass and other members of the search committee have for Frenk.

“He very much sees the role of the university as creating knowledge not to be put on the shelf, but to be used to solve problems,” she said. “We’d like nothing better than to think the university will create research that will make a difference in people’s lives in a radical way.”

Frenk, who led Harvard’s school of public health before coming to Miami, said UM’s long tradition of public service — not only do its doctors provide cutting-edge care to the poor through Jackson, but its law students and professors advocate for kids, families and immigrants, and its architecture professors often undertake community planning, among other efforts — was one of its principal lures.

So was the chance, through UM’s med school and UHealth system, to help shape how doctors and nurses are trained and U.S. medical care is delivered, he said. The timing is especially propitious, Frenk says, because the Affordable Care Act has launched the most dramatic transformation of health care in the country since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s, not just by newly insuring millions of people, but also by emphasizing quality of care over the quantity of medical services delivered to patients.

UM, UHealth and Jackson, which he called one of the top public hospitals in the nation, are in a uniquely advantageous position in the field, Frenk said.

“We need to integrate academic research and the clinical goals of providing care, and academic health systems must lead the way,” he said, adding with a smile: “That happens to be my area of expertise.”

(Frenk said he believes relations between the two institutions “are at a great point” after strains over renewal of their operating agreement were resolved, and he said the university health system’s budget is “in balance” after its purchase of the old Cedars hospital just before the economic crisis strained its finances.)

At the same time, Frenk said, he hopes to re-emphasize the importance of the liberal arts in providing a broad education at a time when some are questioning its value.

“A liberal education still represents a way of developing a person in whatever their goals are in life. We have to reaffirm that value,” he said. “Education is the basis of democracy. I cannot imagine a civilized world without universities.”

Frenk seems acutely aware that he has big shoes to fill. In 14 years as UM president, his predecessor, Donna Shalala, raised a couple of billion dollars for the school as well as its national profile, boosted its research capabilities, strengthened admissions standards and the quality of the student body and faculty, significantly if controversially expanded the UHealth system and raised graduation rates for the football team — even if, at least in the eyes of some fans, the program went into a steep decline.

But Frenk, who’s careful to credit the accomplishments of Shalala and her predecessor, Tad Foote, is no slouch in the turnaround department. He’s credited with revitalizing Harvard’s storied school of public health and was instrumental in what was until recently the single biggest donation in the university’s history, a $350 million gift from the family of Chinese businessman T.H. Chan, after whom the school was renamed.

At UM, Frenk said, he will relish the chance to ask for money, a key role for a university president: “I like fundraising,” he said. “I’m going to be very energetic in expanding our donor network.” And, like Shalala, he intends to be a constant presence on campus: “That’s part of the fun in this job -- the opportunity to engage with young people every day.”

UM faculty members hope that, in Frenk, UM has found a leader as formidable as Shalala, though one with a different approach from that of his hard-charging predecessor, who last year was described in a largely admiring Miami Today editorial as “imperial and imperious.”

“People are expecting a great deal from him,” Terilli said. “Shalala was a wonderful president. We’ve made a lot of progress, but we have a lot more work to do. He understands that takes money and faculty and students. He’s thoughtful and analytical and not inclined to jump to any preconceived ideas.

“And he’s a real gentleman.”