Harvard health dean Julio Frenk picked as new UM president

The University of Miami's next president, Julio Frenk, throws up the U with his wife, Felicia Knaul, and UM's mascot Sebastian on Monday, April 13, 2015.
The University of Miami's next president, Julio Frenk, throws up the U with his wife, Felicia Knaul, and UM's mascot Sebastian on Monday, April 13, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Julio Frenk, the newly anointed president of the University of Miami, is a world authority on public health. He holds a medical degree and a Ph.D. and has been a dean at Harvard and minister of health in his native Mexico, where he launched a program that brought healthcare coverage to millions of people.

If anyone wondered how he would fit in at UM, a rising academic institution once defined by a powerhouse football program, the gracious, cultivated Frenk seemed to reassure all with his first public gesture Monday upon being unanimously confirmed as the school’s sixth president by its board of trustees.

He threw up the “U” as if he’d been doing it forever.

Frenk, 61, describing himself as a “global citizen” who has devoted his life to creating scientific knowledge and using it for social transformation, said he will now begin a process of “immersion” to familiarize himself with all corners of UM.

Frenk, dean of the faculty at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health for the past six years, will formally assume the UM presidency Sept. 1, three months after Donna Shalala, who has presided over the university for 14 years, is due to step down. Frenk will be UM’s first Hispanic president.

He said he was attracted to the job by what he described as UM’s academic “upward momentum” under Shalala, as well as its geographic position between the United States and Latin America. His goal at UM, he said Monday, will be “to build the hemispheric university” to serve as a bridge between cultures and continents.

“What I enjoy is taking institutions … to the next level,” Frenk said in a brief interview Sunday. “And that’s what I hope to do at the University of Miami.”

University leaders said they believe Frenk is ideally suited to build on Shalala’s accomplishments at UM. She raised $3 billion in two capital campaigns and sharply raised the school’s profile as a national academic and research institution.

At Harvard, Frenk quadrupled the amount raised by the school of public health, securing its once weak finances, and helped secure the 378-year-old university’s single largest-ever gift — $350 million from the family of Hong Kong real-estate developer T.H. Chan, after whom the school of public health was renamed.

As minister of health under Mexican president Vicente Fox from 2000 to 2006, Frenk reformed the nation’s public-health system and introduced a universal health insurance program, Seguro Popular, that covered tens of millions of previously uninsured Mexicans. He previously had founded Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health.

Frenk was selected during a far-reaching, six-month search that Stuart Miller, chairman of the university board of trustees and chief executive of Lennar Corp., on Monday touted as “perfectly executed.”

“I think it’s a testament to the strength of the university and to how far we’ve come that we have been successful in attracting someone of his character,” Richard Fain, the CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises who led UM’s presidential search committee, said in an interview.

UM declined to provide Frenk’s salary.

A major part of Frenk’s focus at UM will undoubtedly be its medical school, the fiscal and administrative demands of the university’s private hospital, and its strained relationship with Jackson Memorial, the public hospital which trains its students and for which UM provides doctors.

In Frenk, said auto-sales magnate and former UM trustee Norman Braman, the university and its medical programs will get precisely what they need – not just an academic researcher and administrator with sterling credentials, but also a real-world doer.

“It’s a brilliant move,” said Braman, who left the UM board after criticizing the university’s $275 million purchase in 2007 of the old Cedars hospital, which strained its finances and put the school in competition for paying patients with its partners at publicly subsidized Jackson.

“It’s not just the medical background; it’s everything that goes along with the medical background. This is a man who created the healthcare system in Mexico. What an achievement. He’s an academic, but there’s far more to him,” Braman said.

Linda Quick, president of the South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association, said Frenk’s selection reflects the critical importance of his medical and public-health background to UM — just like that of the outgoing leader, Shalala, who came to the university in 2001 after serving as U.S. secretary of health and human services under President Bill Clinton.

“In both cases, it’s an acknowledgment that the medical and health sides of the university are major pieces and major revenue sources for the university,” Quick said.

Another “central” focus of his immersion will be UM athletics and its football program, Frenk said. In answering a reporter’s question during the announcement of his selection at the university’s palatial new Student Activities Center, built under Shalala, the rangy Frenk said he was not much of an athlete though he played soccer (goalkeeper) and basketball as a youth.

But he said he grew to enjoy American football during the five years he spent in grad school in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan, where he earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate.

He said he considers athletics “an integral part of a comprehensive education,” adding with a smile that he’s “fully aware” of UM’s treasured athletic tradition. Frenk said he would be meeting with coaches and athletic officials Monday afternoon.

Frenk was born in Mexico City, the son and grandson of physicians. His Jewish grandfather settled in a welcoming Mexico with his family after fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s as a refugee, Frenk said. His mother’s family emigrated to Mexico from Spain’s Canary Islands.

Frenk graduated with a medical degree from the National Autonomous University of Mexico but practiced only briefly before deciding to pursue a broader education in public health and sociology at Michigan. He was a high-ranking official at the World Health Organization and has authored more than 140 academic articles, book chapters and books – including two best-selling novels for young adults explaining the functions of the human body.

Frenk was widely regarded as the top candidate for the top job at WHO at the end of Fox’s six-year term. But he was reportedly derailed by a controversy over an agreement between the Mexican government and multinational tobacco companies that he had helped craft.

Critics assailed the deal, negotiated by Fox, Frenk and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim — who is among the richest people in the world and then a major stockholder in Philip Morris’ parent company — for watering down regulations on tobacco use and advertising while temporarily freezing taxes on sales in exchange for $350 million, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity. But defenders say the deal helped gradually set up stronger anti-smoking rules in effect in Mexico today that have sharply reduced heavy tobacco consumption in the country.

Instead, Frenk was hired to run a Slim family healthcare foundation. He later became a senior fellow in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s global health program before moving on to Harvard.

Fox, in a statement released by UM, praised Frenk for “his capacity to build consensus and strengthen institutions were evident during his service as Minister of Health of Mexico.”

Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust also praised Frenk in a statement issued by UM: “It’s clear from their choice that the University of Miami’s trustees share Julio’s own qualities of wisdom and foresight, and that they have discovered in him the remarkable leadership capacity and vision with which he has graced Harvard these past six years.”

Frenk’s appointment also brings to UM his accomplished wife, Harvard health economist Felicia Knaul, who will join the Miami faculty in the fall. A breast-cancer survivor, Knaul leads a project for the Harvard school of public health on breast-cancer education in China, and she founded a Mexican non-profit group that conducts and supports breast-cancer research and early-detection initiatives in Latin America.

Frenk has four children, according to his resume. On Monday, he said a 10-year-old daughter will be coming with him and Knaul to Miami.

On Monday, after Frenk made the “U” sign and Knaul was enveloped in a hug by UM’s mascot, Sebastian the Ibis, the couple and UM officials linked arms and marched down a hallway. Cheerleaders led the way and a band played while Frenk was whisked to a private lunch with the board of trustees, where mojitos were served.

Students eating lunch in the cafeteria next door seemed oblivious to the buzz. Many said they hadn’t heard much about their new president, but seemed well-disposed by what they did know. Sophomore Safa Chowdhury looked Frenk up on Wikipedia as news of his appointment trickled to the student body through email and campus chatter.

“He’s an accomplished guy, so hopefully he can keep moving us in a forward direction like Shalala has,” the 20-year old economics and political science major said.

Andy Quintana, a senior majoring in accounting, said he hopes Frenk will improve athletics. UM’s vaunted football team has had a string of disappointing seasons, leading to sustained grumbling from die-hard fans over Shalala’s oversight of the program, which they complain has emphasized discipline over on-field play.

“When our school is doing better in sports, people are more willing to donate to our school. It’s a brand,” said Quintana, 22.

Students also said they want Frenk to maintain a constant presence among the student body, as Shalala did.

“You feel she’s a part of us,” said Omar Mohammed, a 24-year old majoring in biology and economics. “It’s important to be connected to the students.”

Frenk declined to discuss UM’s relations with Jackson, the football program or the school’s controversial sale of environmentally sensitive land in South Miami-Dade County to a shopping-mall developer, saying it would be “pretentious” of him to offer opinions when he’s not yet well versed in those topics.

But he said he intends to interact closely with students, calling that “the best part” of being in an academic institution. He noted that the traditional freshman picnic, held to welcome incoming students, is already on his calendar.

“It is what drives our mission and gives meaning to everything we do,” he said.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report. Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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