Psychiatrist Juan Ramon de la Fuente knows the higher education world as few others. He is a board member of the UN University in Tokyo and was until 2007 president and rector of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, the largest university in Latin America. De la Fuente, one of the most powerful politicians in his country, was from 1995 minister of health. When the Universidad Nacional experienced a strike by students of more than 10 months against ‘selection at the entrance to HE’ in 1999, it was De la Fuente who was appointed to bring peace as the new rector.
Mexico has a binary system of HE. In addition to universities its politecnico’s provide HE-courses in the same sectors as the UAS here in the Netherlands. The Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico has about 280,000 students, especially in Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world. In the rest of the country are another 23 campuslocations. “Our academic community includes about 500,000 people throughout Mexico,” De la Fuente says with justified pride.
The most urgent problem of the new IAU president at the congress in Utrecht? Logistics. “I have no more business cards, I thought that I had enough extra with me. Just think, there are universities from 118 countries here and there are now more more of them who want to participate in the IAU. That size and diversity are an amazing potential”.
You were elected by a very large majority of votes over your Iranian ‘rival’. This is the first time a president from Latin America was voted in. Do you see this result as a mandate for action and which ones in particular?
Yes, I see this as a mandate for the key concepts that I presented when I put forward my candidacy. It is a vote of confidence for these. Leading themes for me are the strengthening of diversity and tolerance, gender equality which also belongs to be adressed in the university community. Also, I would like to focus on the strengthening of academic freedom and the social commitment of the HE, that is contingent to that.
How do you make this specificat such a wide ranging policylevel as a global umbrella organisation for higher education?
By starting in our own house first. I wil nominate two women as vice-presidents, half of the four positions therefore. You are credible as IAU when you start gender equity at home and continue this trend. We have all kinds of task forces and committeeswhere I want the same line to become visible.
If you want a balance between the contributions of men and women in the academic world, you must also make apparent that this is really happening. It must become something that has been regular practice instead of the exception that confirms the rule. The idea to do this is alive now, so it comes down to doing it in practice.
Your line is therefore one of specific pragmatism, translating plans into visible steps.
Indeed, also on a theme like tolerance I want to emphasize this. There was already for a long time a task force on intercultural dialogue in the academic world. This should revive and get to work on that topic. Tolerance and dialogue we have to start within and between universities, so that others in the world community could become involved as well. My approach is: practice what you preach!
How do you want to strengthen the social commitment of HE?
That must -just like academic freedom- be more than a phrase! You can be very practical in this. Let the members of the IAU themselves become members of the global organizations of which many of their students and employees are active members. There are many NGOs active in areas where universities have wide areas of knowledge and lots of talented people available. Why would a university not become a member as such and be actively involved in the work of some NGO?
Where are the students?
What are your benchmarks for the success of your presidency over 4 years?
For the IAU there are three aspects where I want to see a clear improvement. There should be significantly more members. Especially in the EL) and the USA. For a while several universities are no longer active there, because they seem to focus more on regional associations. I want them to have a more direct approach and invite them once again to be actively involved in our work.
For European and American universities this would in my view be useful. They look for more and better forms of North-South cooperation on major issues. The practically oriented approach I want to emphasize, can help to make this better for them and more attractive, more visible.
The second point for me is a more direct and more uptodate democracy within the IAU itself. The organization is still cumbersome and we can utilize much more contemporary technological opportunities between members all over the world.
At that moment during the interview, the new chairman of the ESU, successor of Dutchman Koen Geven, comes by to shake the newly elected presidents’ hand. De la Fuente says: “Write down now: the third point is a much greater participation of students. That seems to me very useful and stimulating. Fortunately, in Mexico I am accustomed to recieve quite a lot of criticism. That may be useful to us as IAU as well. Here at the congress in Utrecht I was surprised: where were the students? Those here in the Netherlands are always very active and focused on the rest of the world, so where were they? We should have heard and seen much more form them.
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