A Troubled Mexican Institution Starts to Turn a Corner
The University of the Americas at Puebla hopes to restore its good standing, particularly in the United States
Luis Ernesto Derbez has a long road ahead.
It was only in November that the University of the Americas-Puebla, the private liberal-arts institution that Mr. Derbez leads, was in shambles. Its previous rector, besieged by accusations of mismanagement and blamed for a series of firings, abruptly resigned. Students in departments gutted by the firings felt abandoned, while dismissed faculty members said they had been singled out for criticizing the administration.
Nestled in the mountainous, southeastern Mexican state of Puebla, the university has been a distinguished institution with close ties to the United States. It was a popular study-abroad choice and enjoyed accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
But under the tenure of Pedro Ángel Palou García, its former rector who was hired in 2005, troubles mounted. Several departments were nearly halved, with the most-severe faculty cuts made in the communications, international-relations, and economics departments, the latter once home to some of Mexico's better-known economists.
Some 300 employees were fired or forced to resign, including 60 professors. In December 2006, the Southern Association gave the university a warning, citing concerns over its finances and administration.
Mr. Palou, in interviews with local reporters before his departure, said the firings focused on people involved in a "conspiracy against the university's interest" but failed to provide details. Former professors say an intolerance for dissent provoked the firings. Mr. Palou did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview.
In March, Mr. Derbez, 61, became the university's new rector. He is a former foreign minister of Mexico who led a political-research group at the Mexico City campus of the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Studies before coming to the university.
Mr. Derbez says he knows the university must change, but says it will take time to regain people's trust.
"My first priority," he says, "is to get people to participate and see how UDLA can compete in today's world."
The university's governing board is tightly controlled by members of the Mary Street Jenkins Foundation, a family-run group that owns the university's land and has long provided the institution's main financial support. During Mr. Palou's tenure, the Jenkins foundation was criticized for striking deals that benefited its members and cutting the universities' funds, which weakened research.
The Southern Association changed the university's status from warning to probation in 2007, based on the same problems it found a year earlier. In December it will announce whether the university will remain on probation, have its accreditation removed, or return to good standing.
"They must show us that they are cleaning up their act," says Belle S. Wheelan, president of the accrediting association's Commission on Colleges.
Mr. Derbez says he is convinced that the Jenkins foundation wants the university to regain its prestige and never had bad intentions. Their mistake was to put too much trust in Mr. Palou, he says. Representatives of the foundation did not return telephone messages.
To create a better system of checks and balances, the university developed new bylaws this fall that created three new councils designed to work directly with the rector to decide how the university is managed.
One council, made up of 30 elected faculty members, along with students and deans, will advise the rector on the university's academic programs, says Mr. Derbez.
The second council, comprising administrators, will oversee administrative policies and the budget, among other things, and work directly with the rector.
The third council will be made up mostly of business leaders from Mexico, who will function as a Board of Trustees, to independently oversee the university and recommend future rectors. (Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico is the one politician on board.)
"This is all designed to stop undue influence from the Jenkins family," says Mr. Derbez.
Optimism on and Off Campus
Nora Lustig, a visiting professor of international relations at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, served as rector of the university before Mr. Palou. She resigned after clashing with the governing board over the future of the university.
She says she is optimistic about the institution's future: "I respect Derbez and think he can turn things around. There's a golden opportunity to do something positive and create a top-notch research university again."
She thinks the new governing councils are a step in the right direction. "It's important to see real changes in power and that the direction of the university is not subject to one single group," she says.
Several American universities with ties to University of the Americas are in a wait-and-see mode.
Oklahoma State University put its study-abroad program with the university almost entirely on hold, but that may be about to change.
"I'm heading down soon and hope to see peace and harmony," says James G. Hromas, director of international education and outreach at Oklahoma State University. If things go well, Mr. Hromas says his university will expand programs with the Mexican institution.
On campus, some faculty members say they feel comfortable talking to Dr. Derbez about the university's future.
"We're looking beyond past troubles and are trying to work with the administration to see how we can recover lost ground," says José Cisneros Espinosa, a communications professor at the university for the past 22 years. "Dr. Derbez is asking us how we envision the university. What should be conserved? These type of questions weren't asked before."
But tensions persist. In September several members of the economics department sent a letter to Mr. Derbez saying that while they were aware of the university's transition, they were disappointed that no new full-time faculty had been hired. They were also concerned that, because of the small number of faculty members and students remaining in the department, the master's and doctoral programs in economics were in limbo.
Mr. Derbez says it doesn't make sense to restore departments dismantled by the previous administration, including the economics and communications departments, without analyzing the university's overall position first.
"The question I'm asking people today is where do we want to go," he says. "The department of international business is steadily growing, but have we hired faculty in that area? The answer is no. So why don't we hire in international business rather than economics? We must remain relevant and respond to what society is demanding in terms of higher education."
Volume 55, Issue 7, Page A28