New ‘North Star’ Guides University to Its Centennial

New ‘North Star’ Guides University to Its Centennial

Despite the disruption caused by COVID-19, the University of Miami is accelerating innovations, technologies, and initiatives that will lead to a stronger, more resilient institution by 2025.
Despite the disruption caused by COVID-19, the University of Miami is accelerating innovations, technologies, and initiatives that will lead to a stronger, more resilient institution by 2025.
Crews make progress on contruction of the Frost Institute for Chemistry and Molecular Science.
by Maya Bell

THE NEW ROOF ON THE FROST INSTITUTE FOR CHEMISTRY AND MOLECULAR SCIENCE IS AMONG THE OBVIOUS CHANGES; OTHERS AREN’T AS VISIBLE—unless you peek inside classrooms where professors who hadn’t attempted online teaching before are experimenting with extended reality platforms to immerse students in new worlds. As the University of Miami marches toward its centennial in 2025, the institution is emerging from the year long tumult inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic on a new and accelerated course envisioned by the Roadmap to Our New Century. Adopted in 2018, the strategic plan guiding the University toward the century mark prophetically states that priorities are driven by “our capacity for resilience and renewal in the face of unprecedented changes affecting our community and all of higher education.”

President Julio Frenk says the way faculty, staff, and students navigated and leveraged unforeseen circumstances gives him great confidence that the University is rising to its potential. “In some areas of endeavor, including remote learning, telehealth, and telework, we have seen more progress in the past year than we had in the prior decade,” Frenk says. “We have witnessed—and will continue to embrace—not only our resiliency in the face of challenges but our ability to truly transform the way we think and interact.”

miami-spr21-ftr-roadmap-inset-jeffrey-duerk-320x480.jpg Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, notes the Roadmap’s prescience enabled the University to respond to sudden change and align itself on a new course. “We are seeing the evolution of a new north star—a new direction on the horizon,” he says.

When the novel coronavirus prompted the University to hold classes online following its 2020 spring break, there was no time to pause. There was only urgency to refocus embedded initiatives, allowing the University to sustain its preeminent academic health system and adopt unfamiliar pedagogical methodologies and technologies, all while addressing new societal challenges, advancing interdisciplinary problemsolving, even attracting new top talent. Among them: Pratim Biswas, a renowned aerosol scientist and member of the National Academy of Engineering who assumed the deanship of the College of Engineering in January.

“The happy side of this is we find ourselves well positioned to come out of the pandemic because we didn’t just come to a halt,” says Gregory Shepherd, former dean of the School of Communication who is overseeing the Roadmap as interim vice provost for academic innovation. “In some ways, Zoom facilitated the work because it became easier to come together. We’ve had the great gift of both faculty and staff time devoted to developing projects, and a lot of mutual appreciation has grown from that.”

We are seeing the evolution of a new north star—a new direction on the horizon.


That was evident in two University-wide initiatives that gained considerable momentum over the past year. The ’Cane Commitment committee, co-chaired by Robin Bachin, assistant provost for civic and community engagement, and Renee Dickens Callan, Ed.D. ’18, executive director of student life, is exploring how the University can equip every student with the “practical intelligence”—such as the ability to be effective team members and creative problem-solvers—they’ll need to navigate the changing workplace and world.

And the Resilience Academy committee, co-chaired by Rodolphe el-Khoury, dean of the School of Architecture, and Sharan Majumdar, professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, began developing the framework for an academic unit that can address the impacts of climate change and other perils.

The empowering forces of innovation are perhaps most evident in the priorities aimed at shaping the education revolution. Along with the Division of Continuing and International Education and Academic Technologies, the new Platform for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (PETAL) stepped up with the workshops, resources, and a new mentoring program designed to advance the art of teaching and the science of learning in a new world.

To date, 170 faculty members have each completed six PETAL workshops, and more than 540 have taken at least one.

“All of a sudden you had to look at how you teach, what you teach, and the way you teach, which has not been part of our research-focused training,” says Laura Kohn-Wood, dean of the School of Education and Human Development. “What’s so great about PETAL is that it says, ‘We’re going to be excellent in teaching, and we’re going to provide the resources so we can be.’ ”

Pratim Biswas, dean of the College of Engineering, left, and Laura
Kohn-Wood, dean of the School of Education and Human Development

Three new teaching awards, for mentorship, innovation, and experiential learning, will recognize the best of the best.

The University also committed significant resources to its XR Initiative, which already boasts more than 40 extended reality projects aimed at enhancing learning, informing research, and improving clinical and commercial operations. Established last year, it was built with industry partners on the premise that environments that blend the real world with digital information and virtual, augmented, or mixed reality will shape the future of communication, education, health care, and work.

“These technologies are both immersive and interactive, giving our students access to hands-on learning and experiencing remote places without the incurred risks or costs,” says Kim Grinfeder, chair of the Department of Interactive Media, in the School of Communication, who spearheads the initiative.

The University’s mission-driven research priorities also gained momentum, some fueled by the emergence of COVID-19 and the growing awareness of the pernicious effects of structural racism.

In response to both challenges, the University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge (U-LINK) awarded its first rapid-response grants. Drawing 70 ideas in 10 days, the initial grants supported proposals aimed at broadening the understanding of COVID-19 and mitigating its impacts.

The second set, aimed at advancing dialogue about and solutions for racial inequalities, drew 25 proposals from the most diverse representation of faculty since U-LINK began in 2017 to foster the interdisciplinary collaborations essential to addressing complex problems. Most of the seven winning proposals focused on local disparities, among them the lack of Black students in the University’s own research labs, which has troubled Ashutosh Agarwal.

An associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Agarwal spearheaded the Joint Academic Nurtureship for Underrepresented Students (JANUS) to address a known cause: Black students who must work to afford college usually can’t volunteer in a lab to gain the experience they need to pursue advanced degrees and research careers. Now, paid internships with some of the University’s most notable researchers are giving 10 JANUS scholars that experience. In turn, the students are mentoring underprivileged high schoolers who, the hope is, will follow in their footsteps.

Left photo courtesy of Mariano Copello
XR Initiative aims to enhance learning. Right, Dynesha Peterson gains lab experience as a JANUS scholar.

The University’s other strategic investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) also have made tangible progress since 2017, when longtime benefactors Phillip and Patricia Frost launched the Frost Institutes for Science and Engineering with a $100 million gift to elevate the University’s STEM endeavors. The inaugural center, the Frost Institute for Chemistry and Molecular Science, broke ground on its five-story wet lab building last October.

Four months later, just before the pandemic brought the world to a standstill, the second Frost center, the Institute for Data Science and Computing (IDSC), attracted a combined $12 million endowment from the Frosts and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to help transform the University into a global epicenter of data science.

IDSC is now positioned to propel Miami’s emergence as a hemispheric innovation hub, which the pandemic also accelerated. Combined with South Florida’s warm weather and lower cost of living, the growing shift to working from home is attracting new tech entrepreneurs, start-ups, and venture capitalists. And they will, no doubt, look for University graduates capable of growing—and growing with—their ventures.

In addition to the University’s new Master of Science in Data Science program, IDSC is spearheading the effort to ensure that every student graduates with a degree of data-savviness.

That’s already happening at the ’Cane Angel Network, an investment start-up for University-affiliated start-ups. The network was built from scratch by graduate students who, under the guidance of managing director Jeffrey Camp, wrote the manual and vetting process for matching promising start-ups to potential investors.

So far, ’Cane Angel Network students have brought five companies to potential investors, but because they collect the same information from many others that don’t make the cut, they are looking for patterns that suggest which ventures are likely to be successful—patterns that will grow clearer as the data grows.

With its hands-on learning and drive to mine solutions from ever-increasing reams of data, the network is already following the University’s new north star. Now, Camp foresees a future where more classes will offer similar levels of experiential learning. “At the end of the day, you’re ultimately teaching someone to do something,” he says. “So, getting past the teaching part to the doing part seems like a natural progression.”