US, Canada, Mexico Build University Ties

Article excerpt

WHILE a noisy debate rages over creating the world's largest consumer market with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), university-level educators are quietly bridging borders to create the North American classroom.

Among academic institutions on the United States-Mexico border, faculty exchanges and joint research projects have a long history. Similar linkages can be found among Canadian and US institutions. Now - encouraged in part by NAFTA - educators in all three nations are striving for a new level of intercommunication and academic affiliation.

"Economic integration without a deepening of our educational and cultural dimension poses an unacceptable risk: a collision of values that could well lead to more discord than we would have had without NAFTA," said Joseph Duffey, US Information Agency (USIA) director, at a trinational conference on higher education in Vancouver last month. Four $100,000 grants

The Vancouver conference was attended by some 270 representatives from universities, business, and government. The US announced four $100,000 grants to four groups of Mexican, US, and Canadian universities to develop or enhance trilateral exchange programs and to specifically support projects dealing with history, economics, international trade, and the environment.

The Mexican government-funded National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) also announced that for the first time it would chip in 5 million pesos (about $1.64 million) in scholarships for Mexican students and professors to study in Canada and the US.

The UNAM, along with many Mexican public universities, has a reputation for being leftist and anti-US. Many educators here worry that Mexico may, in the name of NAFTA and modernization, be sacrificing its cultural values and educational programs to those of its northern neighbors. At Vancouver, Mexico's Undersecretary of Higher Education Antonio Gago Huguet warned against the "temptation of homogenization."

But attitudes are changing here, says Enrique Cardenas, rector of the Puebla-based University of the Americas (UDLA). "A year ago, the UNAM wasn't talking about student exchanges, only faculty. This 5-million-peso scholarship is an amazing change. But it fits the trend in the Mexican academic community," says Cardenas, whose institution has a well-developed US studies and exchange program.

"There are asymmetries between the academic institutions of the three nations," Cardenas says. "But collaboration can improve all parties. If that is true economically, it's more true academically."

For many Mexican institutions, the academic horizon has not gone beyond the US, its No.1 trading partner. With NAFTA, that's now changing. In May, the UNAM's four-year-old Center for Research on the United States decided to embrace Canadian studies. It is now the Center for Research on North America - the first of its kind.

At the Vancouver meeting, the UDLA cemented a student and teacher exchange agreement with the University of British Columbia. And the Autonomous University of Baja California announced a pact with Canada's Simon Fraser University. …