Number 39, Fall 2002

New budget ensures funds for students and researchers

The infusion of $4.5 million a year in state funding is transforming the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States into one of the most effective academic programs of its kind in the country.

José J. Velázquez Monreal

The UC Regents, recognizing the importance of California’s ties with its southern neighbor and the need to help assuage the deteriorating relationship with Mexico, requested the funds, which the state legislature appropriated and Gov. Gray Davis approved in the fall of 2000. Their goal was to provide the means for UC to develop and support scientific and academic ties with Mexico, which had been suffering a chilling effect because of anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican sentiment expressed in such measures as Proposition 187.

The funds will consolidate a program between UC and Mexico’s National Council of Science and Technology, El Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACYT), by providing up to five years of doctoral studies at UC campuses for as many as 200 Mexican students concurrently. The new funds also will finance doctoral research for 40 UC students per year, support joint research projects between UC and Mexican researchers, boost exchange programs between UC and Mexican faculty and inject additional money into research programs on issues of binational significance.

The new funds created more of a difference in scale than substance, said UC MEXUS Director Juan-Vicente Palerm.

“We had a small, quality program, now we have a significantly larger program without sacrificing excellence.

“It’s an investment that could empower and transform the way California and Mexico’s academics interact, and transform Mexican and UC research.”

Over a five-year period, he said, the combined infusion of state and Mexican funds provides nearly $50 million to train a new generation of researchers, as well as help create and solidify relations among researchers and research institutions.

Of equal importance is Mexico’s full partnership in the relationship, matching the Institute dollar for dollar in many programs and helping create powerful tools for change and development.

The Institute also will assist the UC Office of the President in establishing a Mexico City hub, to be called Casa de California, that will facilitate University programs in Mexico. Initially, it will house UC MEXUS programs and program recipients, UC Education Abroad Programs, UC alumni activities and facilities for the California Technology, Trade and Commerce Agency.

In an additional move to ensure that vital areas of study are not being neglected, UC President Richard C. Atkinson and CONACYT Director appointed a binational blue ribbon commission, called the California-Mexico Commission on Education, Science and Technology, which UC MEXUS will administer and staff. The commission is comprised of UC and Mexican academics and scholars, as well as business leaders and policymakers. During semiannual meetings, they will pinpoint areas needing research and training, and prepare recommendations on issues of pressing concern.

The beginning

Creating such a level of binational cooperation did not occur by happenstance. In fact, the circumstances that launched UC MEXUS on its mission couldn’t have been less auspicious.

The excitement and anticipation surrounding the signing of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement quickly foundered on Mexico’s political crisis involving the Salinas presidency and the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, and U.S. presidential campaigners — some of whom exploited unfounded U.S. fears of Mexican immigrants and related issues.

Instead of the binational cooperation and concordance promised by NAFTA, relations between Mexico and California in particular were being driven by bigotry, xenophobia and mistrust. UC faculty worried that the situation was undermining the cooperative academic environment necessary for productive binational research, discouraging students from undertaking the study of Mexican or Mexican American issues and causing Mexican doctoral students to turn their backs on UC programs.

UC MEXUS determined it needed to take action to build strong academic relations independent of political and business interests per se. Business and government would otherwise create changes in the social, political and environmental structure of the two countries without the involvement or scrutiny of the intellectual community. In addition, a weakening of academic ties between California and Mexico and a reduction in the numbers of cross-cultural exchanges threatened to deplete the cache of young people being educated to manage binational resources better in the future. UC MEXUS felt that vigorous scholarly exchange would repair the damaged ties and build an independent intellectual community to monitor government and business decision-making and seek solutions to binational issues.

First step

The Institute targeted CONACYT as a potential partner for a program of academic cooperation. As the main source of national research funding for Mexican academics, the National Council funds 15,000 graduate students a year – a fifth of whom study abroad.

CONACYT was an ideal partner to support the Institute’s commitment to highlighting the superior caliber of Mexican research and researchers and its dedication to forging bilateral relationships between peers. Any joint programs between UC and Mexico, the Institute determined, would be a balanced partnership at all levels, including reviewing and evaluating proposals for funding, and sharing in the cost of research and graduate education.

In the summer of 1997, UC and CONACYT, then under the direction of Carlos Bazdresch Parada, signed an agreement in Mexico City that California and Mexican academics greeted with a great sense of excitement. The UC-CONACYT Agreement of Cooperation in Higher Education and Research spelled out a detailed plan for joint research programs, faculty ex-change, and training of graduate and postgraduate students. The goal was to establish a binational academic community that could develop solutions to common problems in addition to advancing scientific expertise on both sides of the border.

These programs were to be undertaken by UC and Mexican institutions of higher education as equal partners in the acquisition and application of new knowledge. Even the review committees were to be equally divided between CONACYT and UC academics and scholars.

UC campuses began to witness the realization of the accord in the fall of 1998 with the arrival of Mexican graduate students and researchers. Of equal importance, the agreement placed UC MEXUS in an ideal position to be of service when the state’s political climate began to change.

Turning the tide

The first hint of change at the state level became evident within the state legislature. The California Latino Caucus launched a bi-partisan effort to strengthen ties with its neighbor and important trading partner to the south. Then-Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante invited UC MEXUS to accompany him on a trade and education mission to Mexico in October 1997. The trip provided an opportunity to explain the CONACYT agreements to legislators and enabled UC MEXUS to facilitate interactions between legislators and the University. In turn, caucus members asked Palerm to discuss the kinds of scientific and education exchanges the Institute and UC had facilitated at a joint hearing of the Select Committee on California-Mexico Affairs and the Committee on International Trade and Development.

When state officials realized UC and Mexican academics had already forged the kind of cooperative program they envisioned, they seized on it as a model to build upon. They were soon to see support from the new governor Gray Davis. Even before his election in 1998, he had touted the importance of relations with the state’s best customer, Mexico.

Boost from legislature

But as enthusiasm for the Institute's programs led to calls for additional and more ambitious involvement, it became clear that UC MEXUS' modest budget was stretched beyond its limits and ill-suited to take on new responsibilities. At the same time, other UC offices, seeing the opportunity, were pressing the University to expand engagement with Mexico.

As a result, the Office of the UC President asked UC MEXUS to prepare a special Regents’ budget item to serve as a master plan to better gauge and coordinate the myriad budding UC connections with Mexico. The Regents approved the proposal for inclusion with UC’s budget request for fiscal 2000.

The special request was designed to support a grander yet more focused program of collaborative research, an ambitious program of faculty and student ex-change, and to charter new directions of academic collaboration and exchange – including establishment of the UC facility in Mexico. Many of these initiatives built on programs already in place and others have been expanded in the last two years.

“UC MEXUS served as a catalyst that began on a small scale with big ideas,” said Institute Assistant Director David Kropf. “Now the policy makers and decision makers are on board to provide the funding.”

José J. Velázquez Monreal explains the effect of differing levels of Citrus tristeza virus on citrus seedlings he is studying at UCR’s plant pathology department. The UC-CONACYT student’s research addresses issues similar to those he will face when he returns to his job at the Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales y Agropecuarias (INIFAP).