UT System Seeks Partnerships, Space Research in Mexico

by Reeve Hamilton, Texas Tribune

university-of-texas-longhornsRandall Charbeneau, an assistant vice chancellor for research at the University of Texas System, was surprised to learn that the system did not have an agreement with Mexico to foster student and faculty exchanges and research collaboration.

“I don’t know what the obstacle has been,” Charbeneau said. “Maybe it’s just that nobody has made the trip down there.”

Charbeneau made the journey last week, accompanied by Fredrick Jenet, the director of the University of Texas at Brownsville’s Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy.

On behalf of the UT system, they signed a letter of intent to work with the Mexican National Council of Science and Technology on a space-related project in Brownsville. They also returned with a broader memorandum of understanding — modeled on Mexico’s agreements with the University of California System — that would foster collaboration between Mexican and UT system institutions. Charbeneau expects system leaders to sign the memorandum within weeks.

Several factors have led to the increased interest on both sides of the border to work together, Charbeneau said. And officials from both countries say the efforts could help transform the region by enhancing the work force and research quality on both sides of the border.

“There is no region in the world that can be more productive than North America” if the two countries’ academic pipelines were better aligned, said the Mexican consul in Brownsville, Rodolfo Quilantán Arenas.

In part, the recent moves are a response to signals from the leadership of both countries.

This year, Mexican officials started “Proyecta 100,000,” an initiative that aims to send 100,000 Mexican students to study in the United States and 50,000 American students to study in Mexico by 2018. The Obama administration announced the “100,000 Strong in the Americas” initiative in 2011, which seeks to have 100,000 students from Latin American and the U.S. essentially exchange places by 2020.

In 2013, the U.S. and Mexican presidents jointly announced the Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation and Research, which seeks to expand cooperation on higher education exchange and research.

While the countries enjoy robust trade, Quilantán said the educational exchange has been waning “for many reasons, but we cannot hide the situation in recent years regarding public concern about organized crime.”

Mexico ranks ninth among countries with international students in the U.S. About 14,000 students from Mexico take courses at American institutions. Only about 4,000 American students attend Mexican institutions.

But officials say that a new university, the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, which will result from a merger of the UT campuses in Brownsville and Edinburg next year, presents an opportunity to alter perspectives.

“The idea has always been that UT-RGV’s vision looks in the Valley and south,” Charbeneau said. “A cooperative program with Mexico makes so much sense.”

The new university’s plans to work with SpaceX, a private space-transport company that will have a launch facility in Brownsville, also attracted interest from Mexico.

“There’s just a bunch of stuff coming together at the right time,” Charbeneau said.

He said that a relationship was being negotiated between SpaceX and what would ultimately be UT-RGV that would allow cooperative research on satellite communication technology and student access to the launch control center when it was not operational.

The work with SpaceX would serve as the kickoff project under the system’s umbrella agreement with Mexico, Charbeneau said. Other projects and collaborations with other system institutions would be forthcoming.

Guy Bailey, who will be the inaugural president of the system’s new university, said the anticipated influx of high-quality international students and researchers under the new agreement would help establish the institution as “a natural gateway to the Americas.”

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