Sunday, September 09, 2012

UPA at 10

In 2002 a good friend in Mexico, Dr. Guillermo Hernandez, asked me to come to Aguascalientes to help him think about a project he was beginning.  I first came to know Guillermo when he was working at Universidad del Mayab in the Yucatan. When he asked me to come to Aguascalientes he was in the early stages of forming a new university that eventually became Universidad Polit├ęchnia de Aguascalientes.   Guillermo is an engineer who has held research and teaching positions in a number of countries around the world so he was an ideal person to help form this new university.  It would be one of a group of polytechnic universities established in Mexico.

The original design of this polytechnic was unique.  True, it would focus on technical areas including many areas of engineering.   But unlike many other universities of its type, UPA (as it became known) would also focus on building the values and character of its graduates.   That is not common, especially in a public university.

At the same time - after a very short trial period when the University was occupying space near the train museum - it moved out of town.  The idea was to put the thing on land which would eventually grow into a community by adding housing after UPA had gotten a foothold.   On this trip you can now see that residential units are being built close to the campus.   In another decade or so, the University will have continued to grow but the community will also develop.  That is a very sound model.  It is also one that many communities in the US are trying to emulate.

Aguascalientes is a great place for a polytechnic.  It is in the center of the country and has always been a logistical center.   Like Sacramento, the city has a history with Railroads.  But it also has a number of manufacturing plants from Nissan to Texas Instruments.   UPA also faced challenges, the Autonomous University in the State is among the finest in the country.  Yet, the two universities learned how to complement each other.   UPA also has some unique issues, for example about 80% of its students are male.  (Compared with most universities in the US where the student population is 55-60% female.)  I learned on Friday that they are working on the issue to attract more females into their programs.   Like many other polytechnics they have built a great relationship with the local business community so that students can build experience before they graduate and local plants can have the benefit of opportunities for research.

On Friday, UPA celebrated its first ten years.   They did so in both a normal and unique way.  On Friday morning they held an educational symposium where they discussed issues related to their unique educational programs but also the larger questions of how universities around the world relate to each other.   They heard from a project leader of a program that attempts to build entrepreneurs across borders (TechBa).  Then they discussed the issues facing an institution that knows the challenges of competing on the international stage.   UPA started with 300 students but is now more than 2000 - so the challenges of providing a quality education from the center of Mexico are significant.   Finally, they had a discussion with officials from the Johnson Space Center.   What interested me about the three programs was their recognition about the wider world around.   Many universities simply look at their local environment - but from the start UPA has looked outside its comfort zones.

In the evening the University had a formal commemoration of the first decade.  The presented the first three rectors (two more served briefly after Guillermo left to go into private enterprise and eventually back to the Mayab).   They also showed that the polytechnic focus has not lost attention to the arts presenting both some musical selections and some Folklorico.  The current rector (Eulogio Monreal Avila) is not a traditional academic but from my view looks like a superb leader.

I will admit that when my friend left the University, I had some worries that the broader vision for a polytechnic would be continued.   But from my visit at the end of the week, the vision continues and the small university is becoming an increasing presence in the region, the country and beyond.

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