Commentary: How politics cripple Latin American universities

The Miami HeraldMay 24, 2012 

The appointment of Venezuelan-born Rafael Reif as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last week raises an interesting question: why are so many Latin Americans excelling in the world’s best universities, but not in Latin America?

Reif, who will be the first MIT president not to be a native English speaker, graduated as an engineer from Venezuela’s Universidad de Carabobo in 1973, and moved to the United States to get a PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford University in California.

The son of Eastern European immigrants who moved to Ecuador and Colombia before settling in Venezuela, Reif has spearheaded MIT’s work in micro and nanotechnology, and holds 15 patents.

In his acceptance speech on May 16, he admitted that when he arrived in this country as a graduate student, “I did not speak English.”

While Reif has risen higher than most Latinos in U.S. academic circles, he is far from alone. While there are not as many Latin Americans as Asians in top U.S. academic jobs, there are several university presidents, including Miami Dade College’s Eduardo Padrón, and star professors who were born in the region.

There is a lot of academic talent in Latin America, but universities in the region lag far behind their counterparts in the United States, Europe and Asia, according to the best known world university rankings.

There is no Latin American university among the first 150 places in the rankings of Britain’s Times Higher Education Supplement. U.S. universities occupy most of the first 100 places, and MIT is ranked the 7th. best in the world.

While Brazil is the world’s sixth largest economy and Mexico the 11th, the highest-ranking Latin American university in the ranking is Brazil’s University of Sao Paulo, in 178th place.

When it comes to scientific research, U.S. inventors — many of them from major universities — register 192,000 patents a year, while all 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries together register only 21,000, according to the Ibero-American Network of Science and Technology Indicators, known by its Spanish acronym Ricyt. There are many reasons why Latin American universities are not as good as their pool of talent, but one of the main ones is that they put politics ahead of academic merit or scientific achievements to appoint and promote their best professors.

In addition, most of Latin America’s biggest state-run universities elect their presidents only from within their institutions, rather than conducting public searches for the best talent, regardless of whether they are in-house or outside candidates.

“Political interests interfere with the selection of academic leadership in many Latin American countries,” says Isaac Prilleltensky, the Argentine-born dean of University of Miami’s School of Education. “Higher education institutions with distinguished track records search for talent and select the best candidates based on scholarly background.”

If new MIT president Reif had stayed in Venezuela after graduating, he may have faced a hard time getting a teaching job.

On the very day that Reif’s new job at MIT was announced, Venezuela’s well-known website Lapatilla.com published a document showing that the government of President Hugo Chávez in 2004 sent a letter to the presidents of Venezuelan public universities asking them “not to hire any person” whose name was on the list of 4 million people who signed a public petition for a referendum to revoke Chávez’s term.

The letter, dated Feb. 13, 2004 and signed by then-Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, was made public by Gustavo Azocar Alcala, a Venezuelan journalist and politician, the website said.

Politics permeates not only university appointments, but what is taught in most of the region’s biggest universities.

Earlier this month, Argentina’s biggest university, the state-run University of Buenos Aires, completed the first semester of a course named “Che Guevara” that focused on the history of Argentina’s Revolutionary People’s Army 1970’s guerrilla group.

Critics noted that Argentine taxpayer’s money in the 316,000-student tuition-free university was being used to glorify political violence.

My opinion: Fortunately, some countries such as Chile and Brazil are taking steps to depoliticize their universities, and to insert them into the global academic community. Brazil most recently announced that it will send 100,000 students to pursue mostly science and engineering graduate degrees in U.S. and European universities.

But, overall, Latin American countries need an all-out offensive to ban politics from their classrooms. Otherwise, they will keep expelling some of their best brains from their countries.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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