Rutgers University and University of Havana Formalize Agreement for Research Collaboration

Barbara Lee, senior vice president for academic affairs for Rutgers University, signs a Memorandum of Understanding formalizing research collaborations between Rutgers and the University of Havana

By Tom McLaughlin

In 2002, Rutgers University–Camden and the University of Havana signed a historic Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to formalize research and exchange opportunities for students and faculty.

Since that time, the partnership has flourished, resulting in collaborative faculty research projects, student fellowships and internships, and frequent visits to Cuba led by expert faculty and staff.

Signaling a new era of intellectual exchange, the now-expiring MOU was re-signed today – only this time encompassing all of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey – during the International Conference on Cuba, held from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3 on the Rutgers–Camden campus.

“Global learning is a prerequisite for student success, and international partnerships strengthen faculty research opportunities,” says Rutgers University–Camden Chancellor Phoebe Haddon. “Rutgers–Camden is proud to have forged this relationship with the University of Havana. We look forward to the many exciting new possibilities that will emerge now that our relationship has expanded to include the impressive resources of all of Rutgers.”

Representatives from Rutgers and the University of Havana signed the new agreement on Oct. 31 during a free, public symposium held on the first day of the conference.

“The collaboration with Rutgers University is significant, given the track record and international prestige of this American university, particularly in areas of community development, where Rutgers–Camden has developed many successful projects,” says Cristina Diaz, a distinguished professor of analytical chemistry at the University of Havana.

To mark the historic occasion, Mark Wells, coordinator for Cuba Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, spoke on the unique opportunities for research partnerships as the countries normalize their diplomatic relations. Barbara Lee, senior vice president for academic affairs for Rutgers University, and Luis Alberto Montero Cabrera, emeritus professor and president of the Scientific Council at the University of Havana, delivered keynote addresses, focusing on the current states of higher education in Cuba and the United States.

“Across New Jersey, on every campus, Rutgers faculty are leaders in research innovation and teaching excellence,” says Lee, senior vice president for academic affairs at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.  “This robust agreement between Rutgers and the University of Havana offers unprecedented opportunities for both of our institutions to pursue exciting new knowledge that could help to redefine our common base of knowledge across a wide array of disciplines.”

A testament to this enduring partnership, the four-day International Conference on Cuba will bring together leading scholars from the United States and Cuba to focus on issues of sustainability in the island nation. The discussions will center around five main research areas: science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) disciplines; urban policy and community development; arts and culture; environmental science; and population health.

“The timing is ripe for us to come together in our mutual intellectual pursuits,” says Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, a Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy and Administration and director of the Community Leadership Center at Rutgers–Camden, who has shepherded the agreement since its inception.

“There is a lot that they can learn from us and much that we can learn from them,” she continues. “Working in collaboration with the University of Havana, Rutgers will draw on its strengths in these areas of expertise and be at the forefront of addressing needs that will help Cuba to thrive in the 21st century.”

According to Bonilla-Santiago, beginning immediately on the second day of the conference, the new MOU will give rise to an array of new collaborative research projects as Rutgers and Cuban scholars join together in roundtable discussions.

The expanded partnership, run jointly by the Community Leadership Center at Rutgers–Camden and the Centers for Global Advancement and International Affairs (GAIA) Centers at Rutgers–New Brunswick, will enable additional research opportunities in engineering, medicine, and the biological sciences for researchers at Rutgers–New Brunswick.

In the coming months, the collaborators will also begin to tap into Rutgers–Camden’s current initiative to address population health and wellness, focusing on how the university utilizes a multidisciplinary approach that includes nursing, sociology, anthropology, and social work, among other fields.

“We will look at how we bring together various components of the community in order to focus on these critical, complex issues,” says Bonilla-Santiago.

Among the projects in the works, the Community Leadership Center and the Rutgers–Camden School of Nursing just received a $560,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to bring the School of Nursing’s Spanish-speaking international studies programs in Guatemala and Bolivia to Cuba. The project, which also incorporates Rutgers–Camden’s foreign languages department, will enable students to learn about the country’s improving population health among their citizens, while strengthening their Spanish-speaking health communication skills.

Researchers also plan to work together on issues of community development and urban policy. According to Bonilla-Santiago, Rutgers scholars will be able to learn from Cuba’s focus on historic preservation as a mean of urban planning and revitalization. Meanwhile, University of Havana researchers will learn community-development practices from their Rutgers counterparts, in the hopes of addressing a current housing crisis and infrastructural deficiencies in Cuba.

One particular focus will be the use of schools as a means of building communities, a topic that leans on Bonilla-Santiago’s expertise as director of the Community Leadership Center, and overseer and board chair of the LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden – two of the sites that scholars will visit on the third day of the conference.

“Cuba hasn’t invested in infrastructure projects in the past 60 years,” explains the Rutgers distinguished service professor. “They want to rebuild their communities while being mindful of all the social components that are involved in that process. Our colleagues in sociology and urban studies are very interested in working with them on these projects.”

She notes that Rutgers scholars can also learn a great deal about how Cuba uses art as a means of social transformation, as well as study Cuba’s reliance on agricultural sustainability – a crucial part of its economy. She explains that, when the Soviet Union dissolved and left the country in the early 1990s, Cuba was forced to rebuild its economy. It did so by returning to the land, cultivating fruits and vegetables, and raising cattle. They also developed their own farm-to-table restaurants as small businesses began to crop up.

“The Cuban people have been incredibly innovative, creative, and resilient,” says Bonilla-Santiago, who first visited Cuba more than 40 years ago. “They have incredible experience in these areas and we can learn from them. In the same respect, we don’t want to change what they do well, but give them additional tools to help them succeed.”

The research collaborations will include a March 2017 spring trip to Cuba for Rutgers faculty to visit community development sites in the cities of Havana, Pinar del Rio, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad.

As the partnership reaches a new pinnacle, Rutgers–Camden will continue to anchor the mutual intellectual exchange, relying on its expertise and years of experience, explains Bonilla-Santiago.

“Rutgers–Camden will take the lead and make it a signature project on campus,” says Bonilla-Santiago. “We have strengths in these critical research areas and will build on the social and intellectual capital that we have gained through a relationship founded on mutual trust and respect.”

She notes that it was during a trip to Cuba in March when a Rutgers–Camden contingent worked with their Cuban counterparts to identify key areas of research collaboration that will enhance the quality of life and wellbeing of Cuban and Camden residents.

“This entire conference emerges from those discussions,” says Bonilla-Santiago. “We want to know what their needs are and see how we can utilize our core strengths in these areas, so we said, ‘Let’s come together.’ It’s the first step toward a greater partnership.”

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