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Sheldon Ekland-Olson and Victoria E. Rodríguez

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We're Texas—and Latin America

Readers of DISCOVERY recognize the University’s capital campaign slogan as “We’re Texas.” But we are also more than that. For the last eighty years UT has steadily built the foremost center of excellence in the United States for the study of Latin America. This journey to excellence began in 1920 when two UT Regents and a history professor visited Mexico City and discovered the exceptionally fine private library collection of Genaro García was for sale.

The purchase of this collection was the almost serendipitous beginning that allowed us to build the premier Latin American university library in the world. The architect of that collection was historian and librarian Nettie Lee Benson, for whom the library is named. Through assiduous further collections during her multiple visits throughout Latin America, she singlehandedly built the collection into what it is today. In recognition for her efforts, she became the first woman to be awarded the Aguila Azteca medal, the highest honor granted by the Mexican government.

The University enhanced its resources in Latin American studies by appointing faculty, attracting endowments and generally proceeding strategically to extend its profile. Today, more than 150 faculty members across all colleges teach and work on research related to Latin America. In addition, numerous centers of excellence have been created over the years, specifically the Institute of Latin American Studies in 1940, along with its centers for Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.

In art history, the University has spawned traditions of international recognition in Mayan language and culture as well as in contemporary art, the latter being one of the gems of the Blanton Museum and the core of an associated graduate program.

In the sciences and engineering, many scholars have increasingly become Latin Amercanists by virtue of their research and collaboration with major universities and public institutions in areas such as petroleum engineering, geology, environmental and natural sciences.

The McCombs School of Business, through its Center for International Business and Economic Research, has developed multiple relations with Latin American institutions of higher education that include joint MBA and Ph.D. degrees.

Such positioning has also attracted several major endowments to the University, including the C.B. Smith Sr. and Knight endowed chairs, and most recently, the Lozano Long endowment.

All this, and more—which you will read about in this DISCOVERY—began with the fortuitous visit of three Texans to Mexico City.

While the origins of our excellence may have been fortuitous, there is nothing serendipitous in The University of Texas at Austin’s contemporary links to Latin America. Geographically, Texas’ extensive border with Mexico has fostered close cultural and economic ties with that country, particularly since the largest minority population in the state is now of Mexican origin. From the beginning, Texas’ culture has been interwoven with that of Latin America. Indeed, part of that culture was documented by one of the most distinguished scholars of this University—the late Américo Paredes (our second Aguila Azteca honoree), whose archives are now one of the newest acquisitions of the Benson Library.

Politically, in the aftermath of the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War, the ratio of individuals living in a democracy has risen from one-third to two-thirds worldwide. Many of those people lived under authoritarian regimes in Latin America, but the winds of change and democratization have subsequently blown across the continent. The shift from Cold War politics to a greater interest in globalization and free trade has placed the study of Latin American democratization and institutional reform at center stage.

Scholars at the University have been at the forefront by analyzing this process of political change and creatively providing their expertise to policy makers throughout the region. One example is the legislative strengthening and modernization projects between the University and several countries in Central America, including Guatemala and El Salvador. Another significant example has been the influence of the University in the liberalization and reform of the mass media.

In the social arena, too, for many years scholars at the University have taken the lead in analyzing a wide variety of issues—including migration, poverty alleviation, health and reproductive issues, education, indigenous peoples and rights, and social work—and they continue to make major contributions by bringing their expertise to bear upon the formulation of public policy. Such is the caliber of this research that over the years it has continuously attracted funding from all the major public and private foundations and funding agencies.

Economically, Texas is one of the primary gateways of the United States to Latin America. In 2000 the state conducted $59.8 billion U.S. dollars in trade (exports only) with Latin America, of which $51.7 billion was with Mexico alone. This represents 36.5 percent of total exports from the U.S. to Latin America in that year, and 46.4 percent of total exports from the U.S. to Mexico. In 1998 Mexico overtook Japan as the second largest U.S. trading partner after Canada.

In an earlier time, the governments of Mexico and of the United States may have subscribed to the saying that “good fences make good neighbors.” As the barriers that divide one country from another have opened, these governments have had to rethink the significance of the lines on a map in terms of the new realities of the modern world. One of these realities, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), has brought both countries together economically, politically and culturally and has effectively strengthened these ties.

The state of Texas and Mexico enjoy an important strategic relationship. Not only do they share 1,248 miles of border, but Texas also has maintained its position as the nation’s largest exporting state to Mexico, accounting for almost 50 percent of all U.S. shipments to Mexico. NAFTA served as a foundation for this economic success, providing a basis for open lines of communication and free, fair trade.

For more than a decade state leaders have worked hard to foster alliances between Texas and Mexico. In addition, the creation and strengthening of MERCOSUR and the possible extension of NAFTA in the future to embrace that trading bloc and other Latin American countries, makes the relationship of Texas with Latin America even more important. In that regard, the importance of research units such as the University’s Bureau of Economic Geology and budding degree programs in the McCombs School of Business can hardly be over emphasized.

The economic and geopolitical arenas are areas where a flagship university like The University of Texas at Austin plays a key role. The range and depth of its existing strengths, its relationship with so many public and private institutions throughout the region, and the renown the University enjoys, make it an unparalleled resource to serve the state of Texas. In short, our comparative advantage is second to none.

DISCOVERY readers have an opportunity to learn in this issue about the depth and breadth of the University’s strengths and resources connected to Latin America. While much of our reputation as the leading place for scholarship stems from the disciplines within the College of Liberal Arts—anthropology, sociology, history, government, geography—that is only one of our many areas of excellence. We excel equally in the arts and humanities, in science and engineering, in law, in business and in public policy. Our academic programs and resources create an environment of scholarship and learning that attracts both students and scholars from around the world.

In fact, we frequently hear that Latin Americanists tend to have two dreams: to come to the University to work in the Benson Library and to have their work published by the University of Texas Press. In turn, the same environment fosters in our students an intellectual curiosity about Latin America, in many occasions serving as a starting point for a general interest in studying abroad.

All this wealth of Latin America-related resources constitutes one of the brightest jewels in the crown of the University of Texas, but it does not imply that we are resting on our laurels. On the contrary: we have clear goals through which we expect to continue growing and consolidating our strength in Latin American studies and our relationship with the region.

Among these goals are to develop multidisciplinary initiatives that have policy implications; to continue to attract top flight students (particularly at the doctoral level, since this is where most Latin American countries feel we can best add value); and to support and extend the University’s role in areas that have traditionally been less prominent (a good example being our recent developments in law in the areas of environmental policy and constitutional reform). Although at present we are specifically focusing on those countries where we already have considerable strength—Mexico, Brazil, and the Southern Cone—our intention is not to exclude other countries. Indeed, we already have important strengths in Central America and the Andean nations.

Thus our aim is to continue to grow and expand our scope even more through further collaborative exchanges, through consolidating our existing disciplinary strengths, through developing new areas such as law, business, the environment, and by having a larger presence of UT faculty and students in Latin America.

Our goal is to provide the scholarly environment and infrastructure for our students to have a broader vision of the Americas, not only through study and research, but also by encouraging them to travel to Latin America, to learn about the region, and ultimately to work as University of Texas graduates in ways that are both informed and sensitive to its peoples and cultures.

In a nutshell, our principal goal is to continue to play a leadership role for inter- and multi-disciplinary Latin American studies in the future—not just for Texas, but for the whole hemisphere.


Sheldon Ekland-Olson
Executive Vice President and Provost Sheldon Ekland-Olson has been at The University of Texas at Austin since 1971. He arrived on campus from the University of Washington in Seattle and Yale Law School where he completed a joint Ph.D. degree in sociology and law. He is the author or co-author of six books and numerous articles. Most of these deal with the topics of criminal justice, prison reform, and capital punishment, though one is designed to amaze and excite, thrill and delight students about the wonders of research methods and statistics. Dr. Ekland-Olson can be reached at 512-471-4363.
Victoria E. Rodríguez
Dr. Victoria E. Rodríguez is Vice Provost for the Latin American Initiative. As a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs, Dr. Rodríguez has co-directed for the past ten years, with Dr. Peter Ward, a major research project on state and municipal governments in Mexico, focusing particularly on governance and democratization. Her most recent book is Women in Contemporary Mexican Politics. She is also the author of Decentralization in Mexico: From Reforma Municipal to Solidaridad to Nuevo Federalismo. Dr. Rodríguez earned a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. She can be reached at 512-232-3310.

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May 14, 2002
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