By Greg Bloom
Shortly after Dr. Felipe Fornelli Lafón took over as rector (head) of the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez (UACJ) on October 10, 2000, the university began a period of regrouping and improvement that it presented in a media campaign as "nuevas ideas, nuevas actitudes" "new ideas, new attitudes." To people inside the university and to the people of Cd. Juárez the campaign was intended to mark a break with the previous administration of Rubén Lau Rojo.
While regarded favorably for his growth of campus infrastructure, Lau Rojo was criticized for his alleged misuse of funds. In addition to changing its public face, Fornelli saw that UACJ was entering a time when it was important to invest in and improve faculty and to make sure that the university would be considered as internationally competitive by way of participation in certification and accreditation programs that are the norm in the US and in Europe but that are still quite uncommon in Mexico.
Upon talking for a short while with Lic. Jesús Meza Vega, the general coordinator of university communications, it is quickly apparent that improvement and accreditation seem to be the two buzz words that best describe UACJ's current goals. However, these goals should not be perceived as an admission of shortcomings on the part of UACJ. Judging from Meza's calm demeanor one senses that UACJ understands its importance in Ciudad Juárez and is certain that it will achieve Fornelli's goals in the following years.
UACJ had its start as the Universidad Feminina (Feminine or Women's University) in 1970. At that time men in Cd. Juárez that wanted to attend university went to Chihuahua, Guadalajara or the UNAM in Mexico City. However, women were not typically allowed to move away from home to study so women's groups began to advocate for the creation of a university for womenhence the birth of the Universidad Feminina. Once people saw that women did not have to leave Cd. Juárez to get an education (something that would have been out of the financial reach of many men) the city began to advocate for its own university for both women and men. Thus in 1973, after receiving federal approval and funding, the Universidad Femi-nina became the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez.
UACJ is currently divided into four main institutos. These are the Institute of Architecture, Design and Art, the Institute of Biomedical Sciences (medicine, dentistry, veterinary, etc), the Institute of Social Sciences and Administration and the Institute of Engineering and Technology. Together these schools offer more than 40 majors in addition to nearly 20 graduate programs. Meza said that the university graduates 500 students per semester.
UACJ currently has 12,000 students at all levels, 1,300 of whom are becados (federal scholarship recipients). Full-time students pay between 1,300 and 1,900 pesos (approximately US$130-190) per semester in tuition. The difference in cost depends upon which program a student is in with medicine being the most expensive due to more costly labs and equipment. According to Meza UACJ receives 70% of its funding from the federal government, 20% from state government and 10% from tuition payments and other sources like the rental of university facilities.
A recent source of considerable funding that is helping UACJ reach its goal of improving instruction is the Fondo para la Modernización de la Educación Superior (FOMES). Won through a competitive application process, FOMES provided UACJ with 24 million pesos last yearan amount equal to a little over US$ 2.4 million. This money must be used for designing up-to-date curricula, improving the student-professor relationship and training instructors in pedagogical methods.
It may be some of the new federal funding requirements that spurred Fornelli's interest in what Meza called the "consolidation" and "strength-ening" of UACJ's programs. The same can be said about the university's new found interest in certification and accreditation by outside organizations. Meza stated that while in the past the Mexican federal government awarded money to universities based on the number of graduates, which he said resulted in watered-down degrees, and later based on the number of students, which he said resulted in overcrowded universities, the government is now financially rewarding universities based on the quality of their programs as evaluated from the outside and on student performance on exit exams given by the Centro Nacional de Evaluación.
Some of UACJ's new directions that do not seem to be linked to federal programs are Fornelli's insistence on the "integrated development of students" and closer ties with the community that he described in the October, 2000 issue of Gaceta universitaria, a university magazine. Meza translated "integrated development" as an emphasis on values, the well-rounded human formation of students and increased university ties to the community. Indeed, all UACJ students are required to perform 600 hours of community service. Thus engineering students work in maquiladoras, medical students run immunization clinics and work in hospitals and law students assist judges and aid those people that cannot afford legal help.
Relationships with other
According to Meza, UACJ students can receive credit in a few, select courses at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP). Meza indicated that this is a good start to inter-institutional relations and added that UACJ and UTEP have also had a relationship by which UACJ students have had a radio show out of UTEP's station for the past fourteen years. UACJ also participates with New Mexico State University (NMSU) and the Colegio de la Frontera Norte-Ciudad Juárez (Colef) in a joint water task force that receives funding from the Hewlett Foundation.
While students at the In-stituto Tecnológico de Ciudad Juárez (Tec) and UACJ cannot take courses at their cross-town counterparts the two universities do hold common events. The institutes have a library exchange program and they loan each other facilities when needed.
In the future, UACJ should be much improved by this period of self-examination and internal strengthening that stands in contrast to the previous administration's focus on physical expansion. Its results should be better prepared faculty and better educated students that have closer ties to the community in which they live and study. The university's role as a participant in border-wide activities should also expand as joint research agendas and collaborations increase throughout the region.
This article is reprinted from the March, 2001 edition of Frontera NorteSur (FNS) devoted to educational issues in Ciudad Juárez. Frontera NorteSur On-line news coverage of the US-Mexico border To see our site go to: http://frontera.nmsu.edu
FNS is an outreach program of the Center for Latin American Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.