Exclusive: EAFIT’s Rector Discusses The University’s International Alliances, Corporate Partnerships, And Social Inclusion
EAFIT is a fairly young university when compared to European colleges or even many in the New World. Still, it has done quite a bit in its 55 year history. Started by business leaders in Antioquia who wanted a qualified source of managers and technicians, EAFIT has managed to become one of the top internationally recognized business schools in the Americas.
EAFIT now offers 21 undergraduate degrees, 65 specializations, 33 masters’ degrees, and four doctorates, across their colleges of Administration, Engineering, Sciences, Humanities, Law, Economics, and Finance. The university, with the principal campus located in the south of Medellín, just off of the Aguacatalá metro station, also has satellite campuses in Bogotá, Pereira, Llanogrande, and an MBA-specific campus in the Central American country of Guatemala; as well as several growing international alliances.
Above rendering (courtesy Grupo Argos): the new Centro Argos Para La Innovacion being built on EAFIT’s Campus
Finance Colombia’s executive editor Loren Moss sat down with EAFIT’s rector, Dr. Juan Luis Mejia Arango, in his Medellín offices to talk about EAFIT’s past, present and future.
Finance Colombia: We could start with a bit of the history. I understand, as I have heard, EAFIT was founded by a group of businessmen here in Antioquia to improve the quality of education. How was that?
Dr. Mejia: This university is 55 years old. It was founded in 1960, in a critical moment in all of Latin America. We were entering a new development model, known as the “The Cepalino Model,” through the Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL); a new economic focus for Latin America. That change of paradigm can be now summarized as: industrialization towards the inside, import substitutions, production of goods and services, which generated a grand shift towards urbanization here in Medellín, which already had a strong industrial base. By the end of the 1950s, businessmen of the city realized that they had a need for qualified managers for their companies. They did a study and the directors of our companies and big industries found out that they had engineers and lawyers, but there was no real professional management corps in Colombia.
That coincided with a moment of renewed relationships between the US and Latin America. Beginning with the Eisenhower administration, but mostly since Kennedy, with his Alianza por el Progreso, one of its objectives was the transference of new technologies towards Latin America. So the three things coincided: a new economic development model, the needs of the companies, and a new vision from the US towards Latin America. The three aspects came together and these businessmen gathered around ANDI (National Association of Colombian Businesspeople) and around one othervery important body in Colombia then, called INCOLDA (Instituto Colombiano de Administración), and succeeded in obtaining from the US Government, through what was known as ‘Chapter Four’ of the Alliance, teachers from Syracuse University. And with them, they started offering in Colombia the degree in business administration.
At the beginning, our initials were EAF, for Escuela de Administración y Finanzas. Professor. Hargadon still lives, he is like the father of modern accountancy in Colombia. [editor’s note: Bernard J Hargadon Jr. literally wrote the book on Accounting for Latin America: “Contabilidad de Costos” and began teaching accounting in Medellín within three months of EAF’s establishment] So, this school was founded in 1960 around those three, let’s say, pillars.
A few years later, the industry demand was for, let’s say, not only bachelor’s level administration, but also technicians and technologists for plant operations. So a parallel institute was created, called Instituto Tecnológico, that’s where we got our initials: Escuela de Administración y Finanzas e Instituto Tecnológico, to train technicians, then basically for the textiles industry. By 1970, the directors of the university saw that it was not then ideal to have professional studies alongside technical studies, and so the Instituto Tecnológico was suppressed. The IT disappeared and the directors made a jump to transform what was then a technical school into a university. The difference between a school and a university is that the school is directed towards only one specific area of knowledge, in this case business administration. On the other hand, a university has a vocation towards universality. So here, they decided to suppress the technical institute and to replace it with a new school of engineering.
“At this moment, we have 26 US teachers at EAFIT.”
Nevertheless, in those moments, the relationships between the US and Latin America were different, the interests were different. Today we look towards Europe, mostly Germans, who, via GTZ (known as GIZ since 2011), support development of the new engineering careers inside EAFIT. And then we created the engineering, production, process, mechanical, civil, systems, geology engineering, and lately design engineering programs. And now the university has moved even more towards universality, as we have been creating other schools: sciences, humanities, law, finance and economics and the last one is arts & sciences. That is the evolution of EAFIT, under a foundational principle we still abide by: professional practice. That is: the students from our university, before receiving their diploma, should have walked through the real world, through the world of enterprise.
Finance Colombia: Not only theory?
Dr. Mejia: Exactly. So that’s why all our careers have at least one semester in which the student, before receiving his or her degree, goes through the real world, the internship. Before that was only in private companies, but also nowadays in the public sector as well. It is something very interesting, how the concepts of administration, let’s say, designed for the private company, have permeated, and made an impact in the public sector. Here in Medellín for example, the mayor is an EAFIT graduate, the manager of EPM is an EAFIT graduate, the new director of the Medellin Metro is an EAFIT graduate. So what was once thought of as primarily for the private sector, also impacts the public sector these days. And I believe right here we have one of the keys to the new vision for the transformation of this city.
Finance Colombia: Which academic relationships does EAFIT have with other universities and institutions?
Dr. Mejia: Good question, because it brings up an interesting aspect. Look, unfortunately, the agenda between the US and Colombia, during the past few decades was focused on antinarcotics, at the expense of everything else. Nowadays the administrations, theirs [the US] as well as ours, are trying to restart those links. Because of this, we have recently had more relationships with European universities, than with US ones. After that initial stage, our relationships turned towards Europe, and nowadays we are also trying to reach Asia. We do not want to settle for any one model, but to have a variety. So, where do we stand now? Some historical relationships with Europe, basically France in mechanical and civil engineering; with the Dutch in design engineering.
And we are trying to open relationships with the Asia-Pacific region. In our last strategic plan, we contemplated that this university could contribute to society by bringing this city and this society closer to Asia and the Pacific, and for that matter we have created a study center for Asia and the Pacific, and to try to get this society, which has always looked towards the Atlantic, to look also towards the Pacific. Even when Antioquia’s 21st century vision was being discussed, when we said “Pacific” it referred to the two meanings of the word, not only “peaceful”, but also towards the Pacific Ocean. So today we have important relationships with Europe, with some Asian universities, and the academic relationships between US and Colombian universities are being rebuilt.
There is still a big obstacle: the travel advisories put out by the US State Department. As long as they remain, the relationships will be timid. But in the last few years we have seen a restart in our relationships with the US universities. The reluctance for some US academics to travel here because of the travel advisories is an obstacle which is still difficult to overcome. But we believe, with a peace treaty [with the FARC], that restriction will disappear. However, some important developments exist at this time. First, the interest expressed by some universities in the US towards Colombia; Purdue University, in Indiana, to start with.
With Purdue we have a magnificent relationship. And in their strategic plan, they have as an objective to contribute to the development of Colombia. For instance, with them we have installed the most powerful supercomputer in Colombia; we call it Apollo, in honor of Neil Armstrong, who was a Purdue graduate. That supercomputer has boosted research in Colombia in an exponential way, thanks to Purdue University.
We were the first university in Colombia to be part of President Obama’s new strategy of “100,000 Strong In The Americas,” to bring students from the US into Latin America. This semester we have the first 10 students. If we could get beyond those State Department Advisories, the relationships could be even more numerous. But I’m optimistic and the relationships with the US universities will continue to grow strongly in the upcoming years. Specifically we have been strengthening relationships in Indiana with Purdue, in Massachusetts with Brandeis University—we have a joint program with them; with FIU in Florida, with Tulane in New Orleans, with Carnegie Mellon; And slowly more relationships are being established. And also to bring teachers: At this moment, we have 26 US teachers at EAFIT. Not only in languages, but in other areas as well. And we have an increasing number of students studying doctorates in other universities. Yesterday I heard that a scholar, Luz María Martínez Sierra, from our physics engineering faculty, is in Pasadena, California, with NASA, on a project to send a satellite to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, in search of water.
Finance Colombia: Yes, I read about it in the newspaper.
Dr. Mejia: I believe every day the exchange increases with universities, and we have students of ours who used to look only towards Europe. Now it all belongs to history, but there was a point when I said, “Only war correspondents or DEA agents come to Medellin!” during many years. Now that has all changed, and I believe that the academic exchange continues to increase.
Finance Colombia: One good thing about how things have changed is that now we have seen a demand for news from Colombia.
Dr. Mejia: Positive news.
Finance Colombia: Not only from North America, but also from Europe and Asia. If a German or a Chinese wants to investigate or research Colombia, if they don’t speak Spanish, they will look for information in English. There is so much investment and so much businesses happening here, it is the number three economy in Latin America, and number two has 120 million inhabitants, and number one has 175 million inhabitants. So with less than 50 million people, Colombia is already number three, and is still growing. There are so many positive things happening here.
Dr. Mejia: I’m confident we will have a peace treaty. It does not mean we will have absolute peace, or that all violence will stop, but I do think we will have a quite different process. Let’s go back to the beginning: I think that with everything that has happened, there is a silent revolution in the qualification of Colombian universities. It is my opinion, that in the last 15 years there is a group of Colombian universities that have understood their role in society and in globalization, and are making a really serious effort at renovating themselves and bringing in teachers, training them, and I think those universities are supporting the idea of a new Colombia.
Finance Colombia: Continuing with that line of thought, something positive I have seen here, is that many people, students I’ve met who are first in their families to attend a university. Which initiatives and programs does EAFIT have in social inclusion? So that it is not just the case of: “I go to EAFIT because my father went to EAFIT.”—What is the university doing to include everyone else in the community?
Dr. Mejia: You are referring to one of the most delicate topics, because, at least in this stage of Colombia’s development, a university education is still, will be for some time, the biggest single factor in social mobility. What you are speaking of, I believe has great importance, and Colombian society is not yet generally aware of it: The possibility of access to universities for first generation students.
I will tell you first about national strategies and then about local ones, and then about EAFIT’s. Nationaly: I believe the program “Ser Pilo Paga,” with the 10,000 scholarships, faces the right direction. Just what you said: Based on the studies we’ve done, 98% of those students are 1st generation university students. Those are 10,000 families who will be forever different.
“Because the social image in society has been that EAFIT is the university of the economic elite. The great transformation we have tried to accomplish within this administration is to become known more as the university of the academic elite.”
In Medellín, a project, one of the first of its kind, with an agreement between the EPM Foundation and the universities, has given scholarships to some 24,000 students with limited resources so far. Imagine what this city would be like if those 24.000 hadn’t had this chance and had just stayed on street corners instead?
Another factor is what we do here inside the university. I imagine that in this moment we have some 1,800 students on scholarships. We make an effort in various ways. For one, we have a very beautiful program. Almost all university workers, 92% of them, to the extent of their abilities, we contribute a portion of our monthly salary into a fund and we use that to give scholarships to the best students in low-resource schools; we bring them to EAFIT.
But we don’t just only pay for their tuition, but we give them support for meals, transportation, and academic materials. We give them a daily meal allowance of $6,650 pesos for food in the university cafeterias, we provide $67,000 pesos monthly for transportation, and we give them an amount for supplies. And they are some of the best students, because they are the ones who make the most out of the university. The ones involved in all the cultural and social activities, sports; and I believe that is the way we can provide equity, and we are very proud of that.
“Now our doctoral students will be there solving real problems, real industry challenges, and obviously financed by the industry itself.”
Because the social image in society has been that EAFIT is the university of the economic elite. The great transformation we have tried to accomplish within this administration is to become known more as the university of the academic elite.
Finance Colombia: How will EAFIT be different three years from now than it is today? What initiatives are you launching?
Dr. Mejia: Several strategies. Number one: languages. We believe one of the factors that impedes competitiveness in the city is the lack of foreign language skills. Next month we will start to build a big language center, in two areas, one here in the south at the university, we expect to teach some 20,000 students every year in languages.
Number two: in sciences. We have created the new science school; we believe the industry and the private sector should have a scientific and technological livelihood in accord with our times, so we will strengthen the area of science academics.
And number three, we promote, above all, the great relationship between the companies and the university. We are about to open the research center Centro Argos Para La Innovacion, financed mainly Grupo Argos, who is building the research center here inside the university. We are negotiating with another three or four companies for them to bring their research and development entities into the university as well.
So for instance, Grupo Argos is investing 17 million dollars in this new research center, because according to their vision, by the year 2020, they expect 25% of their revenues to be generated by products that do not yet exist. So this will be the womb from where the new products and technologies will emerge.
For us that is very important, because it allows us to acquire research resources which for us alone would be very costly. They might have an atomic scanning (electron) microscope, which by ourselves would take long time to acquire, but now our doctoral students will be there solving real problems, real industry challenges, and obviously financed by the industry itself.
So that’s the third aspect, Loren. A great relationship with a great group of companies who have realized that without innovation their companies would be at risk in the future. So that’s what we go for: a great relationship between the university and the private sector.