President Barack Obama's unexpected decision for the United States to "normalize" relations with Cuba provides an opportunity for universities to create a bridge of education and understanding between the two countries located just 90 miles apart.
While announcing the overhaul of the longtime U.S. policy toward Cuba, the president said that "these 50 years have shown isolation has not worked. It's time for a new approach." Discussion, mutual respect and the free flow of ideas -- the ideals of our institutions of higher learning -- offer one of the the best chances of bringing our two peoples and cultures together. Young adults are open to new concepts and have a different world view than that of their parents. Since they obviously represent the future, change must begin with them.
Promoting intellectual dialogue, however, through initiatives such as student exchanges will only work in concert with societal reforms. A healthy dose of skepticism is appropriate as we wait and see if the Cuban government is open to the principles of freedom. Prior experience suggests that university engagement has a mixed record in promoting cooperation and democratic values. Because of restrictive forms of government, a free flow of ideas isn't realistic in Moscow, Dubai or Qatar. Still, it does exist, on some level, in China, and was successful for 30 years in Beirut, until it was curbed by a heavy military mandate imposed by the Lebanese government some five years ago. Yet, it is my hope that colleges and universities will play a major role in the months and years to come by educating future generations of American and Cuban students.
Looking ahead with cautious optimism, colleges can begin to engage with schools in Cuba, such as the Universidad de La Habana, to develop student exchanges and find ways to broaden the horizons of students in both countries. Some schools already have programs that allow American students to study in Cuba and vice versa, including Tulane, American, Marist College, the University of North Carolina and Burlington College.
Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. has announced plans to send faculty and students on a two-week visit to study the history and development of Cuba's economic system. The school, which had conceived of the study-abroad course before the president's historic announcement, intends to organize a similar trip for marine biology students in the summer of 2015.
As of April 2013, there were 22,000 international students working to earn degrees in Cuba. American colleges can further these efforts by encouraging students to study there and enabling Cuban students to study in the U.S. This would not only be beneficial to U.S. and Cuban institutions, but to the students themselves, as they would be exposed to diverse cultural experiences and increased educational options.
These times are rife with opportunities, but history teaches us that there are no guarantees. A free exchange of ideas can exist only if a country's government allows it. Though state control has loosened in Cuba since Raul Castro succeeded his brother, Fidel, it needs to go further. As the Miami Herald noted in a recent editorial, "President Obama's opening to Cuba is not yet the 'game-changer' others have called it. The game won't change until Cuba makes effective, substantive moves toward democratic reform." In addition, universities need to be diligent in ensuring that academic freedom is preserved in any joint venture.
Nonetheless, college and university presidents across the country should lead the discussion and devise creative ways to create a dialogue between our students, and theirs. This effort can be non-partisan. Regardless of one's view on the details of the president's Cuba initiative, cooperation can only be enhanced by intellectual and personal exchanges.