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When UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox crossed the border from San Ysidro to Tijuana yesterday, it was her first visit to Mexico since a day trip she took as a student many years ago.

It’s likely she left little behind on that previous trip other than some US dollars and an empty Margarita glass or two. By contrast, the end result of her day-long trip to Tijuana yesterday could leave an indelible mark not just on that city, but on the entire Northern Baja region and even further afield to the rest of Mexico.

Fox visited the border city, along with a bus-load of heavy-hitting academics and assorted VIPs, to announce a broad platform of co-operation between Southern California’s top research institution and the United States’ closest neighbor. At a press conference held in Tijuana’s impressive Cultural Center CECUT, Fox laid out a four-pronged strategy for the introduction of UCSD into Mexico’s business, academic and scientific mainstreams.

The four initiatives proposed by Fox and the university are arguably not easily translated from academic jargon into easily-understandable aims and objectives. However, many of those involved with the project stressed that in this case, the details of what UCSD is proposing pale in significance compared to what this move represents for both the university and for Mexico.

“This is just laying the tracks,” said Eric Lee, assistant director of UCSD’s Center for US-Mexican Studies. “UCSD can bring such substantial human and academic resources to bear on a problem, and we are really focused on making practical policy changes.”

Ken Morris, director of UCSD’s Crossborder Innovation and Competitiveness Initiative and a long-time cheerleader for cross-border collaboration, used a different analogy. He likened UCSD’s actions to scattering seeds of opportunity in Mexico, some of which, admittedly, may fall by the wayside, while others will hopefully blossom into fully-fledged partnerships.

If that’s a bit too parable-like and gets your eyes rolling, a few rather more concrete goals of the university came out of yesterday’s press event that are worth a second look.

The first of these is UCSD’s commitment to improving the quality of life in the entire border region by studying, and hopefully improving, air quality in the area. To this end, the university recently hired Nobel laureate and air quality guru Mario Molina, who has researched the effects of air pollution all over the world.

Molina and his team will spearhead an effort to map out the area’s air quality problems and will then work with universities and researchers from Mexico and the United States to try and find some answers to those problems.

Secondly, UCSD’s Crossborder Innovation and Competitiveness Initiative is setting up a proposal for a $20 million program that is aimed at helping local businesses capitalize on the academic and entrepreneurial assets in Mexico.

The long-term goal of such a program would be to bring together businesses and academics from both sides of the border to work together on innovative science and technology projects.

Thirdly, UCSD academics will work together with economists and academics from Mexico to tackle a number of Mexico’s economic problems. The aim of this initiative is essentially to unite the academics in a huge brainstorming session, the result of which will, UCSD leaders hope, be some innovative solutions to the problems that have traditionally held Mexico’s economy back.

Lee, of the Center for US-Mexican Studies, stressed that solving such problems is not merely an exercise in philanthropy on UCSD’s behalf.

“The United States and California have a vested interest in Mexico having a secure and stable economy,” he said, adding that such a stable economy can only ultimately benefit United States citizens.

The fourth area UCSD is focusing on is perhaps the most tangible of the lot. The university will be sending a full-time staff member to the University of California’s Mexican headquarters in Mexico City, Casa de California.

The role of the new staff member will be to chinwag with business leaders, representatives of think-tanks, politicians and academics from all over Mexico and to report back to UCSD. As the university’s point-man in Mexico, the staff member will be responsible for seeking out new opportunities for the university to expand into Mexican territory.

This is all great stuff, according to David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. While expansion into Mexico is certainly nothing new – Scripps Institution of Oceanography is one organization that’s been doing collaborative work there for decades – a few more programs can never hurt.

But does Shirk see this as a new frontier? An unprecedented foray into cross-border connectivity that marks a new age in the globalization of education?

That depends.

Shirk pointed out that UCSD’s previous dean met with the leaders of all the region’s largest universities a few years back with the stated aim of fostering exactly the sort of cross-cultural collaboration that was on everybody’s mind yesterday. That effort, Shirk said, largely fizzled out as the spotlight on border issues faded and leadership at all of San Diego’s top universities moved on to other jobs.

“If this is a sustained effort by the highest levels of the university leadership then it’s a very important and beneficial step,” said Shirk. “But they have to sustain that leadership.”

Fox spent her visit to Tijuana shaking many hands, making a few intelligent and carousing speeches and, perhaps most importantly, listening to what her Mexican partners had to say.

Whether this trip across the border leaves a recognizable mark on the economic and academic landscape of Mexico will ultimately depend on whether the University uses the tracks it has laid, and continues to head south at full-steam.

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips.

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