A Bridge to Cuba

Faculty build academic ties in the neighboring nation.

CubaAfter more than a half-century of conflict, the United States and Cuba are reconnecting, and UNC Asheville faculty are riding the waves of change to establish what could be a groundbreaking set of academic exchanges.

The Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC), a North American consortium of 29 schools with its headquarters at UNC Asheville, will make its first major international foray this winter, when it takes 20 professors to Cuba in December to foster working relationships there. Four faculty members will be from UNC Asheville.

“For a pilot program, the faculty leaders didn’t really know what to expect,” says Claire Bailey, COPLAC’s program associate. “But they had lots of applications, and something of a hard time narrowing it down to just 20 participants.”

Aside from the COPLAC connection, two associate professors of Spanish at UNC Asheville with longtime interest in Cuban studies, Elena Adell and Greta Trautmann, have done much of the groundwork for the initiative. Also leading the project is Georgia College associate professor of political science Steven Elliott-Gower, an old friend of Trautmann’s. Elliott-Gower is the director of the honors program at GCSU, and has long been involved in developing study abroad programs, including to Cuba.

“When it comes to Cuba, we’re so near and yet so far,” Trautmann says. The interactions that arise from the exchange program “hopefully will allow us to think about Cuba in more complex ways than either hating it or loving it, which has so long been the narrative, without understanding the complexities.”

Six busy days in Cuba

The professors on the trip hail from colleges across the country, and the planned academic outreach will cross over both institutions and disciplines, Trautmann explains.

“There are at least two hopeful outcomes: One is that these individuals can create their own networks with different scholars and leaders of different communities in Cuba, and two, that from this we can then get a study abroad program for students.”

“We have high hopes,” Adell says. “But it’s a lot to put together.” Indeed, even as the U.S. and Cuba make big strides in mending ties, there are plenty of logistical and financial hurdles to establishing sustainable academic relations between the two countries.

At the same time, conditions are newly ripe for engagement. “This would have been possible before,” Adell says, “but now people are even more excited about the possibilities and paying more attention to them.”

“This has been well-received here and well-received in Cuba, so now we’ve just got our fingers crossed,” Trautmann says.

The COPLAC faculty emissaries will visit Cuba for six days in December, which is regarded as a primo time to visit the country, given the climate then. But the trip bears little resemblance to the stereotypical island vacation full of beaches and bars.

The scholars will stay at a former convent in Havana that’s still affiliated with the Catholic Church, hosted by Instituto Cubano de Investigación Cultural Juan Marinello. Their ambitious itinerary includes interactions with Cuban scholars on everything from demographics and migration to environmental and economic policies, among other topics. A one-day road trip will take the group to Las Terrazas, a noted eco-village in western Cuba.

An “intensely interesting time”

Adell, who first visited Cuba in 2001 and has been back eight times, has cultivated many contacts in Cuban cultural institutions that are paving the way for the exchange. “Elena knows half the island,” Trautmann jokes.

Cuba and its population also attract other UNC Asheville scholars for their first venture into the academic exchange, though for very different disciplines.

“It’s an island nation, so it’s great for modeling,” says Lothar Dohse, chair of the Department of Mathematics. He’s most curious, he says, about the state of computer technology in Cuba and the teaching of mathematical modeling there. It’s also an opportunity to examine some of the metrics he’s always wanted to crunch, like demographic and migration statistics, “And to be there as this relationship is thawing is an intensely interesting time.”

Jennifer Rhode Ward, an associate professor of biology, says that U.S. scientists and academics can learn much by getting involved with Cuban counterparts.

“Cuba has unprecedented terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity, much of which remains undescribed, and shared international research could be key to preserving that richness,” she says. “I envision establishing joint pedagogical relationships with COPLAC and Cuban faculty, and co-teaching groups of Cuban and U.S. students in ecology and marine courses.”

Adell says that contrary to the perception that the island is closed to outsiders, many scholars will find that Cuban academics are open to collaboration. “They are so eager to have an exchange,” she says.

In some ways, the exchange is already up and running between the two former enemy nations. In November, for example, Adell and Trautmann hope to host Juan Nicolás Padrón, a noted Cuban writer and poet who has been invited by Lori Oxford, a professor at Western Carolina University.

“Padrón would say that it’s very difficult to understand Cuban history without talking about the United States, and that the reverse is true as well,” Adell says, a point that reinforces the logic to rebuilding educational relations.

This exchange would not have been possible without Mark Gibney, Belk Professor of the Humanities; Sophie Mills and Dan Pierce, former and current NEH Professors; the Academic Deans; Louis Toms from the Office of Sponsored Scholarships and Programs; and Susan Maas, academic assistant to Modern Languages.