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Oklahoma State University

Bridging a divide between Cuba and the U.S.

Fri, June 10, 2016
The delegation of American university officials gathers on the campus of the University of Havana. The group included Toni Shaklee, OSU assistant vice president for sponsored research. Photo courtesy Judy Fredenberg, University of Montana.

The resumption of diplomatic relations with the United States and Cuba is allowing more Americans to travel to the island, but an ongoing U.S. trade and travel embargo still limits who can visit. Oklahoma State University’s Toni Shaklee was able to visit the country this spring with a delegation of American higher education officials to plant seeds of cooperation.

Shaklee, assistant vice president for sponsored research, was part of a group of university research administrators who toured Cuban universities and research institutions. One stop at the Universidad de Matanzas, on the northwest coast of Cuba, was just one example of how the Americans, treated as dignitaries, were welcomed. University administrators greeted them on the street when they arrived and students performed and sang traditional Cuban songs. At each stop university presidents, deans and program directors met the Americans.

“There would be 10, 12 people in these meetings and they would sit down with us and spend two hours talking,” said Shaklee. “They were genuinely glad we were there.”

The visit was organized by the National Council of University Research Administrators and was a chance to lay the groundwork for future cooperation once the embargo, or blockade as it’s known in Cuban, eventually ends.

“The focus of NCURA is education and professional development for research administrators and the Cuba trip was a way to introduce ourselves,” said Shaklee, a board member at large for the group and co-editor of “NCURA Magazine.”

The council represents those who, like Shaklee, manage sponsored research at colleges and universities, making sure regulations and policies governing research funding are followed. The Cuban university system doesn’t employee similar professionals, but that will likely change as Cuban and American researchers begin working together someday soon. With collaboration comes the added responsibility for Cuban officials to properly manage outside research funding.

The trip was also a chance to gauge the state of Cuban higher education and meet administrators and researchers interested in collaborating with colleagues in the states. Shaklee came prepared to introduce Oklahoma State expertise. Many fields of study in Cuba, notably agriculture and tourism, the country’s two largest industries, have comparable programs at OSU.

“We met with the rector, or president, of a university and he described some of things they do and I kept saying, ‘Yes, we do that and that, too,’” Shaklee said. “The head of a department of economics that includes tourism heard about OSU’s school (of Hotel and Restaurant Management) and she was really excited to talk to me.”

Agriculture is another strength area at OSU. On a visit to an ag research facility, Shaklee said they learned the island grows an abundance of grasses with little nutritional value to livestock. Cuban agriculturalists want to genetically improve forages and would welcome contacts with Oklahoma State researchers.

To open the door to making connections, Shaklee gave out thumb drives with descriptions of OSU research programs and contact information. “They seemed to appreciate the OSU information and they were delighted to get the thumb drives,” Shaklee said. “They aren’t easy to get in Cuba.”

The Americans visited half a dozen institutions, including the flagship University of Havana. Tours included institutions for agriculture, economics, the environment, humanities, information and computer science and engineering. The group saw firsthand the economic impact of the embargo on the education system, but nonetheless Cuba has developed strong institutions that rely on higher education like a health care system that is the envy of Latin America.

The trip also included time to tour Havana and included a performance of the Cuban National Ballet, which performs in a beautifully restored historic hall in Havana. American investors and companies, some of which owned businesses in Cuba before Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, are anxious to return. American colleges and universities are also excited about establishing academic ties with Cuba. And Cubans are equally eager to renew relationships in the U.S. 

“I think what they needed most from us were touch points at universities in the U.S.,” Shaklee said. “Even if I’m not a GIS expert at least they know somebody here and I can put them in touch.”