From Physician to University President: Dr. Julio Frenk
This article, authored by Sylvia Mendoza for the September issue of Hispanic Outlook of Education, describes the amazing life of Dr. Julio Frenk.
This article first appeared in the September issue of Hispanic Outlook of Education and is shared on Physician Outlook with permission.
In 2000, the president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, tapped Dr. Julio Frenk to join his administration as Federal Secretary of Health. Frenk had been a doctor and earned his Master of Public Health and a joint Ph.D. in Medical Care Organization and Sociology from the University of Michigan. He knew it was a huge opportunity, even though he had reservations. He would be one of the few nonpartisan members.
“I did not belong,” Frenk said. “I always said, ‘I’m a health professional in a political job, not a politician in a health job.’ But Mexico had a new president with an ambitious plan for reform.”
That ambitious plan gave Frenk room to give back to his community on a larger scale. He had no underlying political or personal agenda, but the pressure and conflicts in a world he had never operated in were immense. By virtue of his values as a doctor and health care advocate, however, his vision was to help close the inequality gap in regard to healthcare access.
He did not sway from his beliefs and vision—and that was persuasive. “Every party voted to ensure a new insurance policy covering 58 million people. It was hugely rewarding for me.”
Frenk also founded the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico, a research center that could provide scientific evidence and policy, almost like a think tank, he explained.
Those years in the political realm gave his idea of service leadership a more profound meaning. His background in public health also brought a different perspective to the table. Both have helped him along his career path—as a medical doctor, researcher, Dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, executive director in charge of Evidence and Information for Policy at the World Health Organization (WHO)—to where he is today, as President of the University of Miami.
Deep Roots for Giving Back
A public health background has served Frenk well as president of the university. The ethical orientation of service, which is the divine purpose of public health, is a means to serve people, he explained. Service leadership is what makes a university thrive.
Also, in public health, you learn to understand health risks in the human population, he explained. “That concept of understanding risks is helpful in making decisions.”
Those values are a way of giving back to his community, a commitment which is deeply rooted in Frenk.
His grandparents fled Germany in the 1930s to escape the situation there. His father was only six and his aunt was four when Mexico opened its arms to them. “They found refuge in a country that was much poorer in material things but much richer in what mattered,” said Frenk.
“That has always inspired me. It illustrated a concept of generosity to strangers. It is difficult to be generous to people who look differently, sound differently, pray differently. The fact that we benefitted from such an act of generosity from strangers obligated us to reciprocate.”
He and his six siblings did just that. They pursued the arts, guided by their mother’s classical music background—or followed in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather—as another generation of physicians.
Frenk became a doctor. Once he saw the disparities and inequalities of healthcare in Mexico, however, he decided to go into public health. “I defined public health to be where the whole of society or a community is your patient.”
Putting the Divine Purpose of Public Health to Work
In 2017, the University of Miami had to evacuate because of the raging Hurricane Irma. Everything on campus came to a halt. As a lesson from that experience, the administration developed a platform for remote instruction in case there was ever another emergency, said Frenk.
They never dreamed the next emergency would be a pandemic.
When the Covid pandemic was identified in March 2020, Frenk, like thousands of educators across the country, had to determine a plan of action for his campus, taking into consideration the risk factors.
Students finished the spring semester online. And the administration got to work.
“Public health is always forcing you to compare different risks of action and the risk of inaction, as well,” said Frenk. “Humans tend to underestimate the risk of not doing something. Not allowing students on campus could actually put those students at higher risk of getting infected with COVID.”
If they weren’t allowed on campus, they’d have a higher risk of doing things that could expose them to Covid, such as going to crowded places like parties and not wearing masks.
“I spent endless hours, sleepless nights analyzing and making this decision. But I knew that the best available solution was based on scientific evidence, a plan to allow us to reopen and keep everyone safe.”
They spent about $35 million to make the campus safe: changing ventilation systems in all classrooms, putting up partitions in all the classrooms for physical spacing, and creating an environment where it was easy to comply with the rules. They trained teachers for remote teaching. “The pandemic accelerated the use of technology and accelerated change.”
The university opened in August of 2020 and stayed open. Everyone was tested once a week. There was contact tracing. A program was started with students as public health ambassadors charged with breaking up groups of students larger than 10 in a firm but non-confrontational way, and ensuring they had mask coverings.
Everyone was given a choice: students with underlying conditions or who just felt nervous about coming back, or faculty over the age of 65 and anyone who was immuno-suppressed, could opt for the online alternative. More than 80% of students, however, chose to come to campus.
It wasn’t a one-way street. Everyone needed to behave in a responsible way to make the plan work, Frenk explained. He also walked the walk. “As fate would have it, I was teaching a course on global health. I set the example and went to my class.”
As the semester progressed, people saw the plan was working. Even though there were some COVID cases, no one landed in the ICU. No one died. “We were never forced to close, because we did a rigorous job with protocols to prevent the spread on campus.”
Yet, it was a heavy burden to bear as president. In other public health crises, Frenk had been in more of a policy position. This was personal. “I was directly leading the effort. I just needed to look out the window when we reopened, and I could see the faces of the individuals that would be affected by my decision.”
Public Health Lessons
The coronavirus pandemic was the fifth pandemic Frenk had been involved with, but unlike any of these previous experiences, he said. It offered dramatic insight into how his extensive public health training helped him approach the issue, but the repercussions were still devastating.
The extent and depth of harm it has caused were really huge, he said, from losing lives to losing educational opportunities for kids and causing developmental delays, to greater health issues for those who couldn’t get treated.
“We have lost so much as a community, as a country,” he said. “We owe it to them to learn a lesson. Public health is everyone’s concern. No one is safe until everyone is safe.”