|BROWNSVILLE, December 29 - A visit to the most bilingual university in North America has had a big impact on administrators and educators planning for the new UT-Rio Grande Valley.
UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville provosts sent five officials on a three-day visit to the University of Ottawa to gain a deeper understanding of what a fully bilingual university looks like. Every course at the University of Ottawa is available in both English and French.
During the visit, the South Texas officials met with met with representatives from various University of Ottawa offices, including the Chancellor, the President’s Chief of Staff, the Provost, the Vice President for Student Life, the Director of Institutional Research, the Director of Human Resources, and the Directors of the Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute.
One of the five officials to visit Ottawa was Dr. Javier A. Martinez, dean of liberal arts at UTB. Martinez is part of two administrative working groups planning for UT-RGV, one looking at program accreditation and another that is exploring possible future doctoral programs.
Asked what he learned from the visit to Ottawa, Martinez said this fell into two categories, operational and conceptual. In terms of operational, he said the day-to-day logistics of running a bilingual university with an enrollment of nearly 45,000 students that is located in an urban area of a major city are significantly complex. He said the conceptual factor is ultimately more important.
“The cultural values of a place that allows for such an institution like the University of Ottawa to emerge and flourish had a profound effect on us. Ottawa is deeply committed to linguistic and cultural plurality, and this cultural investment has worked as a type of springboard that has helped that community think in non-traditional ways about what it wants in an institution of higher learning,” Martinez told the Guardian. “The end result is a university that defines itself as producing a bi-literate student who is comfortable interacting in more than one language and more than one culture.”
Asked how what he learned at the University of Ottawa had impacted his thoughts on what UT-RGV should look like, Martinez said: “Visiting U of O helped us realize that we are not just going about creating a new university, a task that in itself is of immeasurable significance, but that we are in the process of creating a new cultural paradigm for this region that will be reflected in the new institution.”
Martinez said university planners “must not be constrained by the pressures of past tensions and conflicts over language usage” because the 21st century is being defined by globalization and internationalization. “Graduates of the new institution must be nimble and adaptive so that they can successfully navigate an ever-changing cultural landscape. A bi-literate student is uniquely and powerfully positioned to succeed in the global now,” Martinez said.
Asked what he thought of UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s support of the concept of a “bilingual, bi-literate and bi-cultural” university in South Texas, Martinez said: “One can split hairs over specific definitions, something we as academics enjoy doing, but the larger picture we must stay focused on is that the successful graduate must be able to live, work and play within cultural spaces that demand flexibility and adaptability from those who inhabit them.”
Martinez said Cigarroa has empowered faculty at UTB and UTPA to think about these terms, and if they are to be true to his charge they must “conceive of them not as static concepts, but as fluid responses to the needs of the regional and global marketplaces.” He said those in the working groups “need to stay focused on the end result and let that drive any impetus toward definition” and that “the end result is, of course, a graduate who is at home in a culturally and linguistically plural environment defined by ongoing development and change.”
Asked whether he could foresee a lot of courses at UT-RGV being taught in Spanish and whether he could foresee degrees being offered with the entire instruction being in Spanish, Martinez said: “UTB has been doing this to some extent already. Some core classes, like History and Music Appreciation, are offered in Spanish on a regular basis. Offering an entire curriculum in Spanish, while perhaps administratively possible at some stage in the institution’s future, does not in itself serve the project of bi-literacy. The greater challenge is to move away from a model that privileges a mono-cultural approach to knowledge and experience, not replace one language with another.”