Party city to tech hub: Miami’s shift bodes well for university

University of Miami president Julio Frenk explains how his institution is reaping rewards from the tech and finance influx to south Florida

March 21, 2024
Art installation on Miami Beach
Source: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images

In recent years, Miami’s reputation as a student destination has centred largely on the raucous crowds of “spring breakers” heading to its beaches and nightclubs throughout March.

That situation will soon change, according to Julio Frenk, president of the University of Miami, and not just because the city has officially declared its “break-up” with the hedonistic holiday. Indeed, college revellers were almost entirely absent – and outnumbered by stern-faced state troopers – on the night Times Higher Education visited Miami Beach’s main strip.

“As with many stereotypes, it’s partly true,” reflected Professor Frenk on perceptions of Miami as a metropolis geared more towards tourism and partying than academia.

“But you must remember that Florida – and particularly south Florida – is the youngest part of the US, the newest part of the New World. Miami became a city in 1896, and the first medical school wasn’t set up until 1952,” continued Professor Frenk, a former Harvard University dean, on why America’s third most populous state has so few research universities (the University of Florida is the US’ 44th highest-ranked institution, with Miami at joint 61st).

But the shifting sands of US capitalism seem to be moving in Florida’s favour, with potentially huge benefits for its academic institutions, he continued. “We’ve seen a huge migration from the traditional technology hubs to Miami – investors, engineers and venture capital funds have all moved here during the pandemic, with some arriving in early 2021 to escape the winter but never leaving,” said Professor Frenk of the city’s transformation into the US’ fourth-biggest tech hub, behind Silicon Valley, Boston and New York.

Dozens of finance firms have relocated to south Florida, including the $60 billion (£47 billion) hedge fund Citadel two years ago, whose boss Ken Griffin (who donated $50 million to the university earlier this month), has predicted that Miami could one day overtake Wall Street as America’s banking centre.

“The last two years have been remarkable,” said Professor Frenk, who cited the lack of state income taxes and “very active” courting of business as major reasons for Florida’s influx of corporations.

“But the main reason that Miami is a tech hub is its geographic location – we’re on the crossroads of the Americas, close to the Caribbean but also on the Atlantic facing out to Africa. It’s the 21st-century Alexandria, and that matters,” he said, speaking during IE University’s Reinventing Higher Education conference, held in Miami earlier this month.

With Miami assuming the role of a “connector city similar to Dubai or Singapore” in terms of talent, trade and investment, the role of its only research university became more significant, said Professor Frenk.

“If you look at emerging global cities, they all have or are creating robust research universities and educational networks – we’re talking to innovative companies to provide the degrees that they need for their ecosystems,” he said.

That includes the redesign of a shortened honours degree in science and innovative technology, in which undergraduates spend time working in technology companies, he said.

“That’s a different pedagogic approach using more immersive experiential learning, then coming back into the classroom,” said Professor Frenk. “That can be good for the student because it cuts fees and living expenses by 25 per cent, but it helps them get a job quicker – in a fast-moving sector, that’s important. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates didn’t drop out of Harvard because of the cost but because they couldn’t afford to delay the start of Facebook or Microsoft.”

The influx of billionaires and millionaires from the US’ highest-earning sectors has also caused some difficulties for the university, admitted Professor Frenk. “The housing market is very expensive with the arrival of those with substantial wealth, and it’s much harder to get your children into the top schools,” he explained, insisting, however, that the rewards from these new neighbours outweighed the disadvantages.

With Donald Trump now favourite to return to the White House later this year, many university leaders will be holding their breath to see whether he will once again crack down on migration – including potential restrictions to student and technology visas. Slowing that global connectivity would certainly have consequences for America’s most diverse city – more than half of metropolitan Miami’s mainly Spanish-speaking population was born outside the US – acknowledged Mexico-born Professor Frenk, who hoped nonetheless that whoever is the next commander-in-chief would recognise the immense role played by migrants in establishing the US’ world-leading technology and university sectors.

“Most people can see the difference between the illegal activity – crime, trafficking – and those who are driving the wealth in the US. Look at the founders of Tesla, Google and even Jeff Bezos, whose parents moved from Cuba. Miami is a city that, more than anywhere in recent times, shows the vital role that migrants play in the US story.”

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