Border University Collaborations: Past, Present, and Future

Nov 2023
5-minute read

The Mexico-United States border brings together and separates communities, cultures, and countries. This complex dynamic also manifests between universities located along the Borderlands, as seen in evolving relationships between institutions like the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and partner universities in Mexico.

Recent years have witnessed an expansion of collaborative academic projects between UTEP and Mexican border universities, building on a foundation of exchange. However, as researchers Alma Maldonado-Maldonado and Brendan Cantwell found in their 2008 study, cross-border university collaboration is often driven more by the insecurities and desires of individual faculty and students rather than administrative rationales.

By examining the interaction between two universities on the Mexico-US border, Maldonado-Maldonado and Cantwell discovered that social, cultural, historical, and economic contexts shape national, institutional, and individual collaboration. The effects of these multifaceted contexts can be contradictory, leading to stronger ties and divisions.

How much has university collaboration changed since 2008, when the Maldonado and Cantwell study was conducted? This blog post explores recent collaborations between UTEP and partner institutions in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, highlighting trends in student exchange, joint research projects, and cultural programming. While meaningful cooperation faces obstacles from resource mismatches to border security barriers, human relationships remain central to transcending borders through academic work. By embracing curiosity alongside rigor, border university collaborations can enhance access, spark innovation, and foster mutual understanding across divides.

Historical Ties

Academic connections between UTEP and Mexican universities date back decades. UTEP was founded in 1914 and has long served a predominantly Mexican-American student population in the El Paso, Texas-Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, binational community. Faculty exchanges between UTEP and the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez (UACJ) stretch over 40 years. Many UTEP graduates have gone on to teach at Mexican universities, forming personal and professional networks across the border.

Image of UACJ (courtesy Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez).

These longstanding university and individual relationships have facilitated undergraduate exchange and graduate research collaboration. Mexican students, often funded by programs like Mexico's CONACYT scholarships, have enrolled at UTEP for graduate studies, particularly in STEM fields. This flow of students is primarily one-way, though UTEP has tried to address imbalances through initiatives like its Mexico-US Faculty Collaboration Grant Program.

Recent Research Networks

In recent years, UTEP has increased its outreach and partnerships with universities across the border. Primary focus areas include environmental issues, public health, manufacturing technology, and social sciences research relevant to border communities.  For example, UTEP engineers are working with colleagues from the Instituto Tecnológico de Ciudad Juárez (ITCJ) on low-cost methods for 3D printing to support regional manufacturing. UTEP water resources researchers are also collaborating with teams from the Universidad Autónoma de Chihuahua (UACH) to study the effects of widespread herbicide use on water quality and develop holistic approaches to address the region's water scarcity.

Cross-border teams are investigating pressing social issues as well. UTEP sociology faculty are partnering with the UACJ to study domestic violence and mental health challenges in Ciudad Juárez and to develop training programs for mental health practitioners. Other social science collaborations involve immigration and asylum policies, teaching models for border studies, and Pecan farming resilience.

These projects have been funded through UTEP's new Mexico-US Faculty Collaboration Grants Program, an effort to strengthen the university's strategic partnerships across the border. The program sponsored six binational projects in its inaugural 2022–2023 cycle involving teams from UTEP and Mexican institutions ITCJ, UACJ, and UACH.

Artistic and Cultural Exchange

Alongside collaborative research, UTEP and Mexican border universities deepen artistic, cultural, and educational exchanges. For example, UTEP's Rubin Center for Visual Arts recently partnered with UACJ's Centro Cultural de las Fronteras to host the contemporary jewelry exhibition "La Frontera." The exhibition represented the first major cultural collaboration between the two universities.

Image of UACJ IIT-IADA Library (image courtesy José Arturo Martínez Lazo via Wikipedia).

Other student exchanges involve cross-border classes, internships, and collaborative learning. A UTEP-UACH pilot program will explore a hybrid instructional model that allows students on both sides of the border to take linked courses. This border pedagogy aims to foster bilingual, binational learning experiences.

Drivers and Obstacles

In the border region, binational collaboration is the only way to effectively address many health, environmental, economic, and societal issues. Universities are powerful platforms for this collaboration.  However, meaningful cooperation faces many challenges. Lack of funding and resource mismatches between US and Mexican universities often hinder joint research and exchanges. Cross-border bureaucratic hurdles related to visas and logistics also arise. Differing academic cultures and schedules can frustrate collaborators. Moreover, persisting perceptions of inequality can breed mistrust.

Above all, the hardening of the physical US-Mexico border in recent decades—with heightened security, barriers, and immigration enforcement—has made cross-border interactions more difficult. Even academics accustomed to frequent, hassle-free border crossings are now discouraged by long waits, harassment, and redundancy on both sides. In this climate, nurturing binational relationships requires determination and commitment from universities, faculty, and administrators.

Looking Ahead

It is critical to recognize that in order to maximize border university partnerships, sustained engagement, funding, and institutional support are needed. So far, many UTEP-Mexico collaborations have focused on STEM fields. Expanding faculty and student exchanges into the arts, humanities, and social sciences could enrich regional history, culture, and language understandings.

Joint research could also address pressing issues facing border communities—from migration policies to environmental justice—that exceed the capacities of single institutions. Rather than parachuting in from the outside, border university partners are distinctly positioned to produce meaningful scholarship and action together from the ground up.

UTEP's Bridge Grant Program has marked an essential step toward realizing this vision. Both universities and governments should invest additional resources in these binational networks. Border security infrastructure and restrictive immigration policies also need rethinking to facilitate academic and cultural exchange.

Successfully collaborating across borders requires viewing universities as equal partners, not as problems to solve or competitors to be tested. If ties between border institutions like UTEP and Mexican universities continue to strengthen, they can create environments for teaching, research, and community engagement that embrace our shared humanity and common purpose across borders. What new programs, exchanges, and partnerships could emerge with a more open border and expanded mindset? The future possibilities for cooperation are as limitless as the imagination.

Human Connection the Key

Ultimately, genuine collaboration between border universities will be driven by human relationships and understanding, not just formal agreements. The personal connections between faculty, students, and administrators on both sides of the border provide the foundation for meaningful joint research and learning.

As Maldonado-Maldonado and Cantwell found in their 2008 study, the insecurities and desires of individual collaborators play a prominent role in cross-border academic work. The social, cultural, historical, and economic contexts at national, institutional, and individual levels all condition collaboration across the Mexico-US border.

The effects of these complex contexts can be contradictory, leading to closer ties and more vital divisions between partnering universities. Nevertheless, the desire for cooperation endures, even amid fears and obstacles. By embracing curiosity, academic rigor, and our shared humanity, border university collaborations can help dissolve stereotypes and division.

With sustained engagement, funding, and institutional backing, these partnerships have immense research, learning, and community impact potential. However, above all, human connections must come first. The stories of collaboration between institutions like UTEP and UNISON (Universidad de Sonora) remind us that our borders need not define us. When universities reach across them, focusing on our common purpose, we stand to gain much through mutual understanding.

Written by Miguel Hernandez, Doctoral Teaching Fellow

The University of Texas at El Paso, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP

Banner image of El Paso skyline courtesy of The University of Texas at El Paso.

Works Cited

El Diario de El Paso. “Colabora UTEP Con Universidades de Chihuahua En Proyectos de Impacto.” El Diario, 11 Aug. 2023, diario.mx/el-paso/colabora-utep-con-universidades-de-chihuahua-en-proyectos-de-impacto-20230811-2086071.html. Accessed 11 Nov. 2023.

Lopéz, Alma. “UACJ Y UTEP Montan La Exposición La Frontera–Gaceta UACJ.” Gaceta UACJ, 7 Nov. 2023, gaceta.uacj.mx/blog/2023/11/07/uacj-y-utep-montan-la-exposicion-la-frontera/. Accessed 11 Nov. 2023.

Madrid, Gustavo Cabullo. “Participa La UACJ En Proyecto Para Estimular La Investigación Transfronteriza.” Comunicación Universitaria, 11 Aug. 2023, comunica.uacj.mx/11-08-2023/38049. Accessed 11 Nov. 2023.

Maldonado, Alma, and Brendan Cantwell. "Caught on the Mexican–US Border: The Insecurity and Desire of Collaboration between Two Universities." Comparative Education, vol. 44, no. 3, Aug. 2008, pp. 317–31, https://doi.org/10.1080/03050060802264868. Accessed 3 Nov. 2020.

Sp Prensa. “PROYECTAN UTCJ Y UTEP REACTIVAR Y ACRECENTAR CONVENIO de COLABORACIÓN–Noticias.” www.utcj.edu.mx, 5 Apr. 2022, www.utcj.edu.mx/Noticias/Lists/EntradasDeBlog/Post.aspx?ID=1023. Accessed 11 Nov. 2023.

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