The oldest of Cuba’s 60 universities, and the third-oldest in Latin America, the Universidad de la Habana (University of Havana) was founded in 1721 by Pope Innocent XIII and King Philip V of Spain, originally being housed in 1728 in the Dominican convent of Santo Domingo in the Old Town of Havana. No doubt looking to expand, it moved in 1902 to the Aróstegui hill in the Vedado district of Havana, into grand neo-classical buildings built at the top of a impressive set of steps which is dominated by Mario Korbel’s statue “Alma Mater” created in 1919, the model for which was Feliciana “Chana” Villalón, the daughter of José Ramón Villalón y Sánchez, a professor of analytical mathematics at the University. There is a link with Fidel Castro in that Chana later married Juan Manuel Menocal, who was a professor at the law school when Castro was a student there in the 1940s.
The art deco library was added in 1936 and the campus today includes a tank captured in the Battle of Santa Clara by the Revolutionaries in 1958 and other plaques and sculptures.
The University was a centre of anti-government protests in the early 1950’s and was closed down by Batista in 1956 (so much for freedom of speech). The 1959 revolutionary government prioritised investment in health and education and, today, the university has an excellent reputation, but the buildings on the Aróstegui hill are in need of modernisation and refurbishment. Perhaps this might be achieved through partnerships with other universities? The University has, for example, a Memorandum of Understanding with Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, for research and for staff and student exchange. Would more of these partnerships help to fund the improvements to buildings, equipment and infrastructure (especially IT) that the university needs to need to maintain its research and teaching in the 21st century.
On the outskirts of Havana are the botanical gardens, which were once owned by the University of Harvard as a research facility. Could the two universities now consider collaboration on joint research programmes?
Inevitably, the university has expanded beyond its original home, taking over additional buildings around the hill and other buildings such as the former modernist Odontological Building (1953) in the centre of Havana for the School of Economics. Today, the Universidad de la Habana has 16 faculties, including natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, with an enrolment of around 60,000 students.
The original building in Old Havana was subsequently occupied by a variety of Government departments, but happily has now returned to university use, following recent redevelopment (2007) for the University College of San Gerónimo with a project that retains key historic features such as the bell tower containing the original bells of the University of Havana within a modern glass box that reflects adjacent buildings and appears to disappear into the urban landscape. The building also includes the laboratories, research library and collections of the Office of the Historian, responding to the contemporary challenges of museums and the conservation of cultural and architectural heritage in Cuba
The government is understandably investing in new hotels and infrastructure to support the growing tourism industry. Investment in its universities is investment in the future of young people of the country and in enterprise and economic growth. Imaginative partnership solutions seem to be required in order to achieve that investment.