WHILE a noisy debate rages over creating the world's largest consumer market with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), university-level educators are quietly bridging borders to create the North American classroom.
Among academic institutions on the United States-Mexico border, faculty exchanges and joint research projects have a long history. Similar linkages can be found among Canadian and US institutions. Now - encouraged in part by NAFTA - educators in all three nations are striving for a new level of intercommunication and academic affiliation.
``Economic integration without a deepening of our educational and cultural dimension poses an unacceptable risk: a collision of values that could well lead to more discord than we would have had without NAFTA,'' said Joseph Duffey, US Information Agency (USIA) director, at a trinational conference on higher education in Vancouver last month. Four $100,000 grants
The Vancouver conference was attended by some 270 representatives from universities, business, and government. The US announced four $100,000 grants to four groups of Mexican, US, and Canadian universities to develop or enhance trilateral exchange programs and to specifically support projects dealing with history, economics, international trade, and the environment.
The Mexican government-funded National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) also announced that for the first time it would chip in 5 million pesos (about $1.64 million) in scholarships for Mexican students and professors to study in Canada and the US.
The UNAM, along with many Mexican public universities, has a reputation for being leftist and anti-US. Many educators here worry that Mexico may, in the name of NAFTA and modernization, be sacrificing its cultural values and educational programs to those of its northern neighbors. At Vancouver, Mexico's Undersecretary of Higher Education Antonio Gago Huguet warned against the ``temptation of homogenization.''
But attitudes are changing here, says Enrique Cardenas, rector of the Puebla-based University of the Americas (UDLA). ``A year ago, the UNAM wasn't talking about student exchanges, only faculty. This 5-million-peso scholarship is an amazing change. But it fits the trend in the Mexican academic community,'' says Cardenas, whose institution has a well-developed US studies and exchange program.
``There are asymmetries between the academic institutions of the three nations,'' Cardenas says. ``But collaboration can improve all parties. If that is true economically, it's more true academically.''
For many Mexican institutions, the academic horizon has not gone beyond the US, its No.1 trading partner. With NAFTA, that's now changing. In May, the UNAM's four-year-old Center for Research on the United States decided to embrace Canadian studies. It is now the Center for Research on North America - the first of its kind.
At the Vancouver meeting, the UDLA cemented a student and teacher exchange agreement with the University of British Columbia. And the Autonomous University of Baja California announced a pact with Canada's Simon Fraser University.
Along the US-Mexico frontier, institutions with well-established links are taking a fresh look at ways to expand or upgrade their cross-border relationships.
Texas A & M University has faculty, student, or joint research agreements with 20 Mexican institutions. But last month it became the first US university with a permanent presence here. It inaugurated a floor of offices to be shared with the Texas Department of Commerce in downtown Mexico City. ``We see this center as a gateway for academic partnerships, program development, joint research, and executive development programs,'' says Dr. Dean Gage, interim president of Texas A & M.
San Diego State University has in place faculty exchange programs with the College of the Northern Border, an academic research institution based just south of Tijuana and the Autonomous University of Baja California.
The short distances between US-Mexico border institutions make for inexpensive commuter exchange programs. ``We regularly hire Mexican faculty on a part-time basis to teach courses. It means we can draw upon a broader pool of talent and backgrounds,'' says Paul Ganster, San Diego State's director of regional studies of the Californias.
Mexican professors studying at San Diego State for advanced degrees often don't pay out-of-state tuition. Instead, they barter their experience by participating in a research project or a conference, or by producing a publication.
Because of accreditation problems and different education systems, most exchange programs are for advanced degrees or teacher training. And US undergraduates studying in Mexico most often come for short-term language, history, and cultural study programs.
Now, with US federal funding, San Diego State and Southwest Community College are hooking up with two Tijuana colleges, the Autonomous University of Baja California and the Center of Technical and Higher Education, to create what is said to be the first US-Mexico undergraduate degree.
Mexican and US students will spend two years on their home campus and two years on the foreign campus. Students will graduate with an undergraduate degree in international business recognized in both nations. Student response
``This is a logical culmination of those concerned about educating the NAFTA generation. They can be competitive on both sides of the border,'' says San Diego's Ganster, adding that ``student response has been tremendous.''
Tapping that same vein of interest is a less ambitious but novel program at Northern Arizona State University. International business professor Jerry Schmaedick just started a binational night course on doing business in the US and Mexico. On alternate Wednesdays, the professor drives about a half hour down to San Luis del Rio Colorado, Sonora, to give a class in the local chamber of commerce building to 19 students (10 US citizens, nine Mexican). The following Wednesday, the entire class meets on the US side of the Rio Grande at the university campus.