University of Alabama opens new Center for Cuba Collaboration and Scholarship building

As the University of Alabama dedicated its new Center for Cuba Collaboration and Scholarship on Thursday, the faculty and administrators who helped pioneer the initiative praised the new space as a sign of UA’s long-term commitment to the program.

“One of the things this represents to me today is the roots of the program are sinking deeper,” said Robert Olin, dean of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences.

The center is a focal point for the partnership between UA and Cuban institutions that offers students and faculty the chance to visit the island nation for research, scholarly, performances and other trips while also bringing Cuban artists and faculty to UA.

Olin and a gathering of other administrators, faculty and students celebrated the dedication in the center’s new suite of offices and conference rooms in Capital Hall on the old Bryce Hospital campus.

For Olin, the new center is a sign that the program will live beyond his efforts and those of others who helped established the university’s relationship with Cuba more than a decade ago.

Carmen Burkhalter, dean of the University of North Alabama College of Arts and Sciences and a former UA faculty member, reflected on the elements that helped the program be successful.

“We always followed the rules,” she said. “We never followed conventions. Convention dictated we were supposed to be frightened, we were not supposed to trust …”

By following the rules required to travel but defying the conventions of more than a half century of acrimonious relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments, Burkhalter said the initiative was able to take root and flourish.

“One of the things that has struck me time and time again, is that the University of Alabama has shown its commitment to this project,” Burkhalter said. “This solidifies this as a part of the University of Alabama.”

The University of Alabama board of trustees approved creating the center in February. The center will expand on the foundation of its predecessor the Alabama-Cuba Initiative, which began in 2002 and is led by UA’s College of Arts and Sciences.

The center is led by co-directors Michael Schnepf, a Spanish professor, and Steve Miller, a professor in Library and Information Sciences. It has a budget of roughly $50,000 and an advisory board of faculty members and administrators.

Since the initiative was established, Olin noted nearly 100 faculty and every college at UA has made trips to the island.

The grand opening is a celebration of the past 13 years and the new center’s future, UA President Stuart Bell said.

“It’s so important certainly to Alabama, but it is so important to our world, it is so important to our students,” Bell said.

Drawing a contrast with his own experience as a student in Texas, Bell said a student’s worldview has expanded and it’s important to understand other cultures.

Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst for the National Security Archive and author of several books on U.S.-Cuban relations, praised the new center at the university as one-of-a-kind. Kornbluh gave a guest lecture on Thursday afternoon as part of the celebrations.

“This in an amazing accomplishment that you should be proud of,” Kornbluh said.

The center’s collaborative focus reflects an attitude the Communist country has long sought in its relationship with its northern neighbor, Kornbluh said.

U.S.-Cuban relations have been like a bridge destroyed during wartime that is being rebuilt brick by brick, Kornbluh said, quoting 1977 comments by Cuban President Raul Castro.

“You have built this bridge, your faculty, your students, your community is traveling back and forth,” Kornbluh said.

Ed Enoch,

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