Dr. Monique Taylor is the new assistant provost of Alliant University campus in Mexico City.
Mexico City, Mexico: Monique Taylor has spent her career grappling with race and identity-both on and off the campus-and in environments as culturally complex as Los Angeles, Harlem, and the Palestinian West Bank.
But the former Occidental College sociology professor is now facing perhaps her biggest academic challenge: helping rebuild an American campus in the heart of the Mexican capital.
In January 2009, California-based Alliant International University hired Ms. Taylor to overhaul its undergraduate programs in Mexico City. Alliant, a nonprofit and one of only two universities that offer American bachelor's degrees in Mexico, was facing a 30-percent drop in enrollment, with the undergraduate programs the hardest hit.
"Something had slipped," says Ms. Taylor. "There was just this sense of academic culture and values and respect that was not entirely there."
The Mexico campus was founded in 1970 as part of the United States International University, which recruited students from around the world. In 2001, International University merged with what had been called the California School of Professional Psychology and was reborn as Alliant.
The new university, which offers mainly pre-professional programs to some 6,000 students, has six campuses in California, as well as sites in Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, and Mexico City.
But Alliant Mexico is the only Alliant campus based in a developing nation-not to mention one plagued by corruption and an escalating drug war.
"My feeling was that this was like a little floating satellite," says Ms. Taylor.
The sociologist's experience working in different cultures may benefit her in Mexico. Ms. Taylor's research has focused on gentrification and evolving racial identities in black neighborhoods like Harlem, and she worked to promote campus diversity during her 12-year stint at Occidental. She gave up tenure at Occidental in 2005, shortly after moving to Israel with her husband, a journalist. There she crossed Israeli barricades to teach courses on the Harlem Renaissance and African-American culture at a campus of Al-Quds University, in Ramallah, Palestine.
A scholar who earned tenure at a well-respected institution, Ms. Taylor also describes herself as a "hard-ass college teacher." It's with that attitude she hopes to turn the Alliant campus around with better management and increased publicity.
Variations in Quality
After joining Alliant, Ms. Taylor combined classroom work-she taught an undergraduate course on world history-with an administrator's role. Starting in January, when she was promoted to the newly created post of vice provost for academic affairs, she has focused on tightening academic standards and boosting collaboration between the Mexico and California campuses.
"You've got this international site, south of the border in Mexico, which is important to the U.S." she says, "and in Mexico City, this huge cosmopolitan city, with this incredibly diverse faculty and student body."
About half of the 69 students at Alliant Mexico are Americans, who are drawn by the opportunity to get an U.S. college education while living abroad. Tuition is also low by American standards-$1,050 per class-and students can use U.S. government loans to cover the cost.
Most of the other students are Europeans and Africans, who want to earn an American college degree without the visa hassles of studying in the United States.
Alliant Mexico provides undergraduate and graduate degrees in international relations, business, education, and psychology. The university is also unusual in Mexico in offering nearly all of its classes in English, although most students are required to take Spanish-language courses as part of cultural immersion.
Its programs vary widely in terms of quality. While the counseling-psychology program draws American Ivy League graduates and includes a popular summer immersion program, the undergraduate programs are less well known.
Some of the 30 undergraduates said their courses were not demanding enough. They also complained that the university offered little support for expats who are struggling to adapt to life in Mexico. (Administrators say part of the international experience is for students to overcome some cultural differences on their own.)
Still, students rave about the small class sizes-an average of five students per professor-and the opportunity to study with people from around the world.
"Most of the schools in the States are full of middle-class white Americans," says Dorothy Boehm, an international-relations student from Washington, who graduated in May. "The diversity here makes for a great class."
Like many of her fellow students, she arrived in Mexico without knowing any Spanish. Four years later, she speaks the language well enough to intern at the Mexican migrants'-rights group, Sin Fronteras, which helps defend Central Americans against abuses by Mexican authorities.
One of her classmates, Ginette Saloma, spent a year studying in Kenya through the university's ties to the United States International University there. (The Kenyan institution went independent after the 2001 merger.)
"I always wanted to go abroad," says Ms. Saloma, who grew up in California and is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. "Not everywhere can you get the same opportunities."
Alliant is now focusing on rebuilding enrollment, in part through an aggressive advertising campaign focusing on Mexican students. It includes billboards around the Mexican capital and signs on city buses, as well as booths at college fairs.
What's more, several years ago, Alliant moved campuses from a colonial mansion to a more modern classroom facility with room for twice the number of students. The new site, in the hip Zona Rosa neighborhood, has a spacious library and well-equipped classrooms around tree-lined courtyards.
Despite these efforts, Alliant officials acknowledge that it will be hard to grow the number of students significantly.
"I think the undergraduate program is always going to be more challenging because our programs don't fit into the Mexican structure so neatly," says Geoffrey M. Cox, president of Alliant International University. He notes that Mexican undergraduate programs tend to be highly specialized. The university also lacks Mexican government accreditation-it follows an American rather than a Mexican curriculum and is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, in the United States-making it harder for students to transfer to other Mexican institutions.
Alliant's closest competitor in Mexico, the Massachusetts-based Endicott College, just announced that it is closing its daytime undergraduate program. Instead, it will focus on recruiting students in Mexico to send to Beverly, Mass., for the entire four years.
"Most students want to have the big campus with its amenities, and here we're pretty much a branch of that university," says Jay Van Heuven, executive director of Endicott in Mexico.
He noted that tuition at Endicott and Alliant is higher than that of even the most prestigious private universities in Mexico. Much of that money goes into hiring professors who are fluent in English and meet American academic standards.
Mr. Cox, of Alliant, was optimistic that the university's master's-degree program in counseling psychology, which combines field work in some of Mexico City's roughest neighborhoods with visits by big-name American professors, would attract a growing number of students. Other programs with potential to grow are the master's in international business and education, he says.
For her part, Ms. Taylor cites growing demand for international education as the university's strongest feature.
"This is a laboratory for what I know is important in higher education right now," she says. "I just think it's too important to let it fail."