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Panama Hopes to Create a "City of Knowledge," Summer 1997

Number 20, Summer 1997 

Panama Hopes to Create a "City of Knowledge": Where U.S. Forces Once Ran the Canal Zone
by Colin Woodard from The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 16, 1997

Panama City, Panama — The U.S. withdrawal from the former Panama Canal Zone is expected to open new and substantial opportunities for this country's higher-education system and for researchers studying tropical regions.

Under a treaty signed two decades ago, the United States is to turn over the entire canal system to the Republic of Panama by December 31, 1999. When the treaty was signed, the plan was to transfer the military sites to the Panamanian army. But in the aftermath of the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, which ended the military regime of Gen. Manuel Noriega, the country abolished its army and established a much smaller national police force. As a result, Panama is now developing other plans for the military bases.

One of the most ambitious projects is a proposed "City of Knowledge," a sprawling international university and research complex that Panama hopes will become a magnet for students, researchers, and companies up and down the hemisphere.

Under government-sponsored legislation now being drafted, the City of Knowledge would be housed primarily at Fort Clayton, a U.S. Army garrison just outside Panama City, and one of the largest military bases being turned over to Panama.

"For Panama, this is the most important project since the construction of the canal," says Irene Perurena, general secretary of the City of Knowledge Foundation, a part of Panama's Interoceanic Authority, the government agency responsible for integrating the former Canal Zone with the rest of the country. "It will bring enormous economic and educational advantages" to Panama, she says, adding that the proposal is very popular here "because of its 'bombs to books' aspect."

The project calls for the development of a vibrant university and research community, with a core campus at Fort Clayton. The base, which once housed the main Army brigade charged with defending the canal, has 1,392 family-housing units, dormitory space for 1,754, and 500 offices, as well as libraries, auditoriums, swimming pools, and other recreational and administrative facilities appropriate to a large university.

According to planners of the project, several key components of the proposed campus would be housed there:

  • An elite, four-year liberal-arts university with U.S. accreditation and a need-blind admissions policy that would primarily serve Panamanian students.

  • A diversified community-college campus, formed from what is now Panama Canal College, providing continuing-education programs, worker retraining, and contract services for industry.

  • Branch campuses of several foreign universities and colleges, probably including joint programs in such disciplines as tropical or marine biology, merchant-marine training, Latin American studies, Spanish, and tourism.

  • Specialized research institutes of foreign or domestic universities and institutes.

  • An industrial park, where private companies could conduct research-and-development activities that would capitalized on the campus's resources.

"Like a commercial real-estate project, the important thing is 'location, location, location,' and Panama's got that," says Ira Rubinoff, director of the Smithsonian Institution's Tropic Research Institute here and a member of the board of the City of Knowledge Foundation. "There are two oceans 40 miles apart, a land bridge between two continents, and a great variety of habitats in a very small area — all with easy communications and an atmosphere that's very conducive to research.

"In tropical research alone, there's so much we don't know. The tropics have the highest population growth and the greatest biodiversity on the planet. Yet there are very few world-class biological-research universities located here. There's so much more to be done than there are institutions to do it, and the City of Knowledge could help a great deal."

If the proposal wins final approval from the legislature — a vote on the project is expected in September — Panama would provide significant incentives to foreign institutions and companies interested in setting up programs associated with the City of Knowledge. Institutions would be eligible for "international mission" status, simplifying visa, employment, and residency requirements for staff members. Equipment and supplies could be imported to the area duty free, and other activities would benefit from tax incentives and exemptions.

'An Academic Free-Trade Zone'

"In essence, we want to create an academic free-trade zone," says Ms. Perurena. "We would provide the facilities, they would bring the programs and specific resources, and Panamanians will benefit from the new opportunities."

Interest in the proposal is strong. Panama Canal College and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute already are associated with the project, and several other foreign institutions have expressed interest. According to the City of Knowledge Foundation, they include Florida State University, the University of South Carolina, Texas A&M University, George Washington University, and the Latin American Center for Journalism. Organizations representing European universities are also interested.

"The success of the project now depends on domestic political will and our ability to generate popular support," says Stanley Muschett, a member of the foundation's board and rector of the University of Santa Maria La Antigua, a Roman Catholic institution here. "It also must complement Panama's higher-education system. Only by involving Panamanian universities can this project really be useful."

Panama has five universities, three of them private, and some academics are worried that the City of Knowledge might drain support from them. The concerns have been allayed by government assurances that no funds from the education budget would be used to support the project, and by the inclusion of Dr. Muschett and other academics on the board of directors.

Building Political Support

"Everyone on the board is aware of the importance of insuring that the City of Knowledge enhances Panamanian universities," Dr. Muschett says. "It should have many benefits for us: new teaching opportunities for our faculty members, space where we can expand our campuses and laboratories, and access to new resources, technologies, and companies."

Now attention has shifted to the political front. The legislation that would create the City of Knowledge and grant it property rights and legal authority must receive the support of the cabinet and, ultimately, the Legislative Assembly. The project has powerful supporters in President Ernesto Pérez Balladares and former President Ardito Barletta, now the head of the Interoceanic Authority.

In addition to the physical resources of Fort Clayton, the project would need a multimillion-dollar endowment to help cover operating and start-up costs. Its staff members say that having the land will be the key to winning support from the Inter-American Development Bank and other international lending institutions.

"The hardest thing will be to convince people this investment is valuable," says Ms. Perurena. "After all, there won't be any return for five or eight years, whereas a private enterprise might show one much faster. It's much harder to get funding for long-term projects like this."