When Frank O. Mora was offered the position of director of Florida International University's Latin American and Caribbean Center, he accepted immediately.
Mr. Mora, who is 49, had spent the previous four years as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere. His tasks included managing defense relations among countries in the Americas, overseeing the U.S. response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and helping to set up a system to coordinate multinational efforts for future humanitarian disasters. "Sometimes at the Pentagon you feel like a fireman," he says. "I welcome the more pensive, intellectual, deliberate environment" of academe.
The center's mission is to promote the study of Latin America and the Caribbean and to foster research on the region's problems. More than 200 faculty members, from departments across the university, are associated with the center. That interdisciplinary sweep, Mr. Mora says, is crucial: "It's not a self-contained entity—we want to partner with everyone and collaborate."
His new position has brought him back to Miami, where he grew up. He earned a master's degree in inter-American studies and a Ph.D. in international affairs at the University of Miami.
Since beginning work at Florida International, in June, Mr. Mora has presented a strategic plan for the Latin American center, one that focuses on Haiti, Brazil, and a new Andean-studies program.
His experiences as both an academic and a public-sector policy maker shape his outlook on his own research and on the center's mission. Before he worked at the Pentagon, he was a professor of national-security strategy and Latin American studies at the National War College of the National Defense University and an associate professor of international studies at Rhodes College. His jobs in the government and higher education have shown him "what academics can bring to the table and contribute to decision making, and how those in public service can bring perspective to academia."
His dual background also added to his appeal as a candidate.
In an e-mail, Mark B. Rosenberg, Florida International's president, cited Mr. Mora's "grounded understanding" of Latin America and the Caribbean as "a plus for students and others focused on the region and its complex political and social landscape. He couples academic and real-world insights to his passion for education."
Mr. Rosenberg founded the center in 1979, when he was an assistant professor of political science at the university.
In his new role, Mr. Mora wants to strengthen cooperation between academe, government, and business to achieve practical and policy results in the region. "I'm not trailblazing here," he says, pointing to the government's focus on finding and supporting scholars with expertise in Latin America, Africa, and Asia from the middle of the 20th century onward, as well as to recent examples of its turning to anthropologists to support strategic goals in Afghanistan.
His Defense Department experience in Haiti has shaped his work to bolster the center's Haitian-studies program: "I saw that we could do more from an academic standpoint and maybe a policy standpoint as well."
In November he plans to return to Port-au-Prince for the first time since the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, to take part in a conference on the history of Haitian ethnology that the center is co-sponsoring with the State University of Haiti.
Many in academe and the public sector are not as adept at—or interested in—toggling between the two sectors as Mr. Mora has proved to be. Increasing those connections, in part through his own example, is a high priority: "My job is to explain to academics through my own experience how their own academic work would be enriched by engaging these actors and constituencies. I learned a lot from being in government, and that different perspective has informed my research."
Mr. Mora's government experience may well also have dollars-and-cents benefits. Leading a center focused on Latin America when much of academe, like the government, has turned toward Asia is likely to present financial challenges. "We need to think creatively about funding strains," he says, especially ones that fall outside the traditionally strong government support for security-related research.
"I know where the opportunities are," Mr. Mora says. He mentions, in particular, government interest in environmentally focused programs.
He also challenges the idea that the study of Latin America should, or can, be ignored. "We trade more with the Western Hemisphere than any other part of the world," he says. "We have major investments there, as well as human connections and cultural interdependence. Even if we wanted to run away from Latin America, we couldn't."