Friday, November 13, 2015

The following text is from a talk I gave at the Providence Business News Excellence Awards last night, where I was the keynote speaker.  The talk appeared to be well received and some suggested that posting it here would be worthwhile, so here it is.

Cinderella and Lincoln

Allow me to begin by stating that I am very honored to speak here tonight, to you, a group who strive for, and achieve, a level of excellence that I can only hope for, and which is truly inspirational.  I would like to thank the good people of the Providence Business News for the invitation, and for providing me the opportunity to be, however briefly, a part of this distinguished group.  Congratulations to all the excellence award winners this evening – your achievements and dedication motivate all of us to aim higher and do more.
Please allow me to continue with a confession: my favorite movie of 2015 is Disney’s live-action Cinderella.  I would guess that at least some of you are surprised at this. I’ve seen it several times, although fewer, so far, than I did the original Star Wars, where I stopped counting at approximately 20 trips to the theater. Family members, including my son, who, ironically, works for Disney, have given me quite a bit of (somewhat) gentle hectoring about my affection for this movie. I suppose their attitude may arise from the fact that demographic analysis of global Cinderella ticket sales appears to indicate that the audience consists primarily of millions of teen-age girls spread across the world, and me.  I don’t know what this says about me, but I do think that it reflects the refined and sophisticated taste in movies of the world’s teen-age girls. I am proud to be among them, because this is a movie that celebrates the triumph of courage, kindness, and love over cruelty, selfishness, and political scheming. 
But I bring it up tonight for a different reason. At the conclusion of the movie the narrator, who, yes, happens to be Cinderella’s fairy godmother, says: “and Ella continued to see the world not as it is, but as it could be”.  That struck me as a rather profound statement, and I have thought a lot about it. I have come to believe that all of our efforts to do good in the world, and all of our work to make our world better, must originate with the conviction that we do not have to accept the world as we find it, and also with a vision for what the world could, in fact, become.
This does not mean that we deny the reality of world as we find it today.  We live in a world of great beauty, surpassing joy, boundless mercy, and pervasive goodness.  But we also live in world of continuous war, global terrorism, manifold hatreds, racism, growing inequality, and potentially catastrophic climate change.  Indeed, it may be that the global crises around war, refugees, infectious disease, and climate change pose the greatest threat to our future than at any time since the Second World War, and could destroy much that is best and brightest in our world as it is.
We must face and accept these realities.  We are not free to create our own alternative reality that denies or minimizes these threats.  However, to “see the world as it could be” empowers us to use the capabilities within us to transform the world, and to create a future that is superior to the present reality in which we live. 
History teaches that we can do this.  I shall give but one example – that of Abraham Lincoln.  More than any other individual of his time, he saw our nation not as it was, but as it could be, both prior to his presidency, and throughout the Civil War, as that terrible conflict threatened to consume the nation, and exacted a staggering and excruciating cost. 
Many of his actions, by which Lincoln implemented his vision for what America could be, are well known to all of us: issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and winning passage of the 13th Amendment, for example.  And we remember what he said at Gettysburg and his second inauguration, words so powerful and so inspiring that they pierced the pain and suffering of America’s most terrible war: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth; and “With Malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”
It is not these particular actions, or these words, as important and powerful as they are, with which I am chiefly concerned.  Indeed, one of the most profoundly important actions of President Lincoln appears to be something about which we have no specific record of him speaking or writing. It was, however, accomplished with just a few strokes of his pen as he signed the Morrill Act into law on July 2, 1862.  It was an Act of incredible vision that changed the world.  Representative Justin Morrill, the 37th Congress, and President Lincoln peered into the future and saw an America that could be.  The Land Grant Act of 1862 provided, for the first time in the world, a national system of state colleges and universities dedicated to:  
“the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” 
In other words, this Act established, for the first time, a national system of higher education to benefit all citizens – not merely landowners, merchants, and the wealthy. The fact that, over a hundred years later, I could get a college education at a land-grant institution (in my case, the University of California) was a direct consequence of this extraordinary Act. I would guess that many others in this room could say the same.  Millions upon millions of Americans have been provided the opportunity for a better life as a consequence of the work of Representative Morrill, the 37th Congress and President Lincoln. 
It was not an easy, or even obvious, thing to do. Previous efforts had failed, in part because of fears that such a radical educational system would disrupt the social and economic fabric of the country.  
And consider, if you will, the timing:  July of 1862. The brutal and debilitating Seven Days Battle had just concluded, and Lincoln’s hopes of a quick conclusion to the war via the early capture of Richmond had been crushed.  Less than 3 months previously the battle of Shiloh had been fought, which was the most vicious and bloody conflict America had experienced in its entire history. Casualties at Shiloh were greater than the American casualties of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War – combined! The conclusion of the Civil War was more remote than ever, because neither side could envision, after such losses, an outcome achieved by any means other than the total defeat of the other.  General Grant, and likely President Lincoln, concluded, as Grant stated it: “I gave up all idea of saving the Union, except by complete conquest.”
And yet, at such a time in American history, members of the Congress and President Lincoln could see America as it could be – united, free, educated, and therefore prepared, to assume a leading position in the world, and to become a beacon of democracy and liberty for all people.  It is at least noteworthy, and perhaps astonishing, that the benefits provided to the states to enable the creation of land-grant universities were based on the census of 1860, and therefore included all the states of the Confederacy, so long as they ceased to be in a condition of active rebellion or insurrection. Today, institutions such as the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin, the University of California, Michigan State, and Ohio State, and Penn State, but also Mississippi State, Louisiana State, Auburn University, Texas A&M, North Carolina State, and Clemson University, exist in their current status as a consequence of Lincoln’s signature in 1862.  America’s land-grant universities are now among the very best in the world, admired and emulated across the globe, preeminent in fields such as agriculture, engineering, science, business, medicine, nursing, economics, literature, languages, and many others.
This is the heritage, the DNA, of the University of Rhode Island.  We exist to educate the common people, to provide access to higher education for all economic classes, not only the 1% or even the 10%. We exist to advance knowledge and, very importantly, to disseminate and translate that knowledge to every American, and ultimately to share it with everyone across the world.  We exist to provide understanding, opportunity, and hope to anyone and everyone that we encounter, and for the generations after them.
This mission is neither easy, nor risk-free.  It may stimulate vitriolic criticism, financial penalties, and government retribution. But we can do no less, for this cause, in part, likely cost Lincoln his life: after his final public speech, in which he endorsed the education of, and the vote for, freed slaves, John Wilkes Booth reportedly declared that “that will be the last speech that he (Lincoln) will ever make.”  And it was.
To help our students do the work and take the risks that enable them to see the world, “not as it is, but as it could be”, is the heart and soul of education at URI, and at other colleges and universities like us. Forty-five years ago I left home at the age of 18 to go to college, and I never left. I have spent my life mostly in the company of 18 – 26 year olds.  That is probably why I am not merely a scientific realist, but also an optimist. I have heard all the criticisms of students, generation upon generation, and I think they are largely inaccurate, or misguided, or reflect the perspectives of those who are privileged, or comfortable with the world as it is, or afraid of what it could be.  The students of the University of Rhode Island, and of every other college or university where I have worked, are empowered to see the world as it could be, and not merely as it is presented to them.  They comprehend the magnitude of the challenges the world offers as it is, but they are not intimidated. And neither should we be. 
America does not need to be “made great again”.  The greatness of America was never derived from the strength of its military, the height of its walls, the magnitude of its economy, or the power of its institutions.  The greatness of our nation has always rested in its people, and I see no convincing evidence that our current generations are not up to the tasks before them, as every past generation of Americans has been. 
Cinderella had it right. It is essential that we not accept the world as we find it. Rather, it is essential that we see the world not as it is, but as it could be, and that we strive together to create that better world.
To conclude tonight, allow me to respectfully ask that you join Cinderella, President Abraham Lincoln, and the students of the University of Rhode Island. See the world, not as it is, but as it could be. If that’s too big a request, then endeavor to see Rhode Island as it could be: a place of hope, not cynicism; confident, not fearful; successful, not defeated; a place people move to, not away from; a national leader, not an afterthought; and a place where everyone is included, and no one is left behind.

Let’s do that, and from that foundation we can transform this world and create a future that is brighter for all of us.  Thank you very much for listening this evening, and have a wonderful night.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Investing in the Arts

As the state’s public land-grant research university, the University of Rhode Island’s mission includes economic development as a central, and critical, priority.         Consequently, we have worked closely with Governors, the General Assembly, and the people of Rhode Island to secure substantial investments in new buildings and facilities that have provided, and will provide, new opportunities for economic growth and the creation of jobs. These include the Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences, the College of Pharmacy building, the Richard E. Beaupre Center for Chemical and Forensic Sciences, and the $125 million College of Engineering facility.  There is more in the pipeline of our capital improvement plan, including the second phase for Engineering and much needed new facilities for the Graduate School of Oceanography.
As important as science and engineering are to URI, the university has a much broader and equally important mission that encompasses the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts.  The University of Rhode Island is concerned with educating our students to become the well-informed, thoughtful citizens they need to be amidst the substantial challenges of the 21st century.  We strive to be a positive force for social development and cultural understanding – improving lives not only financially, but also by strengthening families and communities, building mutual understanding and respect, and providing for the common good.
The arts – music, theater, art, film, design – are an important, even essential, element in achieving this broader mission.  They offer a medium of communication that spans time and space, connecting us to each other, to our past, and projecting our vision and our lives into the future.  The arts can foster understanding and appreciation across cultures, can reinforce our mutual humanity, and help us discover our shared values and common ground.  Concurrently, the arts can provide profound and moving critiques of our cultures, politics, and societies – critiques from which we may learn and benefit. 
For all of these reasons, the University of Rhode Island has long offered a wide variety of programs and degrees in the arts, including the Bachelor of Arts, the Bachelor of Fine Arts, and the Bachelor of Music.  Hundreds of shows, performances, exhibits, and recitals take place every year.  Over 50,000 people from all across the state attend arts events at the University of Rhode Island each year – yes, over 50,000. Enrollments in arts classes exceeded 8500 last academic year.  In short, the arts are a vibrant, engaging, and inspiring part of URI’s teaching, scholarship and creative work. The many contributions from our faculty, students, and distinguished visitors constitute substantial service to the state, which is also intrinsic to our land-grant mission.  And we should certainly note that many have pointed out that the arts can have a significant and positive economic impact in their own right.
To sustain and enhance our efforts in the arts, it is time to invest.  The Fine Arts building, which dates from the 1960s, is in urgent need of replacement and/or renovation.  New technologies for teaching and learning are now available that need to be incorporated, and new kinds of spaces created, which will permit the arts to thrive well into the future.  This project will be one of our top priorities for consideration and approval by the Governor, the General Assembly, and the people of Rhode Island. I hope that the entire URI community, all those who enjoy and benefit from URI’s commitment to the arts, and all those who agree that the arts epitomize much of what is best in the human spirit, will join us in this endeavor.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Your Life Matters

This weekend the University of Rhode Island welcomed over 3500 new students to our community. Over the summer, dozens of new faculty and staff also joined us.  It is the nature of universities – every year we say goodbye to many of our company, and then welcome those who arrive.  Even though our members regularly change, the values of our community, and our responsibilities to one another, remain consistent.
At times, and all too frequently it seems to me, we are forced to part with members of our community far too early, and far too tragically.  So it was again this summer, with the passing of Mario Rousseau – a truly remarkable young man who, through his leadership in BOND and in numerous other ways, had made a significant impact on the lives of many members of the URI community, and on the university as a whole.  His life mattered. His life still matters.
Events across America and across the world these past several months speak more forcefully than ever about the necessity and the urgency of building communities that span our differences.  I remain convinced that America’s public universities present outstanding opportunities to accomplish this, and building a diverse community that cherishes equity is one of our most important priorities at the University of Rhode Island. In essence, our goal is to build a community where we all say to one another: “Your life matters.”
I hope that everyone here will endorse the centrality and importance of this endeavor.  Our world is torn by terror, mired in prejudice and mistrust, poisoned by politics, and consumed by self-interest.  But I believe that it is possible to see the world, not as it is, but as it could be.1 Imagine URI as place where each of us lived out the simple, straightforward tenet that: “your life matters.”  I cannot think of a better foundation upon which to build the community we aspire to.

1This is something I’ve long believed. You can find versions of this sentiment in the manifesto of Acumen (a global leadership development non-profit, see and at the conclusion of Disney’s 2015 Cinderella, and likely elsewhere. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Rocky Hill School Commencement Speech

I was the commencement speaker for Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich last week.  Terrific students, all of whom will be attending college. It was suggested that I post the speech somewhere on the URI website, so here it is.

Speaking to you today is an interesting opportunity for me and I thank you for it. Over the course of my career I have presided or assisted in at least 16 commencements, and heard dozens of commencement speeches. But I have never given a commencement speech until today.  So congratulations – you are the first audience to hear a Dave Dooley commencement speech, and depending upon how this goes, you may well be the last.
I considered talking about a lot of different things – Deflategate, the virtues of Australian shepherds (we have one), my kids, quantum mechanics, group theory, biological inorganic chemistry – to name a few.  I ultimately concluded that there was only one topic relevant to your graduation that I was in any way qualified to talk about: college.  When I left home to attend the University of California, San Diego (where, coincidently my daughter is now a resident in pediatrics at the Rady Children’s Hospital) I had no idea of what I would do afterward.  45 years later, I have had to come to terms with the fact that I never left college.  I’ve spent my entire career, most of my entire life, in higher education.  So, at least from a longevity standpoint, I think I am qualified to say something about the subject.  Whether it will be of any use or interest to you is a fair question; we’ll know in about 10 minutes.
American colleges and universities are the envy of the world. They are also extremely diverse – as reflected in the list of where you will be attending – and come in many sizes and types. It is one of the greatest strengths of our system of higher education. There is truly a good fit for everyone who wants to go.  You just have to find it.  As you - or at least your parents - have noticed, there is also great diversity in the cost of attending.  And colleges and universities award various kinds financial aid, and much of it is like discounting. The list price may not be what you pay. These characteristics of higher education in America have led some to conclude that a college education is a commodity, like a pickup or a TV. 
Although the notion that higher education is a commodity is widespread, it is also completely wrong.  Although we engage in marketing, branding, competition, and are large service-oriented enterprises, the heart of what we do is not transactional at all. Students and families are not our customers. You cannot buy an education like you buy cereal.  Choosing a college is not like walking down the aisle of Stop and Shop or Dave’s or Shaw’s and picking out the box you find most appealing. Cheerios or Captain Crunch?  In fact, no matter what you pay, there is no guarantee that you will receive a good education.  You can get a poor education at an Ivy League university and a very good one at a community college. There aren’t, generally speaking, refunds if you are dissatisfied.  That might not seem fair to you, but it is true.  At URI, and among colleges and universities generally, we will provide you a lot of stuff and many services for your money – a place to live, food, Dunkin’, free wifi, classrooms, laboratories, counseling and health services, entertainment, a robust social life (if you are so inclined), and more.

Most importantly, we will provide you with amazing opportunities to learn.  But how you take advantage of those opportunities, and what and how much you learn, is up to you.  We will provide excellent teachers and mentors.  But, again, your decisions and actions determine how, and how much, you benefit.  An education is the outcome, the product, of an intensely collaborative effort among you, the faculty, and your fellow students.  An education is what you create in partnership with them.  You have to do the work; you have to make the effort.  At URI, and at colleges and universities in general, we will do everything we can to help you succeed, but we cannot guarantee that you will. That’s up to you. If you join us, you become our partners, not our customers.
There’s something else you need to know about your college or university. You are going to feel uncomfortable there sometimes. That is practically inevitable. You will encounter people – mostly faculty and other students – who will challenge your ideas and beliefs.  Things that you accept as true, even obvious, they might not.  You will encounter people who do not share your assumptions, your worldview, your religious convictions, or your politics. Many of them will not look like you, and English may not be their first language. That’s a good thing – such diversity enhances your learning environment.  No one owns or knows all the truth, and sharing your ideas, arguments, and evidence with others – and them sharing with you – is a great pathway to learning.  The most important skills in creating your education are listening carefully and reading critically. 
In the 21st century it is increasingly possible to avoid the real world and create an alternative reality where everyone who is virtuous agrees with what you already believe, and those who don’t agree with you are not just wrong, they are evil.  In such a context colleges and universities must be devoted more than ever to helping you learn to succeed in the real world: a globally hyper-connected world where you must have the skills, the knowledge, and the motivation to work with people who are very different than you.  Therefore you should expect to be challenged, even uncomfortable at times. Don’t avoid that; learn from it.
In order to provide you the kind of environment that is needed for learning, colleges and universities must be places where all kinds of ideas can be presented and debated – especially new, controversial, and unpopular ones.  Particularly at public universities and colleges, the First Amendment is an important factor in our educational community. So be prepared for that.  In order to promote learning, we in higher education work to establish a community where all members are respected, welcomed, and affirmed. Students, faculty, staff, and guests deserve to be heard. However, disagreement, even passionate disagreement, is not equivalent to disrespect.  There will be tense moments, even conflict, and not just on the football field.  Such moments can provide experience and wisdom that will serve you well long after you have graduated.
I am the son of a cotton farmer in the Central Valley of California, who later became a minister. I didn’t know very many people who had gone to college except for my teachers.  My dad did earn a degree later while working full time and parenting three kids.  All that I can remember from conversations with him was that he loved college, and learned to read ancient Greek so that he could read the New Testament in one of its original languages.  Consequently, I really did not know what to expect of college when I left for UCSD. 
My hope for all of you is that you will discover at your college or university what I discovered at University of California, San Diego: that higher education has the power to transform your life, and help you to become a different, and better, person than you otherwise would have been.  I could not have imagined, as a kid growing up in mostly small towns in rural California, that I would become a scientist, a professor, a Vice President and ultimately the President of a research university.  As a first-year student at UCSD, I had no idea of what I would do after graduation. UCSD offered what appeared to me as a universe of opportunities, just as URI does and your college or university will. It was the exhilarating experience of doing research as an undergraduate that set me upon the course to where I am today.
You must, of course, be willing to embrace and engage the opportunities you will discover.  If you do, you can dispense with all the limitations that may have been imposed upon you, and create a better future for yourself and even for the world.  That is both the promise of higher education and a promise you must make to yourself.  You cannot purchase your education, but there are a lot of good, talented people to help you create it.  Creation is a lot of work, and sometimes all consuming, but you need to remember that the work itself is not the goal.  The real goals are to discover what you truly want to do and to become the person you aspire to be.  Do not let yourself be distracted from these goals.  Be patient with yourself – all will not go smoothly. Be patient with your parents; if we in higher education do our job, you will be a different person in many respects than when you entered, and your parents may not like all of the changes. 
Most of all, be thankful for the opportunity that your parents, family members, teachers, and friends have helped you earn. Only a small percentage of people alive today will ever have the opportunity that you have now.  Enjoy it! Congratulations and best wishes, Class of 2015.