Monday, March 31, 2014

The Liberal Arts in the 21st Century

A recurrent theme in the contemporary conversation about higher education is the need for more research and more graduates in disciplines associated with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Rightfully so. These are critical areas of knowledge for facing and resolving the global challenges of our time.  Furthermore, a compelling case is readily made that such disciplines are crucial to economic competitiveness and job creation.  Finally, creating the necessary understanding of the difficult challenges and choices ahead will depend upon increased scientific and quantitative literacy.
Less well understood, I think, is the equally critical importance of education in the liberal arts.  We are no longer merely a part of the global economy; we live in an increasingly global society. Thomas Friedman (of “The World is Flat” fame) makes the point that we now live in a “hyper-connected” and “interdependent” world.  Consequently, the global society thereby created is exceedingly complex. It is a shared, 24/7 society layered on an enormous and frequently incompatible array of cultures, languages, histories, religions, and governments.  In such a world, studies of history, religion, philosophy, economics, sociology, communications, languages, and numerous other subjects commonly thought of as comprising the liberal arts, are important components of higher education.  The skills of critical analysis, expository or thematic writing, presentation, research, and communication are essential for success.  Music, art, literature, and their manifestations on the global web are increasingly the means by which culture is translated, assimilated, and understood.
The ways in which we teach and engage students with the liberal arts must necessarily adapt. John Dewey presciently observed: “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”  The global context should be at the forefront of our pedagogical strategies. Many entering students sense that a global perspective is important in areas such as economics, political science, and history, but may be less aware of the connections and impacts in other domains important to their studies, their lives, and their futures.  Uncovering and illuminating the rapidly expanding connections and relationships among cultures and nations is an important role of liberal arts education in the 21st century. To achieve this goal, education in the liberal arts needs to be both rigorous in its exposition of the nature and contributions of the various disciplines involved, and consistently interdisciplinary in its approach to the new reality of an interdependent world.
The University of Rhode Island is making excellent progress toward this global vision for liberal arts education.  For example, it is a key feature of our academic strategic plan and of much of the scholarship and creative work conducted in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts.  The Harrington School of Communication and Media has a global orientation and emphasis for all its programs, and views communications in the 21st century as an interconnected, interdisciplinary realm of expertise and activities.  Our emphasis on the study of language in combination with other disciplines, going well beyond introductory language instruction to include literature, cultural studies, and time abroad, is an exemplary approach for students to gain true global competencies.  URI’s increasing success in bringing students from across the world to help build a diverse community on our campus is essential to develop resilient multicultural understanding.
The nations, societies, and cultures of our world are now intimately connected and mutually dependent. Misunderstanding and miscommunication can be catastrophic. Peace, health, and economic prosperity depend on people and places that were once remote, but are no longer. The study of humanity – its history, behavior, thought, and creativity – which is the focus of the liberal arts, has never been more important than in the world of the 21st century.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Focus on the Why

At this year’s ACE national conference an interesting question came up, which (paraphrased) was: How can universities make the changes required to adapt to a rapidly changing (and increasing) set of challenges and opportunities?  The answer provided: “focus on the why”. 
This could mean a lot of different things, depending on precisely which “why?” question is posed.  There are several relevant and important questions in this category. To name a few: Why should students and their families pay the current tuition to attend URI? Or: Why should the state legislature and the Governor provide additional support to URI? Or: Why would faculty and staff want to work for URI now, and in the future?  Here’s one I deal with very frequently: Why should alumni and other potential supporters give to URI?  These questions, and the associated answers, are clearly central to the vitality, quality, and future of the University of Rhode Island.
As important as they are, not one of these is the most important question.  That question is: Why are we here?  The answer is known to all of us: To educate students. It is, ultimately, about them, and not about us – the faculty and staff. The University of Rhode Island has multiple important missions, but education at the undergraduate and graduate levels is the heart and soul of the university and the foundation of all of our missions and endeavors.  In the midst of everything we are involved in, it is both good and necessary to remind ourselves frequently about why we actually exist. 
Certainly, the University of Rhode Island exists to conduct research, scholarship, and creative work. However, we do these things, at least in part, to provide new knowledge to our students, and to engage them in these very activities.  URI is very service oriented, but, again, we serve the people of the state, our nation, and the world to create a better environment for our students, our graduates, their families, and the societies in which they live.  We focus on economic development for the same reasons.  The phrase “student-centered” is not a slogan, a marketing strategy, or camouflage.  It is the essence of why we exist.
Accordingly, we should test all of our decisions, and assess all of our priorities, in light of what would be in the best interests – both short- and long-term – of our students.  Indeed, it is in the best interests of the university and its faculty and staff to do so.  This does not mean providing students with all that they desire, reducing the rigor or demands of our curricula, or having low standards for their academic work or behavior.  Just the opposite.
The relationship is reciprocal. If we – the faculty, administration, and staff  – have high expectations for our students, it is fair and right for the students to have high expectations of us.  Based on what I observe around campus and hear from students and alumni, I think the University of Rhode Island has long exemplified both a broad understanding of why URI is here, and the benefits of mutual high expectations.
The University of Rhode Island is moving assertively to provide an even better education for its students at the graduate and undergraduate levels.  For example, the Academic Strategic Plan, with its emphases on experiential learning, internships, research and scholarship, globalization, diversity, and community provides an outstanding framework for the future.  The faculty has been working diligently and productively to frame and implement a much needed new general education program.  There is an intensifying focus on what knowledge, competencies, and experiences our students need to be competitive and successful in the 21st century. 
In the end, all that we are and all we do at URI benefits from an unrelenting focus on why we are here. Universities with such a focus will attract talented and committed people  (students, faculty and staff), new resources, and the gratitude of those we serve.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Injustice and Justice

At an event of Martin Luther King, Jr. Week last evening, the following quote of Dr. King appeared: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  This is a true statement, I believe. Injustice is certainly the enemy of justice; it is also the enemy of peace, community, equality, and even sustained prosperity. 
There is another way to look at this, however, which is (I think) fully consistent with the leadership provided by Dr. King. It is equally true, I think, that justice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere.  Acts of injustice may be deflected or defeated by acting justly. Institutions and societies that perpetuate or promote injustice cannot permanently withstand the comparison to institutions and societies that embody a commitment to justice.  In essence, darkness cannot withstand the light, and light anywhere, if replicated, has the potential to dispel darkness everywhere.
Consequently, in addition to combating injustice, which we must, we need to focus on building more just institutions and societies.  And that is a priority for the University of Rhode Island, as reflected in our commitment to building a diverse community here that is devoted to equity.  “Equity” is an interesting word. Its definition in the American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd Edition (the one we have on hand in the Office of the President) is “the state, quality, or ideal of being just, impartial, and fair”.  I believe that articulating this as a priority for our university, and every step we take towards achieving that goal, can, in some small way, contribute to building a more just society in America and a world where justice is the norm.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

2014 is Off to a Fast Start

Beginning with the University of Rhode Island’s first January term, continuing with the Governor’s State of the State address, and warming up in February, Spring Semester 2014 promises to be truly “up tempo”.  There is a lot to do, much to discuss, multiple opportunities, and a few key challenges – all of which must be priorities for the University community between now and commencement.  There will be many occasions for us to work together as a community in public forums, in committee or council meetings, in small group discussions, and via technology.  There are significant issues to address: the question of arming the URI police; evaluation, prioritization, and implementation of recommendations from the Administration and Management Review Committee; the budget; collective bargaining; and more.  Moreover, there is just a lot going on at URI, as one would (and should) expect from a research-intensive, globally engaged university.

Let’s begin with just the next two weeks, which reflect URI’s continuing commitment to building community, equity, and diversity. Starting on the 3rd, the University of Rhode Island celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Week, in recognition of one of America’s greatest and most influential leaders.  The week is part of Black History Month at the University, based on the theme of African American Progress in the 21st Century. It all begins with a lecture by Earl “Butch” Graves Jr., the CEO of Black Enterprise magazine, who will speak on the subject of Economic Development, Law, and Education.  On Wednesday the 5th, the Unity Luncheon will be held, which features the presentation of the Peacemaker award(s) by the URI Chaplains Association, and a speech by Martha Yager, Program Coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee.  There is much more – just check out the URI homepage to access a complete list of all the great events scheduled over this week and the rest of the month.

Next, starting on February 9th, we mark the 20th anniversary of the LGBTQ Center Symposium – an important benchmark for URI.  The week is packed with a wide variety of events; it begins with a lecture by Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church, and includes a community breakfast on the 14th. The theme for the week is “Seeking Spiritual Joy: Our Sacred Quest”.   Follow the link in the article at for a complete listing of symposium events.

And that’s not all. On February 7th everyone is invited to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Join students, faculty, and members of the Chinese community in Rhode Island in welcoming the Year of the Horse. The celebration begins at 6:30 p.m. in Edwards Hall and should be a lot of fun.

Collectively, these events illustrate the diversity, community, and international scope of the University of Rhode Island. These are the kind of occasions that help define a university, and help shape its influence and impact. Please join me in thanking the members of our community who worked so hard to organize and plan all of the events. The best way to do that: participate!

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Global University

What does it mean to be a global university?  The answer depends on the institution to which the question is directed, and the responses will likely vary substantially.  Multiple campuses located in different countries, significant enrollments of international students, numerous partnerships and exchange agreements, or multinational research collaborations may all be defining elements of a “global” university.
There’s another way to assess a university’s global status and impact.  Specifically, we can examine what members of the University of Rhode Island community – faculty, students, and (importantly) alumni – are actually doing across the world. A selection of recent events provides some powerful examples of the scope and impact of the University of Rhode Island’s global engagement.
One of highlights of this year’s Distinguished Achievement Awards ceremony on October 25th was the presentation to Toray Plastics (America) of the President’s Corporate Award.  This award was created to honor exceptional corporate partners of the University of Rhode Island. TPA is a major Rhode Island manufacturer, a major supporter of URI, and a company that annually provides numerous internships for our students and has many URI alumni within its ranks.  TPA is a subsidiary of Toray – a Japan based global manufacturing company. The current chairman of Toray, Dr. Sadayuki Sakakibara was awarded an honorary degree from URI in 2010.  Now we are working with Rick Schloesser (CEO of TPA) and Dr. Sakakibara to explore the possibility of a Japanese International Engineering Program.  Toray has made substantial investments in the University of Rhode Island and its students. At the Distinguished Achievement Awards ceremony, Mr. Schloesser announced a $2 million gift to support the College of Engineering.

Also honored that night with Presidential or Deans’ Awards (among many others, see were: Eric Ryan, ’96, co-founder of Method Products, a global company and previous recipient of the Clinton Global Citizenship Award; James Clappin. ’80, President of Corning Glass Technologies, a division of Corning based in Japan and South Korea; Gellwynn D. H. Jusuf (MS ’89, PhD ’97), Director General of Capture Fisheries, Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Republic of Indonesia; and Mohammed Al-Sultan (PhD ’03), Director of Pharmacoeconomics and Outcomes Research, King Saud University, Saudi Arabia.

URI students certainly have a remarkable global presence as well.  Just check out the story on the University of Rhode Island home page entitled “Put Languages to Work”. As a further example, this fall I enjoyed meeting with four URI students studying at the Hochschule for Angewandte Wissenschaften Hamburg (Hamburg University of Applied Sciences): Nick Smith, Sara Watson, and Pat Mullen (all students in our International Business Program) and Dan Belbey ’13, who received a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue his Master’s in Business Administration and Logistics at Hamburg.  And we should not forget Megan O’Brien ’12, who is finishing up her Master’s at URI and received a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue a second graduate degree at the University Centre of the Westfjords in Iceland, or Eily Cournoyer ’13, who won a Fulbright to study at the Cancer Institute of University College, London.  There are dozens and dozens of more examples.
Of course, these outstanding global achievements by our alumni and students are facilitated and empowered by the faculty of the University of Rhode Island, whose impact, influence, and contributions truly span the globe.  When I mention this to members of our external constituencies and partners, the research and outreach of the Graduate School of Oceanography, the Coastal Resources Center, and the Coastal Institute typically come immediately to mind, but the faculties of all URI’s colleges and departments are globally engaged – in research and scholarship, education, and service.  In recognition of this fact, we have added a new link to our navigation bar – GLOBAL – just above the featured image on URI’s homepage. Check it out; what you will find there is a great demonstration of what it means to be a global university.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


It sometimes seems that all across the world there is talk of “transformation” – the transformation of institutions, corporations, governments, economies, policies, and even societies. At the University of Rhode Island we have defined a set of transformational goals, goals that, if achieved, will make the university a different kind of place for learning and discovery.  One might reasonably ask: “What would “transformation” actually look like?  Thanks to the events of this past week, we have another excellent example of a truly transformational step for URI. 
The visionary gift of $15 million from Tom and Cathy Ryan to create the George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience has set the University of Rhode Island on an entirely different trajectory.  There can be little doubt that, as a result of this gift, the University of Rhode Island will be a different and much better university than it is at this moment.  As a result of this gift, the University of Rhode Island is now extremely well positioned to dramatically capitalize on its previous success in forming the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program.  URI now has the capability to become a leader in the effort to prevent, diagnose, and treat neurodegenerative and neurological diseases, and to discover fundamentally new insights into the functioning of the human brain.
Importantly, the Ryans' gift is perfectly consistent with existing strategic priorities of the University of Rhode Island and our Transformational Goals.  Consequently, the University is well positioned to supplement the resources provided by their gift.  The Ryans’ gift will catalyze the rapid expansion and growth of research and advanced training in neuroscience research at the University of Rhode Island. URI will provide base funding for the newly created position of the Thomas M. Ryan Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience.  URI will also fund three new faculty positions in neuroscience, which are part of our "cluster hire" strategy associated with the implementation of our Academic Strategic Plan.  Funding from the Ryan gift will provide absolutely critical start-up resources for these new faculty members, as well as ongoing support for their activities.

An additional feature of the Ryans’ gift significantly enhances its transformational impact. It will create new opportunities for collaborative research with colleagues at Brown University, the Rhode Island Hospital, Butler Hospital, and the Veterans Administration in Providence.  What each of these institutions would be able to do independently will be substantially enhanced by what we can do collaboratively.  The vision is to make Rhode Island a “go to” destination for research and care in neurodegenerative and neurological diseases. With the support of Tom and Cathy Ryan, this vision is measurably closer to becoming real, to the benefit of the University of Rhode Island, our partners, the state, and society.  That is truly transformational.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien

In my previous post I wrote about one of the two most useful and important pieces of wisdom that had ever been shared with me. The title of this post represents the other. 
It is a quotation from Voltaire translated as "The perfect is the enemy of the good", or "The best is the enemy of the good." It came to me stated a little differently, as an admonition: "Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good." That is how I remember it, and strive to put it into practice. President Geoff Gamble of Montana State University shared it with me in this form, shortly after he arrived from the University of Vermont in 2001. I was the interim provost at the time. Geoff was a terrific mentor and the eight years we worked together were very productive and even fun (most of the time). 
Geoff’s point, and presumably Voltaire’s, was that a single-minded insistence on perfection (or on getting exactly what you define as a perfect outcome) may be (and frequently is) counter-productive. Perfection is nearly always unattainable. One can pitch a perfect game, or receive a perfect score, occasionally experience a “perfect day”, but that’s about it. Recognizing the wisdom of “never let the perfect be the enemy of the good” in no way precludes us from setting high goals and striving for excellence. In my experience, I have found this maxim to be consistently valuable in devising strategies to achieve ambitious goals, in implementing those strategies, and in assessing progress.
The central question then becomes: “Is this a step in the right direction?” Any particular outcome may fall well short of our ultimate goal, but if it has moved us forward along the path to achieving the goal, then we should recognize that progress and focus on planning and executing the next step that would advance us further.
The University of Rhode Island is just completing its 17th Diversity Week, and our efforts towards building a diverse community are a timely example how “never let the perfect be the enemy of the good” can work effectively in practice. Our goal is to build a broadly diverse community where every member is welcomed, affirmed, respected, and supported. If we could achieve that for every member of our community every day, it would indeed be perfect, I think. We are far short of achieving such an outcome. It is useful to frequently remind ourselves that we have a lot more work to do – you can’t solve a problem until you admit it exists – and the Diversity Week program provided many such useful moments. But the speakers, panels, and performances also provided many, many examples of progress: of good things already achieved and of ambitious efforts to forge ahead towards our goal.
Thank you to all who planned and facilitated this year’s program, to all those who participated, and all those who support the University of Rhode Island’s efforts to build an inclusive, caring community.