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.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Excellence

The University of Rhode Island’s 2015 Commencement was a tremendous success – the weather was perfect, the speakers inspiring, and joy and pride evident everywhere on campus.  All of us who participated in the ceremonies and celebrations benefitted from the dedicated and practically tireless efforts of the staff, faculty, and administrators who planned and executed all the events so wonderfully.
One of the many special moments of the weekend were the announcements and presentations of those members of the university who had received awards for excellence.  Students, faculty, staff and administrators were recognized for their significant and substantial contributions to the success of the University of Rhode Island and to the good of the URI community.  You can read about their amazing individual, and collaborative, contributions here: www.uri.edu/news/releases/?id=7512. 
Whether it’s overseeing the enormous and critical facilities and grounds operations of the university, supporting one of URI’s largest departments, brilliantly teaching generations of students, or establishing oneself as an innovative, wide-ranging author/scholar, the URI Foundation’s Excellence Award winners have benefitted us all.  In addition, the research and intellectual property award winners selected by the URI Research Foundation span the breadth of the university’s scholarship, and all of them have significantly advanced our knowledge and understanding of the world.
These research and scholarship awards remind me, yet again, of the intelligence, creativity, and energy of our students.  I frequently read criticisms of students today that characterize them, inconsistently, as uninterested, unmotivated, or foolish on one hand, or altogether too focused on careers, jobs or money on the other.  These strike me as gratuitous over-generalizations, and I seldom encounter either kind of student at the University of Rhode Island. To the contrary, my overwhelming impression of students here is that they are motivated, hard working, engaged, and passionate about their studies and about making a difference. URI undergraduates are increasingly engaged in research and creative work alongside graduate students and faculty.  Whether in the humanities, social sciences, or science and engineering, our graduate and undergraduate students are producing research and scholarship at a high level.
At gatherings attended by the awardees, it was readily apparent that they were not only proud of their own work, but also of each other and the institution in which they worked. I think this both reflects the growing sense of community at the University of Rhode Island, and contributes to it. We are increasingly a community of scholars, striving for excellence in all areas of inquiry and creative work represented by our faculty and students. Check out the most recent issue of our publication Momentum: Research and Innovation online at http://web.uri.edu/researchecondev/current-research-magazine/, or pick up a copy at the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development.  I think you’ll enjoy reading about all the truly excellent work underway at URI

Monday, May 11, 2015

An Unprecedented Ribbon Cutting

May 6, 2015 will be a day long remembered and celebrated in the history of the University of Rhode Island. On that day a five-year journey involving advocacy, planning, and construction culminated in the grand opening of the Gender and Sexuality Center at URI. It was a day of hopes fulfilled, of faith realized, and hard work rewarded. It was a day of joy, of celebration, and of community. I believe that everyone who attended was inspired and convinced that the people of the University of Rhode Island, working together, can accomplish great things.
Click on the image to see more photos from the event.
The Gender and Sexuality Center at the University of Rhode Island is the first “stand-alone”, specifically designed Center of its kind at a university in the United States. Its location on Upper College Road at the entrance to the Kingston campus makes a statement: the University of Rhode Island is determined to be a community, not simply an institution, where all are welcomed, affirmed, included, supported, and respected. The Center will certainly serve as a home on campus for the LGBTQ members of our community, but that is far from all. Its spaces and facilities will be open to everyone at URI and everyone will be welcome at events and activities sponsored by the Center. The role of the Center in creating and building a diverse community devoted to equity will be dramatically enhanced by the new and beautiful building that houses it. If you haven’t had an opportunity to visit, please feel free to do so. It is a very welcoming place!
A lot of people, from all corners of the university and numerous external partners, worked with faith, dedication, and passion to make the new Center a reality. As time passed, hope never faded. Among all those involved, our students deserve the most praise and our lasting appreciation. Their advocacy, determination, and enthusiasm created and sustained the essential momentum that ensured success. They bring pride to the University of Rhode Island, and confidence in our future, because that future is in their hands. Their leadership has placed the University of Rhode Island in a position of national leadership, I believe. The student voices at the grand opening ceremony – those of Jessica Brand and Elizabeth Koller – were eloquent and inspirational, and wonderfully represented the commitment and aspirations of all the students who helped make the day of celebration a reality.
If you were not able to attend, here's a brief video that captures the highlights of this amazing event. Enjoy!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Student Leadership and Diversity

The University of Rhode Island is privileged to have frequently amazing students.  They work hard, are high achievers, are dedicated to public service, raise substantial amounts of money for numerous non-profits and charities, and are committed to making a difference.  There are practically countless examples I could provide, but the one I want to focus on here is the recent Diversifying Individuals Via Education (DIVE) conference, which took place March 27-28. 
This innovative and important campus event was organized and carried out by students. The DIVE RI Conference sought to promote intercultural competence and inclusion on college campuses through a variety of workshops and discussions.  The conference was designed to educate student leaders on the importance of racial and ethnic identity and to empower students by exposing them to diverse perspectives.  A key goal was to develop plans of action to enhance leadership capabilities of students and to sustain connections among students from local colleges.  
Over 270 people registered for the conference, representing URI, Brown University, RISD, Providence College, Bryant College, Rhode Island College, Johnson and Wales University and Bridgewater State College. The conference included two keynote speakers, twenty-two workshops and a World Cafe during which conference participants came together in one room, engaging in roundtable conversations. URI faculty, staff and alumni were among the presenters and speakers. The overall goal of the conference was to enhance the leadership capabilities of student leaders. According to all the feedback I received, it was a tremendous success.
I would like to thank all the students involved for their leadership and commitment, especially the Conference committee chairs: Brandy Jones  (Logistics); Zulmy Cortes (Speakers and Presenters); Dayo Akinjisola (Finance); Tobi Raji (Public Relations and Marketing); and Raquel Mendez (Events and Programming).
I was able to attend Dr. Marc Lamont Hill’s riveting and inspirational speech that concluded the conference.  He is among America’s foremost public intellectuals and an outstanding scholar.  Lynn and I were delighted to host Dr. Hill and many of the students involved for dinner, where he and I had a chance to talk.  We agreed that one of the most critically important roles of a university is to provide the environment and context for the productive and sustained engagement among people who encompass the diversity of our nation and world.  I would argue that this role for universities has never been more important.  Our world and our nation are increasingly factionalized and polarized.  Yet the problems we face are global in scope and will demand unprecedented collaboration and cooperation to solve. 
In order to overcome the global challenges that now confront us, we will need new generations of leaders who are comfortable working with people who are very different than themselves. We will need leaders who can bridge differences with understanding.  We will need leaders who appreciate and can learn from those who have ideas and experiences that are initially unfamiliar.  We will need leaders who understand that courage means more than defending your own ideas and opinions, but being willing to change them.
DIVE RI was an important step in creating exactly those kinds of leaders. That is why I think it will have a lasting impact.  The University of Rhode Island values leadership, diversity, and inclusive community. The leadership our students displayed in creating, organizing and conducting this conference gives me great hope for the future of the University of Rhode Island and our nation. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Making the Most of January

There is no doubt in my mind that the best thing about winter this year was the 2015 January term at the University of Rhode Island.  Given how miserable this winter has been, one could argue that it presented a pretty low bar for achieving the “best” status.  However, in my view, our January term was so outstanding this year that it would qualify as best even if you spent the winter in Florida.  Here’s why. 
Over 600 students participated in J-term 2015, a 50% increase over last year – and this is only its second year. The term included 29 “in-person” classes on campus, and 17 travel courses.  The top reasons cited by students for taking a J-term course this year: to catch up or get ahead on progress to their degree; interest in a specific course being offered; looking for a opportunity to challenge themselves; and to develop new skills. All of these are great reasons. I am especially pleased by the desire of students to use J-term in order to stay on course to graduate in four years. This was one of our principal motivations for establishing J-term and is one of our top priorities.
It is also noteworthy that so many URI students took advantage of the many opportunities to study and learn away from Kingston.  U.S. travel courses took students to Hawaii, Tampa, Washington DC, around Rhode Island and to Connecticut and New York City. International travel courses included trips to Belize, Bonaire. Chile, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Korea, and the Philippines.  Two of the domestic trips were focused on career exploration and networking and included visits to companies in RI, CT, and New York City.  These trips, in particular, received rave reviews from the students who participated, although students evaluated all the off-campus courses very positively.
Indeed, one of most encouraging and rewarding outcomes of J-term has been the student experience. How do we know? Here are some quotes from students (some comments were edited to preserve confidentiality):
“I liked everything about the course. It was fantastic in every way imaginable. Visiting the different work settings gave me some serious insight as to where I would like to take my career. I was very unhappy when this course came to an end."      
“It was fantastic to focus on just one class and really give it my all.”
“I enjoyed 2015 URI Winter J Term, it was well planned and the communication with the professor and my classmates was amazing. I truly enjoyed my class during J Term.”

It was a priceless experience and essentially important to my education.”

“The 2015 Winter J Term was phenomenal. It did a fine job compressing a full semester course into a few weeks. More importantly, course is a class that should be promoted at lot more. I feel like it can operate as a prerequisite and preparation for URI students seeking internship opportunities in the following Spring semester. The class was beyond informative and offered enough online homework that kept my classmates and I engaged and busy.”

“The condensed workload and tight time frame were ideal. It lends itself to staying on track and becoming more involved in the class.”

“I liked that J Term gave me the opportunity to catch up on credits and also prepare me better for the spring semester.”

“The J Term class I was enrolled in was the most beneficial class I have ever taken at URI. I learned more about how to better prepare myself for after graduation in those 2 weeks more than I have in my 4 years at URI. Everyone should have to take this course. I wouldn't change a thing."

“I really enjoy the J term classes because, while challenging, I believe they offer a concentrated curriculum that is interesting and understandable. I find my experiences thus far taking J-term classes to be rewarding and informative. I will certainly recommend the J term semester to other students wishing to earn some extra credits during the break.”

The most significant part of my trip was finding out that there is so much that I can do with my degree in Communications. Every new place we went and new person we heard from opened my eyes to what possible jobs I could have in my future, and some jobs that I never knew existed.”

There is now no doubt that the University of Rhode Island January Term offers unique and tremendously beneficial opportunities for our students. There is a lot more we can do, however.  Many more students would benefit from J-term classes, so let’s set a goal of doubling enrollment for January 2016.  Given the extremely strong positive response from students, we should create one career/networking course for every college or school. Also, it will be very important to create J-term courses in high-demand areas, especially laboratories in the sciences.  This should be a top priority for the university.