Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Warning Labels

All of us (probably) have read warning labels on all kinds of products. Such labels are omnipresent, so much so that the tendency to ignore them is pervasive.  Warning labels can be useful, and on certain products, like medications, reading the label carefully might be essential.  As we enter the fall semester of 2014, higher education is increasingly engaged in an escalating and complex series of conversations that include consideration of what may be appropriate “warnings” or perhaps disclosures.  These conversations cover such issues as “content warnings” for courses, expectations for responsible discourse, campus cultures, the meaning and limits of academic freedom, and possible boundaries involving “free speech” and “civility”. 
My motivation for this particular post is not to address the numerous, complicated reasons why higher education is currently engaged in these conversations. Rather it is to consider, and ask the members of the University of Rhode Island community to consider, what kind of disclosure or “warning label” might be consistent with both our identity as a public research university and our shared values. 
Now, I’m not talking about things like: “The traffic coming to URI at 8.30am M-F can remind you of Boston”; or “The coldest part of campus in the spring is the baseball field if there’s a home game”; or “Multiple showers required after ooze ball”; or “Faculty Senate meetings can be a bit tedious, especially if the President speaks.”  These facts are so well known across campus that a disclosure statement or warning label would be redundant.
I am thinking about the distinction between our ideal – that every member of our community should feel welcomed, affirmed, supported, and respected – and the notion that we should feel “comfortable” here at all times.  When I was a young faculty member at Amherst College, our President at the time, G. Amour Craig, gave a commencement speech in which he critiqued the idea that the statement “I’m comfortable with that” constituted a sound basis for decisions at Amherst. He asserted, if memory serves accurately, that there will be times in which the best decision for the college and its students may well be one that makes at least some members of the community distinctly uncomfortable. The discomfort would arise perhaps because the right decision would encompass something new, or challenging, or entail some risk, or simply be a departure from the then-current, tacit assumptions widely shared across the campus. 
President Craig was right, I think. “Comfort” may be the best criterion to use when securing an airline seat assignment, or choosing a mattress, but it could be misleading, inappropriate, or damaging if preferentially applied to the kinds of decisions frequently made at the University of Rhode Island.  We must be especially cautious if the “comfort” standard reflects compatibility with our own social, political, philosophical, or religious views – for multiple reasons.  First, the University of Rhode Island is a diverse community with widely varying views among its members, so seeking outcomes where everyone is “comfortable” at all times would inevitably lead to complete paralysis.  More importantly, it is invariably a mistake for any individual, or group of like-minded individuals, to believe that they have a monopoly on the truth; history teaches otherwise.  One of the best attributes of a university is that it can be, and should be, a place where one’s ideas, assumptions, and worldview can be challenged and examined in an environment that is supportive and encouraging. Consequently, in many instances the better response is not “I’m comfortable with that”, but something like: “I see your point. I’m not sure I agree, and it makes me uncomfortable, but I must admit that you may be right.”
After all, we are not aiming for comfort; we are aiming for truth.
So, perhaps the “warning label” for new students at the University of Rhode Island should read something like:
Caution.  Joining the University of Rhode Island community may cause occasional mild to significant discomfort.  Faculty members and fellow students may challenge your ideas and beliefs.  You will be expected to respectfully challenge theirs, which may cause additional discomfort.  You will also live and learn with people who are very different than you, which may lead to occasional mild anxiety.  Do not be alarmed because such feelings are within the normal range.  Assistance in dealing with these feelings will be provided by your advisor, resident academic mentor (RAM), RA, instructor, friends, and other members of the community.  And remember, these experiences, although episodically uncomfortable, will help prepare you for success upon graduation from the University of Rhode Island.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

What URI Did on Its Summer Vacation

One of the most frequent questions I get following commencement until Labor Day is something along the lines of: “Must be nice to have a break; are things pretty quiet at URI?”  I have previously commented on the University of Rhode Island’s summer (in 2010), but 2014 and the summers that immediately preceded it have been extraordinary, and warrant some comment here. 
The campus hosted over 57,000 people this summer, in programs and events that included the Rhode Island Special Olympics, the US Youth Soccer Association Region 1 Tournament, the RI National Guard parachute competition, multiple sports camps, and numerous educational and research programs.  I will highlight some of these, but first I want to thank the staff, faculty, and managers who made all of these programs so successful.  Staff from URI’s maintenance, grounds, custodial, residence life, and dining operations were simply outstanding. So also were the essential administrative and support staff from all the divisions of the university.  In addition to creating, teaching, or supervising numerous special or intensive summer programs, the faculty of URI taught 5,250 students over the summer, and directed the research and scholarly work of hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students.  Thanks again, to you all.
In order to keep this post to a readable length, I can only mention some of the highlights of an extremely busy summer, a summer with far too little South County beach time.  Noteworthy events and programs include:
  •      The annual Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) conference, supported by the NSF and NIH, featured 138 posters by undergraduates and over 400 attendees from URI and the other eight participating colleges and universities in Rhode Island, (see http://web.uri.edu/surfconference/)
  • The Graduate School of Oceanography also provides a SURF program in oceanography, which included undergraduates from 14 colleges and universities across the country, and is in its 30th year, see http://www.uri.edu/news/releases/?id=7144 
  • The Kingston Chamber Musical Festival, hosted and supported by URI, celebrated its 26th season with eight near-capacity concerts featuring “many of the world’s finest solo and chamber music artists” – to quote Artistic Director Natalie Zhu.
  •  URI presented its Eighth Annual Ocean State Writer’s Conference with 176 attendees, which has become one of the premier writer’s conferences in the northeast; the link for this summer’s conference is http://www.uri.edu/summerwriting/2014/index.html 
  •  URI has an expanding array of special educational programs for international students, including the International Summer Engineering Academy and multiple Summer Cultural Exchange Programs for students from China and Taiwan; students in the latter programs studies either Finance and Investment or Global Enterprise Management, as well as English.
  • Intensive language programs involved dozens of students in the study of German and Chinese; in addition a new program for middle- and high-school instructors in French was launched in 2014, sponsored by the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., the French Consulate in Boston, and URI’s Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures Department; see the story on our homepage, http://www.uri.edu/news/releases/?id=7142

There is much, much more of course, but a final note: approximately 100 of our student athletes were on campus this summer taking classes, working, and preparing for their seasons, which reflects their commitment to excellence in their academic work and in competition.
I would not be surprised if here may well be folks at the University of Rhode Island who look upon the fall as the time when things “quiet down”.  A modern research university like URI truly does operate on a 12-month, nearly 365-day calendar. As you know, Lynn, Rhody and I live on campus and there are truly quiet days – December 25 and January 1.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

An Early Welcome to the Class of 2018

As we say “thanks and best wishes” to the Class of 2014, the University of Rhode Island is preparing to welcome the Class of 2018 to the campus. Your Class promises to be another superb addition to our vibrant and diverse community.  I have enjoyed the opportunities to talk with many of you already during your visits to the campus, and look forward to welcoming you in September when you arrive. You will have a busy and all-too-brief summer to prepare and get organized, and I know you are excited and enthusiastic about joining the URI community. We are delighted that you have selected the University of Rhode Island.
I suspect that one element of your excitement and enthusiasm is your recognition that you will be changed, perhaps even transformed, by your experience here, and that upon graduation in 2018 you will be a different person than when you arrive this fall.  That certainly was the case for me. Allow me to share with you some of my story.
When I was born, my father was farming cotton in the Central Valley of California. Like many young men of his generation, he had left high school early to enlist in the armed forces following the attack on Pearl Harbor. No one in his or my mother’s family had been to college.  Eventually he left farming to pursue a life as a minister, and for that he felt he needed a college education.  So we left the Valley and temporarily moved near Riverside, a small, mostly agricultural town that was just beginning to experience the explosive growth that has long characterized southern California. He managed three small children and two jobs while attending college. Twice he had accidents and totaled two cars by falling asleep at the wheel. I don’t remember much about those incidents except my mother’s fear and worry. But my father was convinced that a college education was critical to our future and was determined to succeed. He did, and his graduation was a very proud moment for him and my mom – I remember that clearly, even though I had absolutely no idea at the time what a college education was.
Subsequently, my closest grandmother (my mom’s mother) decided to pursue a nursing degree. She went to Porterville Community College part time while working at a state hospital facility. By then I could read and found some of her nursing textbooks fascinating, and she encouraged my interest.  She then bought us two different sets of encyclopedias, and encouraged me to explore them, which I did, reading practically everything from A-Z. My father, mother, and grandmother insisted that “going to college” was essential and that education was the key to my future. They demanded that all other goals must be secondary.  It wasn’t really presented to me as a choice, and I am glad that it wasn’t. Very few of my extended family went to college, but it was, without any doubt whatsoever, the best course for me and my brother and sister.
You, the members of the Class of 2018, will discover at the University of Rhode Island 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.  Even as a first-year student at UCSD, I had no firm idea of what I would do after graduation. UCSD offered what appeared to me as a universe of opportunities, just as URI does. 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 that URI provides, just as the Class of 2014 did.  If you do, you can dispense with all the limitations that may have been imposed upon you, and create your own future.  That is both the promise of higher education and a promise you must make to yourself.  You cannot purchase your education, but we can help you create it. We are partners in this endeavor.  It will be a lot of work, and sometimes all consuming, but you need to remember that the work itself is not the goal.  The goal is to become the person you aspire to be.  Do not let yourself be distracted from this goal. We will be there to help. Welcome to the University of Rhode Island, and best wishes for your success.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Thank You to Class of 2014

It is that time of year again – our students are preparing for and taking final exams, or finishing their final papers or projects. Many are engaged in these activities for the last time as an undergraduate.  Our Class of 2014 will receive many, many congratulations from family, friends, faculty and staff, and from their fellow members of the Class.
I will add my congratulations as well, but I am really writing to say “Thank you”.  This spring, like all the springs in prior years, it was a real privilege for me to attend the Rainville Awards, the Diversity Awards, the student-athlete awards, and many other events that celebrated the contributions and achievements of our students. You are an amazing group, just like the classes that preceded you at the University of Rhode Island.  Thank you for the leadership you have provided to the campus, thank you for your service to the people and communities of Rhode Island, thank you for the new ideas you have shared, thank you for your achievements in research, scholarship and creative work, thank you for your contributions to the important discussions on arming, sustainability, and the new General Education curriculum, and thank you for just being who you are.
No graduating class is perfect because no individual is perfect. We’ve certainly had our collective ups and downs.  However, your talent, dedication, hard work, and numerous achievements inspire optimism for the future, regardless of the substantial challenges we will face together.  So thank you for that, too.
As we finalize our preparations for commencement, many of you already have your next job secured, others of you are going into some of the finest graduate programs in the world (including programs at URI), and some of you are still thinking about, or looking for, what comes next.  My hope is that the University of Rhode Island has prepared you well for success, whatever your course might be.  Over the years ahead, all of us who remain at URI will be delighted if you remember your time here and remain an engaged member of our community. And I thank you in advance for that.
While I’m at it, belated “thank you’s” to the Classes of 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. What I wrote above is just as applicable to you. You make me proud to be a part of the University of Rhode Island.
Best wishes, and please stay in touch.

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.