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.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Value of College

As I write this, it is snowing again in Rhode Island, to absolutely no one’s surprise, and to Rhody’s continuing delight.  In short, a good time to read and write, something University of Rhode Island students do a lot.  Two articles appeared within a few days of each other in February that caught my attention: “The Rich Man’s Dropout Club”, by Beth McMurtrie in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and “Bachelor’s degrees lead to employment and more training”, by Paul Fain, in Inside Higher Education.  Both articles are worth reading, if you have not already read them. And both contribute to the ongoing conversation about the value of higher education in America today.
The article by Fain begins with the assertion: “Doubts about the labor-market returns of bachelor’s degrees, while never serious, can be put to rest.”  That is probably comforting to the students who have recently received, or are working towards, a bachelor’s degree, as well as to their families.  The data and analyses described in the article are consistent with numerous previous studies and the experiences shared with me by innumerable graduates of the institutions I have served – Amherst College, Montana State University, and the University of Rhode Island.  Personally, it is certainly true that I graduated from UCSD with far more knowledge, with new and essential skills, and with greater wisdom than when I entered.  It would have been simply impossible for me to succeed without what I learned and experienced in those four years.
However, I certainly agree with the statement that: “college is not for everyone”.  That is self-evident.  The article by McMurtrie chronicles the experiences of several members of the inaugural class of Thiel Fellows.  You may recall that these fellowships were established by billionaire Peter Thiel to provide $100,000 to talented young people so they could forgo higher education and pursue their ambitions immediately.  It generated a lot of attention at the time.  One interpretation of the results (based on the CHE article): generously funded fellowships with the freedom to pursue your own ideas are not for everyone either (even those chosen in a highly selective process).
Here is what resonated with me from the accounts in the McMurtrie story: “The most valuable part of the fellowship for many wasn’t the freedom or the money but the network they were plugged into. Although less structured in its early days, the fellowship now offers retreats, internships, summer housing, and teams of advisors who work in and around the industries to which the fellows aspire.”  Hmmm, at the University of Rhode Island, and many, many other institutions of higher education, we would call that experiential learning.  And it has been around for a while.
We know that experiential learning, whether via internships or in laboratories, or the field, or in many other contexts, is a powerful educational strategy.  Research, creative work, and experiential learning provide unique opportunities for learning that cannot be replicated in standard classrooms. That is why these activities are a key part of our Academic Strategic Plan, and why we created the Center for Career and Experiential Education and the Business Engagement Center. This is one reason why we brought the Small Business Development Center and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership under the URI umbrella. It is why we are connecting our private-sector partners and alumni with our students. One of the most impressive and exciting outcomes of URI’s new January term is the additional opportunity it provides for rich and rewarding experiential learning (more on this in the next post).

The final point I would like to make after reflecting on these articles is this. It is true that college is not for everyone. Very few things are good for everyone. But the opportunity to go to college should be provided to everyone.  The challenges of the 21st century are difficult, vast, and complicated. The more we know, the more we can learn, the better equipped we collectively will be to meet them.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Winter in Rhode Island

Rhody heading out to play

Although I grew up in California, I have spent nearly all of my working life in Massachusetts, Montana, and Rhode Island - locations that truly have four seasons. Winter in Montana can certainly be challenging, but it also can be a truly wonderful and beautiful season.  The skiing, in particular, is among the very best in the world. Nonetheless, Rhody appears to enjoy winter more than anyone I have ever met. More specifically, he enjoys snow - the more the better.  And as we all know, this past week brought quite a lot of it to Rhode Island and to our main campus in Kingston. Rhody was ecstatic. I'm not sure anyone else was, other perhaps than dogs who have grown up in winter climates, and many of our resident students who appeared to enjoy all the snow and a couple of unscheduled mid-winter vacation days.
I am always impressed by the great work of the staff at the University of Rhode Island to keep the campus running during blizzards and other major storms. On behalf of all of us who depend on them - thank you! Many of our staff in facilities and grounds, public safety, housing and residence life, student affairs, and dining services worked very long, very difficult hours, so that our campus was protected, students were fed, and to ensure that we could re-open as soon as possible.  Some folks worked 36 hours, or more, straight through the blizzard. You are simply indispensable to the success of URI and all the members of our community are grateful.
It is Saturday, and - good news for Rhody - there's more snow in the forecast. Thanks in advance for all the extra work that may be required next week. Rhody and I will see some of you on campus, even if we are officially "closed".
In addition, I would also like to thank the faculty and our academic support staff, who work diligently to ensure that our academic priorities and goals for the semester will be met, regardless of the disruptions from New England's weather.

Keep safe and stay warm!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Reading Charlie Hebdo

While working in my office waiting for the blizzard to arrive I concluded this would be a good time to post on my blog.  This column is co-authored with Professor Karen de Bruin and her colleagues in the French Section of our Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures.  Like most people I found the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and the surrounding area, which began with an attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, to be a disturbing reminder of the fragility of peace and our social order. These attacks should also remind us that modern transportation, social media, translation software and the internet tie us more closely together than ever before.  Consequently, our increasingly global society requires us to become more sophisticated and responsible than ever with regard to how we understand cultures, languages and cultural products. It is in the spirit of sensitivity to cultural difference that this post will suggest starting points from which a university-wide discussion of Charlie Hebdo tragedy could begin.
Charlie Hebdo is a weekly French caricature newspaper that positions itself on the left of the French political spectrum. Since Charlie Hebdo emphasizes caricature, one needs a solid understanding of the French language and also familiarity with French current events, politics, religion, history, language and culture in order to understand it. The journalists and caricaturists at Charlie Hebdo see themselves as defenders of both secularism (laïcité), a founding value of the French Republic, and freedom of expression. But more importantly, they see themselves as promoters of humor. They pride themselves on poking fun at people, ideas, events and phenomena, and religion. They mock all political parties, regimes and religions, and they are especially provocative in their criticism of extremism. Though the vast majority of satirical articles and caricatures in Charlie Hebdo, have to do with a broad range of contemporary politics and current events, they have recently targeted the National Front party (Marine Le Pen’s party whose rhetoric often unfavorably targets immigrants in France) and radical Islamists.
Four of France’s greatest and wittiest caricature artists were killed in the attacks. These four artists, and especially Cabu and Wolinski, were intellectuals, journalists, artists and humorists of the first order. Their caricatures almost always embodied what is known in France as “second-degree humor, ” which is a mix of satire, wit, play on words, suggestion, repartee and implicit or explicit mockery. It is the very basis of French humor, and has been for centuries, but it can lead to multiple interpretations, and almost always requires a deep knowledge of context. The fact that second-degree humor is integrally part of the French spirit explains in part why regular targets of the caricatures in Charlie Hebdo, like former president Nicolas Sarkozy, the current president François Hollande, former Prime Minister Alain Juppé and current Prime Minister Manuel Valls chose to participate in the large protests against the terrorists.
It is also important to recognize that French republican values are very much rooted in “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,” much as American values are rooted in “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The French perspective on religion has roots in the French Revolution of 1789 and its first constitution that established freedom of conscience as an inalienable right. In 1958, the French constitution went further to defend secularism more generally stating: “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic. It insures equality before the law for all of its citizens independent of origin, race or religion.”
Consequently, the French State believes that while everyone has the right to practice a religion, people also have the right to not have religion imposed upon them. Many French people do not identify with the political and anti-clerical stances of Charlie Hebdo, but by the same token, they may not consider the newspaper offensive, either - they consider it French. On the contrary, the terrorists who carried out the attack apparently considered Charlie Hebdo to be not only deeply offensive, but also a threat.
These are just some of the things that must be considered as we try to make sense of what happened in France, as we should as a university. Learning language for professional reasons is only the first step toward learning about another culture. Language learning that strips the study of language from the study of culture, and that allows learners to judge the world solely from the perspective of their own values and presuppositions, will only impoverish our global understanding. As academics interested in the promotion of global learning and competency, we have a responsibility toward our students, our communities, and our mission to understand the world’s increasing globalization to promote the study of language in tandem with the study of culture. At the very least, this holistic study will allow us to learn and to judge grand challenges from different vantage points than our own. It might also just diminish the risk, even if slightly, of future attacks like the one on Charlie Hebdo.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Thanks, Gifts, and Hopes

Thanksgiving and Christmas are behind us, and the New Year is rapidly approaching – a good time to reflect upon all the good things that were accomplished in 2014, the gifts and blessings we received, and to contemplate the year ahead, with its new possibilities and opportunities.
There is no doubt that 2014 was an outstanding year for the University of Rhode Island.  The year included another budget increase from the state, a tuition freeze, support for required electrical utility upgrades, approval by state government and the voters for $125 million to renew the College of Engineering facilities, and the approval and ground-breaking for the Rhode Island Nursing Education Center (part of a transformational $215 million project with Brown University and Rhode Island College).  Fall 2014 saw URI reach its highest enrollment in history, with a record-setting entering class.  Indeed there was much to appreciate and for which to be thankful.
As President, the gifts that mean the most, and the things for which I am most thankful, are associated with the people of the University of Rhode Island: the achievements of our faculty as teachers and scholars; the dedication of our staff; the success and accomplishments of our students.  Our community is continuously setting higher standards for itself and all its members, and then, far more often than not, surpassing those standards.  The achievements of our students, staff, and faculty are gaining increased attention and respect across the state. I think this is one of the clear messages demonstrated by the very positive support of the business community and the people of Rhode Island for our College of Engineering bond question. 
The New Year will certainly bring both new opportunities and challenges. I am optimistic that there will be much more to celebrate at the end of 2015. And I am confident that we will have much to be thankful for once again.

Best wishes for the New Year!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

One hundred twenty-five million thanks!

To the overwhelming majority of voters who said yes on 4, the University of Rhode Island says thank you! We are so grateful to the 63.4 percent of Rhode Islanders in 38 cities and towns who approved the $125 million bond for a new College of Engineering.

You have made it possible for us to build a state-of-the-art facility that will transform buildings, classrooms, and laboratories that have not been changed in 50 years. Engineering is a field that generates significant revenue and jobs for the state of Rhode Island – today, the College of Engineering produces $142 million in economic activity for the state. That number will increase thanks to your support.

Throughout the bond campaign, we were gratified to receive the endorsement of major newspapers, chambers of commerce, and professional organizations, as well as Rhode Island’s top engineering businesses, which rely heavily on graduates of URI’s engineering programs to fill highly skilled positions. In fact, more than 4,000 URI engineering graduates work for 750 Rhode Island companies. We are proud of our partnerships with the state’s corporate community, and we are confident that the new engineering complex will only strengthen these important collaborations.

You have given your flagship research institution a tremendous gift in approving this bond. And we do not take your trust in us lightly. We pledge to do our part in revitalizing Rhode Island’s economy. And while it is true that the new College of Engineering will sit on our Kingston campus, it belongs to all of Rhode Island.

Thank you for believing in the power of thinking big. Together we will celebrate a brighter future for Rhode Island as we enter a new era in engineering at URI.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Show Up

It is a truism that “the world is run by those who show up”. At the University of Rhode Island this is not a cliché or a platitude. Currently, shared governance is vibrant and strong at URI, but it can be even better, and we are working to achieve that outcome. The participation of our faculty, staff, and students in setting the priorities and defining the future of the university is critical. So is the input from our alumni and partners. I ask, and hope, that all members of our community will seek out ways, and take advantage of opportunities, to be engaged in setting our course. 
 “Showing up” is essential to democracy. Our votes do matter. It may well be that the decisions and direction of our state and nation would be different had voter turnout in recent primaries and general elections been other than they were. I think that America will be its best when all Americans who are eligible vote. The same is true for Rhode Island. These are unrealistic goals, but certainly we should aim to come as close to achieving them as we can. I believe that our state and our county will make its best choices and decisions when those choices and decisions closely reflect the collective judgment of all Rhode Islanders and all Americans – in all of our diversity. So let’s vote on Tuesday. 
A lot is at stake, in Rhode Island and nationally. A lot is at stake for the University of Rhode Island. An affirmative vote on Question 4, to build new facilities for the College of Engineering at URI, is especially important. The need for new facilities in engineering is critical. The opportunities that will be provided as a result of these new facilities will be truly remarkable – and will benefit the entire campus and every member of our community. Indeed, these facilities will benefit all Rhode Islanders because the invigorated and expanded research and educational activities that result will be a timely and continuing stimulus for economic growth and prosperity in our state. Together, we can create a better future by approving Question 4.