Friday, September 25, 2009

Transparency and teapots

On Wednesday night I met with the Student Senate of URI for the first time. I was very impressed; they are a dedicated, thoughtful, and articulate group of student leaders, who clearly care about the University and what’s best for students. We met to talk about some of the issues, opportunities, and challenges that we might face, or will likely have to deal with, in the near future. Our conversation was candid – most importantly we talked openly, with other students and a reporter from the Good 5¢ Cigar in the Senate chamber. And we talked about some difficult issues around the ongoing state budget problems and their possible consequences for higher education. I believe that this is how we want to work together as a community here at URI – openly, transparently, and inclusively. I believe that faculty, staff, and students should be involved in deciding how we can take advantage of our opportunities and meet our challenges. To facilitate that we have to be willing to share information, possibilities, and ideas prior to a decision being reached, and that’s exactly what transpired at the Senate meeting. I had previously discussed these budget issues with the Faculty Senate Executive Committee and look forward to opportunities to discuss these with representatives of our staff.

In several ways, the Wednesday Student Senate meeting and the resulting flurry of interest from the media illustrate some likely consequences of the new planning and budgeting process that is now in development for implementation this spring. A new, representative planning and budget council will hold open meetings, where anyone would be welcome to attend, including, I am sure, a reporter from the Good 5¢ Cigar, and perhaps other media. The council, composed of senior university leadership, deans, faculty, staff, and students will discuss and consider strategic priorities, possibilities, opportunities, and challenges for URI. The Council will develop the budget recommendations for my review and approval. We should anticipate that some meetings will generate debate and discussion across the campus. Honestly, I think it would be a great outcome to see students, faculty, and staff discussing the council’s meetings, sharing ideas, and providing feedback. To be sure, at times this kind of open and transparent process will generate external attention, even concern, and occasionally surprise and confusion. I think that’s ok – it can be considered the price we pay for participation and transparency. As we grow accustomed to our new approach to planning and budgeting the instances of surprise and confusion will diminish. The outcomes – the URI community will have the opportunity to share in creating our future, people at URI and across the state will know what we are doing (and planning) and, also importantly, why – will certainly be more than worth the cost.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Listening to Rhode Island

As everyone seems to be aware, I have been interviewed a lot recently; check out It’s been fun! And the people involved, ranging from Heidi Watney to Dan Yorke, have invariably been friendly and engaging. Some of the questions have been challenging, but all of them (so far) have been fair and certainly of interest to Rhode Islanders. But to me the best part has been what the questions themselves, as well as sideline conversations, reveal about what folks here think about URI, education more generally, the state, their communities, and the challenges and opportunities that they face. Outside of the formal interviews, there have been many other conversations that have taught me a lot. Here are some initial observations; I expect that I’ll return to this theme in subsequent posts, following even more conversations and additional time for reflection.

First, folks here seem to love Rhode Island, even though they appear to think that the state is much bigger than it truly is, and have no idea how to provide directions to someone who isn’t already intimately familiar with the history of the place. Despite their affection for Rhode Island, many Rhode Islanders seem to project what strikes me (as a newcomer) as an exaggerated sense of the state’s shortcomings. People seem to underestimate just how great a place Rhode Island is. Interestingly, this attitude seems to carry over to the University of Rhode Island. I heard on several occasions, from long-time Rhode Island residents, that they had been recently surprised to discover the degree of excellence that exists at URI. The quality of specific academic programs, the achievements of students and faculty, the prominence of URI’s reputation in particular areas, the overall value of an education here – all of these were a source of some surprise. On one hand, I enjoyed hearing such very positive comments. On the other, I was a little surprised myself by the fact that people in Rhode Island were unfamiliar with the quality of the state’s research university. During move-in weekend, Lynn and I met many parents and students from outside the state who were attracted by the quality and value of a URI education. In many disciplines, URI has a national reputation for excellence and faculty who are renowned among their peers. URI has a strong reputation for a high-quality intercollegiate athletics program – our teams compete hard and our student athletes perform well both in their classes and their sports. I could go on.

So where’s the disconnect? Let me be candid: our success and quality are not uniform - there are certainly areas in which URI should, and will, improve. As a university we should aim for excellence in everything we do. That is one reason why we should not do everything, and perhaps why we should stop doing some things. We also need to be more effective in getting our messages out. The recent efforts in branding and marketing are very positive steps, but we need to do more. If you are an alumnus or supporter of URI, well, we need your suggestions and your help with that. Most importantly, though, we need to re-emphasize our focus on what matters most – the success of our students. Their enthusiasm, their achievements, their commitment to make a difference in our world – that will be the greatest testimony, and the most remembered, to the quality and value of URI.

Friday, September 4, 2009

It's Time to Begin (Again)!

It's Friday, September 4th. This week has been hectic, as every week has been so far, but with a new and very special element - all the meetings and activities surrounding the beginning of a new academic year. Obviously, it's my first academic year at the University of Rhode Island, so I will always have a unique connection to the Class of 2013 as we begin our first year together. I look forward to meeting many of you and your families as you move in and at our first home football game this weekend. You have made an excellent choice to pursue your future at URI. Our faculty and staff will work diligently and enthusiastically to help our newest students, whether entering higher education for the first time or transferring to URI to continue their studies.

I am also very much looking forward to meeting our returning students, many of whom are already on campus to assist our new students and help the university get off to a great start for the 2009-10 academic year. You will undoubtedly teach me a lot. That is one of the many, many reasons I love being at a university like the University of Rhode Island - I can be a part of a close and friendly community where all those who belong are learning together.

Hope to see you on campus. Look for me, Lynn, and Rhody, our dog (although I am sure that Rhody the Ram will be much more visible) and be sure to say hi!