Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Listening to Rhode Island

As everyone seems to be aware, I have been interviewed a lot recently; check out www.uri.edu/president/media.html. 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.