Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Coming Home

Lynn and I recently celebrated our first homecoming at URI. Practically every moment, except for the disappointing outcome of the football game, was engaging and fun. The weekend culminated in the presentation of the Distinguished Achievement Awards, one of the most enjoyable and inspiring events that I have participated in since coming to Rhode Island. The night celebrated the achievements of many alumni from all across the university, and I could not help but be amazed at their commitment to excellence, their dedication to making a difference in our world and what they had accomplished. At the heart of their terrific work (and for some the foundation of their families) was an education at URI - an education that had prepared them for a lifetime of achievement. Their stories - their testimonies - are, by far, the most compelling evidence to the quality of the University of Rhode Island and the great value of an education here.

Over the course of the weekend, we met many alumni, spanning several decades of URI's educational mission, all of whom were enthusiastic about the university, what it meant to them, and its future. A common element in all their testimonies was the lasting value of the relationships they had built here and the sense of community that existed during their years at URI. I have been thinking about that: how important it is for education to be centered in a community, and the value of the relationships within that community to learning and growth.

I also attended my first Faculty Senate meeting last week, and that meeting reinforced an early assessment of mine about some of the internal issues we must face at URI. Those issues also involve community - it appears to me that our sense of community has been fractured at times and that there is a lack of trust, and a lack of confidence in the institution and among ourselves. Some of the underlying events occurred years ago, and we need to let go of those. Members of a vital and supportive community must be willing to forgive and be willing to allow members of the community to make mistakes, to fail - and to learn from those mistakes and failures. The flip side is mutual accountability - we must be willing to be accountable to members of our community, willing to admit our missteps and to be corrected, regardless of our position. I see very encouraging indications that URI is moving in that direction.

If we succeed in strengthening our community, our trust in one another, and our confidence that we can resolve whatever problems and difficulties that we face by working together, the University of Rhode Island will be even more successful, and the value of an education here will be even higher.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Visiting URI - West (Montana State University)

As I wrote this a few weeks ago, Lynn and I were flying to Minneapolis, on our way back to Rhode Island from Montana. It was a great visit to a great place and a great university, but we were happy to be headed home. As some of you know, I’ll be making regular visits to Montana State University because my research group is still located there and working hard on the continuing projects funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. My group was very supportive of the move to URI and continues to be very productive. I’ve included some pictures of them and my laboratory at MSU. Working with my research group is always energizing, frequently exhilarating, and invariably rewarding. I continue to learn a lot from them. Those pictured are (starting top left) are: Fumi Ijima; Koyu Fujita; Doreen Brown; Kim Hilmer; and Dalia Rokhsana and Alta Howells. Not pictured: John Bollinger

Teaching and research have been an important part of my life since I was an undergraduate at UCSD. In fact, the initial attraction for me to become a professor began at UCSD when I was engaged in both undergraduate research and served as a teaching assistant for a first-year laboratory in chemistry. I learned more in those settings than I did in many of my formal courses – even though those courses were taught so well and were superb learning experiences in their own right. But working on problems, or investigating phenomena, for which no one has the answer or an explanation, and developing strategies for teaching others what you think you understand, provide opportunities for learning that simply cannot be attained any other way. In brief, my undergraduate research and teaching experiences gave me the motivation and momentum for an academic career that ultimately led to my appointment as the 11th President of the University of Rhode Island. Who would have thought? Not me, certainly, but the value and impact of those experiences remain real to me every day. That is one reason why I am so passionate about expanding or creating such opportunities for our students here at URI.

I was also fortunate to attend graduate school at Caltech – one of the nation’s premier research universities. Of course, Caltech has a highly distinguished faculty and first-rate facilities. More than that, Caltech has a very student-centered culture – as a graduate student in chemistry, it was abundantly evident that the faculty regarded students as colleagues and cared deeply about our success. Caltech also had low, or nonexistent, barriers to interdisciplinary research and collaboration. As a consequence Caltech earned a very well-deserved reputation for innovative research. These are some of the reasons why I am interested in expanding interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary graduate education and research at URI, and building a strong, student-centered culture for both undergraduate and graduate education.

The economic climate creates many difficulties and challenges for URI, as it does for the great majority of universities and colleges across the country. But we can still succeed at building a culture centered on the success of our students, at creating more opportunities for undergraduates to be engaged in research and creative work, and in facilitating interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary scholarship and learning.