Monday, December 27, 2010

Season's Greetings

This is a joyous time of year for many of us, spending time with our families and friends, and looking forward to the year ahead. But it is important to recognize that this is not true for everyone. For too many among us, the Christmas season is lonely and painful, and the anticipation of a new year does not bring renewed hope but a heightened sense of loss. I am mindful of the many sympathy cards that we have sent to members of the URI community and to others in Rhode Island this year. Many years after both of my parents have passed, their loss quietly reverberates throughout the holiday season. It is likely that for many their more recent losses are far more keenly felt. In addition, for many individuals and families in our state and across America, the recession has struck with particular brutality – damaging, if not destroying hope, and diminishing, if not obliterating, the joy of the season.

One of the many things for which I am thankful is that the University of Rhode Island is a caring and generous community. From the students (the recent $11,000 check from the fraternities and sororities to Habitat for Humanity is a great example) to the faculty and staff, and in more ways than are readily counted, ours is a community that seeks to help and serve those who need assistance, comforting, and the reassurance that they are valued, and even loved. Our community at URI is far from what it needs to be, but building a better and stronger community is one of our highest priorities, and I believe we are making good progress. I hope, for the benefit of all, that we can build upon the progress we have already made, and strengthen our efforts as we go forward in 2011. Let us commit ourselves in the year ahead to restoring hope where it has been lost, and bringing joy where it was missed. Best wishes for the New Year!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Centrality of Language Education

Facing substantial and protracted budget difficulties, several public colleges and universities (and even many private institutions) have responded by instituting efforts to reorganize or eliminate academic programs. Such efforts can be both useful and productive. For public institutions in particular, we do have the responsibility to regularly evaluate our programs in order to insure that we make the best use of the limited resources that we have. Maximizing the use of our resources and being accountable are duties that we owe the people of our state and our students, their families, and others who support us. In the current fiscal climate every college and university has to make difficult decisions and choices.

Recent announcements by some institutions that educational programs in selected foreign languages will be reduced or eliminated have generated a vigorous debate. It’s not my purpose here to criticize those decisions, but simply to point out that such steps would, in my judgment, be wrong for the University of Rhode Island. Because it is an important strategic priority for URI to prepare our students to thrive in a global economy and an increasingly globalized society, education in foreign languages is central to success. Certainly language acquisition is important, but not necessarily sufficient; we should strive, whenever possible, to acquaint our students with the cultures, literatures, and histories of those parts of the world where those languages are spoken. Rather than reducing the scope and breadth of modern language education at URI, I believe we should be seeking the resources to expand our programs and to increase the number of our students who study foreign languages.

And, indeed, we are. A proposed new major in Chinese will soon, I am confident, add to our existing modern language majors in Spanish, German, French, and Italian. In addition, we offer students the opportunity to study Arabic, Japanese, Portuguese, modern Greek and Hebrew. It is noteworthy that our Italian program is the largest undergraduate-only program in the country. Enrollments in our other modern language majors and minors are also strong. URI’s International Engineering Program (IEP) is internationally regarded for its excellence and impact. Students in the IEP graduate with dual degrees in an engineering discipline and a foreign language program. Language education is also a key component of our programs in International Business and in the Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design Department. The University of Rhode Island has established a leadership role in the integration of the study of modern languages into academic programs where it is important.

In my view, the current national and international contexts argue for the continued, and even accelerated, development of academic programs with an embedded modern language component. For example, as the University of Rhode Island builds the Harrington School of Communications and Media that will be examining modern communications and media in an international context, I think we should consider options or programs that include foreign language education.

I am writing this in China – a country that is impossible to visit without appreciating the value and power of multilingual capability and multicultural understanding. One of the keynote speakers at this year’s annual meeting for Confucius Institutes, Dr. Tu Weiming of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Beijing University, Research Professor at Harvard University, and a former Professor at Berkeley, emphasized that as our world becomes more complex the ability to understand and accommodate diversity becomes more, not less, important. I agree. He further, and provocatively, suggested that one of the reasons for America’s rise to greatness was that, for much of its history, we were a “learning” nation, productively assimilating, adapting, and using knowledge and wisdom from across the world. Dr. Tu suggested since World War II America has become a “teaching” nation, and less interested in learning from others. This also strikes me as accurate and, if so, it would pose a threat to our continued competiveness and success. As a nation, we can still learn a great deal from other nations and cultures; the knowledge and wisdom we gain will make us stronger. Those Americans with language skills and multicultural understanding will provide much of the essential leadership in this regard. It is the responsibility of the University of Rhode Island to educate such citizens.