Thursday, November 10, 2011

It Has Always Been About Jobs - Continued

In the 21st century, how should the University of Rhode Island, and other land-grant universities, prepare their students for “the several pursuits and professions in life”? In many respects, this question is a more difficult one now than at the beginning of the land grant era. For one thing, the majority of our students will no longer make their living, or build their career, in endeavors associated with agriculture. Our economy is far more diversified, far more global, and changing far more rapidly than at any previous time in history. Additionally, the specific knowledge and particular skills our students gain during their undergraduate education have much shorter useful lifetimes. There are also rapidly increasing expectations for people to work in collaborative, diversified teams, and to analyze and integrate information and data from multiple disciplines. Innovation and adaptation are critical to competitiveness. Our graduates have to be ready for such an environment.

At the University of Rhode Island, our Academic Strategic Plan provides the framework for undergraduate and graduate education in this context. In addition, URI is working hard to develop new partnerships with businesses, non-profit organizations, and communities to bring their perspectives into our classrooms and to provide opportunities for our students to gain “hands-on” experience prior to graduation while contributing directly to solving real problems.

Some key elements of these efforts are as follows:

  • Emphasizing experiential learning – engaging students in research, scholarship, and creative work. For many of our students, this will mean internships outside of URI where they can be challenged to work on problems that have not been solved, or tasked to create something new. For others it will mean working in research labs or at field sites with faculty, frequently in collaboration with companies or other organizations, to investigate issues and solve “real world” problems. We expect to announce soon a new Office of Experiential Learning and Community Engagement, envisioned and developed by a group of URI faculty and deans last year, which will provide support for students, faculty, and community partners who provide such learning opportunities.
  • Developing partnerships and collaborative agreements with companies, organizations, and communities that will benefit our partners and enhance the education of our students. We want to know precisely what our students need to know, and what skills they need to possess, in order pursue their careers. Moreover, an important part of URI’s mission is assist both the private and public sectors to be more successful; doing so will help our graduates to succeed.
  • Increasing the participation of business, social service providers, professional organizations, government agencies, and others in URI’s instructional programs.
  • Insuring that our students are prepared for the global economy: increasing their language skills, cultural/social competencies, and capabilities to function effectively in an international context.
  • Providing multiple opportunities for students to develop their communication, critical reading, analytical reasoning, and quantitative thinking skills. Our graduates need to be smart consumers of information as well as effective communicators of that information and its implications.
  • Making the most of modern technology to provide rich 24/7 learning opportunities for students and to continue to substantially increase the number of courses and programs available on-line and in blended formats. The new Office of Online Teaching and Learning has been established to assist faculty in implementing using contemporary technology to effectively engage students.
  • Increasing our programs and other opportunities for our students abroad, and significantly increasing the number of international students on our campuses.
All of these initiatives are well underway. I believe that the University of Rhode Island is receiving growing recognition for preparing its students very well for “the several pursuits and professions in life”. To be sure, we have much more to do and, given the rapid pace of change, continued success will require continuous effort. The successful 21st-century land-grant university must itself be adaptable, flexible, and responsive. I am confident that our faculty and students are fully prepared to meet that challenge.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

It Has Always Been About Jobs

Another reflection of the difficult economic times we face is the reinvigorated debate about the fundamental purpose of higher education. The debate, which is both internal and external, frequently takes the following line. On one side are those who argue that higher education’s primary goal is to provide students with the knowledge, critical thinking capabilities, and communication skills to empower them to be informed and engaged citizens. The other side advances the claim that, especially in the current economic climate, the primary goal of higher education should be to prepare people to be productive participants in the economy. Simplistically, do colleges and universities exist to prepare students for jobs, or for some other purpose? That’s a fair enough question, one that is certainly on the minds of many students and parents, and a question that clearly can be framed or recast in many complex and nuanced ways.

For land-grant universities like the University of Rhode Island, the answer is, I believe, that our purpose has always been to prepare our students both to be good citizens and productive economic contributors. The Morrill Act of 1862 states: “…each State which may take and claim the benefit of this act, to the endowment, support, and maintenance, of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life (emphasis mine).” I think the intent is clear – universities that were to be designated as “land-grant” institutions were to educate in order to produce citizens, drawn from the working and middle classes, to be productively engaged in the nation’s economy. The emphasis on “agriculture and the mechanic arts” is important to note: these were the sectors of the economy where the majority of Americans worked.

The University of Rhode Island is charged, as are all land-grant institutions, with providing both “liberal and practical education” to our students. This clause is a cogent example of the highly innovative vision for public higher education laid out in the Morrill Act. It is every bit as relevant in the 21st century as it was in 1862. But the importance of providing both liberal and practical education has perhaps never been more evident. More so than at any time in our past, the modern university’s role is to prepare students for jobs and entire careers that do not yet exist. To succeed we must continually rethink and redesign our academic programs to insure that the content and techniques we teach are as up to date as possible. We must also insure that every student is provided multiple opportunities to acquire the essential reasoning, communication, quantitative, language, social/cultural, and learning skills that are indispensable for success in the global economy.

America certainly needs more students to major in disciplines associated with science, engineering, and technology. At the same time we need to remember that many of our graduates build very successful careers based on majors in the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts. I am convinced, regardless of their programs of study, that engaging students in research, scholarship, and creative work will simultaneously enhance their undergraduate education and prepare them uniquely well for “the several pursuits and professions in life.” Students need to move outside of standard learning environments, whether it involves physical or virtual classrooms, and into research laboratories, field sites, studios, companies and non-profit organizations, or many other environments where they can be confronted with problems that have not been previously solved, or asked to create something new. In my judgment, the University of Rhode Island and America’s other land-grant research universities should seek to provide such learning opportunities to all of our undergraduates. By doing so we will not only prepare them for jobs, we will prepare them to create new jobs.

Friday, October 7, 2011

We Have Met the Enemy - and It's Not Us

Even casual readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education have likely observed that, accompanying the severe financial constraints faced by many public colleges and universities, serious, and at times acrimonious, debates have arisen over how budgets should be balanced. Often it seems that the most highly charged debates are those internal to a campus.

Discussion and debate about the priorities and direction of an institution has long been characteristic of academic culture. It is a desirable and necessary characteristic, a consequence of academic freedom and shared governance, and one of the important attributes of university leadership. Deliberation, consultation, and participation generally have been, and should continue to be, hallmarks of decision-making in higher education. Colleges and universities can still be accurately characterized as “conservative” in the sense that they respect tradition, believe that much can be learned from history, and are cautious about change. But it must also be acknowledged that the pace and magnitude of the changes currently facing higher education will require many of our institutions, especially public ones, to be more adaptable, flexible, and responsive. In short, to change more rapidly than our current practices and systems of shared governance can easily accommodate. And that can be discomforting, unsettling, and alarming.

Given the very difficult financial climate, the growing pressures related to affordability and access, and the pace of – and demands for – change, perhaps we should not be too surprised that internal discussions and debates occasionally degenerate into affixing blame and identifying enemies. Frequently, the divide that is created separates faculty and administration. The rhetoric used is familiar. “Administrators are only interested in adding lines to their resumes, expanding their domains, and pandering to influential external constituencies.” "Faculty are calcified, reflexively resistant to new ideas, and non-productive.” Admittedly, there may be some truth to both caricatures, but less than many think. The substantial risk associated with indulging debate along such lines is that it distracts everyone involved, and higher education’s many stakeholders, from the real issue.

The real issue is cogently presented in a “Discussion Paper” on the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) website entitled: University Tuition, Consumer Choice, and College Affordability. Although slightly dated (2008) its principal findings are probably still sound. This APLU paper examined the financial climate of public colleges and universities and assessed the principal factors driving tuition increases for public institutions. The two main points I want to emphasize are the following (taken directly from the paper, but reversed in order).

Public university tuition has increased because real per student appropriations have declined. This finding appears again and again in serious examinations of the causes of public university tuition inflation…Overall cost per student has been constant. Tuition increases have been just sufficient to offset reduced state subsidies, but not to increase public university budgets.”

“One of the most robust findings in the research literature is that the real cost per student in public higher education is not increasing….Cost per student has remained constant because revenue per student was constant; funds were not available to increase expenditures further. Public university managers have been highly effective at controlling costs; indeed they were compelled to be, given the resources available.”

These are obviously general statements, but accurate (at least in 2008) for public higher education as a whole. At the University of Rhode Island our increased revenues from tuition and fees have offset steadily declining state funding over the past decade and permitted us to make increased investments in financial aid as we endeavored to maintain affordability. There have been few, if any, significant increases in revenues to do just about anything else. If my many conversations over the last two years with other university presidents are representative, then this has been the case quite broadly. At many institutions, revenues have not kept pace with enrollment growth. At URI, and all but the most well endowed public colleges and universities, reallocation is the dominant mechanism to provide funding for growth or new initiatives. Continuous reallocation can be healthy, but also can be stressful.

So, what are we to do? The first step is to recognize that neither non-productive, ossified faculty, nor overly ambitious, self-promoting administrators, nor any other part of the academic enterprise is fundamentally responsible for our current difficulties. The “enemy”, as it were, is tangible but diffuse: the lack of understanding among Americans of the critical importance of investing in public higher education. China understands this, as do many other countries that are aggressively seeking to increase higher education opportunities and university-based research. Nearly everything associated with higher education, from state appropriations to Pell grants to federal research support, appears to be increasingly at risk for disinvestment in the U.S. This is not just the “enemy” of higher education, but also the “enemy” of economic recovery, of opportunity, of innovation, of growing the middle class, and of building a more just and equitable democracy. Combating this “enemy” is where all of us who care about and understand the value of higher education should focus our collective efforts.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Leadership and Academic Freedom

Because leadership is a central mission of the University of Rhode Island, and research universities more generally, we need to examine the question of how to best provide the leadership that is needed. The work of a university’s governing boards or senior officials is frequently seen as an influential mechanism by which universities can influence public policy, governmental priorities, and resource allocation. So, too, the analyses and recommendations of associations of higher education organizations such as the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of American Universities, and the American Council on Education. But these are not the central, nor the most important, ways in which the leadership of our universities is expressed.

University leadership is primarily derived from the work of faculty and students engaged in scholarship and learning. It flows from the generation and dissemination of knowledge, from the critical analysis and dissection of the politics and culture of societies, from conveying the lessons of history, from opening minds to culture, perspectives, and languages other than their own, and from the interpretation of life through the arts. This is how universities principally provide leadership.

The breadth of the work of the faculty and students at a university cannot be completely captured in any finite list, and it changes continuously. Accordingly, at its best, the work of the university provides a persistent source of discoveries and new ideas that can sustain, invigorate, and renew the societies that foster that work.

In order for the university to carry out such work, faculty must have the “complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results” in the words of the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. This is a remarkable document with a living force as important today as when it was written.

Two superb books, For the Common Good (by M. W. Finkin and R. C. Frost) and The Constitution Goes to College (by R. A. Smolla) cogently present this case for academic freedom. They correctly note that academic freedom is not grounded on an argument that university faculty constitute a special class deserving freedoms or rights not guaranteed to other Americans. Rather, it is grounded on the fact that the work of faculty serves an essential public purpose. Put simply, academic freedom provides for the common good. Consequently, I believe that academic freedom fundamentally enables universities to provide the leadership that is so essential in the 21st century.

It is difficult for anyone who cares about higher education not to notice that, in many ways, the concept and value of academic freedom is being challenged with increasing intensity. There are undoubtedly multiple reasons for this, but one, I think, is that we in universities have not adequately shown the connection between academic freedom and the enormous public good universities produce. Instead, we frequently allow academic freedom to be seen as something designed to protect the prerogatives of faculty. In my view, we in higher education need to refute that perception by focusing more sharply on how leadership by universities is crucial to building a brighter future for our nation and the entire world. We must also show that university leadership depends on the protections of academic freedom. Only then can the work of our faculty and students achieve its fullest potential, and only then can the full potential for common good be attained.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Leadership as a Mission

As faculty and staff at the University of Rhode Island prepare in earnest for the new academic year (and clean up at bit from Hurricane Irene), I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of URI and public higher education, and more broadly, our collective future. Recent events have reinforced the conviction that our communities, America, and the world face substantial and undiminished challenges, perhaps even more severe than we believed just a few months ago.

Worries and fears are beginning to grow across many sectors of our nation. And just as our concerns about the future increase, it appears that our confidence in our government’s ability to address those concerns is waning. To me, that is particularly disturbing. Why? Because, for a long time, America has been widely considered the world’s best, most influential, most successful, and most optimistic representative democracy. We are the government. Therefore, doubting our government might be a symptom of a more serious problem – that we doubt our neighbors and even ourselves. By “doubting”, I do not mean exercising responsible skepticism or demanding evidence for others’ assertions or positions (as well as our own). I am concerned by the toxic refusal to even consider views that differ from our own and insistently questioning the motives, ethics, values, and morals of those with whom we differ. Doubting ourselves – unreasonably questioning our abilities and capabilities to adequately respond to the challenges and difficulties we face – is obviously different, but may be partially related. Living and working in an environment dominated by attack and denigration is hardly conducive to building or maintaining the self confidence required to solve difficult problems.

At a meeting this past summer (prior to the near meltdown of governance over the debt ceiling), I heard a presentation by two very experienced and highly-regarded political writers. They indicated that the then current partisanship and polarization of government was substantially more pronounced than what they had previously observed. But in their view this situation arose, at least in part, from the fact that divisions in Congress were driven by powerful forces in society, that in some respects threatened to overwhelm Congress. Another factor was the increasing difficulty to reach agreement on basic facts; highly ideological and partisan media and “think tanks” were all too willing to supply “facts” to suit any preferred position. I came away thinking that critical analysis, serious discussion, negotiation, and finding common ground are no longer seen as essential to the health of our nation – not only by those in Washington but by many factions of our society. Events since then have only reinforced that conclusion.

I believe that in such circumstances public research universities, like the University of Rhode Island, need to accentuate their leadership role. From my perspective, public leadership has long been an implicit mission of the land-grant university. It is time to explicitly acknowledge and embrace that part of our historic mission.

There are multiple, important areas where the leadership of the nation’s public universities could become a critical factor in surmounting the challenges and difficulties that currently confront us. We need to articulate and consistently demonstrate the importance of constructive engagement with ideas and positions that differ from one’s own. We should insist on the appropriate use of scientific findings, quantitative analysis, data analysis, and rational discourse in shaping public policy. We need to defend the importance of education, research, objective analysis, and expertise in shaping the search for solutions. We should show in our words and actions that it is not only possible, but desirable, to find common ground and develop shared solutions in the midst of very diverse assumptions, worldviews, and sociopolitical allegiances. I strongly believe that it is critical for public universities to forcefully remind our political leadership, and our people, that finding solutions to the extensive, global-scale challenges that we face in the 21st century in fact requires us to work constructively with others who do not share our views, presuppositions, religious beliefs, or all of our values.

I think the University of Rhode Island is prepared to expand its leadership role. I believe that it is essential to the future of our state and nation that we do so.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Over the last week I have attended three separate groundbreaking ceremonies. Separately and collectively these events illustrate both key attributes of the University of Rhode Island and our progress towards achieving our goals.

The first event was the celebration of the beginning of the construction process for our new dormitory. This state-of-the-art facility will house 429 freshmen and sophomores. It will feature study spaces and informal gathering spaces, together with the residence rooms, and will create a terrific center for the integration of living and learning at URI. This facility is an important step in building community at our university – by providing more and better spaces for students to live and learn together. All of us look forward its opening in the fall of 2012.

On Monday I attended the groundbreaking ceremony for new research and office space at Alexion Pharmaceuticals in Smithfield. Alexion and URI are developing a strong partnership, to the benefit of our students and to Alexion’s success. Together we can help build the Rhode Island economy while providing a richer education for our students and the kind of staff that Alexion needs. It is a partnership worth celebrating and cultivating, and I was pleased to be there representing URI.

The third event was last Saturday, where students, faculty, and staff from the University of Rhode Island joined folks from South County and across the state to celebrate the start of the construction of four houses for Habitat for Humanity. This was a terrific event that exemplified our shared commitment to community, to assisting those in need, and to being a supportive neighbor.

It is simply inspiring to experience the excitement for this project and to see the depth and breadth of URI’s involvement in making these homes, this new part of our neighborhood, a reality to celebrate for years to come. A lot of URI students have been a part of making this happen: Karin Mellin, Kari Lukovics, Carissa Johnson, Scott Andrews, and Darthula Hansford are working with Habitat for Humanity (Scott is President of the URI chapter and Darthula is the liaison between South County Habitat for Humanity and the URI chapter). Many of our Greek organizations, the volleyball team, and other student groups have helped raise money for the house that our URI community will build.

Here is a picture from the Habitat ground breaking featuring several of the students and others from URI. I hope to see you at the site in the fall!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Discovering More at URI (Part 2)

Last week the University of Rhode Island hosted two especially noteworthy events that attracted substantial attention on- and off-campus. These were the Cybersecurity Symposium and Discovery Day. Both events presented, in different ways, many of the challenges we face in the 21st century, and highlighted the numerous and important contributions that contribute to overcoming those challenges made by faculty and students at URI.

The Cybersecurity Symposium featured Congressman Jim Langevin and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse who are both widely regarded, as among our nation’s key leaders in understanding and combating the threats posed to America and Rhode Island by breaches, spying, and attacks on the ubiquitous networks now seemingly indispensible to practically every aspect of our lives. Those threats were cogently outlined in a compelling keynote address from General Keith Alexander, who is the Director of the National Security Agency/Chief of the Central Security Service, and Commander of the U.S. Cyber Command.

The magnitude of the damage already done to the U.S. economy and to citizens is much larger than many people realize, and the threats are diverse and growing. As sobering as that information is, it was also clear that faculty, students, and alumni of the University of Rhode Island are among the leaders in developing solutions to the challenges and problems posed by security breaches in our information networks. The URI Center for Digital Forensics, and the research and education activities of several faculty and students in the Department of Computer Science and Statistics and the Department of Electrical, Computer, and Bioengineering already contribute in important ways. I got the sense that many who attended the Symposium discovered this fact about URI while they were here. It is clear, I think, that URI can play a much more substantial role in assisting both government and the private sector. New collaborations and partnerships are in the works, which will provide additional opportunities for students and faculty, which, somewhat ironically, may actually provide an economic boost to Rhode Island.

Discovery Day at the University of Rhode Island also emphasized the contributions of students and faculty at URI across the entire range of research and scholarship characteristic of a research university. Students and faculty from every college participated. It was frankly inspiring to see the contributions URI is making to understanding and finding solutions to problems in education, health, science and technology, business, and the environment. URI’s scholarship and creative work in the humanities and the arts was also well represented.

I would like to personally thank our speakers for Discovery Day as well. Keith Stokes, Executive Director of the RI Economic Development Corporation, Leslie Taito, CEO of the RI Manufacturing Extension Service, Umberto Crenca, Founding Artistic Director of AS220, and Paul Hastings, President and CEO of OncoMed Pharmaceuticals, all provided insightful and illuminating talks that illustrated the close relationships between research and creative work and economic and community development. Thanks also to Vice President Peter Alfonso and Den Nasser Zawia (and their staffs) for organizing these events. Dean Dave Maslyn and the Library staff did an excellent job in hosting both the Cybersecurity Symposium and Discovery Day.

The enthusiasm and energy of all who participated in both events, and the invaluable connections that were strengthened or initiated, provide a very strong argument for continuing these symposia. I’m confident we will do that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Discovering More at URI

The last couple of weeks have been incredibly busy at the University of Rhode Island. Four events stand out: two evenings where special university awards were announced – the Rainville Leadership Awards and the Diversity Awards; and two symposia – one on Cybersecurity and then Discovery Day at URI. My guess is that everyone who attended discovered new things about what our students, faculty, and staff are doing that are, to recycle a phrase that I’ve used previously, “transforming the world.”

Let’s focus here on the awards, and then I will discuss the other events in a subsequent post. The University of Rhode Island has long been committed to developing leaders who make a difference. Our Leadership minor is a very popular and effective program that is a key part of our curriculum. In addition, there are innumerable opportunities for students to develop their leadership skills and to gain invaluable experience. Many of these are created and developed by the students themselves. URI seems to attract students who are committed to transforming the university and the world, and I conclude that we have built a climate here that encourages and supports our students in those efforts.

The students who won the Rainville leadership awards are all simply amazing. Lauren Creamer, Courtney O’Keefe, Valerie Damon-Leduc, and the students in the URI Violence Prevention Peer Advocates have had a tremendous, positive impact on the university, our neighboring communities, and beyond. Remarkably, they also excel in their academic work. They exemplify what is best about URI.

Last night, the Diversity Awards, which also reflect outstanding leadership, were presented to another amazing group of students, faculty, staff and alumni. Jason Almeida, Darnell Spencer, John Brito, Maxwell Edmonds, Michaela Cashman, Brandford Davis, the Gay – Straight Alliance, eXposure, WOWW, Bryana White, Tripp Hutchison, Amy Olson, Dr. Jody Lisberger, Dr. Mercedes Rivero Hudec, and Paul Hastings each represent a compelling testimony of courage and devotion to creating a just and equitable community where diversity is respected and honored. I believe that everyone present was inspired and encouraged by their example.

It’s easy in times like those we currently face to be discouraged and even angry at the conditions and challenges that confront us. It’s easy to simply focus on ourselves and our own priorities and goals. It’s easy to ignore, marginalize, resent, or blame others who we envy or regard as “different”. But the enduring testimonies of the individuals and groups honored over the past week speak to the contrary. They speak to taking action against anger, discouragement, and despair; they speak to courage in the face of adversity; they speak to commitment to make a difference. Most of all, they speak to hope.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Learning through Experience

From my perspective, at the heart of the University of Rhode Island’s academic plan lies the commitment to substantially expand the engagement of our students – at both the graduate and undergraduate levels – in research, scholarship, creative work, practica, and internships. This goal is linked to all of the other elements in the plan. As we educate students for success in the 21st century – with its unprecedented rates of change and the magnitude of the global challenges – nothing will be more valuable than providing our students with the opportunities to grapple with problems that have not been previously solved, or to create things that have not previously been created.

We have an admirable record of success in such endeavors, so this is not a new educational strategy for URI. Undergraduate research has long been an emphasis here. Our senior design courses in the College of Engineering are a long-standing element of the engineering curriculum and confront students with “real-world” problems. The Textiles, Fashion Merchandising, and Design Department’s spring fashion show annually highlights the amazing creativity of our students in the program, as do the many performances and exhibitions of our students in theatre, music, and art. I could fill pages with examples of the innovative ways our faculty and staff have worked to build "experiential learning" into the fabric of the university.

URI is working to expand such opportunities for students and spread them throughout the undergraduate curricula in all our departments. For example, URI 101 has a service learning component. And check out the website for the Office of Internships and Experiential Learning to get a good sense of the range of opportunities available to students and the extensive support offered by URI to students, faculty, and employers. This week I visited the Production Lab in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric, which provides a top-notch technical environment and a variety of support services for students interested in research and outreach in writing and in preparing cutting-edge web-based portfolios to showcase their work.

The word is getting out. As I talk with companies, organizations, and communities across Rhode Island an emerging theme is the interest in recruiting University of Rhode Island students to assist with projects and problems. Our students are making a difference in numerous capacities, and significantly enhancing their education at the same time. Research, creative work, and experiential learning are becoming hallmarks of a URI education and everyone who participates benefits.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A (Possible) Reversal of the Budget Decline

As we in Rhode Island know, Governor Lincoln D. Chafee's first budget presentation to the General Assembly contained some welcome news for Rhode Island higher education: a $10 million increase over our 2011 budget. The Board of Governors for Higher Education had requested a $31 million increase -- an amount that would be sufficient to freeze tuition at the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, and the Community College of Rhode Island. Although the request was received sympathetically, the Governor and his team concluded that, given the current fiscal challenges confronting the state, funding the full request was not possible.

Nonetheless, I believe that it would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Governor's proposed budget increase for higher education. Across America the news has been almost invariably poor for public higher education. Staggering budget cuts for public colleges and universities have been proposed in many states. Although Rhode Island's fiscal problems are as challenging as those found elsewhere, it appears that within our State there is a growing recognition of the importance of higher education in creating a new economy and providing the jobs that are critically needed. That is good news, and not just for URI, RIC, and CCRI. It is good news for all of Rhode Island. Like our international competitors, Rhode Island is investing in strategies -- education, research, technology transfer, workforce training -- that will help us build a more globally competitive economy.

At the University of Rhode Island we take very seriously our responsibility to provide a strong return on the investment made in us by the people of Rhode Island. We will work even harder to provide high quality undergraduate, graduate, and professional education. Equally, we will continue to enhance our research, scholarship, and creative work, along with our service to the people of the state. Our colleagues at RIC and CCRI share our commitment to providing high value for the resources entrusted to us. And each of us is also committed to working together to generate more efficient use of those resources -- the planning for a joint nursing facility in Providence for URI and RIC is a great example.

The General Assembly will now take up the Governor's proposed budget. We should be cautious about predicting the final outcome. But the leadership of the legislature, and many of its members, have expressed strong support for higher education, for ensuring that it remains affordable to Rhode Islanders, and for the quality needed for our graduates to be prepared to succeed.

If you believe that investing in higher education is important to economic renewal and prosperity, let your representatives in the legislature know. Your support and input will be important.

Rhode Island has an opportunity in these challenging times to send a message that will be noticed. It is a message that we are moving forward, that we are taking the steps necessary to rebuild our economy, and that we are investing in our people -- giving them the knowledge and experience required to pursue their dreams. Thanks in advance for helping us send that message across our state, throughout our region, and to all of America.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Another Special Moment for URI

I don’t know if this is a “first” for us or not, but it is certainly infrequent to be featured, as the University of Rhode Island was this week, on the front page of the Chronicle of Higher Education, one of the premier publications on higher education in the world. URI was featured prominently in a story entitled “For Gay Students, More Room on Campus”, which examines both the progress and challenges faced by gay students at the University of Rhode Island and other colleges and universities across the country. It’s a good and fair article that cogently describes the difficulties that GLBT students face, the efforts to improve their safety and inclusion, and the ongoing work to assess and monitor progress at institutions of higher education, including URI.

I suppose it could be argued that such a high-profile presentation of the issues, problems, and progress at the University of Rhode Island is not the most advantageous publicity for the university. I would disagree. Many of your have heard me say that one cannot solve problems while trying to hide them, or by pretending they don’t exist. You can only solve a problem by acknowledging that it is real and marshalling the resources needed to resolve it. That is what we are doing at the University of Rhode Island, and we will continue to confront the problems of intolerance and mistreatment of our GLBT students until we succeed in building a community where all of our members are welcomed, affirmed, and supported. As pointed out in the article, that will take time and will not completely eradicate all incidents of bias or hate. But I think we can succeed in building a community where all our members can say “I fit in; this is a place where I can be myself”.

That’s our goal, and the Chronicle article is a good reminder of its importance.

There is one "first" to note: this is the first time for two posts on the same day. Just a lot to write about, and more to come. Please also check out the previous post.

A "First" for URI

Last Saturday evening Lynn and I had a truly wonderful time at an event that is apparently new to the University of Rhode Island: the “Praise Him No Matter What” gospel concert, proclaimed by the organizers as the first gospel concert to hit the URI campus. The talent on display that night was truly amazing! And there was lot of talent in evidence – the concert went from around 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. We enjoyed every minute of a program that included music, dance, poetry, and testimonies.

There is another reason that Saturday night was special. I would guess that over 95% of those in attendance (and main level of Edwards was nearly full) were people of color, including a lot of URI students. The warmth, support, affirmation, and enthusiasm among everyone there was simply inspiring. It was a great example of community in action – an event based on community, where all were welcomed, supported, and affirmed. The community represented at the concert was part of multiple, larger communities: including the University of Rhode Island and other colleges, Providence and other towns across New England, and the community of faith. All of the communities represented were tied together by the concert.

Communities of faith, although certainly not for everyone, can be very supportive of efforts to build communities across many common and problematic dividing lines. The University of Rhode Island is fortunate to have many communities of faith that contribute in multiple ways to building a supportive campus environment.

Of course, religious convictions can be a terribly divisive force – but they need not be. Faith can be a strong and positive force for community and justice, for compassion, mercy, and understanding, and for hope. For me, that was the central message of “the first gospel concert to hit URI”.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Texas Medical Center

I just returned from a visit to Houston with Governor Lincoln Chafee and the Mayor of Providence, Angel Taveras. The Governor invited President Ruth Simmons of Brown University and me to accompany him and the Mayor to visit the Texas Medical Center, which is one of the world’s foremost centers for patient care and medical research. The Texas Medical Center is composed of 49 institutions, including 21 academic institutions, six nursing schools, three medical schools, and two schools of pharmacy. Further, the Texas Medical Center encompasses 33.8 million (!) gross square feet of patient care, education, and research space, employs over 93,000 people, and teaches over 71,000 students. The annual research expenditures are approximately $1.8 billion. In short, as they might say there, it is truly a “Texas-sized” organization.

So why visit? What could be learned from meeting with administrators, researchers, and others in Houston that would be helpful to Rhode Island? As it turns out – a lot. I was very impressed by the enthusiasm for, and commitment to, service – the focus on helping people was always foremost. It seems to me that such a spirit is also common among Rhode Islanders.

Here are some other key findings that are directly relevant to the University of Rhode Island and our missions of advancing education and research and contributing to the economic renewal of our state.

First, the synergy of co-locating academic institutions and programs with hospitals and health care agencies or organizations is dramatic. That has been my experience (on a much different scale) and, to me, this is an opportunity for which Rhode Island is well positioned. Education, research, patient care, and job creation are all significantly enhanced by simple proximity, and further magnified by collaboration. Collaboration and partnerships are critical to success – we already know that here – but the results can be even more dramatic than many in Rhode Island might think. It’s clear from the Texas Medical Center example that the concept of bringing the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College to the “Knowledge District” in Providence, where the Brown University Medical School and multiple health care providers are located, is potentially transformative. In fact, we should consider a presence for health-related programs in addition to nursing. Also, as we have experienced so powerfully at URI, the integration of teaching and research that can occur when faculty, students, and research staff can readily interact enhances both education and innovative scholarship.

There’s more. We heard how shared, multi-use facilities can benefit education, research, and patient care; building more such facilities appears to be a priority for the Texas Medical Center and I think this would be a productive and cost-effective strategy for Rhode Island as well. And, according to figures provided by the Texas Medical Center, the economic impact of the Center has been substantial – estimated at $14 billion for the region, and the creation of over 121,000 jobs in addition to the employees of the Center itself.

I think we can build on our current success, and the solid foundation that exists here, to create the “Rhode Island Medical Center” (a phrase first used by Governor Chafee in our discussions, if I recall correctly). It will be scaled to Rhode Island, of course, but I believe its impact would also be substantial and lasting. We can learn from the examples of Houston and elsewhere, and take advantage of our size, to move ahead quickly, to the benefit of all Rhode Islanders. I think that, as in Texas, success will require a sustained effort by many people and institutions working together. I’m confident that the University of Rhode Island is ready to do its part.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Athletics and Excellence

On Sunday, February 13, the University of Rhode Island celebrated National Girls and Women in Sports Day – and it was a great day for URI. Several of our women’s teams hosted hundreds of girls interested in sports, giving them a glimpse of high-level athletic competition. Concurrently, we hosted a reception for alumni who had competed on our women’s teams for URI. Over a hundred of our alumni participated, women who had made an impact while at URI, and who have continued to succeed and lead in their professional and personal lives following graduation. That was followed by a terrific game between Cathy Inglese’s Rams and St. Louis University, which the Rams won 68-54 behind senior Megan Shoniker’s 35 points and junior Lara Gaspar’s 20. On Saturday Jim Baron’s Rams had pulled out an exciting overtime win against Charlotte 71-70 on Jamal Wilson’s put back basket at the buzzer. The Rams were led by 20 and 19 point efforts from sophomores Akeem Richmond Nikola Malesevic, respectively. Marquis Jones played all 45 minutes and dished out 10 assists despite being a bit under the weather. All in all, a terrific weekend for athletics at the University of Rhode Island.

As good as it is to see our teams succeed on the courts, in the water, or on the field (and it is great) I am just as pleased to witness the success of our student athletes in the classroom and in our community. As a group, student athletes do very well academically at the University of Rhode Island because academic success is a priority for them, our coaches, and Athletics Director Thorr Bjorn. You will find our student athletes in practically every major offered at URI, including our most demanding. Our student athletes also contribute in many, many ways to serving the larger community and to building a strong community here at URI. They are involved and engaged, and they make a difference. They continue to make a difference long after they have left URI. I have met dozens of alumni who competed for the University of Rhode Island and, invariably, I have been impressed by their achievements following graduation.

Let me give credit where credit is due. Bill Reynolds and Jim Donaldson of the Providence Journal were right when they indicated that the greatest legacy of URI athletics is our players. And it is a legacy that we can be very proud of.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Big Chill

The University of Rhode Island recently celebrated its Big Chill weekend. The weekend featured two events – one celebrating the continuing excellence of our scholar-athletes and our intercollegiate athletics programs, the other our annual fundraising evening devoted to scholarships. Together these events emphasize the excellence of the university and the importance of our students and their achievements.
The Hall of Fame Induction event welcomed Ed Bradley (URI's legendary men's soccer coach), Julia Chilicki-Beasley (outstanding swimmer and rower -- representing the USA at the 1996 Olympics -- and influential rowing coach at URI), Tyson Wheeler (one of URI's best men's basketball players ever, and a leader of the 1998 Elite Eight team), and Bob White (an All-American offensive lineman on URI's amazing 1982-1985 football teams). These individuals represent the tremendous achievements and continuing potential of intercollegiate athletics at URI, and remind us all of the importance and impact of our programs, to be sure; but, more importantly, these outstanding new members remind us of the qualities and the enduring impact of the people who become a part of URI as a result of our athletics programs.
That same weekend, the University of Rhode Island also convened many of our alumni, friends, and supporters to celebrate the achievements of our students and to contribute to their continuing success by raising critical scholarship funds. Since the Big Chill Weekends began, over $1.2 million has been raised for scholarships, including $80,000 this year. More than 400 people attended, and a wonderful time was enjoyed by all.
Special thanks to the Chairs of the Organizing Committee -- John and Gail Palumbo and Kathy O'Donnell-White and Bill White -- for their outstanding leadership of a great team, as well as Mark Davis, Working Chair of the Volunteer Committee. I would also like to thank everyone who attended and contributed to support our students. If you attended this year, please plan on coming back in 2012. If you were unable to attend this year, please plan ahead for the next Big Chill weekend. Scholarships for students have never been more important to the success of our students and the university.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Welcome to 2011

It is an unusually quiet time on the campus yesterday – mainly because we were in the midst of yet another substantial (at least by Rhode Island standards) snowstorm and the university was closed by order of the Governor. Rhody loves days like that. A Montana-born dog, he loves snow. He also loves running around a largely empty campus without the impediment of a leash. Our hard-working facilities and grounds personnel were just about the only people on the campus. Thanks to them, the campus will be accessible today, although there will be a lot of piled snow around. I know all of the URI community joins me in thanking them for their dedication and hard work in difficult circumstances.

Despite the relative quiet of the day and the break between semesters, there is a lot going on at the University of Rhode Island. The university’s leadership team is working systematically with the new and continuing leadership of the state to prepare for the challenges and opportunities of the year ahead. Our core message is that the University of Rhode Island, and higher education more broadly, are essential partners with government, the public, and business in re-creating the Rhode Island economy and in building a better future for all Rhode Islanders.

Beyond that, URI is working concurrently on multiple fronts to implement the academic plan and to pursue our transformational goals. Here’s a sampling.

Kathryn Friedman has joined the senior leadership team as the Associate Vice President for Community, Equity, and Diversity. She is already engaged on the campus and will provide outstanding leadership for our efforts to build a vibrant, diverse, and engaged community at the university in which all our members are welcomed, affirmed, and supported.

The Third Annual Academic Summit will convene next week on the subject of “Engaging Students in Learning with Technology”. Dr. Candace Thille, Director of the Open Learning Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, together with faculty and students from URI, will participate in exploring how we can use the powerful tools at our disposal to improve our curriculum and student learning.

Building on the recently completed report from our faculty task force on global initiatives and education, we will be assessing our efforts in international programs and education with the assistance of Dr. Norman Peterson, Vice Provost for International Education at Montana State University. URI is also establishing a new partnership to bring world-class instruction in English as a Second Language to URI next fall.

Planning for next year’s Honors Colloquium is well under way. It is on the subject “Are You Ready for the Future?” (an excellent question for all of us) and promises to be an innovative and thought-provoking presentation and analysis of the potential impacts of current trends and discoveries.

Over the next few months URI will be examining new opportunities for partnerships with the private sector, state government, and other entities. We anticipate that the assessment of the feasibility of the proposed research and development park will be completed by the spring.

In short, 2011 will be a busy and exciting year for URI. Best wishes for a productive and enjoyable 2011 to all of you.