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”.