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.