Monday, February 20, 2012

Loss and Community

Recently our URI community suffered two devastating losses: the deaths of Erica Knowles, a senior studying journalism and women’s studies, and Professor Peng Wang, a young faculty member in Chemical Engineering and Pharmaceutical Science. Each loss leaves a gaping hole in our community - voids that only they could fill. This past Saturday we gathered to mourn their loss and to celebrate their lives. Such events, although desperately necessary, are difficult for all concerned, especially for the families and those who love them. I very much appreciate their generosity in allowing the larger URI community to join with them to say good bye, and to share in both the grief of loss and the warmth of remembering.
Erica had long been a part of Rhode Island and South County, whereas Dr. Wang had only recently joined the University of Rhode Island faculty, and was born and grew up in China. On the surface the memorial services were very different, shaped by the distinct cultures, histories, and relationships of those whose lives we celebrated. But at the end of a long Saturday, I was left with the abiding conviction that our common humanity, intensely shared among a community at such moments, transcends all the differences of religion, language, culture, and history.
It is good to be reminded of that. Many people struggle with the questions of whether our lives have real meaning, or whether our decisions and choices ultimately really matter. The questions are ancient ones, and posed in many ways and venues. We seem to be living in a time where those questions are becoming more pointed and more urgent, in part the consequence of modern science and its increasingly mechanistic understanding of humanity. Alfred North Whitehead pointed this out in his 1925 Lowell Lectures at Harvard University, published as Science and the Modern World. He quotes Tennyson’s famous poem, In Memoriam: “The stars, she whispers, blindly run.” Whitehead argues that this line reflects the appalling possibility (to Tennyson and many others) that, since the laws of physics “blindly run”, that our lives, consequently and inescapably, blindly run.
It is not easy to conclusively refute that possibility. But the two funeral services reminded me that love matters, that friendship matters, and that therefore our lives matter. Our choices, our actions, the relationships we build, and the connections we make can bring us together in a community where what we share is far greater than our individual contributions. Last Saturday, we came together in grief, but in sharing that grief, expressing it alongside our love and appreciation for those we lost, we came away with shared memories, closer ties, and renewed hope. Remarkably, I think, community such as that evident on Saturday can provide powerful testimony to the possibility that our lives are not governed solely by the laws of physics and chemistry, that our lives together do not “blindly run”, and that we can create a future that is better for all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The State of College Affordability

In his State of the Union address, President Obama elevated the issue of the rising costs of higher education to a new level – a step that, in my view, was long overdue. America can certainly benefit from comprehensive and inclusive discussions of the critical social, economic, and public policy issues surrounding access to, and affordability of, higher education. Students, their families, colleges and universities, the federal and state governments, communities, businesses – all should be involved because everyone has a stake in the outcome. Indeed, one can argue that the President was responding to the growing popular demand, exemplified by elements of the Occupy Movement, for urgent attention to the questions of access and affordability.

The problem has been widely recognized: for well over a decade. The costs of higher education have been steadily rising, and at a rate that exceeds the consumer price index as a measure of inflation. For public colleges and universities, the underlying reason (as I have pointed out previously) is the systematic disinvestment in higher education by state governments. The behavior of state governments in this regard is not fundamentally irrational: in the face of ever increasing costs for such things as mandated entitlements, health care, public safety, corrections, and pensions, funding for higher education was increasingly viewed as discretionary. After all, if colleges and universities needed funds beyond those provided by the state, they could always raise tuition. And they did.

For some time this strategy worked acceptably well because in many states public higher education was inexpensive. But after several years of budget reductions and concomitant tuition increases, this is no longer the case for many students and families. Here at the University of Rhode Island two recent events powerfully highlighted the situation. The first was the testimony presented by students, alumni, and faculty at a hearing on campus by the Special House Commission to Study Public Higher Education Affordability and Accessibility in Rhode Island (see, followed by the Occupy URI forum (see our current home page).

It is encouraging for us in Rhode Island that the multiple issues associated with the cost of public higher education are gaining increased attention. Crafting solutions will not be easy or simple. There are several other, well recognized, problems facing our state that also require urgent attention. However, most of the problems we face, including access and affordability of higher education, could be addressed far more readily if additional resources were available. I believe that the best and most sustainable path to increasing our resources is to grow the economy. This growth must happen sooner than later, it must be substantial, and it must be based on innovation. Discovery, technology transfer, entrepreneurship, and a highly prepared workforce are all essential to building a competitive 21st century economy. These are all things at which URI can excel. Consequently, access to affordable, excellent public higher education is a critical component of constructing solutions to the many challenges facing our state, and our nation.