Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Welcome to America's Greatest Assets

Beginning this weekend students arrive at the University of Rhode Island to begin our next academic year.  It’s an exciting time of year, especially for our new students and their families, but also for all of us in the URI community.  We begin this new academic year in the midst of significant challenges within a rapidly changing environment.  Given the magnitude and complexity of those global challenges facing us, I think that higher education has never been more important.  It will be, for the most part, the current and future generations of students – that’s you – who will have to craft or discover the solutions to issues ranging from building economic prosperity to dealing with climate change.  The University of Rhode Island is here to help prepare you to take on those challenges and issues. 
But we can only help.  Merely paying tuition and showing up does not guarantee that you will be prepared to succeed.  Recently another university president was quoted in Inside Higher Ed as saying: “The debate as to whether students are our customers is over. They have money and they have a choice of where or whether to invest in a college degree. That’s the definition of a customer.”  In my opinion, and with respect, he could not be more completely wrong.  First, I doubt many faculty would agree that the debate is over, and with good reason.  Second, students are not customers because an education is not a commodity nor a service that you can purchase. An education is not like cornflakes or help with your taxes. It would certainly be simpler if education was a commodity or a service, and perhaps that is part of the appeal for thinking about it in that way. 
In reality, your education depends as much on you as on the faculty.  Yes, they know a lot more about their subjects than you generally do. Collectively, they have devoted a great deal of time in continuously improving their teaching effectiveness and in creating new, relevant academic programs.  In the end, however, all their efforts – all their expertise, experience, and wisdom – will not matter if you think about your education the way you do your choice of cereal, or beverage, or your nail technician.  Your education is something you must actively create in partnership with the faculty. Your education will be as good, or as inadequate, as you want it to be.  Make no mistake, you can get a great education at the University Rhode Island, and that is precisely what we want for each of you. 
Why? Because you are our nation’s, the world’s, and the future’s greatest asset.  It’s not just the University of Rhode Island’s community that believes this.  The people of Rhode Island are investing over $77M this year in your education here. Thousands of URI alumni and friends have invested as well, providing scholarships and support for your education.  Frankly, I think that you are so important to the future that Rhode Island and the federal government should invest even more. 
Our competition certainly is. Sitting on my desk is a report entitled “The Competition that Really Matters. Comparing U.S., Chinese, and Indian Investments in the Next Generation Workforce.”  It is a sobering, 100 page report from the Center for American Progress and the Center for the Next Generation.  While in America we seem to be trapped by the “do more with less” mentality with regard to higher education, China and India have decided that it takes more to do more, and are rapidly increasing their investments in education at all levels.  Apparently they remember, even if we seem to have forgotten, the old American adage that “you get what you pay for”.  According to the report, China surpassed the United States in 2007 in the numbers of college graduates in science, engineering, and technology, and is now “the world’s largest provider of higher education.” India already awards more bachelor’s degrees than the U.S. and by 2020 will confer 4 times as many each year.  That is a lot of competition in the global economy.  Your opportunity to get a job and build a career will depend on how you do in that competition.  Your success will drive America’s success. 
That is why I think America needs to invest more, not less, in research, technology, and higher education.  Your success will strengthen that case. Since there are fewer of you, you will need to be better than our competition in order to keep America strong and prosperous.  I hope you enjoy your time here at the University of Rhode Island – college can, and should be, fun – but creating your education is a very serious matter.  Let’s work together to make your education everything it needs to be.  Welcome to URI.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A New Mission

If you haven’t already, please check out the story on the University of Rhode Island’s web site about the Star Academy. Here’s the link:  The First Star Academy at URI was founded to create opportunities for foster kids to prepare for college.  It is an excellent example of the kind of partnerships that the University of Rhode Island is committed to build.  In this instance the partners include First Star, a national non-profit organization (, Hasbro, Adoption Rhode Island, and the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families. 
Some might ask: Why is URI doing this? Doesn’t this represent an expansion of the University’s mission at a time when budgets are tight? Why should this be a priority?  All fair questions.  The question of why is relatively straightforward to answer: the need is substantial. Only a few percent of kids who reach 18 in foster care go to college. Many end up homeless shortly after leaving the foster care system.  Opportunities are few and hope is scarce.  One can decry the choices and decisions of the parents, or the inefficiencies and shortcomings of programs intended to help, but the bottom line is that a large majority of kids who “graduate” from foster care at 18 face a blighted future with very few options for building a fulfilling, productive life.  We can help.
But why, then, should the University of Rhode Island take on this task?  Isn’t there enough to do, especially given the persistent fiscal constraints facing the university?  Where is such an endeavor to be found in the mission statement or the Academic Strategic Plan?  The answer to these questions, I believe, is to be found in the fundamental nature of the University of Rhode Island’s identity as a public, land-grant institution.  Universities like URI were created to provide a path for higher education for the common people, the “industrial classes” as referred to in the Morrill Act of 1862 – still one of the most visionary and influential acts of Congress ever passed.  The University of Rhode Island’s mission is to prepare people for success in the “several pursuits and professions of life.”  And that is precisely the goal of the First Star Academy at URI.  The Academy strives to prepare foster kids for college and for success – providing opportunity, choices, and hope.  And that is the core mission of the University of Rhode Island.
We’ve had a lot of success in this kind of work.  The Talent Development program ( at the University of Rhode Island has assisted more than 1500 students to graduate who, owing to their own disadvantaged backgrounds, could not have expected to be able to attend URI.  Their success stories are an inspiration to all. In fact, a TD alumnus, Matt Buchanan, is the director of the First Star Academy at URI.
In the end, it makes excellent social and fiscal sense for the University of Rhode Island to be engaged with our partners in the First Star Academy, in Talent Development, and in many other ways to provide opportunity and a path to success for students who would not otherwise have had much of a chance.  Here in Rhode Island, and across the nation, pursuing strategies that will help in revitalizing the economy, creating jobs, and growing incomes may well be the surest path to restoring support for public higher education.  Further, it seems to me that the current social and political context in America argues for a better-informed and more engaged citizenry.  That is also certainly a part of the historic land-grant mission. 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, and I can think of no better way to celebrate it than by renewing our efforts, and creating new ways, to provide education, opportunity, and hope to all Americans.