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.