Monday, December 2, 2013

A Global University

What does it mean to be a global university?  The answer depends on the institution to which the question is directed, and the responses will likely vary substantially.  Multiple campuses located in different countries, significant enrollments of international students, numerous partnerships and exchange agreements, or multinational research collaborations may all be defining elements of a “global” university.
There’s another way to assess a university’s global status and impact.  Specifically, we can examine what members of the University of Rhode Island community – faculty, students, and (importantly) alumni – are actually doing across the world. A selection of recent events provides some powerful examples of the scope and impact of the University of Rhode Island’s global engagement.
One of highlights of this year’s Distinguished Achievement Awards ceremony on October 25th was the presentation to Toray Plastics (America) of the President’s Corporate Award.  This award was created to honor exceptional corporate partners of the University of Rhode Island. TPA is a major Rhode Island manufacturer, a major supporter of URI, and a company that annually provides numerous internships for our students and has many URI alumni within its ranks.  TPA is a subsidiary of Toray – a Japan based global manufacturing company. The current chairman of Toray, Dr. Sadayuki Sakakibara was awarded an honorary degree from URI in 2010.  Now we are working with Rick Schloesser (CEO of TPA) and Dr. Sakakibara to explore the possibility of a Japanese International Engineering Program.  Toray has made substantial investments in the University of Rhode Island and its students. At the Distinguished Achievement Awards ceremony, Mr. Schloesser announced a $2 million gift to support the College of Engineering.

Also honored that night with Presidential or Deans’ Awards (among many others, see were: Eric Ryan, ’96, co-founder of Method Products, a global company and previous recipient of the Clinton Global Citizenship Award; James Clappin. ’80, President of Corning Glass Technologies, a division of Corning based in Japan and South Korea; Gellwynn D. H. Jusuf (MS ’89, PhD ’97), Director General of Capture Fisheries, Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Republic of Indonesia; and Mohammed Al-Sultan (PhD ’03), Director of Pharmacoeconomics and Outcomes Research, King Saud University, Saudi Arabia.

URI students certainly have a remarkable global presence as well.  Just check out the story on the University of Rhode Island home page entitled “Put Languages to Work”. As a further example, this fall I enjoyed meeting with four URI students studying at the Hochschule for Angewandte Wissenschaften Hamburg (Hamburg University of Applied Sciences): Nick Smith, Sara Watson, and Pat Mullen (all students in our International Business Program) and Dan Belbey ’13, who received a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue his Master’s in Business Administration and Logistics at Hamburg.  And we should not forget Megan O’Brien ’12, who is finishing up her Master’s at URI and received a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue a second graduate degree at the University Centre of the Westfjords in Iceland, or Eily Cournoyer ’13, who won a Fulbright to study at the Cancer Institute of University College, London.  There are dozens and dozens of more examples.
Of course, these outstanding global achievements by our alumni and students are facilitated and empowered by the faculty of the University of Rhode Island, whose impact, influence, and contributions truly span the globe.  When I mention this to members of our external constituencies and partners, the research and outreach of the Graduate School of Oceanography, the Coastal Resources Center, and the Coastal Institute typically come immediately to mind, but the faculties of all URI’s colleges and departments are globally engaged – in research and scholarship, education, and service.  In recognition of this fact, we have added a new link to our navigation bar – GLOBAL – just above the featured image on URI’s homepage. Check it out; what you will find there is a great demonstration of what it means to be a global university.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


It sometimes seems that all across the world there is talk of “transformation” – the transformation of institutions, corporations, governments, economies, policies, and even societies. At the University of Rhode Island we have defined a set of transformational goals, goals that, if achieved, will make the university a different kind of place for learning and discovery.  One might reasonably ask: “What would “transformation” actually look like?  Thanks to the events of this past week, we have another excellent example of a truly transformational step for URI. 
The visionary gift of $15 million from Tom and Cathy Ryan to create the George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience has set the University of Rhode Island on an entirely different trajectory.  There can be little doubt that, as a result of this gift, the University of Rhode Island will be a different and much better university than it is at this moment.  As a result of this gift, the University of Rhode Island is now extremely well positioned to dramatically capitalize on its previous success in forming the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program.  URI now has the capability to become a leader in the effort to prevent, diagnose, and treat neurodegenerative and neurological diseases, and to discover fundamentally new insights into the functioning of the human brain.
Importantly, the Ryans' gift is perfectly consistent with existing strategic priorities of the University of Rhode Island and our Transformational Goals.  Consequently, the University is well positioned to supplement the resources provided by their gift.  The Ryans’ gift will catalyze the rapid expansion and growth of research and advanced training in neuroscience research at the University of Rhode Island. URI will provide base funding for the newly created position of the Thomas M. Ryan Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience.  URI will also fund three new faculty positions in neuroscience, which are part of our "cluster hire" strategy associated with the implementation of our Academic Strategic Plan.  Funding from the Ryan gift will provide absolutely critical start-up resources for these new faculty members, as well as ongoing support for their activities.

An additional feature of the Ryans’ gift significantly enhances its transformational impact. It will create new opportunities for collaborative research with colleagues at Brown University, the Rhode Island Hospital, Butler Hospital, and the Veterans Administration in Providence.  What each of these institutions would be able to do independently will be substantially enhanced by what we can do collaboratively.  The vision is to make Rhode Island a “go to” destination for research and care in neurodegenerative and neurological diseases. With the support of Tom and Cathy Ryan, this vision is measurably closer to becoming real, to the benefit of the University of Rhode Island, our partners, the state, and society.  That is truly transformational.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien

In my previous post I wrote about one of the two most useful and important pieces of wisdom that had ever been shared with me. The title of this post represents the other. 
It is a quotation from Voltaire translated as "The perfect is the enemy of the good", or "The best is the enemy of the good." It came to me stated a little differently, as an admonition: "Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good." That is how I remember it, and strive to put it into practice. President Geoff Gamble of Montana State University shared it with me in this form, shortly after he arrived from the University of Vermont in 2001. I was the interim provost at the time. Geoff was a terrific mentor and the eight years we worked together were very productive and even fun (most of the time). 
Geoff’s point, and presumably Voltaire’s, was that a single-minded insistence on perfection (or on getting exactly what you define as a perfect outcome) may be (and frequently is) counter-productive. Perfection is nearly always unattainable. One can pitch a perfect game, or receive a perfect score, occasionally experience a “perfect day”, but that’s about it. Recognizing the wisdom of “never let the perfect be the enemy of the good” in no way precludes us from setting high goals and striving for excellence. In my experience, I have found this maxim to be consistently valuable in devising strategies to achieve ambitious goals, in implementing those strategies, and in assessing progress.
The central question then becomes: “Is this a step in the right direction?” Any particular outcome may fall well short of our ultimate goal, but if it has moved us forward along the path to achieving the goal, then we should recognize that progress and focus on planning and executing the next step that would advance us further.
The University of Rhode Island is just completing its 17th Diversity Week, and our efforts towards building a diverse community are a timely example how “never let the perfect be the enemy of the good” can work effectively in practice. Our goal is to build a broadly diverse community where every member is welcomed, affirmed, respected, and supported. If we could achieve that for every member of our community every day, it would indeed be perfect, I think. We are far short of achieving such an outcome. It is useful to frequently remind ourselves that we have a lot more work to do – you can’t solve a problem until you admit it exists – and the Diversity Week program provided many such useful moments. But the speakers, panels, and performances also provided many, many examples of progress: of good things already achieved and of ambitious efforts to forge ahead towards our goal.
Thank you to all who planned and facilitated this year’s program, to all those who participated, and all those who support the University of Rhode Island’s efforts to build an inclusive, caring community.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Importance of Risk

The University of Rhode Island and CVS/Caremark Corporation celebrated our long-standing partnership last week in the new College of Pharmacy building.  It was abundantly clear throughout the festivities that this has been an enormously productive and beneficial partnership for both institutions. 
Larry Merlo, the CEO of CVS/Caremark, spoke with pharmacy students during the morning. They were paying close attention, and one of Mr. Merlo’s points seemed especially well received.  He said, in essence, “do not fear failure”. In order to innovate we must, he pointed out, accept the risk that not everything we attempt will succeed.  Exactly right. Success, and high levels of performance, are not equivalent to, and do not require, perfection. Perfection is an unattainable goal, but success and leadership are not.  CVS/Caremark has distinguished itself both by its success and its leadership within the industry.  There can be little doubt that these achievements are related to the company’s willingness to accept the risks of occasional failure in order to be consistently innovative.
I learned a very similar lesson in a different way.  As a first-year graduate student in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, I was privileged to join the research laboratory of Professor Harry B. Gray – one of America’s (and the world’s) most distinguished researchers in chemistry.  Harry had (and has) a global reputation for being one of the most brilliant and innovative research scientists in the field of chemistry.  As a 22 year-old I was certainly aware of his success and leadership, but only later when I was starting my own career did I fully realize what an honor it was to work with Harry. 
Needless to say, the standards and expectations in Harry’s lab were extremely high, and largely self-imposed by the members of his research group. Harry had set an extremely high standard for himself and all of us wanted our work to be as close to that standard as we could possibly achieve.  So I was very pleased when one of my first projects went very well and led in a relatively short time to publication in the Journal of the American Chemical Society – one of the world’s most prestigious journals for research in chemistry.  Moreover, it was published as a “communication” – a mode reserved for work deemed especially interesting and timely.  It was my first scientific paper.
The paper did receive a fair amount of attention, which, of course, made me even happier.  One reason for the attention was that the experiments had been carried out on a unique instrument (really, there was only one such instrument in the world at the time, if I remember correctly) that existed in the Physics Department at the University of Rome.  The instrument in Rome (a magnetometer, i.e. it measures magnetism) was based on one invented in the Physics Department at Caltech and which utilized a SQUID – not calamari but a “superconducting quantum interference device”. This sounds like something Sheldon would say on the Big Bang Theory, but I assure you it’s quite real.  
Several months after the paper appeared we got a call from a new company in San Diego that had built a SQUID-based magnetometer and wanted us to come down and test it. So, I prepared some new samples, drove from Pasadena to San Diego (a distance considered minor in CA and nearly impossible to Rhode Islanders), met my new colleagues, and started work. 36 hours later I knew, without any doubt whatsoever, that the results in my first paper were simply, and completely, wrong.  It was a very long drive back.
I was embarrassed: my first published work was wrong and worse, I had let down my mentor and PhD advisor.  I needed to tell Harry as soon as possible so I just walked into his office (his door was nearly always open) showed him the new data, and summarized the analysis. I started to apologize; he stopped me mid-way through. “Come with me”, he said. He walked into his library, opened a file cabinet, and pulled out a reprint of an early paper of his.  “See this”, he said, “it’s one of my first papers as an assistant professor at Columbia. And it’s wrong. Worse, it was one of my scientific competitors who demonstrated that fact.” 
Then Harry said, “Dave, you’ll never do anything important if you’re not willing to be wrong.”  I’ve never forgotten that. It was, and still is, the most valuable piece of wisdom that Harry ever shared with me – and I cannot calculate the value of all the knowledge and wisdom he provided.
I think it is simply true that unless you are willing to accept the risk of being wrong, the risk of failure, you are very unlikely to do anything innovative or important.  This is true, I believe, for individuals as well as organizations.  We should always strive for excellence, but if perfection is the goal, then neither perfection nor excellence will be achieved.  So thank you Harry, and thank you, Larry, for sharing that wisdom in 1977 and in 2013. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Moving In

Actually, we didn’t. Lynn and I, along with Rhody and Lily (our son’s dog on temporary assignment to URI) live here. But about 6,000 students did move in over Labor Day weekend. Advanced students, staff, faculty, deans and administrators very much enjoyed welcoming the new students to the campus and assisting them in settling in. Thanks to all who helped make our annual “move-in” weekend such a tremendous success.
Move-in weekend is more than welcoming new students to the campus, however.  It is about welcoming new students to the University of Rhode Island community.  The URI community is an increasingly diverse one (for example, 22% of the entering class self-identified as individuals of color, and 49 states and 27 nations were represented). It is a community that is vibrant, engaged, and strives to be welcoming and supportive of all its members.  It is a community that spans the entire university, from Athletics to WRIU, and is characterized by the following statement regarding its “cornerstones”, see (

The University of Rhode Island is a principled community guided by values. As members of this community, we subscribe to the following principles, which form the foundation of our endeavors.
We pursue knowledge with honesty, integrity and courage.
We promote independent choice, intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness and free expression.
We respect the rights and dignity of each individual and group. We reject prejudice and intolerance, and we work to understand differences.
We accept personal responsibility for our actions and their consequences.
We actively cooperate to improve the University, the state of Rhode Island, and the global community beyond our borders.
We strive to be a community where the environment and property are treated respectfully.
We seek to create and maintain an environment conducive to personal health and wellness.
We work to develop skills that promote lifelong learning, leadership and service.

Welcome to the University of Rhode Island.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Boy Scouts Have It Right

Opportunities generally seem to present themselves at inopportune times; challenges invariably do.  Challenges seek us out, but opportunities frequently have to be discovered and then pursued.  And we should not assume that we can always tell one from the other, at least initially.  Indeed, discerning the opportunities amidst the challenges may require substantial analysis, thought, and deliberation.  It seems to me that the best advice we can offer one another in times like these is simply: “be prepared.”
Obviously, being prepared means something different for a climbing or backpacking trip as compared to university operations.  One of the reasons I believe that shared governance is critical to the success of a university is that it is an essential factor in order to “be prepared.”  Shared governance assures that multiple minds, with diverse experience and expertise, and representing a variety of perspectives, will be involved in assessing the challenges and opportunities that arise.  What may appear to be insignificant or unimportant to a single individual or group, others may properly recognize as a serious threat or a significant new opportunity.  Moreover, broader participation assists in formulating the best institutional response.
Shared governance also fosters greater transparency and accountability.  In higher education, “accountability” is frequently invoked in the context of an institution’s external constituencies.  Accountability in this context is certainly essential. Equally important is the accountability of the many members of a university community to each other, which is aided by robust, collegial shared governance.  Mutual accountability creates the appropriate environment for consistent and sustained transparency. In turn, a commitment to accountability and transparency is central to the goal to “be prepared.”
However, for a university to thrive in the current climate of substantial and rapid change, it must be flexible, adaptable, and responsive – and this means that some of our current practices in shared governance must also adapt.  In short, shared governance needs to become more flexible and responsive; we need to make decisions more quickly and without regard to the academic calendar.   Given the magnitude of the issues we have successfully dealt with in the past, and the technologies now available, I am confident we can create a 21st century version of shared governance that enables us to truly be prepared to deal with all the challenges and opportunities that may come our way.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Real Issue Associated with MOOCs

As I observe, and occasionally read, the ever-escalating number of articles, polemics, assessments, testimonials, and critiques of MOOCs, I sometimes wonder: “what am I missing here?’  It seems to me that MOOCs are a 21st century, university-level textbook.  Take a star professor (or at least a successful teacher), add state-of-the-art presentation and graphics, mix in a student guide with exercises/problems/study questions, include course and reference materials for instructors, build a marketing campaign, and in the 1990s you got a textbook. In 2013, a MOOC may result.  Both reflect the perspective and pedagogical approach of the author(s). Both may be used by thousands of students simultaneously, who may, or may not, interact very much with each other, or with the instructor for that matter. 
More importantly, in this context students largely split into two major groups.  I was able to learn a lot from textbooks or monographs. Most academics likely share that ability; it’s an attribute that helps us succeed over a lifetime in the academy. Most of the students I taught at Amherst College or Montana State University had difficulty learning material solely from a book, no matter how distinguished the author.  The early results on MOOCs appear to suggest a similar divide among students, based on actual completion rates.  MOOCs, like textbooks, will likely become a very useful tool for learning.  I am skeptical that MOOCs, by themselves, will be adequate for a majority of students to actually master material at the level required.  I also think the Provosts associated with the Committee on Institutional Collaboration (see the link below) did an excellent job outlining the advantages and issues associated with MOOCs and other online learning approaches.
But none of this gets at the real issue. My concern about the current debate regarding MOOCs is that it distracts us from the more important task of fundamentally remaking undergraduate education to meet the urgent challenges of the 21st century.  Consider this: the vast majority of colleges and universities continue to structure education around an academic calendar originally designed to accommodate agriculture, and continue to use some version of an arbitrary credit system vaguely related to occupying a seat in a room for a specified period of time. Further, progress towards a degree is largely measured by the satisfactory accumulation of such credits within specified time periods. I would guess that most of us who have taught in universities have encountered students who could complete all the work associated with a 14-week semester course in 10 weeks, or even seven. We have likely also had students who probably could have succeeded in that same course if they had 15 weeks to do so.  In addition, our grading systems and standards are highly idiosyncratic, and comparisons among and between institutions are frequently fraught with difficulty. To be sure (and when done well and systematically), the definition of specific educational outcomes and the implementation of assessment strategies is an incremental improvement. 
We can do better, and we must.  The magnitude and complexity of the global challenges we face simply demand a more highly educated populace.  We must be able to improve access and student success without driving the cost of public education beyond the means of our average citizen.  To do this we must be serious about creating a 24/7 learning environment for students that takes full advantage of all the relevant and supportive technologies, enables students to learn at the rate best suited to them, continuously challenges students to excel, engages students in research, scholarship, and creative work, and provides opportunities for them to engage in solving real problems.  MOOCs may become a very valuable tool in this endeavor, but only that. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

20,000 Voices and Fisher v. Texas

Once again, all higher education institutions, especially selective public universities, have been confronted by the continuing issues surrounding the role of diversity on our campuses.  It is certainly an American set of issues, but not uniquely so.  One of the outcomes of globalization and global mobility is that increasing diversity – religious, ethnic, racial, economic – is raising a host of questions, problems, and issues at colleges and universities across the world.  American higher education has been grappling with the questions, problems, and issues for decades, but with mixed success, as is evident from the recent Supreme Court decision.
I think one of the difficulties is that our focus on creating and accommodating diversity has generated suspicion among many Americans about our motives, and whether there is any underlying and principled rationale for building diversity, or even attending to it at all.  Most American colleges and universities believe that diversity is central and important. Judging by the briefs filed in this and other cases, many sectors of our society also believe that diversity is important, even critical.  The decision in Fisher v. Texas, and much of the accompanying commentary, suggests that we have not yet provided a compelling rationale for our convictions about the importance of diversity, at least to a sizable fraction of our fellow citizens and several members of the Supreme Court.  I think it is possible to do so.
At the University of Rhode Island, and at many other universities, two relatively recent forces influence our commitment to diversity: the burgeoning diversity of our own country, and the impact of the global economy and an increasingly globalized society.  It is an educational imperative that we prepare our students to thrive in contexts where they have to work effectively with people who do not look like they do, who do not share the same world view, assumptions, politics, economic status, religion, sexual orientation, or fundamental beliefs.  Our graduates must be able to find common ground and develop shared goals with an enormous variety of others.  The massive global challenges they will face cannot be solved or overcome by a single nation or group.  Truly, the security, prosperity, and health of our students will depend upon their success in living and working productively in a world and country where they are, in effect, a minority. 
Frequently, fractious and divisive forces in our society hinder our efforts to provide our students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.  To mitigate these influences, I think it is critical to foster a community on campus where every member is valued, respected, welcomed, and affirmed.  We do not need to agree with one another, or even to have much in common, in order to create such a community. We have this in common – we all wish to be valued, respected, welcomed, and affirmed as a person.  One of the finest attributes of a residential campus is the possibility of creating such a community – a community that encompasses the students, faculty, and staff and extends throughout the dorms, dining facilities, libraries, gyms, classrooms, and offices of the university.  Creating such a community is part of the foundation for equity and justice, not just on the campus, but also in the societies in which we live and work.
As a step towards that goal, the University of Rhode Island, through the Office of Community, Equity, and Diversity (and co-sponsored by the Division of Student Affairs, the Office of the Provost, and the Office of the President) put together a continuing event termed “20,000 Voices”, to reflect the fact that URI is striving to build a community where all 20,000 members have a voice.  The exciting work begun in the daylong initial event continues through the work of discussion groups, committees, and organizations.  I have no doubt that these efforts will substantially assist URI in becoming the kind of community of which all 20,000 of us will feel proud.  (See and the recent edition of Quadangles for more information.)  Thanks very much to everyone who is participating. If you haven’t been involved so far, there are still many opportunities to make a difference.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Work Is Its Own Reward

I have been working in higher education since 1978 – at Amherst College, Montana State University, and the University of Rhode Island. The current climate for higher education is the most challenging I have experienced or observed, especially for public colleges and universities. With public higher education caught between declining state support and escalating demands to restrain tuition increases, the financial climate is increasingly difficult. Expectations for access, accountability, and innovation are expanding for many private as well as public institutions.  The sustained budget impasse in Washington is taking a toll, constraining research funding at a time when the nation, and the entire world, needs America’s research universities to do more, not less.
These factors, and many more, contribute to a growing set of issues around adaptation, flexibility, and governance.  Governance questions associated with the role of shared governance on the campus, and the role of governing boards and government off the campus, have become especially pointed and problematic. In short, problems are multiplying, resources are diminishing, expectations are increasing, and stress is high.
So, why are so many people still interested in academic careers, especially on the faculty, and why do people with desirable options outside of academe choose to stay?
I like to read Yankee Magazine. Lynn indulges me by maintaining our subscription. Several months ago, Yankee ran a story on a person who trains border collies.  One of the memorable quotes about border collies was that, for them, “The work is its own reward.”  I believe that is true for many people – staff, faculty, and administrators – who devote their careers to higher education.  Simply stated: the work we do is very rewarding. Higher education makes a profound and extremely positive difference in the lives of people, in the societies in which they live, in understanding the universe, and in sustaining the hope that we can build a brighter, sustainable future.  The work we do is good work, in two common senses of the word: it is, in my judgment, far more frequently than not, of high quality, and it is virtuous. 
That’s good, because the work is not easy and the preparation required to carry it out can be lengthy and arduous, especially for faculty.  For many of our staff, the work can be physically or emotionally demanding, and the compensation relatively low.  Consequently, although it is true that “the work is its own reward”, that should not be the only reward.  Many full-time faculty at the University of Rhode Island are significantly less well compensated than their peers, and this problem needs to be urgently addressed.  The University also needs to improve the working conditions for part-time faculty and decrease its reliance on such appointments, in part by increasing the number of full-time and tenure-track appointments.  We need to increase the number and compensation of our staff in critical areas as well.  None of these steps will be easy and, given the constraints on tuition increases, will require increased support from the state of Rhode Island.  But it will certainly be rewarding if we succeed.
It is May and Commencement is approaching.  Commencement provides an excellent opportunity to celebrate the good work of the students, of the faculty, and of the entire university community.  It is a time of achievement, a time of promise, and a time of hope.  The celebrations of the students and their families remind all of us that the work we do has tremendous rewards.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


I confess that I remain a big Simon and Garfunkel fan, and that, in my opinion, Paul Simon was one of the most gifted songwriters of the 20th century.  Two passages of his have particular relevance at this time, I think.

From “The Boxer”: Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.
And from “The Sound of Silence”:  People talking without speaking
                                                   People hearing without listening

Although these lyrics were written in the 1960s, they remain poignant – and accurate, it seems to me.   Far too much of our current political discourse, and far too much of our media coverage, can be aptly characterized as “talking without speaking”, or “hearing without listening”, or simply disregarding everything except what you want to hear.  Moreover, if you are deliberate in your selection of cable channels, radio stations, websites, and media, you seldom have to hear or read anything that you do not already believe.  Consistent, frequent reinforcement of one’s convictions and biases makes it easier to disregard anything different.
To make matters worse, the contemporary tone of much of our public discourse, analysis, and commentary is often vitriolic and, all too seldom, measured and civil.  Those who disagree are not merely wrong or uninformed; they are evil, unpatriotic, sinister, fascist, traitors, bigots, Yankees fans, or worse.  “Facts” are fungible and inconvenient data, no matter how reproducible or extensive, are suspect, or dispensable, or considered as the product of some conspiracy.
In such a climate, we must be attentive to creating environments where dialog and discussion are robust, honest, even pointed, but civil and mutually respectful.  This is part of the mission of all of America’s colleges and universities – or should be.  Such an environment principally depends upon a community-wide commitment to civility, reason, mutual respect, and the quest for truth. Diversity in that community is a substantial source of strength; it is an extremely desirable asset that should be vigorously pursued.  If our community is too homogenous (composed mostly of people who look like us, think like us, and share our assumptions and worldview), then dialog and debate may be constrained, and our intellectual growth stunted.  Colleges and universities can provide excellent settings in which to build diverse communities that foster meaningful debate and dialog.  In this context, all forms of human diversity are valuable: political, economic, racial, social, ethnic, religious, origin, orientation, and more.
Deep engagement with the thought and perspectives of other periods of history, and across the breadth of human culture, is also essential.  This is one reason that all students should pursue the study of the liberal arts.   It is mere prejudice to believe that contemporary thought or analysis is inherently superior to that of the past.  Of course, all areas of knowledge build upon the past, and this is particularly evident in the sciences. Our understanding of the universe and all of its laws is far more advanced and comprehensive now than at any previous time. But this should not blind us to the wisdom and truth revealed or discovered by our predecessors.  Measuring our understanding and assumptions against the insights and conclusions of previous civilizations and cultures can be both very challenging and very illuminating.
To succeed in building communities that are diverse, welcoming, and supportive on one hand, and intellectually challenging and demanding on the other, is not easy.  A certain degree of institutional fortitude is also required because both internal and external criticism will surely come.  But higher education must persevere in this. It has never been more important, not only for the reasons cited above but also because our students need the wisdom and skills that can only be gained by living and participating in such an endeavor.

Friday, March 15, 2013


There are multiple questions that swirl insistently around higher education in America: questions of access, affordability, priorities, focus, quality, completion, transparency, and more.  This is to be expected as the costs of higher education escalate and both governments and families seek solutions to the issues and proof that the return on the investment in higher education will justify its cost.  In this climate another question emerges with growing intensity: how can we justify the presence of intercollegiate athletics, and its associated costs?
It is a reasonable and fair question. There are very few colleges and universities where intercollegiate athletics pays its own way.  The difference between revenues and costs must therefore come from tuition or state support, or both. So the question posed above really is one of what benefits does athletics provide that justify the investment of tax revenues or tuition?  A common answer posits that athletics is the “front porch” of the university, that it invites and encourages the engagement and support of alumni, the community, and the private sector. Many believe that athletics promotes and strengthens the brand of the institution. It is frequently asserted that individuals or entities that support athletics at a college or university will support academic and student programs as well.  All of these ideas may well be accurate.  And they may provide a sufficient justification for athletics to some, but certainly not to all.  
There can be little doubt that athletics is deeply, and probably irreversibly, integrated into American higher education.   Some might wish this was not the case, but we have to deal with the world as we find it, and not as we wish it to be. Given this reality, are there attributes of athletics that make it a valuable part of colleges and universities?  At the University of Rhode Island I think the answer is yes. 
Excluding facilities for the moment, scholarships are the largest single component of athletics budgets at URI and similar institutions: not coaches’ salaries, not travel, equipment, or operations.  This is important because, in essence, scholarships are direct investments in the student-athletes. Therefore, when we examine the value of athletics to a campus, we need to assess the value of these young men and women to our endeavors and our community. At the University of Rhode Island, our student-athletes are overwhelmingly a positive force on campus.  They tend to perform at a high level academically, have substantially higher graduation rates than the rest of the student body, are engaged, and are leaders. About 35% of them are on the Deans’ List.  They set a terrific example for other students with regard to dedication, time management, engagement, and commitment. Most of these outstanding individuals would not be here if they were not able to compete while pursuing their education, and URI would be diminished by their absence.
Our student athletes bring important diversity to our campus. Diversity is an asset, an advantage, for our student body and for our community as whole.  America is an increasingly diverse country, and obviously part of a diverse global society. Facilitating understanding of the nature, history, sociology, values, and perspectives of diverse cultures, ethnicities, world-views, and orientations is educationally valuable and, I would argue, critical to our students’ success in a global economy and global society.
One notable attribute of global society is its fascination and devotion to athletics and sports. The Olympics, the World Cup, March Madness, the proliferation of professional sports across the world, all are clear indicators of the human fascination (some would say “obsession”) with athletic competition.  Yes this fascination can be divisive, even violent. But it can also play a central role in building the fabric of community, in bringing people together, and bridging difference.  Hollywood has captured and portrayed this aspect of sports in compelling ways (e.g in the movies Mandela and the upcoming 42) and in quirky, amusing ways (e.g Silver Linings Playbook).
Intercollegiate athletics can assist campus communities in bridging differences, in finding common ground, in building relationships. In short – athletics can, and frequently does, foster community.  It connects the campus community at any given moment to a wider community of alumni, constituents, and supporters of the university. Our athletes participate in all aspects of campus life, often in leadership roles. They are great representatives of URI in the wider community, and with alumni and friends of the university.  They give back in manifold ways, such as supporting Habitat for Humanity, serving as Peer Advocates (see our homepage for the story), or saving lives by donating bone marrow. 
Of course, there are times when athletics programs and student-athletes fall short. Intercollegiate athletics, especially in Division I, has suffered both chronic and episodic problems that are serious and troubling. It appears that the cultures of athletics on some campuses may be deeply damaging to the institutions. But both minor and serious problems occur in practically all endeavors that involve people. At URI the athletic leadership and coaches are committed to building a culture of excellence – in competition, in academics, and in service. It is also a culture that embraces diversity, instills pride in oneself and in URI, and that develops leadership, and thereby strengthens the university. Moreover, athletics can enhance a university’s brand, its reputation, and even its funding.  In the final analysis, however, I think the presence and qualities of our student athletes, and the tremendous positive contributions they make to the life of the URI community, justifies our investment in them and in athletics.