Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Focus on the Why

At this year’s ACE national conference an interesting question came up, which (paraphrased) was: How can universities make the changes required to adapt to a rapidly changing (and increasing) set of challenges and opportunities?  The answer provided: “focus on the why”. 
This could mean a lot of different things, depending on precisely which “why?” question is posed.  There are several relevant and important questions in this category. To name a few: Why should students and their families pay the current tuition to attend URI? Or: Why should the state legislature and the Governor provide additional support to URI? Or: Why would faculty and staff want to work for URI now, and in the future?  Here’s one I deal with very frequently: Why should alumni and other potential supporters give to URI?  These questions, and the associated answers, are clearly central to the vitality, quality, and future of the University of Rhode Island.
As important as they are, not one of these is the most important question.  That question is: Why are we here?  The answer is known to all of us: To educate students. It is, ultimately, about them, and not about us – the faculty and staff. The University of Rhode Island has multiple important missions, but education at the undergraduate and graduate levels is the heart and soul of the university and the foundation of all of our missions and endeavors.  In the midst of everything we are involved in, it is both good and necessary to remind ourselves frequently about why we actually exist. 
Certainly, the University of Rhode Island exists to conduct research, scholarship, and creative work. However, we do these things, at least in part, to provide new knowledge to our students, and to engage them in these very activities.  URI is very service oriented, but, again, we serve the people of the state, our nation, and the world to create a better environment for our students, our graduates, their families, and the societies in which they live.  We focus on economic development for the same reasons.  The phrase “student-centered” is not a slogan, a marketing strategy, or camouflage.  It is the essence of why we exist.
Accordingly, we should test all of our decisions, and assess all of our priorities, in light of what would be in the best interests – both short- and long-term – of our students.  Indeed, it is in the best interests of the university and its faculty and staff to do so.  This does not mean providing students with all that they desire, reducing the rigor or demands of our curricula, or having low standards for their academic work or behavior.  Just the opposite.
The relationship is reciprocal. If we – the faculty, administration, and staff  – have high expectations for our students, it is fair and right for the students to have high expectations of us.  Based on what I observe around campus and hear from students and alumni, I think the University of Rhode Island has long exemplified both a broad understanding of why URI is here, and the benefits of mutual high expectations.
The University of Rhode Island is moving assertively to provide an even better education for its students at the graduate and undergraduate levels.  For example, the Academic Strategic Plan, with its emphases on experiential learning, internships, research and scholarship, globalization, diversity, and community provides an outstanding framework for the future.  The faculty has been working diligently and productively to frame and implement a much needed new general education program.  There is an intensifying focus on what knowledge, competencies, and experiences our students need to be competitive and successful in the 21st century. 
In the end, all that we are and all we do at URI benefits from an unrelenting focus on why we are here. Universities with such a focus will attract talented and committed people  (students, faculty and staff), new resources, and the gratitude of those we serve.