Five years after our Centennial Celebration, this accreditation Self-Study finds the University of Rhode Island in the midst of and wrestling with fundamental change. Our accomplishments as a land-grant institution of higher education are numerous. Our research activities and graduate programs have progressed to the point where a meaningful conversation can be held about the possibility of advancing to the rank of Carnegie Research I institution. Our incoming freshman class for fall 1997 will be the largest and best qualified academically of any class of the 1990s, and our ability to attract strong students from beyond our borders has never been better. Private fund raising now is making a significant financial contribution to the operation of the institution. We have even begun to change the culture and image of the institution emphasizing more than ever a "new culture for learning."
At the same time, the challenges of the recent past and those visible on the horizon ahead have forced us to reexamine our basic mission and the way we conduct our enterprise. As at many of our peer public institutions, the level of support we receive and can expect to receive from our largest benefactor, the State of Rhode Island, has declined from previous historic levels, and shifting any more of the financial burden to our students is not an option. It is now clear, and has been so for several years, that the scope of the institution we had expected to become as the 1990s dawned was not going to be financially sustainable. Resources, both financial and human, can only be stretched so far, and the University already has done this to the maximum extent feasible. We have openly accepted this challenge, and as a result, we have been engaged in meaningful and positive evaluation, planning and change.
In our previous accreditation review, it was noted that the University had spent a good deal of energy talking about planning but to little effect. Certainly, this conversation has not only continued in the intervening years, but also it has intensified. As will be clear to the reader of this document, this time it has lead to action. Moreover, this action has been based on high-quality, regularly available data. Undergraduate and graduate programs have been eliminated; resources have been reallocated; departments have transferred to different colleges to support the mission; and, perhaps most important of all, the University has recognized a need to focus its programs and activities. While it has been hard to acknowledge and even harder to accept that we cannot be "all things to all people," generally accepted areas of focus are now a part of our collective understanding of our institution. In the areas of research emphasis and graduate program offerings, we have chosen to excel in selected areas and to foster better integration of our research, teaching and service programs in a way that will have an impact on undergraduate education.
The new culture for learning also is evident in how we are seeking to conduct research and engage our students in the learning process. To promote and facilitate research that is multidisciplinary and collaborative, as many of the most significant research issues now are, we have fostered a partnership model as one approach to connect researchers in several disciplines with each other and with private and public partners as well as with graduate and undergraduate students. This fosters the effective examination of critical research questions and brings students directly into the knowledge creation process.
The ever growing importance of tuition revenues, particularly such revenues from out-of- state undergraduate students, has been one of the forces leading to special attention on the undergraduate experience and the factors which attract and retain undergraduatestudents. Like our peer institutions in the region, we have redirected substantial financial resources to support student aid and, thereby, bolster admissions efforts. Since its inception five years ago, the merit-based Centennial Scholars Program has improved both the yield for out-of-state freshmen and the academic profile of entering classes. Nevertheless, changing the undergraduate culture -- putting the commitment to learning first -- has been a significant challenge. Having students who are more academically able has helped. So too has the change in the campus alcohol policy. While the campus is not "dry" as the media sometimes would have us believe, alcohol is not permitted at any University-sanctioned function including those sponsored by the Greek houses. Indeed, Greek life at the University is being thoroughly evaluated and additional supervision has been imposed.
A learner-centered culture also should help retain our students more effectively. Starting in 1989, the University experienced a significant decline in the portion of freshmen who returned for their sophomore year. To improve our students' desire to stay at the University, there has been a special focus on the freshman experience. Even given the financial challenges which the University has experienced, a concerted effort has been made to assure freshmen of several small-class experiences taught by continuing faculty, and an introductory seminar for all freshmen, URI 101, was introduced to ease their transition to University life. In the area of Student Life, numerous new activities have been initiated to help engage students, especially new students, in the life of the University. Recently, a modest improvement in the freshman-to-sophomore retention rate has occurred, but this remains a vital work in progress.
Finally, all institutions of higher education today are confronted with the imperative of providing modern information services technology to their students, faculty and staff. The financial implications of this, of course, are staggering. In meeting this obligation, the state has been very supportive. In November 1996, the voters passed a bond referendum which will make available $29M for this purpose. Almost simultaneously, the University reorganized the information services units on campus to respond more effectively to this new environment. There will always be a greater demand for improvements than can be delivered, but a good start has been made.
While there is not yet unanimity in pursuit of these new directions and initiatives, the journey has begun. The institutional energy so spent, however, has left other matters unfinished. Assessment of student learning and the use of that information to help determine how well we have achieved our educational objectives has been the object of some attention, but few would suggest that this is an institutional strength. The President has urged and the Faculty Senate has legislated, but follow through has not been sufficient yet to bring these efforts into the daily life of the institution. Unfinished also is a reconsideration of the general education portion of undergraduate degree programs. While there has been no shortage of discussion on this point, the effects have been meager. If we are to make real a new culture for learning, we must attend to the unfinished business in each of these areas.
As we look back on the past ten years then, the changes are many and some of them are profound. Several issues identified at the time of our last accreditation visit have been addressed or simply became less important, and new issues have emerged. We are focusing our energies and resources; we are fighting to maintain our currency in the information technology revolution; we are in the midst of changing our culture into one which is learner-centered; and we are still wrestling with how to handle all of this change as an organization and as individuals.We are proud of our University, of its dynamic processes, and of its potential. We accept the challenges of moving forward.
M. Beverly Swan
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