Twelve Years of Transformation

The University of Rhode Island was a substantially different place in 2009 when President David M. Dooley arrived. Twelve years later, as Dooley’s retirement approaches, every aspect of the state’s flagship research institution reflects his influence.

By Diane M. Sterrett

During the tenure of President David M. Dooley, the University of Rhode Island has grown and improved in ways large and small. His leadership has positioned the University for future success and set the stage for the next president.

Upon arrival, Dooley quickly shared his bold vision to grow the University’s stature with four transformational goals:

  1. Create a 21st-century, 24/7 learning environment.
  2. Increase the magnitude, prominence, and impact of research, scholarship, and creative work.
  3. Internationalize and globalize the University of Rhode Island.
  4. Build a community at the University of Rhode Island that values and embraces equity and diversity.

“President Dooley has led URI through a process of expanding and building on strengths and innovations that existed in certain parts of the University, and turning them into a core part of our identity. Interdisciplinary connections, experiential learning, and global education are no longer the unique features of a select few illustrious programs, but fundamental parts of the academic experience across the institution.”
Megan Echevarría, Associate Professor of Spanish and Film Media Studies, and President, URI Faculty Senate

Dooley knew URI had what it would take to be a great research-focused public university and sought to capitalize on its unique strengths. He was inspired by the collegiality, cooperation, and motivation he found when he interviewed here. Even now, amid the pandemic, he says URI’s “we-can-do-this-together” spirit is what moves the University forward.

The COVID pandemic has marked the last year of President Dooley’s tenure with exceptional challenges. But URI has rallied, withstanding the strains to every aspect of its operations. This is due to dedication, hard work, creative thinking, and adaptability by all in the community. But one vital piece of the University’s success in the face of COVID is that, through its partnership with the state of Rhode Island administration and legislature, URI was permitted to build up financial reserves for the first time ever—funds that have been critical in URI’s ability to weather the pandemic.

As President Dooley prepares to retire, the University is engaged in a $250 million comprehensive campaign to make a URI education more accessible to students and more attractive to top scholars, and to improve their learning experience here with innovative programs and strong faculty leadership. Big Ideas. Bold Plans. The Campaign for the University of Rhode Island has already raised more than $200 million and is poised to meet or exceed its goal by the end of the campaign in 2024.

The largest gift of the campaign to date—and in URI’s history—is a $35 million commitment from Thomas M. Ryan ’75 and his wife, Cathy, for neuroscience research, as well as support for scholarships and athletics. In 2013, the Ryans established the George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience with a then-record $15 million gift. The institute is focused on research, teaching, and outreach on neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, and draws on the expertise of scientists from multiple disciplines.

Dooley is known for his collaborative style and emphasis on fostering a community of discovery. And now, on the occasion of his retirement, Dooley resists taking credit for the University’s progress, attributing the advances to the many teams and individuals whose efforts brought about the vision he articulated when he arrived at URI.

In spite of his humility, and in the spirit of recognizing this pivotal moment in URI’s history—as President Dooley retires and a new president takes the helm—we look back at 10 important ways the University has evolved under Dooley’s leadership.

1 | Becoming a Global University

From better preparing students for work in a global world and welcoming international students, to fostering international collaborative research, URI has become a true global citizen.

In his inaugural address, Dooley noted the global challenges humanity faces, and said: “The 21st-century university must be global in its orientation and international with regard to its education, research, service, and partnerships.”

The University’s global presence has grown exponentially, with 28 percent growth in the number of students majoring in foreign languages, even as other universities have seen a decline. URI has also increased study-abroad opportunities in more than 50 countries and boasts significantly more international exchanges. The University’s unique dual-degree language programs enable students to simultaneously earn degrees in a chosen field such as engineering or business, and in a language—including German, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese. A new International Studies and Diplomacy program launched in 2018 is the newest dual-degree program, allowing students to pair an international studies major with one of five languages.

Other initiatives have expanded the University’s international impact in environmental sustainability, capacity building, cross-cultural understanding, and collaborative problem-solving, which will reap benefits far into the future. Examples include a sustainable fisheries project in Ghana, West Africa, and a collaborative effort researching destructive fishing practices and typhoons impacting the Philippines, one of the world’s largest fish-producing nations.

2 | Embracing Equity and Diversity

Dooley’s leadership set the tone for seeking common ground to build a better future for all. URI’s growing reputation as a safe and inviting place reflects the University’s core values and attracts greater numbers of students and faculty from differing backgrounds.

“A number of students, faculty, staff, and alumni have pushed us to advance social justice, equity, and inclusion in our living, learning, and work environments. Their advocacy and activism have transformed recruitment efforts, the curriculum, co-curricular programs, professional develop-ment, policies, retention strategies, and campus culture. We are building on this strong foundation to implement long-lasting, structural changes to ensure all community members can thrive at URI and beyond.”
Mary Grace Almandrez, Associate Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer

Collaboration between partners across the University, including with the Office of Community, Equity and Diversity, has led to measures that strengthen and support an inclusive campus climate and culture.


  • Opening URI’s Gender and Sexuality Center, the first-in-the-nation freestanding university center built to serve the needs of the LGBTQ community.
  • Creating a University Diversity Council (UDC) to advise the chief diversity officer on University priorities and initiatives that advance equity and inclusion.
  • Developing a Diversity and Inclusion Badge Program (DIBP), which offers graduate-level professional development workshops to increase cultural competence.
  • Implementing proactive, nationally lauded strategies to close the equity gap in graduation rates.
  • Creating programs to support veterans and high school graduates from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.

While URI has taken steps toward increased diversity, 2020’s national reckoning of systemic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrate how much work remains. Dooley continues to inspire and guide. He addressed the University last summer, saying “URI should exemplify a clear and consistent commitment to anti-racism, to equal justice, and to liberty and safety for Black Americans and other marginalized groups.”

3 | Advancing 24/7 Learning

URI developed groundbreaking learning opportunities and initiatives to support
24/7 learning. The result: more innovation, creativity, and depth of knowledge.

The launch of URI Online expanded programs and course options to deliver a URI education anywhere, anytime. URI Online offers fully online undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs. Areas of study include graduate programs in cybersecurity, oceanography, and health-care management, and certificate programs in fisheries science, cannabis studies, and more. (Get to know URI Online.)

A student lighting a burner in a research laboratory

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the pace of online learning, as faculty and students pivoted, using new tools, technologies, and practices to teach and learn in a remote world.

Winter J-Term gives students learning opportunities outside the traditional academic semester. The program grew from just over 400 students in 2014 to 1,182 in January 2020.

Experiential learning offerings increased by 57 percent over the last decade, including internships, fieldwork, service learning, clinical rotations, capstone projects, and laboratory research. Undergraduate research opportunities also expanded, providing more opportunities to spark curiosity and deepen knowledge. During the 2019–2020 academic year, nearly 12,000 URI students were engaged in credit-bearing experiential learning, compared to about 4,000 students in 2008–2009.

4 | Boosting Research

URI faculty and students are conducting more research, scholarship, and creative work. They are publishing more and earning more awards and contracts with higher-profile research.

URI’s commitment to broad-based research advances has led to breakthroughs on some of the world’s most vexing problems. All told, URI faculty were awarded $117 million in research grants in the 2020 fiscal year, and since 2010, URI has been issued 131 U.S. and foreign patents.

URI students, too, are contributing to the growing quantity and quality of research and scholarly work. The Undergraduate Research and Innovation program, or (URI)², helps students get their projects started, write proposals, find funding and mentors, and promote their work.

To maximize the potential impact of its research, URI is sharing intellectual and academic resources with companies in industries including defense, health care, technology, and agriculture.

Examples of the impact of URI’s research include:

  • Expanding statewide research capacity in the biomedical sciences, including cancer, neuroscience, and environmental health sciences.
  • Preventing and treating brain diseases, including a clinical trial that may lead to a simple eye exam becoming a standard test to detect Alzheimer’s disease decades earlier than other tests.
  • Surveying an estimated 3 billion acres of U.S. ocean territory alongside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.
  • Being selected—as part of the East Coast Oceanographic Consortium—by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to operate the new $125 million oceanographic vessel that will replace R/V Endeavor in 2023.

5 | Building Extraordinary Facilities

During Dooley’s tenure, URI has spent more than $834 million on new facilities to deliver a 21st-century education and support increased enrollment. The commitment heralds the University’s transition to a global research institution. Partnerships with donors, businesses, voters, and the state were key to success.

“While the new buildings constructed in the last decade-plus made dramatic statements about the University’s commitment to its faculty, students, and research objectives, I am also proud of the improvements made to existing buildings, utility infrastructure, and campus landscapes. Collaborative leadership, innovative approaches, partnerships, and funding strategies led to improvements in safety, energy efficiency, and commitments to renewable energy sources—all of which will benefit the University into the future.”
J. Vernon Wyman ’75, Former Assistant Vice President for Business Services

URI’s $150 million Fascitelli Center for Advanced Engineering is the largest construction project in University history. The state-of-the-art building is one of the most technologically advanced engineering buildings in the country.

Two new residence halls foster student connections. Brookside Apartments features 500 beds, apartments with full kitchens, and easy access to the new URI bike path spur. Hillside Hall, with 429 beds, boasts 64 solar panels, a green roof, and LEED® Gold certification.

The $68 million Beaupre Center for Chemical and Forensic Sciences, which also earned LEED® Gold certification, houses the Department of Chemistry and a federal Center of Excellence for Explosives Detection, Mitigation and Response. It tripled the space for teaching labs and nearly doubled the space for research laboratories.

Major improvements to the Fine Arts Center began three years ago with $12 million from the Rhode Island General Assembly, and with the passing of Question 1 in the state’s special election this spring, Rhode Island voters earmarked an additional $57.3 million to continue improvements to this important academic and public
performance and exhibition space.

At the Narragansett Bay Campus, shoreside construction projects to support the 2023 arrival of a new research vessel is underway: a T-shaped 200-foot-long concrete deck pier and a 12,250-square-foot marine operations building. An ocean technology building will support ocean exploration, research, and enterprise.

Other noteworthy projects include:

  • Robert J. Higgins Welcome Center
  • Paramaz Avedisian ’54 Hall, College of Pharmacy
  • Gender and Sexuality Center
  • Anna Fascitelli Fitness and Wellness Center

6 | Energizing Academics

Revitalizing the curriculum and investing in faculty has reshaped the University and its people.

In the past decade URI has introduced new academic programs, such as interdisciplinary neuroscience; reorganized the Colleges of Pharmacy, Nursing, and Health Sciences into the Academic Health Collaborative; and created the Alan Shawn Feinstein College of Education and Professional Studies. But one of the biggest changes to academics was the completely revamped core curriculum introduced in 2017.

Today, general education at URI prompts students to explore, challenge, and create through interdisciplinary inquiry and critical thinking. Requirements are based on 12 learning outcomes, such as developing critical competencies relating to diversity, inclusion, and global citizenry, building interdisciplinary knowledge and skills, and exercising civic responsibility. Additionally, in Grand Challenge courses, students engage with global topics and pivotal 21st-century issues.

On the faculty side, the University launched a hiring initiative in 2014 to strategically invest in key areas. Developed by Provost Donald H. DeHayes, the plan included adding 63 new faculty positions over four years, with an initial investment of approximately $7 million. As a result, URI has hired more than half of its full-time faculty in the last 10 years. The investment reinforced URI’s standing as a premier learning-centered research university, responded to growing enrollment, and encouraged innovation and excellence.

These academic investments, along with a new financial aid allocation model and a renewed focus on student success, resulted in the highest enrollment, retention, student diversity, graduation rate, and degrees awarded in URI’s history. Total annual degrees awarded grew from 2,968 in 2009 to 4,590 in 2020.

7 | Achieving Independence

One accomplishment most sets the stage for URI’s future: the change in governance from the Rhode Island Board of Education to a 17-member Board of Trustees, voted on by the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Gina Raimondo in July 2019.

“URI’s Board of Trustees brings a broad range of perspectives and backgrounds to its work of advancing URI’s mission and supporting student success, diversity initiatives, and research growth. President Dooley’s vision for a governing board solely dedicated to the University’s mission has been realized. As chair of the board—and a proud Rhody alumna—I am honored to serve with the inaugural group of dedicated trustees to support our state’s flagship research university.”
–Margo Cook ’86, Chair, URI Board of Trustees

Under its new Board of Trustees, URI has more autonomy to develop education and research initiatives, greater agility in hiring practices and decisions on academic programs, the ability to make more timely funding and financial aid decisions, and opportunities to streamline processes, such as purchasing.

Dooley and the leadership of the Rhode Island General Assembly had the vision to establish this model of governance to continue the University’s transformation, and Raimondo nominated a highly talented group of trustees, the majority of whom are URI alumni, to lead the University. URI now joins its peer institutions that have governing bodies solely dedicated to their missions and to best practices for public research universities.

URI’s previous governing body, the Rhode Island Council on Postsecondary Education, oversaw three diverse institutions: URI, Rhode Island College, and the Community College of Rhode Island. Any policies adopted needed to apply to all three. But as a research institution, URI had vastly different needs. The governance change was recommended by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges when it reaccredited the University.

8 | Sparking Economic Growth

“During the past decade, URI has established an upward trajectory of continuous improvement and sustained excellence that will carry our university forward, despite challenges such as the COVID pandemic. As a tuition-dependent institution, we must maintain focus on innovation, strategic investment and partnerships, and sound fiscal management. In so doing, we will continue to be the institution of choice for a dedicated and diverse community of students, staff, and faculty.”
Donald H. DeHayes, Provost

URI is contributing to a more vibrant and sustainable Rhode Island economy.

Dooley’s vision was bold: With increased research dollars coming into URI, faculty and students would be able to jump-start the state’s economic renewal by generating technology and knowledge that would become products and services, while creating jobs and sustainable income.

The results have been just as bold. For example:

  • The College of Pharmacy has become a critical part of the state’s knowledge-based economy, developing partnerships with biomedical companies, securing more research funding, and attracting start-up biotech companies. It was ranked eighth nationally for total research funding in 2020, and first in New England.
  • The Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences has advanced scientific research and served as a life-sciences job-creation hub.
  • The NSF awarded URI a $19 million grant to establish a statewide research consortium studying the effects of climate variability on coastal ecosystems, creating technologies to detect those changes, and building computer models to predict and plan for changes in coastal ecology.
  • The Rhode Island Small Business Development Center at URI offers training, workshops, and support for Rhode Island entrepreneurs, as well as key connections at the state and national level.
  • The Polaris Manufacturing Extension Partnership has helped more than 750 Rhode Island manufacturers through programs that grow the state’s manufacturing industry.

9 | Generating Industry Partnerships

Strong partnerships between industry and education have been important in URI’s transformation. Launched in 2013, the Business Engagement Center (BEC) has served as the front door for industry into URI, giving industry access to the University’s extensive resources to help them succeed and grow.

The BEC supports innovation, discovery, and growth of businesses. Hundreds of companies have visited the campus and engaged with faculty and students on projects, internships, and professional development. Corporate partners—from entrepreneurial startups to major corporations—have used BEC services to sponsor research, find talent, move ideas to market, develop their workforces, and more.

Recent engagements include:

  • A collaboration between R.I. Commerce Corp., R.I. Department of Health, and industry partners,, tapped URI’s research and technical skills to refurbish sleep apnea machines as supplementary equipment to hospitals for COVID-19 patients.
  • The Rhode Island Textile Innovation Network’s first-ever networking event at URI, with more than 200 attendees, brought together industry leaders, designers, academics, and government officials to showcase Rhode Island’s advanced textile manufacturing, and to discuss future training and hiring needs.
  • The BEC partnered with the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport to assist in small business development and technology commercialization, and to promote education and workforce and economic development in defense, undersea technology, and marine industries.
  • The annual Food System Summit brings together government, academic, business, and community members. This year’s summit, held virtually, focused on how the pandemic has impacted food security.

“Getting into research and entrepreneurship seemed daunting to me, but I have been able to confidently lead a research team and start a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization through the help of URI mentors, the Launch Lab, and the (URI)² undergraduate research grant. URI encourages you to think big, and whatever your idea is, there are resources and faculty here that will help bring your idea to life.”
Thomas Bonneau ’21, biology major and founder of the nonprofit America’s Recoverable Medical Supply, which recycles and donates medical supplies

10 | Going Green

Committed to leading efforts to solve the climate crisis, URI has become a national leader by integrating sustainability principles into academics, research, the built environment, culture, and everyday life.

Supported by the President’s Council on Sustainability and led by Marsha Garcia and the Office of Sustainability, green initiatives touch every aspect of campus life.


  • More than 30 undergraduate and graduate degrees now include sustainability as a learning outcome.
  • Over $50 million in research and project grants received between fiscal years 2013 and 2017 related to energy, sustainability, and/or climate.
  • Almost 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over 11 years, in spite of growth in campus building square footage.
  • The 267-acre solar farm project will generate over 48,000 megawatt-hours of electricity—equivalent to more than 50 percent of URI’s energy needs when complete in spring 2021. The project is a unique collaboration between the University, municipalities, the state, and private partners.

In the built environment, URI has invested in sustainability and energy efficiency initiatives and has 11 LEED-certified buildings, resulting in real utility cost savings. The College of Pharmacy building, Paramaz Avedisian Hall ’54 Hall, which opened in 2012, uses about 20 percent less energy than a traditional building of its size.

In the research arena, faculty and students are examining the ecological impacts of plastics through a University-wide strategic initiative led by Peter J. Snyder, vice president for research and economic development and professor of biomedical sciences.

Photos: Beau Jones; Nora Lewis; Marion O’Sullivan; Mike Salerno

One comment

  1. Asha, my wife and I had the Honor to meet for the first time, the newly appointed 11th President of URI, Honorable David M. Dooley and his wife Lynn at a small gathering of URI Alumni in Rockville, Maryland in 2009.I said then at the gathering, ” Welcome Mr.President Dooley and the First Lady, Lynn Dooley to URI family. Dr.Dooley, you are the first President of URI that I know of who is an active researchers and a scientist. I forsee many promising returns.( Incidentally, at the end of the meeting, Madam Dooley came to me and said that this is the first time I have been addressed as “the First Lady”). Well at the end of the tenure of your Presidency, ” President Dooley, you and Madam Lynn came from West Coast Berkley, California to East Coast Kingston, Rhode island with a MISSION. We can all proudly say MISSION SUCCESSFULLY WELL ACCOMPLISHED. Congratulations. Enjoy the well deserved retired life break. Stay healthy and safe. Best Wishes. Asha and Vasant Telang, Ph.D. class of 1968.

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