State of the University Address

University’s First Fall Meeting of the Faculty Senate

Robert L. Carothers, Ph.D., J.D.


Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to welcome everyone back to campus and to this first meeting of the year of the University’s General Faculty meeting and the Faculty Senate. It’s good to see you all, familiar faces and some new faces as well, an important factor since we need representation from all generations of faculty in the Senate. This organization embodies the collective wisdom of the faculty, and its function as the University’s “general assembly” is vitally important to the common good, although perhaps it is not quite as colorful as the one which meets on Smith Street in Providence. During my time here in Kingston, we have been blessed with extraordinary leadership in the Senate-Leonard Kahn, Barbara Luebke, James Kowalski, Marian Goldsmith, Leland Jackson, John Long, C. B. Peters, Paul Arakelian, Judy K. Beckman, Faye Boudreaux-Bartels, Michael A. Rice, and now Jim Miller. They have been guided by many dedicated executive committee members, supported by the ever vigilant Sheila Black-Grubman, the ultimate source of institutional memory at URI. This has always been a working body, with the most important work done in its committees, then reviewed and usually confirmed here on the floor of the Faculty Senate. So while we occasionally have lively debates here-many of us with gray hair can remember our now-retired colleague known affectionately as Cato the Elder-mostly we do what needs to be done to make the experience of our students as meaningful and as inspiring as we can. In that, the University has a long and proud history of success, and it is our faculty who are the fathers and mothers of that achievement.

As most of you know, the big event this fall is the culmination of our re-accreditation process. Every ten years we are called upon by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges to review and report on the work that we do. This is our year, and we have worked together for the past year or more readying ourselves for the visit of the accrediting team from October 21st to the 24th. And we are ready, with a full and frank analysis of where the University of Rhode Island stands today. I want particularly to thank the co-chairs of the review process-Jim Kowalski, Judy Beckman and Marilyn Barbour-for the hours and hours of hard and skillful work required to bring us to this point. During the last weeks of August and early September, these folks and other members of the Provost staff, particularly Lynn Pasquerella, worked literally fourteen and fifteen hour days to prepare the final copy of the report and post it to NEASC, which we did on September 10th. Their leader has been our provost, Dr. M. Beverly Swan, who knows more about accreditation than all the rest of us put together. As I said in a letter earlier this month, this is Dr. Swan’s swan song, and she has agreed to keep singing it through the follow-up in the spring, even after she had laid down the burdens of the provost at the end of December.

I know that all of you are interested in the search process for a new provost, no one more than me, as the provost is inevitably joined at the hip to the president. As you know, last spring, consistent with University policy, we appointed a search committee to move this search forward as quickly as possible. The Senate appointed two representatives to that committee-Barbara Luebke and Arijit Bose-while the AAUP also appointed two faculty representatives, Betsy Cooper and Louis Kirschenbaum. The committee is chaired by Psychology Professor Jim Prochaska. Christen Langworty, who is here today, represents the Student Senate. Kate Moran represented the deans and the Bay Campus, and John McCray represents the vice provosts and the Providence Campus. Mailee Kue represented Student Affairs and Linda Barrett represented Administration. Dr. William Holland represented the alumni.

The Search Committee established clear procedures for the search process and followed those procedures carefully. Recruitment was extensive, and we had approximately seventy-five candidates in the pool. The committee reviewed these candidates, conducted a number of telephone interviews, checked references and ultimately recommended to me that we bring four candidates to campus for an extensive interview process. The names of these candidates have been published and the schedule for interviews is now available. Should we not find the right person in this group, we will then look to additional candidates in the pool, which is very strong. I hope you will participate in those interviews and make your opinions known to the committee and to me. I would like to be in a position to appoint a provost in early November, with a start date of January 1, 2008. We are also now actively searching for the dean of the college of engineering and the search for a new dean of the college of pharmacy is gearing up.

Our enrollment this fall is strong, consistent with the goals of our Strategic Plan

Everyone always asks me about enrollment. Our enrollment this fall is strong, consistent with the goals of our Strategic Plan, developed by the Joint Strategic Planning Committee and endorsed by both the Faculty Senate and by the Board of Governors, who have themselves mandated a growth goal of 3% per year. This year’s freshman class may be the largest in URI’s history-290 more fte freshmen and 130 more fte transfers. We won’t have firm numbers until October 15th, but as of September 20th, we have 15,893 head-count enrollment, which translates into 749 more fte. We saw small improvements in both our undergraduate retention rate and six-year graduation rate last year, short of our ambitious goals but moving in the right direction. Our minority enrollment continues to grow, and last year we did see a significant increase in the retention rate of these students. Our graduate enrollment looks as if it will go up by 22 fte from last year, a small gain but the first signs of a turnaround in the downward slide in graduate enrollment, which has been almost entirely in fewer part-time students. We are trying a different pricing strategy next year with part-time MBA students, a pilot project designed by Dean Mark Higgins and approved by the Board of Governors, to see if we can positively affect graduate enrollment in the College of Business Administration without reducing our total tuition and fee revenue.

Without question, these rapid increases in enrollment have stressed our systems. There are 500 more students living on campus this fall than last fall. For the first time in a decade, we have all our residence halls on line, but we still have many students living three to a room. We have an absolutely wonderful new dining facility, but we have long lines of students waiting to get in. We have forty-three (43) new faculty members on campus this fall “including twenty-seven (27) new and additional tenure track faculty lines,” but we still have students scrambling to get the courses and sections they need. As we grow our enrollment-and we must grow our enrollment if we are to have the resources we need to advance our University-we must continue to invest in the infrastructure and the faculty to ensure that our students have that empowering experience which is our trademark in an highly competitive environment.

I want to say as clearly as I can that serving those students as well as we can, in every way, is the path that will lead us to strength and stability. Moreover, in a world of dizzying change in the nature of human work, we must continue to be sure that programs and our teaching practices are congruent. Richard Murname and Frank Levy in their recent book, The New Division of Labor, ask two fundamental and relevant questions: What do computers do better than people, and what do people do better than computers? The Rhode Island Economic Policy Council, in its still draft blueprint for the future of the economy in Rhode Island, tries to answer that question: “Computers are better at rules-based thinking and people are better at pattern recognition.” [Murname and Levy’s] research shows that the two most important pattern recognition skills are expert thinking-predicting, analyzing, forecasting and forming perspectiveâ??and complex communicationâ??the ability to adapt communication skills to multiple situations and cultures-these are now the skills most in demand for jobs at all levels of society. The relevance to education is profound because â??pattern recognition does not lend itself to formalized instruction or book learning. You learn to recognize patterns by actually doing it in the company of someone who is already very good at it. It’s the essence of experiential learning and mentoring, which can no longer be thought of as a luxury in the educational system. If we want to produce the workforce we need for an innovation economy [or a “creative economy” in Richard Florida’s terms], we need to make experiential learning a part of every K-12 and college experience.”

URI has been in a leadership position…

For the past decade and a half, URI has been building this new “culture for learning” long before business leaders, politicians and other universities caught on. Our mantra has been active not passive learning, collaborative not isolated learning, high expectations and more. URI has been in a leadership position in developing more experiential learning, more undergraduate research and more interdisciplinary work, while most other schools only talked about it. Our International Engineering Program, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, is the very model for the nation. Our Coastal Fellows program and our Leadership minor are others. The amount of community service we do at URI puts us near the top in the nation. Our professional schools have now firmly incorporated what we might call “engaged learning” in their core curriculum, some well before their professional accrediting bodies began to require it.

Our challenge at URI has always been bringing such engaged learning up to scale, especially in our general education core. We know that we lose nearly 40% of our new students by the end of their sophomore year, a time when most of them are taking general education courses. The reasons why they leave are diverse-personal problems at home, depression, money, alcohol and drugs and academic failure-but in our exit interviews and in the data that comes to us from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), too many of our students say they felt that no one really cared about them. They found themselves in a complex bureaucracy, and they felt little personal connection either to their professors or instructors, or even to their intended discipline. In short, they were not engaged. Now there are very few students admitted to URI who cannot do the work expected of them. Nearly every student who leaves college experiences some sense of failure, and we do too. Each drop-out student represents a loss in the development of the skilled workforce that America requires; each is a promise unfulfilled. Each one also represents a loss of revenue for the University: each Rhode Island drop-out represents a loss of $60,000 in tuition and fees over the course of the following four years, and each non-resident represents the loss of $120,000, revenue we need to support quality in our teaching and research mission.

Now few would argue that we need dramatic change in our general education curriculum. It was an excellent curriculum when you developed it seven years ago, and while it could probably use some pruning, it has grown better as you tweaked it each year. But our mission is also to engage and inspire our freshmen and sophomores to learn, a significant challenge given the current class sizes and the large number of temporary and part-time people teaching these courses. It is no knock on these folks to say that their time and energy are spread pretty thin, despite a real commitment to the students sitting around them. Many of them are teaching for several colleges and universities, trying to make ends meet. Few of them can commit the time required to create the venue for the kind of experiential learning we know works with our students. While URI uses far fewer temporary and part-time faculty than our peers, nonetheless we need to build a core of tenure track faculty who want to teach our younger students, whose passion is for freshman and sophomores and getting them off to a strong start in their major programs. If we could increase our retention of first and second year students by only 10%, our financial problems would be largely solved, and we would have the money to put back into a general education program that does inspire and engage young scientists, poets, artists, teachers, nurses, economists, psychologists, leaders in business and engineering and pharmacy.

We also need to use our resources, particularly our facilities, more efficiently and effectively. As we grow our enrollment, we will need to achieve a greater efficiency in our operations. To do that, we need to think hard about our calendar, about how to use our classrooms and laboratories. We need more technology-rich learning environments. We need to think about a three semester system, about many more four credit courses, about offering classes outside of our comfort zone of 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and we need to consider more Friday and Saturday classes as well. We are not short of classrooms and laboratories; we are short of them in the narrow band of time in which we use them. We need to make offering the courses students need to meet general education requirements a priority. And with more and more young people starting their day in the afternoon, we need to offer many more sections of general education courses in late afternoon and early evening. During those times we have availability in both classrooms and laboratories, and we surely have a pent up demand for general education courses. I know the Executive Committee is also concerned about these matters, and I ask today for the Senate’s leadership and help in developing the policies that get us outside the proverbial box on these important issues.

Campus life

For much of the past decade we have been working to make campus life more attractive for our students. We have been remodeling many of our older residence halls, and this fall we will have completed that work, except for the cluster of halls known as the Roger Williams Complex. On August 22, we held the dedications for our three new residence halls-Eddy Hall, Garrahy Hall and Wiley Hall-which are structured as suites and apartments for some 800 students. To say they have gotten rave reviews is an understatement. I encourage all of you to take a walk through Eddy, Garrahy and Wiley. Most students will welcome you into their territory and give you a tour. They feel proud of where they live. Many of our new and renewed spaces have been set up as living-learning communities: one for health related professions, another for honors students and another for undeclared students, along with the Tower for CELS students which was established last year. I think I was most proud on move-in day to see Ray Wright, the interim dean of the College of Engineering, along with George Veyera and Faye Boudreaux-Bartels and other engineering faculty down at Tucker and Merrow Halls, carrying boxes and helping students and their families get settled in their new digs, making them feel comfortable on a challenging day and bonding them to the College of Engineering from the first day they set foot on the campus as students.

On the same day in August, we dedicated the new Hope Commons, a twenty-first century dining facility that will allow us a huge competitive advantage. If you haven’t been there yet, I encourage all of you to stop by to see this stunning new part of student life. Across the street, we have closed the old Roger Williams dining hall, a facility that will be remodeled to hold a new student wellness center. We have already secured two seven-figure gifts which will support this transformation, and we hope to get underway with design work very soon.


On the academic side of facilities improvement, you can all see the steel going up for new Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences. The construction contract has finally been awarded for the new Pell Library and Inner Space Center on the Bay Campus, and the design work is well underway for the new Pharmacy Building approved by the voters this past November. The second IEP house, the Texas Instrument House, opened just in time for move-in, and tomorrow we will hold a dedication for the two buildings that make up the Heidi Kirk-Duffy International Engineer Center and to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the IEP. The construction fences are up around Lippitt Hall, which will be off-line this year while we conduct an $8.2M refitting and remodeling project on that historic building. We will be in the ground within the next thirty days for the addition to Independence Square that will house the Department of Kinesiology. And we are even completing permitting and nearing construction on the long delayed Hellenic Studies Center and Amphitheater, the future home of our Center for the Humanities. (This project has been in planning and fundraising longer than it took to build the Parthenon, but the end of the beginning may be at hand.)

Research Milestones

We achieved several milestones in promoting research during the first part of this year. We saw important changes that make purchasing much easier and quicker for most of the things our researchers need to buy, a result of the work of BobWeygand and a score of faculty members like Bob Rogers. We created the position of Vice President for Research and Economic Development, searched for and hired the vice president and changed the distribution of funds from overhead recovery to give Vice President Alfonso some of the resources he needs to build our research base. Dr. Alfonso in turn is now interviewing finalists for the position of Director of Technology Transfer and Industrial Relations. And we received approval from the General Assembly to create our own research foundation, which will greatly help us in taking our intellectual property into commercialization, benefiting both the faculty and the University. The report of the consultants on the proposed research park to be managed by the Research Foundation has just been received, and we will be looking hard at the strategies recommended to get that effort underway. Another important dynamic this year will be the work of the newly established commission appointed by the Governor to look at how the State can help enhance the research capacity of URI, chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders and made up of some very distinguished leaders outside education as well as those more familiar with our enterprise. I want publicly to thank Dean Seemann for helping to make that happen.

“Making a Difference” capital campaign

On the private side of the equation, we will enter the public phase of our $100M “Making a Difference” capital campaign on October 13th at our second annual Alumni Recognition gala in Providence. This has been a year of successfully transitioning fundraising at URI from the University proper to the reorganized URI Foundation, under the leadership of its president, Glen Kerkian. Thanks to the good work of Advancement Vice President Bob Beagle, we will be able to announce that we have well over 50% of the $100M committed, and the next two weeks should see us move that number up even higher. At the same time, we have refocused the Advancement Division on branding and marketing the University, and some of you have been involved in the rebranding effort led by Ruby Dholakia and Linda Acciardo. We expect brand positioning and messaging recommendations in late November and creative developments after the first of the year, in preparation for a brand launch in late spring. Our consultants can then put the ideas of the branding group into an aggressive marketing campaign for new students, new donors and new levels of public respect.

All of these concepts set forth in the strategic plan have in common the goal of empowering our students and faculty while establishing a sound financial base for the future. Our reality is that financial support from the State of Rhode Island for operating has not increased for seven years now, and it is unlikely to increase in the foreseeable future, as the State struggles with a structural deficit of more than $400M. We already know that the Governor will recommend another 3% reduction in support for public higher education in FY09 and that he will propose very large reductions in FTE’s allocated to our three public colleges, the latter a recommendation we must challenge. URI is now a tuition and fee driven institution, not at all unlike many private universities, but without a large endowment. Today, the State’s contribution to URI does not even cover the differential between the tuition charged and full cost of education for Rhode Island residents! If ever there was a time to propose a different paradigm for funding public higher education in Rhode Island, it is now when politicians themselves are nearly desperate for new ideas out of the mess in which we all find ourselves. In my view-and it’s important to say that it is the Board of Governor’s responsibility to bring this or an alternative idea forward-Rhode Island Public Higher Education should become a public corporation in which our tuition and fee income can be placed in a trust account. Instead of a general appropriation, the State might grant a “scholarship” to all Rhode Island students who come to CCRI, RIC and URI, preferably in an amount equal the difference between tuition and the full cost of instruction at each of the three institutions. Such a dramatic change has some good things in it for legislators, and some good things for us. There are some risks associated with such a plan, but the only important question is whether we can find the collective will to take some risks on something new. One thing we do know is that persisting in the same behavior and expecting a different result is the classic definition for insanity. And we are not that.


Finally, I want to talk about the third major initiative in our strategic plan, improving inclusion in the life of the University. Across the campuses, there are many faculty, staff and students committed to making URI a more welcoming place for women, for people of color, for immigrants, for people with diverse sexual orientations, for people with disabilities, for veterans, and more. It has been particularly heartening to see the response on campus to the partnership with Central Falls High School: a University of Rhode Island Academy. We now have nearly forty faculty and staff members working to improve the performance of an urban high school with all of the challenges that come with poverty. And Talent Development, GAP, the Louis Stokes program and SMILE keep bringing in more and more students, as the demographics of Rhode Island continue to change.

But as someone remarked in a planning retreat the other day, this is the only major initiative in the strategic plan where we have set high goals yet do not have a bold plan to accomplish those goals. Many feel that our efforts are uncoordinated and sometimes duplicative. Our various advisory groups, particularly the President’s Commission on Women, the President’s Commission on Faculty, Staff and Students of Color, and the Advance grant-what they are calling the “Equity Coalition,” have asked me to appoint a senior diversity officer for the University, perhaps at the vice presidential level, a person responsible for achieving the goals we have set and who would coordinate the various programs and policies working to achieve our diversity goals. It is a model employed by several of our peer universities, including the University of Connecticut. I look forward to this discussion over the next few months. Again, if we are to bake a better cake, we will probably have to break a few eggs to do so.

In many ways URI is stronger than it has ever been…

So it is fair to say that the University of Rhode Island is changing and will continue to change, and that change always produces anxiety. In many ways URI is stronger than it has ever been: more students and better and more diverse students; more faculty and a better mix of generations on the faculty; many new and renewed facilities for academic and student life purposes; a better research infrastructure being created; a more energized alumni association and a more complete fundraising and marketing infrastructure coming together. In finances, however, we continue to face major challenges, challenges we can overcome only if we are able to let go of some old assumptions and empower the imagination and creativity of the Board, the administration, faculty and staff to find better ways forward. We need fresh ideas, new and different perspectives on things, a greater agility, an enhanced sense of urgency, a new willingness to take risks coupled with our historic passion to serve our students, Rhode Island and America, at the time they need us most.

At dinner with the Foundation’s Excellence Award winners the other night, Board of Governors member Joe Hagan, a former president of Assumption College, said that it was truly remarkable that URI should be so good with so few resources. He is right. The state of the University of Rhode Island is good, you are good, your work is good and we are near the tipping point to greatness. Working together, the Faculty Senate has the power to tip the scales, and I ask you for your help in making that happen.