URI names Danny Willis dean of the College of Nursing

A nationally respected education leader and practitioner, Willis joins URI after serving as dean of nursing at Saint Louis University

KINGSTON, R.I. — Nov. 6, 2023 — The University of Rhode Island has named Danny Willis, DNS, R.N., FAAN, a nationally respected education leader and practitioner, as the next dean of the College of Nursing. Willis currently serves as dean of the Saint Louis University Trudy Busch Valentine School of Nursing and will begin his new role at URI on Jan. 2, 2024.

“We are pleased to welcome Danny Willis to the University of Rhode Island,” said Barbara E. Wolfe, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “Danny has built a distinguished career in academia and professional practice. Over more than two decades he has taught and led nursing education at several prominent national universities. His leadership and his familiarity with the New England region will accelerate the college’s progress as one of the leading nursing programs both regionally and nationally.”

Willis succeeds Betty Rambur, who has led the college as interim dean since January. “I want to thank Betty for graciously stepping into the role as interim dean and diligently leading the college over the past several months,” said Wolfe, who served as nursing dean for six years before being named provost in January. “As the college’s Routhier Chair for Practice, Betty will continue to have an enormous impact on URI and on health care and health policy locally and nationally.”

Willis’ appointment follows a comprehensive and competitive national search. His tenure will commence on Jan. 2, 2024.

Willis has served as dean and tenured professor at Saint Louis University since 2020. Prior to SLU, he was associate dean of academic affairs and a tenured professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Nursing; department chair and tenured associate professor at the Boston College William F. Connell School of Nursing; and instructor of clinical nursing and coordinator of psychiatric nursing at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.

“I am honored to be selected as the next dean of the University of Rhode Island College of Nursing,” Willis said. “The college is one of the best in the nation. It has a significant history in the development of the discipline and profession of nursing, including our theoretical, scientific, and practice domains. I look forward to working with the faculty, staff, students, alumni, community, state, and URI leadership. I envision great momentum building on legacy and moving forward to educate excellent, caring nurse leaders who will champion and advance human well-being and planetary health. I am grateful for the leadership roles I have served in during my career and thankful for this new opportunity in the Ocean State. I could not be more excited to come back to New England, having spent 13 wonderful years in the area.”

A psychiatric mental health nursing expert, Willis began his clinical career in 1990 as a staff nurse in the adult and geriatric psychiatry department at Touro Infirmary, and in the child psychiatry unit at CPC Coliseum Medical Center, both in New Orleans. He served as charge nurse and clinical coordinator at Touro before moving to New England to join the psychiatric mental health nursing faculty at Boston College and also served as an affiliate nurse scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.

A respected leader nationally, Willis has served as chair of the American Psychiatric Nursing Association Research Council and the American Academy of Nursing Expert Panel on Nursing Theory Guided Practice.

His research—which has been funded by several agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, and published in a range of journals—focuses on nursing promotion of health, well-being, and healing in the aftermath of marginalizing and traumatic experiences. He has garnered broad attention for his work with colleagues on a central unifying focus for the discipline of nursing—“facilitating humanization, meaning, choice, quality of life, and healing in living and dying”—which was published in the journal Advances in Nursing Science.

As an educator, Willis has made it a point to involve students in his work, routinely mentoring undergraduate, master’s, and Ph.D. students in research topics ranging from nursing and social work to counseling psychology. 

Willis is a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing and has been recognized with several educator awards, including a leadership excellence award from the New England Chapter of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association. He earned his Doctor of Nursing Science and Master of Nursing degrees from the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, and his bachelor’s degree from the University of Mississippi Medical Center.