Back to School Message from President Robert L. Carothers

Posted on
Dear Colleagues,

Each fall is another beginning for those of us who love university life. As the September days grow shorter and the leaves on the Quad begin to fall, we, conversely, awaken again to share our passion for inquiry and learning with a new class of students. That they are always eighteen and we are another year older may give us pause. Yet it is the sense of our responsibility to each rising generation that makes our work so important to the world and so personally fulfilling. Each of you has immense influence in the lives of your students, whether or not that is immediately apparent. There is no profession more noble nor more honorable than ours, the one to whom the nation has entrusted the education of our children, our collective future. Whether we guide them to learn physics or poetry, we are the architects of the knowledge, understanding and values that shape their lives and thereby shape America.

Every ten years we are called upon by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges to review and report on just how we do that work. This is our time, and we have worked together for the past year or more readying ourselves for the visit of the accrediting team in late October. 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 few weeks, these folks and other members of the staff of the Provost have literally worked fourteen and fifteen hour days to prepare the final copy of the report and post it to NEASC.

Their leader has been our provost, Dr. M. Beverly Swan, who knows more about accreditation than all the rest of us put together. Her efforts to secure the University’s academic credentials for another decade are (forgive me, Beverly) her swan song, the culmination of a sixteen and a half year run as our provost. Provost Swan will return to the faculty on January 1, 2008, where she will hold the Justin Smith Morrill University Professorship and a portfolio that will allow her to continue to share with all of us what she has learned over four decades of leadership in higher education. No one loves URI more than Beverly, nor has anyone served his or her alma mater with greater dedication or passion. And while I’m sure that our current search for her replacement will bring us another strong academic leader, for me at least, there will never be another Beverly Swan.

Our enrollment this fall will be strong and large, consistent with the goals our Strategic Plan, developed by the Joint Strategic Planning Committee and endorsed by both the Board of Governors and the Faculty Senate. This year’s freshman class may be the largest in URI’s history, and our transfer enrollment has increased as well. The class will be about 47% Rhode Islanders and 53% non-resident students, 57% female and 43% male. Measured by the SAT scores in the two traditional areas, the class will be at about 1100 on average.

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 saw significant growth in the retention rate of these students. We continue to see a decline, however, in graduate students, chiefly among those studying part-time. We are trying a different pricing strategy with 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.

Every other year, we participate in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), a study which collects information from first-year and senior students about the nature and quality of their undergraduate experience. We can compare our data with data from peer institutions and from institutions within our same Carnegie Classification, as well as with all NSSE participating institutions. NSSE has five benchmarks for educational practice: 1) level of academic challenge, 2) active and collaborative learning, 3) student/faculty interaction, 4) enriching educational experiences, and 5) supportive campus environment. While there is a wealth of data available in the study results, let me highlight some areas of excellence at URI, as well as areas in which there is a statistically significant deficit.

First, URI is a national leader in learning communities, where we will have 100% of our first year students in learning communities and 40% in living-learning communities. We are among the top schools in the nation in community service, both in the first year and the senior year, a performance that earned us the designation of a “college with a conscience” two years ago. We score well above average in internships and practicum experiences. Finally, to the surprise of no one, we score at a very high level in foreign language coursework.

On the other hand, the survey shows that we need to pay more attention to building relationships between students and faculty in and out of the classroom for our first year students (this is not an issue among our seniors). Certainly our rapid growth plays a part in this situation, but we hope that the addition of twenty-seven new tenure track faculty lines this year will help. Many of our faculty do extraordinary things to help bond first year students to the University, and the students are always motivated by it. First year students in general, however, are not as happy with their entire educational experience as some of our peers. Finally, our seniors are not as involved in campus events and activities as seniors at other schools, a factor I’m sure is the product of so many of our upper classmen moving “down the line” and not returning to campus in the evenings or on the weekends.

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. On the same day, 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. As part of the Making a Difference Capital Campaign, we have already secured two seven-figure gifts which will support this transformation, and we hope to get underway very soon. Finally, our second new fraternity house in two years opened this fall, both as substance free facilities.

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 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 International Engineering House (the Texas Instruments House) opens next week, and we will be holding a dedication for the two buildings that make up the Heidi Kirk-Duffy International Engineering Education Center on September 28th. You will shortly see the construction fences going up around Lippitt Hall, which will be off-line this year while we conduct an $8.7M refitting and remodeling project on that historic building.

In urban Rhode Island, our Alan Shawn Feinstein Providence Campus will expand its mission again this year to take more day-time undergraduate students. ASFCCE continues to increase its offerings in the sciences, in partnership with the College of Environment and Life Sciences. Just north of Providence, URI has entered into a partnership with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Central Falls School District to help bring a failing high school up to performance standards of which all Rhode Islanders can be proud. With a new superintendent and a new principal now in place, URI faculty and staff, led by Abu Bakr and Ron DiOrio, have begun to make a real difference in Central Falls High School: A University of Rhode Island Academy. If we are successful, URI and Central Falls High School will have created a model through which university partnerships with urban school districts can break the pattern of failure by too many of the young men and women attending these schools, benefiting both the university and the school.

Back in South County, we have made significant progress in advancing our research mission. For the first time in our history, the University will have a vice president for research in the person of Dr. Peter Alfonso. At the same time, the General Assembly and the Governor approved legislation permitting us to create our research foundation, an important tool in bringing intellectual properties created at URI to the market. The new URI Research Foundation will also be responsible for creating and managing a research park planned for the North Campus. Under Bob Weygand’s guidance, we were also able to get significant reforms to the state’s purchasing process for academic research projects. We have miles to go before we sleep, but the ground work for making URI a much better place to conduct research is being built.

And, finally, a word about money (I know you were waiting for this paragraph). At the same time Rhode Islanders approved a $65M building for the College of Pharmacy, it also reduced its share of our operating budget by $5.6M. This means that over the past seven years, URI has received a net reduction in state support for operations. If inflation is counted in, the reduction is even more significant. Our total income from tuition and fees, on the other hand, increased by some $20M, driven mostly by increased enrollment and higher tuition and fees (which meant a significant increase in our institutional financial aid as well). This pattern is now well established, and it would be folly to think that some dramatic, positive event will change either the net revenue or the spending priorities of the State of Rhode Island. As it always has, URI will have to live by its own wits.

Our capital campaign, led by Bob Beagle, will go public in October with more than half of the $100M we seek either pledged or in the Foundation already. Our Advancement Division organized, planned and is carrying out a new communications program, and they have spearheaded a branding process which will be available to the URI community for review and comment this winter. These are key activities for the University as a whole and for the capital campaign itself, which, after the first of the year, will be managed by the URI Foundation, led by URIF President Glen Kerkian and an expanded staff of fundraisers.

Altogether, I am confident that our University is on a promising (if dimly lit) path to the future. As we have done for the last four years, we will look to the Joint Strategic Planning Committee for new ideas and new strategies. I look forward to working with new chair of the Faculty Senate, Jim Miller, on each of these challenges.

Each year at URI, we see good friends and colleagues come and go. I have already mentioned the impact Dr. Swan’s leaving the office of the provost will have. Dean Don Letendre will also leave next month to become the dean of pharmacy at the University of Iowa. Dr. Bahram Nassersherif has rejoined the faculty and his exciting research. Many wonderful faculty members have retired this year, and we will miss them. On the other side of the ledger, Vice President Alfonso has joined the team to strengthen our research program. David Maslyn has stepped up to be the Dean of Libraries, and we have a new Director of Athletics, Thorr Bjorn, here and ready to go. And we have brought on a bumper crop of exciting new faculty members (43!) and other professional staff. These too are the passages of life, and they are a part of each September as well.

I wish for all of you an exciting and productive academic year and look forward to seeing you, as they say, around the Quad.

Go Rhody!

Robert L. Carothers