Dean of students turns retirement into opportunity to give back

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KINGSTON, R.I. — August 13, 2008 — She began her tenure at URI as a secretary in the Office of Student Affairs. As she worked her way up, she took classes at night and on weekends for 10 years to earn her undergraduate degree, summa cum laude, then completed her master’s degree in 18 months, all the while raising two children as a single mother.

Such initiative and leadership has marked Fran Cohen’s journey at the University of Rhode Island and served as a model for the students she has connected with over the last 37 years. Cohen retired this spring as dean of students, and in addition to the outstanding legacy of achievement she leaves, she and her husband Joel, a URI professor of history, have created the Fran and Joel Cohen Student Affairs Fund for Excellence with a $25,000 gift to the University.

“It has been a privilege for me to work with colleagues who have done such a phenomenal job helping students learn who they are and challenging them to become leaders,” Cohen says. “This is what I’ve invested my career in, and I just want to help the work of these fine people.”

As a secretary in 1971, Cohen worked with five deans and three secretaries. Four years later, Student Affairs was reduced to one director and herself even though the student population was growing. Today, the Office of Student Life, as it is now known, has 11 professional staff, two support staff, and two graduate students.

Cohen was at the center of many changes, including major increases in services for students with disabilities. She was also a driving force behind the University’s nationally recognized effort to control alcohol abuse among undergraduates. “That was a significant part of my work and an extremely important aspect of our job here,” she says. “We managed to turn things around with the leadership and initiative of President Carothers.”

Before becoming Dean of Students in 1999, Cohen worked in just about every aspect of student affairs and was instrumental in creating leadership and service programs.

“The gift that Joel and I have made is our way of supporting efforts to assist students at a time when resources are shrinking,” she says. “The cost of public education continues to increase, and everything is more complicated for students today. We want to do whatever we can do to help.”