OPINION: University of Rhode Island and Economic Renewal

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By David M. Dooley
Throughout the presidential search process and during my time in Rhode Island so far, one thing has been repeatedly emphasized: the University of Rhode Island must take on an expanded and central role in the renewal of the Rhode Island economy. This new responsibility for URI is characterized as urgent and critical. I fully agree. In Rhode Island “recovery” will not be sufficient. We must renew, rebuild – in essence, re-create – an economy that is vibrant and sustainable in the 21st century. This is certainly an ambitious goal. But such ambition is essential if we are to create and sustain the jobs required to ensure a high quality of life for Rhode Islanders.

We might ask if this is possible. A recent report, covered on the front page by the Providence Journal, indicated that Rhode Island is “not poised” for recovery. I doubt many were surprised by that bleak assessment. On a national level, many economists think that it might take several years to recover the jobs lost in the current recession, and Rhode Island may well lag behind, even though many Rhode Islanders cannot afford delay. Despite the magnitude of the challenge, we must endeavor to rebuild the Rhode Island economy – and do so with a true sense of urgency. We will certainly fail if we do not try. Fortunately, Rhode Island has many key assets to capitalize on, including the University of Rhode Island. I can assure you that URI is prepared and committed to do all that we can.

What can URI do? A lot. While it is important to recognize that URI has been consistently and substantially contributing to the Rhode Island economy for years, we have many other contributions to make. Our rapidly expanding research activity creates very valuable new jobs and produces highly trained, versatile individuals who can contribute in multiple ways to a knowledge-based economy. The faculty and students of the University of Rhode Island are a tremendous resource for the state and the nation. Their research and scholarship frequently creates new intellectual property that lead to the creation of new companies. URI can function as a key research and development resource for the private sector, as well as for government agencies, communities, and non-profit organizations.

Further, URI’s faculty, students, and facilities can assist business in creating new products, improving productivity, and becoming more competitive. We can work closely with the Rhode Island Manufacturing Extension Service, the Small Business Development Center, and other agencies to provide a wide range of assistance to companies. In my experience such entities are excellent partners for engaging students and faculty directly in economic development. Our expertise in policy and planning can help analyze problems and craft policies to foster economic renewal.

All these activities enhance the quality of the education provided to URI students because students get to be directly involved in analyzing information, solving problems, and crafting solutions, which provides a rich and intensive learning environment that is difficult to replicate in the classroom. As URI increases opportunities for “hands-on” learning, our graduates will be even better prepared to compete and lead in the global economy.

There is substantial evidence suggesting that research universities provide critical leadership for economic development. Discoveries at research universities, like URI, helped create a record number of new companies and a record number of licenses for new products based on university inventions in 2008. This why it is so encouraging that URI’s research activity is at an all time high. Recent investments in new facilities in the biosciences and pharmacy will likely stimulate additional growth. URI alumni serve as CEOs or owners of 800 businesses and companies in Rhode Island providing jobs and opportunities for people here. URI graduates are also at the center of new technology-based companies in the state.

As Rhode Island seeks to build a new knowledge-based economy, we must make better use of a tremendous resource — the substantial number of excellent colleges and universities in the state. One of my priorities is to collectively seek new ways higher education can work together to benefit Rhode Islanders. With such a collection of academic talent right here, we should be harnessing that talent to re-create our economy.

For these reasons, and despite the looming challenges ahead, I believe we can succeed in creating a new economy for Rhode Island and building a better, brighter future for our state and its people. The University of Rhode Island is ready to do its part, and more. Are you?

David M. Dooley

President, University of Rhode Island

This opinion article by President David M. Dooley appeared in several newspapers statewide.