Meet Provost Donald DeHayes

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Donald H. DeHayes began his official duties as provost and vice president of Affairs in April. He was interviewed for this article in November, just two days after Barack Obama was elected president.

Do you have any reaction to the outcome of the election?

The Obama campaign-at least as it came out in the political campaign-was advocating for education, renewable energy, and green economic development. My sense is what Obama says he stands for would depend on higher education, and I think it positions the University of Rhode Island pretty well. His priorities would line up with ours.

What is happening here at the University in academic planning, and what is being considered to move it forward?

I am not sure we fully understood the strength and the expertise that we have. We have somewhere in the range of 120 to 140 faculty in each of three or four broadly defined areas that are really important to the University and equally important to the world. When we look at the broad field of integrated health sciences and health systems, we have faculty scattered across all the academic units of the campus. I am not sure any of us knew that. Clearly, we have international prowess in oceans and marine systems and in the broad dimensions of life sciences and sustainability that cuts across all the colleges.

What’s it been like for you since you arrived?

I actually love it here. I’ve been asked many, many times, by many, many people across the campus if I knew then what I know now, would I still be here, which is pretty much referring to the budget mess I walked into. This is what I came to do; I love the challenge. I found the community to be warm and empathetic. There are big challenges here, and we can’t control a lot of them. But there is a lot we can influence, and that’s where we need to spend our time. It’s going to be up to all of us to reclaim our University, to take it back and design it the way we think it needs to operate.

Are you surprised at the optimism and energy among faculty for their work here?

I’ve said several times, and publicly on campus, I am amazed at the accomplishments of our faculty and our students, and many times against all odds, of people working in less than ideal facilities, certainly with fewer resources than we would like them to have or that they would like to have. Maybe that bringsout the best in us. It might be easy to not notice that great faculty love what theydo. One of the things that is really special about this University in my view—and I really, really mean this—was evident in Professor Jimmie Oxley’s comments[during a fall press conference announcing the $5.15 million Center of Excellence in Explosives Research]. She talked with pride about her students in the audience, and the students had posters surrounding the press conference. She found a way to bridge the nationally renowned research and scholarship she is doing with educating students. A lot of universities talk about that, but not a lot of universities do that. She is doing it, and many other URI faculty are doing it. That creates a special learning environment for our students and a special opportunity for our faculty. People have found a way to do what they love to do. It’s not only evident in their productivity; it’s evident in their joy.

A state study made several recommendations to enhance the research enterprise at URI, including a $100 million bond issue to support hiring new faculty researchers. What are your thoughts regarding the commission’s recommendations and their applicability to our strategic plan?

I love the interplay of teaching and research. I like less talking about teaching and research as oppositional factors—sometimes universities do that. If we teach a lot, we can’t do research, and if we do research a lot, we can’t teach. I am pretty convinced our best teachers are our best scholars. I think the report offered many good suggestions that we can do better internally. We need to smooth the process of research, but I think they were a little more harsh on us than we deserve. That’s not to say that we can’t do better. Some of the comparisons they made included medical schools. You subtract the medical schools and out-and-out funding here is probably 30 or 40 percent higher than the University of Vermont, which was one of the comparisons. We’d have to be very thoughtful about how we would use bond money to enhance the research program. It would be great if we could do it, but as soon as you put that into hiring personnel, I do worry about how you sustain the models.

The commission focused primarily on research that has a direct economic benefit. What about the need to make sure that the liberal arts and humanities remain strong?

The University will continue to support the broadest definition of scholarship, including the creative arts. That really is the backbone of the learning enterprise. You are correct that the commission report was really trying to draw the connection between research in certain areas and economic development and workforce development. That’s not inappropriate to do in my view. That should not be interpreted as undermining the importance of the many forms of scholarship that don’t depend on external funding and don’t lead directly to professional job opportunities. In many ways the non-funded scholarship done by our humanists, creative artists, and social scientists is more affordable to us. It takes less infrastructure to support. It’s more easily woven into the student learning experience. It produces books, art exhibits, and concerts that not only enrich the campus but also the surrounding community. That’s an important piece of what makes a university a university.

What is your hope for URI students?

Working closely with deans, faculty, and students, we want to build a great University. It ought to be something that relates to global awareness. Students should be actively engaged; students ought to be able to touch, feel, and smell learning in this world. We ought to be able to use the media and technology not just as toys, but as a way to promote active learning. I’d love to have a student say, “I am not going to go to UConn. I am going to go to URI because I will have a better experience.”

By Dave Lavallee ’79, M.P.A. ’87