Celebrating the Presidency of Robert L. Carothers, 1991-2009
When Robert L. Carothers became the University of Rhode Island’s 10th president in 1991, Rhode Island was in the midst of a major fiscal crisis. Gov. Bruce Sundlun had closed the credit unions statewide, state appropriations for higher education were cut, and to offset this, tuition and fees were raised by 28 percent, followed by a 10 percent increase the next year.
On campus roofs leaked, residence halls and buildings suffered the effects of years of deferred maintenance, and there were few scholarships to attract top students. The building that housed the College of Continuing Education in Providence was facing a wrecking ball to make way for the Providence Place Mall, the W. Alton Jones campus was a year away from adding the Sycamore Residential and Conference Lodge, and the Inner Space Center at the Narragansett Bay campus was 15 years in the future.
The University had developed a solid reputation as the nation’s number one party school, and a tremendous sense of cynicism existed among students, faculty, and staff.
Undaunted, President Carothers, who had been chancellor of the Minnesota State University System, walked onto the Kingston Campus with a whole new vision, language, and leadership approach. He began the makeover to improve the University’s structure, infrastructure, and curriculum. The URI community quickly realized that this seasoned administrator, scholar, poet, and lawyer possessed the know-how to create the most transformative years in URI’s 117-year history.
When President Carothers steps down this June, he will leave a legacy that extends beyond the stonewalls of campus, beyond the coast of Rhode Island, to the far reaches of the world. Here are just a few of his tenure highlights that will continue to reap rewards for decades to come:
A New Culture for Learning
In his second University-wide address in 1992, Carothers launched an initiative to “recreate the research university” as a place that would promote active, experiential learning for every student and collaborative, interdisciplinary work among students, faculty, and staff. The president described this as “building a new culture for learning.”
His vision for undergraduate education shifted students from being passive listeners to active learners. The Coastal Fellows program founded in 1995, for example, places undergraduates into multigenerational teams consisting of a combination of faculty, researchers and outreach staff, post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and community professionals to work on hands-on projects and follow the work to completion.
To attract high-achieving students to URI, in 1995 Carothers founded the Centennial Scholarship program. During the 2008-09 academic year, URI gave more than $13 million of these merit scholarships to 1,912 students.
This new culture for learning included clearly defined expectations that echoed Carothers “no tolerance” policy toward violence and drug and alcohol abuse. For the past 18 years, the president has also been committed to curbing alcohol abuse at colleges across the nation.
The Princeton Review named URI the number one party school in the nation in 1993, 1994, and 1995. A decade later that same organization named the University a “college with a conscience,” thanks in large part to the president’s efforts.
Carothers’ determination to transform the University in the areas of academics, student life, and outreach led to positive national recognition and increased enrollment.
President Carothers’ legacy at the University has been one of inclusion, one of expansion from his clearly communicated goals for increasing diversity, to his personal contributions to multicultural student scholarships, to his addressing issues of concern for minority students, faculty, and staff. In 1991, 5.6 percent of the student body was diverse. By 2008, that figure had jumped to 11.5 percent.
“I say to every new class of freshmen coming into the University that they will have to learn to lead, to manage, and even to inspire people who are in profound ways unlike themselves,” Carothers told parents of incoming students. “Our long-range goal here is to build the skills among our students, faculty, and staff that individuals will need to help our community, our multicultural state, and our multicultural nation succeed in our global economy. There is no issue more critical to our future.”
During his tenure, the president has responded to student-driven requests that the administration has found to be consistent with its overall goals to develop a more diverse community of educators and learners. In each case, President Carothers was involved not in dictating a response, not in policing or prodding for a quick resolution, but in seizing the moment and encouraging everyone to embrace the process of teaching, learning, and healing.
Carothers sought to break down the silos of the different colleges by encouraging faculty interaction to bring new ideas and solutions to today’s important challenges. To do that, beginning in 1996 the University formed, encouraged, and funded interdisciplinary partnerships. The partnerships are designed to enhance the growth of students through active and collaborative learning and to bring new eyes and ears to these complex problems.
The President’s Partnership Program has lasting research enterprises in such areas as forensic science, health promotion, biomedical engineering, sensors and surface technology, education, and energy.
The president changed the look of the University by dramatically improving its facilities. During his tenure, President Carothers has helped to ensure passage of eight bond issues to rehabilitate academic buildings and built new classroom buildings on all four URI campuses. He oversaw more than $700 million in both new construction and renovation/rehabilitation of 49 buildings.
In 2006, students walked through the doors of the first of three new residence halls to be built on the Kingston Campus in more than 35 years. By their completion in 2008, the new residence halls provided on-campus living options for 800 more students. In 2007, the new Hope Commons Dining Hall opened. The facility included a 600-seat main dining hall, a coffee/pizza/ice cream shop with a four-sided gas fireplace, and a mini-market.
— By Jhodi Redlich ’81