The University of Rhode Island is just completing its 17th Diversity Week, and our efforts towards building a diverse community are a timely example how “never let the perfect be the enemy of the good” can work effectively in practice. Our goal is to build a broadly diverse community where every member is welcomed, affirmed, respected, and supported.
The University of Rhode Island and CVS/Caremark Corporation celebrated our long-standing partnership last week in the new College of Pharmacy building. It was abundantly clear throughout the festivities that this has been an enormously productive and beneficial partnership for both institutions.
Move-in weekend is more than welcoming new students to the campus, however. It is about welcoming new students to the University of Rhode Island community. The URI community is an increasingly diverse one (for example, 22% of the entering class self-identified as individuals of color, and 49 states and 27 nations were represented). It is a community that is vibrant, engaged, and strives to be welcoming and supportive of all its members.
One of the reasons I believe that shared governance is critical to the success of a university is that it is an essential factor in order to “be prepared.” Shared governance assures that multiple minds, with diverse experience and expertise, and representing a variety of perspectives, will be involved in assessing the challenges and opportunities that arise. What may appear to be insignificant or unimportant to a single individual or group, others may properly recognize as a serious threat or a significant new opportunity.
My concern about the current debate regarding MOOCs is that it distracts us from the more important task of fundamentally remaking undergraduate education to meet the urgent challenges of the 21st century. Consider this: the vast majority of colleges and universities continue to structure education around an academic calendar originally designed to accommodate agriculture, and continue to use some version of an arbitrary credit system vaguely related to occupying a seat in a room for a specified period of time.
At the University of Rhode Island, and at many other universities, two relatively recent forces influence our commitment to diversity: the burgeoning diversity of our own country, and the impact of the global economy and an increasingly globalized society. It is an educational imperative that we prepare our students to thrive in contexts where they have to work effectively with people who do not look like they do, who do not share the same world view, assumptions, politics, economic status, religion, sexual orientation, or fundamental beliefs.
I have been working in higher education since 1978 – at Amherst College, Montana State University, and the University of Rhode Island. The current climate for higher education is the most challenging I have experienced or observed, especially for public colleges and universities. With public higher education caught between declining state support and escalating demands to restrain tuition increases, the financial climate is increasingly difficult.
In such a climate, we must be attentive to creating environments where dialog and discussion are robust, honest, even pointed, but civil and mutually respectful. This is part of the mission of all of America’s colleges and universities – or should be. Such an environment principally depends upon a community-wide commitment to civility, reason, mutual respect, and the quest for truth. Diversity in that community is a substantial source of strength; it is an extremely desirable asset that should be vigorously pursued.
There are multiple questions that swirl insistently around higher education in America: questions of access, affordability, priorities, focus, quality, completion, transparency, and more. This is to be expected as the costs of higher education escalate and both governments and families seek solutions to the issues and proof that the return on the investment in higher education will justify its cost. In this climate another question emerges with growing intensity: how can we justify the presence of intercollegiate athletics, and its associated costs?
The campuses of the University of Rhode Island, especially in Kingston, took a bit of a pounding from a serious nor’ easterner (named Nemo, of all things) this past weekend. Big Chill, our annual gala fundraiser for scholarships was postponed until March, classes were canceled (along with many other events), and our emergency management systems and procedures experienced a severe test. We passed.