No Time to Lose

With shrinking state dollars but big ambitions, 
URI’s new president wants to shape Rhode Island’s future. 
Can David Dooley convince others to come along for the ride?

Dana Smith

(page 1 of 2)

On a brisk fall day in South County, with bright yellow leaves drifting across the green grass of the University of Rhode Island quadrangle, and white clouds brushing by the stony towers of Davis Hall, it’s easy to feel the campus is far away from the rest of Rhode Island — far from the State House and downtown, far from industrial parks and corporate offices, far from the working world.

But David Dooley, who took office as the eleventh president of the university in July, is used to the wide open spaces of Montana. To him, URI and Providence, the campus and the world of business, fit easily into one sprawling landscape. And the horizon doesn’t end at the state border. He wants to bring the world to URI, and bring URI to the world — and he wants to do it now.

Expanding URI’s global reach and on-campus diversity are just two items in Dooley’s grab bag of big ideas for URI. There is much to do, and no time to waste, he says. The phrase “a sense of urgency” recurs like a mantra in Dooley’s conversations — and there are many conversations. During the first few months after his arrival in Kingston, he talked with reporters and talk-show hosts from just about every local newspaper, TV station and radio show; he hosted a live chat on the Internet and started his own blog on the URI website. Through the fall, he continued to meet with countless state officials, faculty members, student groups and the presidents of other colleges and universities in the state. He attended dozens of events, from football games to chamber music concerts to formal dinners.
Along the way, he strews those big ideas, like a kind of Johnny Appleseed of higher education. Those ideas include: changing the way students and faculty interact with each other, moving more courses online, working more closely with industry, beefing up the offerings at the Providence campus, strengthening partnerships with Brown University, creating more internships for students, chipping away at URI’s no-alcohol rules, and possibly building a research park — just for starters. But the central theme is this: URI has a big and important role to play in the future of Rhode Island, and there isn’t a moment, or a mind, to waste in launching that future. And subtly implied, as a corollary to all that: If you’re not involved, if you’re not giving all you can to make that brighter future happen, well, what are you waiting for?

Dooley was named to his new post in May, to replace Robert Carothers, who retired after eighteen years at the helm. Dooley formerly was provost and vice president of academic affairs at Montana State University, in Bozeman, where he had worked for nearly sixteen years. He was credited with helping to double the research budget there to about $100 million. He promoted partnerships with business, offering campus resources and expertise to provide research and development for start-up companies. Students got experience, businesses got help and jobs were created.

Dooley’s record in helping to build a stronger local economy and expand research activity helped win over the search committee, which chose him over two other strong finalists after an eight-month search. The job came with a salary of $320,000 plus a car and the use of the spacious President’s House on the Kingston campus. The salary is $100,000 more than what Carothers had been paid, bringing it more in line with other university presidents around the country.

Over the summer, Dooley traveled back and forth, finishing up work in Bozeman while getting acquainted with URI. In August he and his wife, Lynn Baker-Dooley, and their new dog, an adopted Australian shepherd named Rhody, drove cross-country to their new home. Although they are new to Rhode Island, they had lived in New England before — Dooley was a chemistry professor and department chairman at Amherst College from 1978 until they left for Montana in 1993.

On a fall afternoon, with sunshine filling the atrium of the sparkling new Environment and Life Sciences building on the edge of campus, Dooley arrives for a meet-and-greet with the science faculty. Some of the staff are seeing him for the first time. Curious students, between classes, stop by to listen.

Tall and solid, with blue eyes, thinning red hair, a trim suit and a ready grin, Dooley emanates authority, but invites engagement.

“People here in Rhode Island have high expectations of URI to help build a new knowledge-based economy for the state,” he tells the gathering. “That may be different from what people thought of URI’s role in the past.” A research university can be a leading driver behind economic revitalization, he says. He also has noted a “widespread feeling” on campus that the university ought to be doing a better job at education than it is doing now. “These things are linked,” says Dooley. Engaging with business and industry is good for the economy and also good for students, he says, creating opportunities for internships and hands-on learning.

Dooley goes on to describe a different kind of university from the familiar one of the past. The lecture format, with a professor standing in front of a hall filled with up to 300 students, dates back to the sixteenth century. “Does it still work in the twenty-first century? I think it’s time for us to revisit this,” he says. Around the atrium, the faculty members listen intently, and quite a few heads nod in agreement. There’s nothing too radical, after all, about calling for more hands-on engagement for students, and in some ways URI has already been moving in that direction. But in big sprawling institutions, change can be staggeringly slow. Thus Dooley repeats, over and over, his incantation: “We need to address this with a sense of urgency.”

Dooley has an ambitious agenda, and much of it will depend on the support of the faculty. Stephen Swallow, a professor of environmental and natural resource economics and chairperson of the faculty Senate, was in the audience for Dooley’s talk. As the crowd breaks toward the apple cider and coffee, and Dooley shakes hands with a swarm of students and staffers, Swallow and I sit down for a talk.

Is the faculty on board with Dooley and his vision for the university? Swallow, who was involved in the search process, answers diplomatically. “A faculty’s nature is to be diverse,” he says. It’s not possible to formulate one position that embodies the full range of faculty opinions. But, he adds, “This institution is ready for new ideas and energy. We’re ready to recognize better ways to integrate the teaching and research missions. More time for personal engagement is good for students and good 
for faculty.”

Swallow says it makes sense for the university to develop more partnerships with private industry. “It creates opportunities for students to learn. Many students are heading for the private sector for jobs, so it’s good experience. But this is a public research institution. The challenge is how to balance research, scholarship and the public good.” The faculty needs to ensure that each student gets the education they need, and that the humanities and social sciences are not overlooked. “We can’t just become the University of Economic Development,” he says.

As for acting urgently, Swallow says the faculty needs time to think things through and talk things over. “But it can’t be an infinite loop,” he says. “We need to avoid the trap of thinking there’s never enough information to act. We need to make decisions based on deliberative urgency.”

Faculty also have more mundane considerations, such as drowning in paperwork, he notes. Dooley got his biggest laugh from the faculty group when he recounted his amazement at the proliferation of carbon paper in his new office. Swallow said that’s all too true, and he hopes to see some relief from bureaucratic regulations to make it easier for faculty to engage in entrepreneurial activities.

So far, Swallow says, he’s impressed that Dooley has been actively working to promote the school and encourage investment, in a wide variety of settings. He’s encouraged that the president has quickly taken steps to be more inclusive and transparent in the budget and planning process. And he’s been pleased with URI’s new provost, Donald deHayes, who started work in the spring of 2008. The provost is chief academic officer for the university and works closely with the president.

“This is an outstanding set of leaders that we have now,” Swallow says. “They have top-notch academic qualifications, and they are determined to help students succeed, and to help Rhode Island succeed.” One fact is indisputable, Swallow says. “The potential of our students and faculty is outstanding. And I think this president can help us to realize that potential.”
In his short time in Rhode Island, Dooley has worked to assess that potential, and also the barriers to change. “Rhode Island has not been able to capitalize on some of its assets as well as it should have,” he suggests to Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts, during a getting-to-know-you meeting at his office in October. “Maybe the time is right for this state to transform itself into the place everyone wants to be in the Northeast.”

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