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?

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.”
 

 

Roberts says there are many opportunities for URI to expand its presence and influence in the state. New land opening up in the post-I-95 Jewelry District in Providence offers a chance for collaboration with Brown and RISD in creating a Knowledge Center. Quonset Point has unrealized potential, URI’s Bay Campus offers an appealing location with room for expansion, even the empty GTech building in West Greenwich could provide space for research collaborations with industry. Possibilities abound, but reality intrudes. “One of the challenges we face is that people are used to the way things are,” says Roberts. “People resist change. But there’s enormous opportunity here.”

As the state’s only public research university,  URI’s role expands beyond simply providing a good education to its students, says Dooley. The university is expected to serve the whole state, even as the state’s contribution to its overall budget has shrunk to only about 10 percent.

As Dooley addresses the university’s complex missions during an interview in his office, he settles into a favorite well-worn armchair that he brought to URI from Montana. The work of advancing 
the public good is manifested in two ways, he says.  “One, to push the frontiers of knowledge back and disseminate that knowledge, and on the other hand to use the expertise of the faculty to directly assist the people of Rhode Island, in engagement and outreach activities.”

Those activities are not competitive but complementary, he says. The university can be a force to strengthen the state economy — by working directly with businesses, nonprofit groups and government agencies to provide expertise — and at 
the same time, create opportunities for students to engage with the real world. “All of that,” says Dooley, “is a part of the university’s mission.”

Dooley refers often to achievements at the Bozeman campus, where research funding grew as the university expanded its interactions with start-up businesses, creating a synergy between researchers and entrepreneurs. He’s convinced that URI can benefit from that strategy. “We can be the state’s R&D branch,” he says. “By virtue of their involvement in those activities, the students get a much better education,” he says.

He’s aware that people in Rhode Island have high hopes for URI to help create a “knowledge-based economy” with good jobs. But, he says, “The university exists first and foremost to educate students. That is essential to realizing their hopes and dreams, and it’s the biggest contribution we’re going to make to the state of Rhode Island.”

To make this work means an overhaul of the curriculum, a complex process, but it can’t take forever. “I don’t think we can afford to spend a lot of time on this,” says Dooley. “We want to be seen as innovating. We want to free up the faculty from things that make less of a difference and focus on making more of a difference.” He wants to hire more full-time faculty and stem the proliferation of adjuncts. He’d like to trim the number of courses offered. Faculty should use the Internet more, posting lectures and course materials online.

So a decade from now, a student enrolling at URI should have a very different experience. “If they’re not, then I think we’ve missed it, we’ve missed the opportunity,” says Dooley. “In many respects, what we’re doing today in many colleges across the country isn’t very different from what was done 100 years ago.” It’s time for that to change.

But all that change won’t be much use if students can no longer afford to enroll. Today it costs an in-state student $10,661 to attend URI for a year, plus room and board. About half the students pay out-of-state rates, which now are $27,159. Tuition has been going up every year, and mid-year surcharges have become routine, but there’s a widespread sense that crunch time is near — if tuition goes much higher, students will start to drop out.

David Dooley“We are risking accessibility to higher education in Rhode Island,” says Dooley. “We need to make the case that Rhode Island needs to invest more in public higher education than it has been.”

David Bedard, president of the Student Senate, couldn’t agree more. “A lot of students are at the breaking point,” he says. Bedard, a senior from Connecticut, said in his four years at URI out-of-state tuition and fees have gone up about 35 percent. “There’s already been a lot of casualties,” he says. “Students just can’t afford the increases.”

He’s encouraged that Dooley seems to understand the students’ perspective and includes them in high-level discussions. “He proposed adding students to the campus budget committee,” says Bedard. “He came to a student Senate meeting and discussed the budget issues. He’s been inviting student groups up to his house. Last week we had a meeting with the President, five of his vice presidents, and the executive board of the Student Senate — that’s the first time in anyone’s memory that’s happened.”
All of this is good news to Bedard. “It’s a great opportunity for students,” he said. As for Dooley, “He’s been better than advertised, so far. Even his wife has been nothing but great.”

It’s the end of another long and hectic day, Dooley is greeted by his wife, Lynn Baker-Dooley, at their new home, the President’s house, right on campus. The three-story residence was used only for occasional events by Carothers, who kept a home off-campus. The Dooleys on the other hand wanted to be right in the thick of things.

Wide windows overlook a spacious lawn and garden, and every light-filled room is designed to welcome crowds of visitors — the formal living room with fireplace, an efficient kitchen with four ovens, a coat room. An array of cafe-size tables fills the dining area, to seat up to forty-two guests. An art collection, donated by students, faculty and alumni, is also displayed in an online gallery at the URI website, and comprises a wide range of subjects and styles — portraits, abstracts, sculpture, photography — filling the home with brilliant color.
 
Baker-Dooley did hang one small item of her own in the front foyer — a portrait of Emily Dickinson. “When we were at Amherst, I did some research about her life and work. Once we’re settled in here, I might spend some time there, and do some writing,” she says. Baker-Dooley is an ordained Baptist minister, and served for twenty-six years as a pastor. For the last several years in Montana, she worked with spiritual care and hospice in a hospital setting. “I’m accustomed to working full-time,” she says. The couple’s two children, Christopher and Samantha, are now in their twenties and living on their own.

Besides the art collection, Baker-Dooley is most proud of the basement makeover. “The paneling was here, and the fireplace, but for years this had just been neglected and used for storage,” she says, as we continue our tour of the house. Now the big open space is sparkling and filled with a donated leather couch, a big-screen TV, a popcorn-making machine found in a campus kitchen, an ornate pool table abandoned by a departing professor. The Dooleys created this family-friendly zone to welcome student groups into the house.

“Already we’ve had the student Senate over. We had the football game on, the fireplace going,” says Baker-Dooley.  “And we use this space as a kind of family room. It’s more casual and comfortable than upstairs.” As we finish up the tour, President Dooley arrives home from a hectic day at the office, and the day is not over yet. Student workers are arriving, the kitchen staff is busy, and soon guests fill the first floor for a reception in honor of this year’s alumni award winners. The artists who donated work are also invited, so the Dooleys welcome a crowd of about 100, the biggest yet since their arrival. The president and his wife seem endlessly energetic, and determined to meet every single person not only on the campus, but in the state.

There’s a strategy behind all this meeting and greeting. “Every single person in Rhode Island has a stake in the success of URI,” Dooley tells me during our interview in his office. “If the people of Rhode Island want to build a better future, if they want the state to be a place where young people can stay, a magnet for people from all places to find a home here, with a high quality of life and good jobs — a critical component is going to be a vibrant, healthy higher education system.”

It won’t be easy to get there from where we are now. “The challenges are significant,” he admits. But the rewards, he insists, are substantial. And the potential loss, if we don’t make the effort, is simply unacceptable.

Outside the president’s office, the campus morphs from fall into winter, yellow leaves drop, bare branches are covered in snow. Students rush from class to class, bundled in scarves and mittens. Horizons expand, our neighborhood becomes not just South County, not just Rhode Island, but the world. The future arrives relentlessly, day by day, whether or not we are ready for it. And David Dooley presses on, with a sense of urgency, hoping that URI can not only face that future, but create it.