The Rhode Island state budget passed in July includes the creation of a Board of Trustees for the University of Rhode Island, which is intended to allow the University more independence in governing its affairs.
Supporters of the initiative believe that the separate board will help URI become more competitive and flexible in its approach to education, as well as eliminate bureaucratic challenges that they believed prevented the University from moving forward.
University President David Dooley said that URI needs a separate board in order to fulfill its duties as a state research institution and an economic power for the state, as well as serve the specific interests that are unique to URI.
“Under the leadership of Dooley, URI has transformed over the past decade and is graduating more students than ever, [and] contributing greatly to our state’s economic growth,” Nicholas Mattiello, a co-sponsor of the initial House bill and speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, said. “We included the new governance structure in the state budget to ensure that URI has the flexibility and strategic leadership to reach its ambitious goals for the future. Many public universities have an independent board of trustees and we wanted to make sure that our state’s flagship university is on a level playing field with our regional and national competitors.”
Dooley said that the establishment of a Board of Trustees that was separate from the Council on Postsecondary Education, which currently governs all of the state’s colleges, has been in consideration since he first became president in 2009. Other New England states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont already follow the model of a board for the state’s” flagship university that are separate from the rest of the state’s public institutions. The New England Commission of Higher Education also recommended the move when it reaccredited the University last year.
“Part of the problem right now with [the Council on Postsecondary Education] is that any policies our board has to put in place has to be equally applicable to [the Community College of Rhode Island] and [Rhode Island College] while URI is a different kind of institution,” Dooley explained. “We need to operate differently many times than CCRI or RIC to operate. For example, with regard to research, partnerships with corporations and businesses in the state, international programs and graduate education, all of those things aren’t really present to anywhere near the same degree or in many cases, not at all, at CCRI and RIC, but are very important to URI and our mission. So being able to develop policies and procedures internally will make us more efficient also because we don’t have to craft them to be also applicable to any other institution.”
Compared to the Council on Postsecondary Education, the Board of Trustees will also allow the University more freedom in developing programs and curricula specific to a state flagship university. Students can see examples of these ideas in new business partnerships for internships and study abroad options, as well as new programs and variations of curriculum.
“For example, with support from the governor and the legislature, we’re launching URI Online, which will be a whole set of online degree and certificate programs that are only taught 100 percent online,” Dooley said. “We’ll be able to advance that much more readily because all of those programs will need approval by our board.”
The board will consist of 17 members with staggered terms. At first, the members will be appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. But after the initial terms expire after a few years, nine members will continue to be appointed by the governor, while the other eight will be appointed by the board itself. The board will also include the chair of the Rhode Island Board of Education and the chair of the Council on Postsecondary Education as ex-officio members of the board. One full-time student and one full-time faculty member will also serve as non-voting members.
Some elected officials voiced concern about the board’s self-perpetuating aspect.
“I have a concern about boards appointing themselves,” state Sen. James C. Sheehan said. “Where’s the check and balance? That’s why I pushed for more state involvement. Not just serving the sole purpose of URI, but of the state.”
Dooley assured that the board and the office of the president will keep each other in check. He said that the purpose for the self-perpetuating board is to prevent high turnover rates that have happened in the past, which have prevented the board from getting certain tasks done.
“The board will develop its own bylaws, so [accountability] will be codified in those bylaws,” Dooley said. “Secondly, nine members of the board will continue to be appointed by the governor and I think the governors of Rhode Island will continue to be very sensitive to this. The primary reason is that this is what URI is, as an institution that has made community, equity and diversity a central pillar of everything it does. If the board’s going to reflect the University, it will have to do that as well. And I think that will be the accountability for both ways. So the board will hold us accountable, and [the University] will hold the board accountable.”
Others voiced concerns about how the board proposal was introduced late into the legislative session, stating that legislators did not have enough time to carefully consider the implications of the board. URI Executive Director of External Relations and Communications Kelly Mahoney said that the reason the proposal wasn’t pushed until later was because of other major topics the General Assembly was focusing on, such as the Reproductive Privacy Act and K-12 reform.
Board members no longer have to live in Rhode Island in order to be appointed, which is another concern among critics. Mahoney said that this decision best reflects the University, where around half of undergraduate students are from out of state.
“If you look at where our students come from, they’re coming from all over the world and the same could be said about our faculty,” Mahoney said. “And so we felt it was important to have our governing board have that same context and provide that incredible global reach that we always strive for at this institution.”
The new governing structure was initially proposed in two separate pieces of legislation in the Rhode Island House and Senate. The Rhode Island Council on Postsecondary Education currently governs the University, and will continue to oversee RIC and CCRI, but URI will begin governance under the new board on Feb. 1.