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Students and faculty share opinion on URI funding

By Hillary Brady
On January 24, 2012


University of Rhode Island students, faculty, staff and alumni got the chance to share their thoughts and frustrations about lack of state funding at the Special House Commission to Study Public Higher Education Affordability and Accessibility in Rhode Island's public forum last night.

A packed Alumni Center saw Student Senators, faculty and community members eager to give personal testimonies to the commission during the nearly two hour long session.

The commission, which was established last year, focuses on the factors that "contribute to affordability and accessibility," in higher education Chairman of the Commission Rep. Frank Ferri said. The group of state representatives is working to conduct a "comprehensive study," of college access and costs, in addition to considering the "best practices" of other states and institutions and making suggestions for furthering Rhode Island's funding efforts.

The theme of the evening, as Ferri noted at the forum's conclusion, was funding: how it impacts the university from a department down to personal level.

"We're doing more with less," Department of Psychology Chair and professor Patricia Morokoff said, noting that though the psychology program has added about 100 new students in the past three years, it has lost several faculty members. "I think that is a common theme across campus."

Dean of the College of Nursing Dayle H. Joseph noted a similar trend in the department she oversees, saying that the nursing program faculty are "tired and need more help" to accommodate the 183 freshman students accepted this year—an all-time department high.

"We are doing clinical practice in things like closets," she said, saying that White Hall also does not meet recent fire code changes. "We need a new building."

For those attending the university, the struggle for funding also has a major impact, which faculty and students alike shared with the commission.

Chair of Communication Studies and Co-Chair of the Equity Council Lynn Derbyshire, helped "put a face" to the issue of affordable education: three students who she sees for academic advising have been working, amidst financial difficulties, toward their degrees since 1996, 1998 and 2000, respectively.

"They've worked hard, perhaps harder at paying for their credits than the courses that they actually took," Derbyshire said.

Student Senate President David Coates also addressed the commission, sharing that for many of the students he serves, who may be working part time jobs while taking a packed course load, "struggle over decisions like buying books or eating."

"Our reality is that in 2010, 73 percent of our graduates had an average of $22,750 in debt and they walk away from the university with no guarantee of employment," Coates said.

Junior Brittany Dobrzynski, a Student Senate representative for the College of Environment of Life Sciences, shared that she has also seen the "financial burden" of college tuition on URI students—noting the "overwhelming support from the student population" for a stop in tuition hikes in the senate's petition from last semester.

Professors and alumni shared the lucrative business resources available at the university, if the appropriate funding were available from the state. This connection, between university research and state economic development, is one that President David M. Dooley has noted since the beginning of his tenure at the university—writing in an opinion piece for the Providence Journal in March 2010 that URI "must take on an expanded and central role in the renewal of the Rhode Island economy."

President of the URI Alumni Association Joseph M. Confessore, a 1996 graduate, said of the approximately 50,000 URI alumni living in the state, around 13,000 own businesses in the state.

"The university continues to deliver a high quality education while keeping costs down," Confessore said. "We can clearly see what investment comes out of the university."

Department of Computer Science and Statistics Chair Joan Peckham noted that a strong research university is essential for "the health of [the] state," as employers look for this type of education when hiring.

"The best investment the state can make is to support partnerships among the educational institutions and industry," she said.

Many faculty members also shared the successes of various departments of the university that have been able to reach out to the community and to the students despite the underlying theme of lack of funding—an issue the commission will further discuss at its final forum on Feb. 15, at 6:30 p.m., at the Community College of Rhode Island Newport Campus. Ferri said a large crowd is expected and members of the URI community should come share their thoughts.

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