Board Appoints New Commissioner of Higher Education

Jun 17, 2014

Rhode Island's Board of Education has selected former Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell to lead the state's college system.

The board voted unanimously at its Monday meeting to appoint Purcell as the new commissioner of higher education. Details of his contract remain under negotiation, but Purcell is expected to earn between $135,000 and $175,000, which is considerably less than his $275,000 contract in Louisiana.

Purcell was unpopular with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who reportedly tried to have him fired after the two clashed over state budget cuts for higher education. Purcell survived the challenge from Jindal but  chose not to pursue a new contract when his term expired last year.

Rhode Island's Interim Commissioner of Higher Education, Clarke Green, says he agrees with the board's choice of Purcell to succeed him.

"We felt at this time it was very important to have a commissioner with a lot of experience, and he's also worked on a lot of the issues this board wants to work on," Green said.

Those issues include assisting adults returning to higher education, developing a new funding formula for state colleges and universities and easing the transfer of credits across state colleges.

Prior to his two years in Louisiana, Purcell headed the Arkansas Department of Higher Education and served as Associate Vice President for Strategic Planning for the Oklahoma State Regents of Higher Education. He has a BS in Public Administration from Auburn University,  and an Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Alabama.

Purcell comes to the Rhode Island Office of Higher Education after a shakeup in which lawmakers consolidated the Board of Education and threatened to de-fund the department of higher education. Along with the new board, Interim Commissioner Greene has been working to redefine the department's role and reorganize the board so it can better oversee the state college system.

For many years, Rhode Island state colleges faced declines in state funding, and criticism over the quickly rising price of tuition.

The last two state budgets have included increases for the state college system, made up of the Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island. In response, the colleges have frozen tuition for the last two years.

The higher education system also faces the challenge of preparing a workers for an economy that has yet to fully take shape or emerge from the Great Recession.