Scott MacKay Commentary: Finally, Smith Hill And RI Colleges Work Together

Jun 6, 2014

Is Rhode Island government finally waking up to leveraging state colleges as wellsprings of economic development? RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay sees some hopeful signs on Smith Hill.

Rhode Island College, University of Rhode Island, and the Community College of Rhode Island will not see their tuition increase if the state budget is approved.

After years of malign neglect of Rhode Island’s public colleges and universities, the General Assembly finally appears to be turning a corner. Several elements in the state budget approved last week by the House Finance Committee show that Statehouse politicians are finally getting the message on the iron link between education and creating jobs in the Ocean State.

The first is support for the plan to build a shared University of Rhode Island- Rhode Island College nursing school in Providence’s historic Jewelry District. This proposal has had a tortuous history. Yet is makes so much sense on so many levels that some are surprised that the Smith Hill crowd is actually moving it forward.

The nursing programs would be housed in the vacant, yet historic, Dynamo Building, a former power plant that was once seen as a venue for a state history museum. URI and RIC would share space there and Brown University would use the rest of the sprawling building for administrative offices. The cost to the state is about $5 million annually, beginning in the 2017 budget year.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee has long backed this proposal. But two years ago, it fell victim at the Statehouse to one of those withering turf battles between URI and RIC.  The RIC nursing professors did not want to be under the same roof as the URI nursing faculty. RIC faculty members feared being overwhelmed by URI’s more research-oriented program.

So the shared nursing school crashed under its own weight in a turf battle. The myth about Rhode Island is that our state’s small size means that it is easy to put major decision-makers in the same room to hammer out deals. The reality is too often familiarity in our insular political culture breeds contempt rather than contentment. Putting everyone in the same space doesn’t help if they are all fighting over the same resources.

Now, with nudges from RIC President Nancy Carriuolo and URI President David Dooley, this worthy  proposal has been resurrected. You don’t need a fancy study to figure out that our state is going to need more nurses. But since one has just been completed, you may as well consider the evidence.

A health care workforce development group called Stepping Up Rhode Island issued a recent report saying that our state will likely be short more than 350 nurses over the next decade. With our aging baby boomer population and the shift of medical treatment protocols from doctors to such para-professionals as nurses and physician assistants, this trend will only continue. Do you know any good nurses who are standing in an unemployment line?

Another virtue of this school is the location, a David Ortiz line drive from some of the state’s top teaching hospitals and Brown’s medical school. It will serve as a gateway to a revived Jewelry District that the governor and Mayor Angel Taveras are trying to rebrand as a center of innovation known as the Knowledge District. And it fits well with Rhode Island’s tradition of preserving and reusing historic buildings.

There will always be jousts among higher education leaders for scarce state resources. But that shouldn’t keep these institutions from working together for the good of their schools and the state’s economy. A meaningful partnership among Brown, URI and RIC is a refreshing development for our beleaguered economy. Locating two programs in the same facility is a good way to combine classroom and laboratory space to save money. Let's leave competition among our colleges on the basketball court and football field, where it belongs.

The other good news from Smith Hill is that the budget plan also calls for asking voters to support Chafee’s proposal for a $125 million bond issue to build a new engineering school at URI and an outlay of about $10 million higher education aid in the budget year that begins July 1. That money would be used to freeze tuition for the coming academic year at RIC, CCRI and URI.

Collaboration, not confrontation, among these institutions is sorely needed. A  state as small as ours must use resources in a smart manner. Perhaps the best element of this partnership is that it could be a model of institutions working together. That’s  no small thing in a state with 75 fire departments, 39 school districts, 150 pension systems and too many other agencies from the Department of Redundancy Department.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at