Why no RIC-URI Nursing School project?

PROVIDENCE, RI – When it was proposed two years ago, the plan to build a new $60 million nursing school in Providence's Jewelry District was what politicians, business leaders and educators like to call a "win-win."

The idea was to put a 121,000 square foot school near the sprawling near the sprawling Rhode Island Hospital, Women & Infants and Hasbro Children's Hospital campus. It was to be shared by URI and RIC.

Originally both URI and RIC wanted to build separate nursing schools on their campuses.

Locating the two programs in one facility was viewed as a smart way to combine classrooms and laboratories, avoid duplication and save money.

On many levels it looked like a good idea. Such an institution would have been an anchor for the old Jewelry section of downtown that state and city leaders have been trying to re-brand as the "Knowledge District."

Investing in a nursing school makes economic sense because in the rapidly changing medical landscape, our state, with its aging population is certain to need more nurses and nurse practitioners. Do you know any good nurses who are collecting unemployment?

Now it looks as if the plan for the nursing school was hatched by what Saul Bellow so famously called the Great Intentions Paving Company. As the General Assembly heads into its waning days, the nursing school plan has crashed and burned. At the eleventh-hour, the proposal to finance it with a bond issue was left out of the state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Why did this happen? Good question. Yet it one that nobody in the state's political and education hierarchy wants to answer.

Nancy Carruillo, the RIC president, has declined comment. URI President David Dooley issued a statement expressing "disappointment that the nursing education center is not in the budget."

A spokesman for House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, said the colleges and Governor Lincoln Chafee's administration took too long to submit final plans.

None of these excuses passes the laugh test. Neither RIC nor URI have issued a formal rationale for why the project collapsed. And time is rarely a factor for an Assembly that routinely approves hundreds of bills and hastily-written floor amendments in the wee hours of the annual State House rush to adjournment.

The only clue to the demise of the nursing school came from Michael Smith, an assistant to the RIC president. In a Facebook rant that has since been taken down, Smith denounced the plan for the joint RIC-URI nursing partnership. He stated the plan was "ill-conceived" and a "house of cards built on a foundation of ego, profit and a profound lack of understanding of public policy as well as micro and macro financial issues within public higher education."

Smith also asserted that the RIC nursing program is "the state's most successful." That may come as a surprise to URI, a university with more rigorous academic standards than RIC. Along with training nurses, URI has a research focus. RIC mostly trains bedside nurses.

So until we get some straight answers, Rhode Islanders are left to assume that the "smallest state with the biggest egos" syndrome has once again triumphed. This is the same attitude has over the years has given our tiny state 150 pension systems, 75 fire departments, 39 school districts and many other institutions from the Department of Redundancy Department. Will Rhode Island ever learn? Or is the Ocean State working overtime to embellish its reputation as a place that grasps on to nothing as tenaciously as the status quo?

On this issue voters may have the last laugh. No matter what the Smith Hill crowd does, the ultimate decision will rest with the voters in November. What if we just say no to the RIC bonds, which might force our politicians and education bureaucrats to go back to the table and revive a sensible to put the nursing programs under one roof.

Scott MacKay's commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:40 and 8:40 on Morning Edition. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our "On Politics" blog at the RIPR.org web site.

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