Though just 60 kilometres by 77 kilometres in size, Rhode Island is home to an array of higher education institutions, from small and mid-sized colleges to an Ivy League university and prestigious arts and trade schools. When asked about the state’s recovery from the years following the global financial crisis, many Rhode Islanders credit the work of some of its oldest and most valued assets: its colleges and universities.
Dr David Dooley joined the University of Rhode Island (URI) faculty as president in 2009. “When I joined, the sense was that URI was an underutilised asset on the part of the state,” he says.
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“It was never clearer than at that time that URI needed to play a key role for the state if it was ever going to come out of the dive that it was in. So we set out to position URI to be the state’s primary economic development partner, and the private sector’s primary partner for growth.”
Developing the workforce
URI prides itself on being Rhode Island’s premier publicly funded research institution. With nearly 15,000 undergraduate and 3000 graduate students coming from more than 60 countries, it plays an important role in workforce development.
Its concerted engagement in the state’s economy began in 2009, when Mr Dooley joined the executive board of the commerce chamber and URI began designing a comprehensive development strategy. This involved creating a research foundation to handle all the university’s intellectual property, and bringing into that Polaris Manufacturing Extension Partnership – a statewide organisation offering business improvement programmes – and the state’s Small Business Development Center.
URI also established the Business Engagement Center, a single portal for the private sector, non-profit organisations and state and local government entities to access all of URI’s assets from employee and intern recruitment to facilities and R&D.
“That’s been extraordinarily successful,” says Mr Dooley. “We have also really strengthened our relationships inside state and local legislatures so that they are aware of our enthusiasm in sitting down with them to find ways we can partner to advance the state.”
Centre for innovation
One major initiative in the works, supported by Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo, is URI’s Innovation Campus. “The idea of an innovation campus is to harness our research capability with the private sector to build a single location where the R&D prowess of the state can be put to work for the private sector. URI was designated as the lead academic institution in that entire effort by statute,” says Mr Dooley. The project will be a $40m investment once the private sector matches the state’s $20m in funding.
“The aim is to attract companies in advanced industries either to expand or relocate in URI or Rhode Island, partnering with us on a campus where research will lead to new products and companies, and drive economic expansion in the state by creating new opportunities for product development and investment,” adds Mr Dooley.
URI already has robust partnerships with private foreign investors. Japanese polymer film manufacturer Toray, which employs more than 600 people at its facility in Rhode Island’s Quonset Business Park, has invested $4m in the school’s engineering, building and student scholarships.
“It uses many of our students as interns, and has hired many of our graduates in business, engineering and chemistry, who are now employed in leadership positions,” says Mr Dooley. Toray sponsors research projects on URI’s campus, conducted by both graduate and undergraduate students.
“It’s been one of our main drivers of international partnerships over the years, the fact that we’re producing students with these kinds of capabilities. We have very strong global networks, working with probably all the top 30 major German manufacturers. Siemens, ZF, Deutsche Bank, Volkswagen, Audi – all those groups hire our engineers and take our students as interns during their years abroad.”
Along with neighbours Brown University and Rhode Island College (among others), URI is zealously pursuing opportunities for engagement and growth, which in turn help keep its graduates in the state.
“That’s our mission as the state’s public research university,” says Mr Dooley. “We’ve been here 125 years, and we’ll be here another 125 years. We’re not going anywhere.”