BRISTOL, R.I. – If the United States is to retain its hard-earned reputation as home to the finest higher education system in the world, college and university officials must respond directly to the “rising chorus of critical voices” by moving away from bottom-line thinking and enacting strategies to achieve “affordable excellence” at American institutions.
That’s according to Donald J. Farish, Ph.D., J.D., who was officially installed as the 10th president of Roger Williams University during an inauguration ceremony at the school’s Bristol, R.I., campus today. During his inaugural address, Dr. Farish presented his take on the challenges facing American higher education and outlined his vision for how private universities can take action.
“How can we [at Roger Williams] be better than Harvard or Princeton – or Amherst or Williams, for that matter?” he asked. “Quite simply, by changing the definition of what it means to be ‘best’… So how do I define ‘best?’ It is the school whose efforts add the greatest value to the lives of its graduates.”
In order to achieve “affordable excellence” at Roger Williams and build upon the University’s strengths to create an institution that best prepares its students for the workforce they will enter upon graduation, Dr. Farish outlined an extensive list of objectives.
Those ranged from considering more than just SAT scores and high school GPAs in the admissions process; to focusing on outcomes by assessing and documenting what students know when they graduate; to graduating students who are committed to improving the country’s democratic society; to expanding academic programs intended for adult learners and non-traditional students who need additional skills to advance in their careers.
More than anything else, Dr. Farish focused on the tremendous inequities that characterize American higher education in its current state. “If you are born in the top quartile of family income, 82 percent of you will earn a college degree,” he said. “If you are born in the bottom quartile, just 8 percent of you will earn a college degree... Isn’t this why young people are occupying Wall Street and demonstrating in other cities around the country?”
Dr. Farish noted that education can be used as a lever to expand the American economy by opening the doors of access to many more students from distressed economic backgrounds. “When I speak of ‘best,’ I mean an institution committed to the proposition that all young people deserve the opportunity to climb the socioeconomic ladder, regardless of the circumstances of their birth.”
In describing the criticism of higher education for turning a deaf ear in finding ways to reduce tuition costs, Dr. Farish said that while many of the country’s public institutions have been drained of resources to the point where quality of education has been severely compromised, that fact is not necessarily apparent to students seeking a college degree at a price they can afford.
“Now those schools – and the degrees they offer – are mere shadows of what they once were,” he said. “But diplomas are not like automobiles. An automobile that is not built to appropriate standards – that is assembled on the cheap, where every decision is based on keeping the price low – is not likely to drive well. A new owner will quickly realize he has purchased a lemon.
“Not so with a college degree. The inadequacy of a given degree will only become apparent over time, as its owner proves incapable of performing at the expected level of competence. We are in grave danger as a country if we allow the problem of poorly educated college graduates to become rampant. Our long-standing, hard-earned reputation as the country with the finest higher education system is under severe threat, and it’s a threat of our own making.”
In the end, Dr. Farish said that Roger Williams University should commit to graduating students with the skills, values and ambition to compete with the graduates of any institution in the United States.
“If our efforts are successful in addressing the full complement of higher educational needs in the country, and that success motivates other institutions to follow our lead, and in so doing gets America back to work and into a positive frame of mind, then we can be proud of the work we have done,” he said. “What I am presenting is not a pipe dream. It is achievable. We lack only a collective aspirational vision and the collective commitment to see that vision realized.”
Dr. Farish’s address came during a ceremony that featured, among others, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee; civil rights activist and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew J. Young; and Peter F. Kilmartin, attorney general of Rhode Island, who is a graduate of both Roger Williams University and the University’s School of Law.
A biography and CV for Dr. Farish can be found here.
The full text of Dr. Farish's inaugural address can be found here.
A selection of high-resolution photographs for media use is available here. Additional images on request.
Investiture 1: President Donald J. Farish and Chairman of the Board Richard L. Bready
Investiture 2: President Donald J. Farish and Chairman of the Board Richard L. Bready
Investiture 3: Special guest, Ambassador Andrew J. Young
Investiture 4: President Donald J. Farish greets his surprise musical interlude performers
Investiture 5: Rhode Island Attorney General and RWU alumnus Peter Kilmartin
Investiture 6: President Donald J. Farish; Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee; Chairman of the Board Richard L. Bready; and Board of Trustees members Jerrold Lavine and Mark Mandell.
Investiture 7: President Donald J. Farish during the Investiture ceremony