KINGSTON, R.I. — In 2009, when David M. Dooley rode into Kingston from Montana to become president of the University of Rhode Island, he found this little state in the middle of a big recession.
Strapped for cash, the General Assembly ended up slashing funding for URI by 30 percent, from $84 million to $58 million, and the state’s flagship public university set out on a long road to recovery.
By 2020, URI was once again receiving $84 million a year from the state, it was raking in some of the largest private donations in its history, and enrollment had risen from 16,100 to 17,600.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, forcing the university to suspend face-to-face classes in March, hold a virtual graduation ceremony in May, and brace for another bumpy budgetary ride.
This week, Dooley announced he will retire in June 2021 — meaning his tenure will begin as it ended: Leading amid crisis.
“As we say out in Montana, this isn’t my first rodeo,” he said.
At age 68, Dooley said this seems like a good time to retire. He said he’s healthy and looking forward to seeing his adult children while spending summers in Bozeman, Mont., and winters at his second home in Tuscon.
Before coming to URI, he had served for 10 years as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Montana State University. And he said he still gets a chuckle out of the way Rhode Islanders perceive distance.
“I mean, Rhode Island behaves as if there is an insurmountable mountain range between Providence and Kingston,” Dooley said. “This state could fit into Montana 145 times. To replicate the trips I sometimes took in Montana for lunch or a meeting, I would have to drive to Maine.”
Dooley, who makes $403,000 a year, is URI’s 11th president, and he is now serving in his 11th year.
Jay Walsh, executive director of the URI chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said the university has grown and improved in significant ways during Dooley’s tenure by, for example, adding new buildings and increasing student retention and graduation rates. While disagreement is inevitable in such a large institution, he said Dooley has always respected and consulted with the faculty.
“The president came in with a vision 11 years ago to grow the stature of URI," Walsh said. "And through his work with the faculty, enrollment has grown, the campus has seen significant improvements, and we are in a strong place now.”
Margo Cook, chair of the URI Board of Trustees, credited Dooley with a “dramatic transformation” of the university. “His commitment to educational excellence, research growth, business engagement, and community outreach have been hallmarks of his presidency,” she said.
Dooley said his proudest accomplishments involved the university’s growth as a research university, including an increase in faculty and the approval by voters of millions of dollars in new buildings and investments. He said URI has added some 60 new faculty members, bringing the total of full-time faculty members to 776.
Dooley said his greatest frustration involved “managing the dramatic turnover in our governance structure.” During his tenure, the state’s Council on Post-Secondary Education had five chairs and dozens of board members, he said, and that was a major reason why he successfully pushed for a controversial plan to create a separate URI board of trustees.
“We needed predictability and continuity,” he said. “And having an independent board of trustees devoted solely to URI was the best path to doing that.”
While the university faced a long road back from the Great Recession, Dooley said, “In that time, if you look back, URI actually thrived.”
That was possible, he said, because URI focused on making sure that students stay engaged in school and graduate on time, and URI built its reputation, helping to attract more applicants. Now, he said, URI has a reserve fund that will help it get through the turbulent times ahead.
With the pandemic choking off sources of revenue and driving up expenses, Rhode Island is facing an $800 million shortfall in projected revenues over this fiscal year and next.
“That is a huge blow to the state,” Dooley said. “We expect to have a challenging financial environment, for sure.”
Higher education will get some help from the federal rescue package known as the CARES Act, he noted. And URI finds itself in a better position than many of its peer institutions, as evidenced by having the highest number of student deposits in its history as of May 1, he said.
But Dooley acknowledged that a lot of uncertainty lies ahead in the fall.
“I believe it is way premature to make a final pronouncement or decision,” he said. “We have been surprised several times in the course of this pandemic, and the fall is still three months away.”
While preparing for a variety of scenarios, the preference is to bring students back to live in dorms in the fall while offering some combination of online and face-to-face instruction, Dooley said. He said he recognizes that some faculty members might be reluctant to go into classrooms.
Also, URI will look at restructuring the academic calendar by, for example, offering courses in seven-week blocks, with classes meeting more frequently, rather than stretching classes out over 14-week blocks. That way, students would go to fewer classes and come into contact with fewer people each day, he said.
On one hand, the pandemic has made URI better at offering online courses, Dooley said. But at the same time, the experience has underscored the value of a living in a campus community, working with professors and fellow students on projects and internships, and interacting with people with different viewpoints, he said.
Dooley said URI is thinking of adding a public health crisis management program. And the university is thinking of offering online programs for the 100,000 or so Rhode Islanders who have some college credits but no degree — people who will need new skills amid the economic upheaval.
Meanwhile, Dooley said he is looking forward to holding an in-person graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020. Last weekend, graduates watched online speeches by him and Governor Gina M. Raimondo. But he said URI also hopes to hold an in-person ceremony — perhaps in the fall, depending on the pandemic’s progress.
“The joy, the enthusiasm, the excitement,” he said. “You can’t replicate that with a virtual ceremony because it’s so much about a shared community and excitement about the future.”
Looking to the future, Dooley said his advice to URI’s next president is simple: “Stay the course. Keep the emphasis on student success and a student-centered research university.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org