James Langevin has enjoyed a long and storied career in Rhode Island politics, but when we spoke Tuesday afternoon, he reminded me that his first election came when he won a student government seat his freshman year at Rhode Island College.
He would eventually become president of RIC’s Student Community Government before moving on to bigger and better things, including three terms as a state representative, a stint as secretary of state, and a remarkable 11 terms in Congress.
The 57-year-old Democrat announced Tuesday that he plans to retire from the US House of Representatives at the end of the year, in part because he wants to spend more time in Rhode Island. A quadriplegic since he was 16, Langevin said he’s still in good health, and that he wants to continue to contribute to the state while he’s still able.
So I floated a rather obvious idea by him: How about returning to where it all started and becoming president of RIC, which just so happens to be beginning its search for a new president?
“I love RIC,” he said, before gently pivoting to how much he has enjoyed serving Rhode Island all these years in Congress.
There’s both a commonsense case and a political case for Langevin to be strongly considered for the position.
RIC is in desperate need of a boost in self-esteem. It’s the best bang for your buck of any college in the region, but it’s suffering from declining enrollment. It’s sandwiched between the increasingly glamorous research institution that is the University of Rhode Island and the increasingly popular Community College of Rhode Island, which has a dynamic president in Meghan Hughes and offers students two years of free tuition.
Langevin might not have used his time in Congress to become a celebrity, but he has been a steady hand with respect from both sides of the aisle. That means access to grants and other funding no matter which political party is in charge. He has even better relationships at the Rhode Island State House, and he would command the respect of any governor, House speaker, or Senate president.
There’s at least one hiccup that Langevin might have to overcome if he does pursue the job: The state Council on Postsecondary Education has an absurd requirement that the president of RIC must have a PhD. Langevin holds a bachelor’s degree from RIC and a master’s degree from Harvard, so he’s not exactly a dummy.
The council should issue a one-time waiver of the requirement. It doesn’t hurt that Council Chairman Tim DelGiudice spent seven years working as a deputy district director for Langevin.
There will be some who will make the reasonable point that RIC’s student body is getting more diverse every year, and it might not be the best idea to replace outgoing President Frank Sanchez with a white politician.
That’s one reason why I argued earlier this month that Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, an RIC grad who was born in the Dominican Republic, would also be a good choice for president.
Like Matos, Langevin personifies perseverance, with a life story that will resonate with a lot of the students at a college like RIC.
As a kid, he always knew that he wanted to work in law enforcement, potentially in the FBI, so much so that he was a teenage cadet in the Police Explorers program in Warwick. It was in a locker room at the Warwick Police Department where he was involved in a freak accident: An officer pulled the trigger on what he thought was an unloaded gun. The bullet ricocheted off a locker and hit Langevin, severing his spinal cord.
Langevin has told his personal story thousands of times over the past 30 years, and he beams with pride and gratitude when he recalls the many Rhode Islanders who rallied behind him after the tragedy. He’s spent his entire adult life trying to repay that support through public service.
“Every day is an endurance test for me,” Langevin said.
Putting RIC on a sustainable path of success could end up being his crowning achievement.