Pit Stop #49: Roger Williams University

It’s always a treat to revisit the great, but not-so-large, state of Rhode Island. I grew up in Delaware, a state with a similar reputation for its grand quality and not-so-grand size, so Rhode Island always feels a bit familiar. This trip took me to Roger Williams University, with its main campus in the beautiful waterfront city of Bristol and another location in Providence. 

I have to admit that while I knew the name Roger Williams, I couldn’t tell you anything about the illustrious founder of the State of Rhode Island. Turns out, he was a fascinating person! (Those interested can read more here. ) Most impressive to me: Roger Williams, a Puritan minister, was the first proponent of the doctrine of separation of church and state — a startling, and indeed blasphemous, concept back in the 1600s. (Even today, I’m not sure it’s our prevailing view, despite its enshrinement in the Constitution.) The colony of Rhode Island also gave women the right to vote. So, where did all his progressive views get Williams? He was banished back to England, never to be allowed to return to America. Still, it seems to me that the university did very well when it chose Williams as its namesake. 

RWU was founded as a two-year college in 1956 and was originally housed in the Providence YMCA. Thirteen years later, it acquired the eighty-acre Ferrycliffe Farm in Bristol and in 1992, added another fifty adjacent acres. Today, the beautiful RWU Bristol campus is 165 acres, with views of water all around– although on the foggy, wet March day we visited, not offering its usual breathtaking vistas.

Even on a gray day, it’s pretty spectacular!

In 2015, RWU moved into its current facility in Providence where, among other program offerings, third-year law students make their home. Yes, RWU has a law school, the only law school in the state, which has earned a national reputation both for its focus on public interest law and for being the most affordable ABA-accredited law school in the Northeast. 

Roger Williams University currently enrolls close to 5,000 students, almost 4,000 of whom are undergraduates. For a mid-size institution, the breadth of its programs is quite remarkable, with eight discrete schools/institutes.

The newest offering is the Institute of Real Estate, thanks to a $20 million naming gift from the Cummings Foundation. While certainly a liberal arts college at heart, RWU is particularly adept at what I heard described as “pulling the humanities towards the professions.” One of the president’s initiatives has been to work with the RWU faculty to bring disparate schools and disciplines closer together and evidence of this is quite apparent, even to a first-time visitor. 

Students on campus seem particularly focused, engaged, and goal-oriented, with plenty of hands-on opportunities to practice what they’re studying. Construction Management students participate in the actual building of structures on campus.

Financial majors in full business attire manage portfolios in the Center for Advanced Financial Education Cafe. And in the Center for Economic and Environmental Development, several of the schools collaborate on programs focused on the Blue Economy: the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.

It’s hard to imagine an institution better situated for such work. We witnessed some of this Blue Economy in a campus-based oyster farm that produces four million seed oysters a year and supports 11 neighboring oyster farms (there are more than 80 such farms in this tiny state!). And speaking of Blue, did you know that RWU’s sailing team finished second in the country only to the Navy — think the Navy might have a small advantage in this competition? 

While on campus, I had the privilege of spending some time with RWU’s president, the ever-dynamic Ioannis Miaoulis. Dr. Miaoulis’s higher education administration career began when he was named the youngest-ever Dean of what was then the College of Engineering at Tufts University. He left Tufts to become the President and Director of the Boston Museum of Science, one of the world’s largest science centers and Boston’s most well-attended cultural institution, where he served for sixteen years before joining the Roger Williams community in 2019. Like most university presidents, Ioannis, as he is known, wears many hats. He served for almost a year as President and Provost (I have a massive headache just thinking about that) but on the kinder and gentler side, he is also a fabulous chef and actually cooks dinners for his trustees whenever they meet. Now that’s service beyond the call of duty. 

Upon leaving the Bristol campus, we headed thirty minutes up the road to RWU’s Providence campus to meet with Dean Gena Bianco. The downtown campus might be only a dozen or so miles from Bristol, but it feels a world apart. The urban campus hosts a variety of RWU programs, including associate, bachelor, and master’s degrees, but it also has an extensive dual enrollment program with local high schools; a prison education program that operates in six different penitentiaries (we were joined by the Educational Unit’s Principal of the RI Department of Corrections); and a workforce development and apprenticeship program in the trades. The RWU Law School runs legal clinics out of this facility and a number of RWU’s advanced degree programs are based here, including a Master’s in Leadership and in Public Administration. 

One of the challenges RWU faces is how to integrate the work on the two campuses and/or provide additional autonomy to the Providence campus. The student body of the two campuses are quite distinct and from an outsider’s perspective, I would hope enhanced integration might be possible, as it would seem to benefit both. 

One of the joys of my job with NECHE is being able to visit our institutions and witness firsthand the unique aspects of each community, and the quality of leadership that so influences an institution’s future. Roger Williams University is a perfect example of a physically beautiful place doing compelling and exciting work under solidly committed leadership. What a great experience!  

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