Scott MacKay Commentary: Celebrating Milestones Of Higher Education In RI

Mar 13, 2017

The Providence College and University of Rhode Island men’s basketball teams have given fans much to cheer about this season. RIPR Political Analyst Scott MacKay reminds us that these two gems of Rhode Island higher education are celebrating more important milestones this year.  

For the first time in two decades, both the URI and PC teams are on the cusp of competing in the NCAA’s March Madness in the same year. More strikingly, both schools are celebrating birthdays this year.

PC is a century old. URI is celebrating 125 years as the state’s flagship public university. Both schools have blossomed from humble beginnings into grand New England institutions of higher education. And, yes, basketball has played a role in vaulting both schools onto the national stage.

The schools have different missions, yet both have contributed much to our state and remain woven into the fabric of Rhode Island culture, education, government  and business.

PC was founded in 1917 to provide Roman Catholic education for young men. It was an outgrowth of the burst of European immigration that brought Catholics to our state in huge numbers. Between 1904 and 1921, the number of Catholic parishes in the state expanded from 51 to 94, By 1921 there were more than 20,000 children in catholic schools.

Rhode Island’s Catholics became concerned about how their children were being educated. Some even believed that the Providence School Department was a branch of Brown University, founded by Protestants, which had an agreement to provide teacher training. ``A Baptist Machine,’’ was the way the Catholic diocese newspaper, the Pilot, described Brown.

Bishop Matthew Harkins secured state approval from the General Assembly for establishing PC  in 1917. In those days, the small Dominican college was largely a commuter school educating the sons, and later the daughters, of Catholic immigrants. Over the years, PC has adhered to its founding principles – providing a strong liberal arts education. Graduate studies have never displaced the strong emphasis on undergraduate education. Now, PC is  leading Catholic college that draws students from all over and only a few commuters. Last year, about 11,000 students applied for the 1,000 spots in the freshman class.

The current president, Rev…Shanley, a Rhode Island native and PC grad, argues that a strong liberal arts focus is more necessary that ever. ``It is through the study of such disciplines as history, literature, philosophy and theology that students learn how to think critically, communicate clearly and judge ethically.’’

Basketball had a role in putting PC on the map. In the famous words of a former president, Rev. Robert Slavin, ``Seven hundred years of Dominican scholarship and nobody ever heard of us until we put five kids on the floor at Madison Square Garden.’’

Slavin was referring to the National Invitational Tournament, which was once the equivalent of today’s NCAA post-season confab. Basketball played a part in URI’s development too. URI Coach Frank Keaney invented the modern game with his high-scoring fast-break offense that pumped speed and excited fans at the school then known as Rhode Island State. The university would later name its basketball arena after him.

URI began in 1892 in a single house on 140 acres of South County farmland. It was devoted to teaching agriculture.  Its mission was grounded in the Civil War-era Morrill Act, which financed land-grant state universities. The idea was to provide a top-notch education to Rhode Islanders, regardless of income. That vision still propels URI. President David Dooley says the school is a ``public university dedicated to educating all of the people and intended to be affordable to all of the people. That’s why we exist and that’s what we celebrate.’’

The university grew to encompass strong undergraduate and graduate programs that now enroll about 18,000 students and a budget of almost a half a billion dollars. The first master’s degree was awarded in 1907 and the first women enrolled the next year.

The school evolved from its sylvan campus in Kingston to include a satellite in the old Shepard’s Building in downtown Providence. It will soon open a nursing campus in Providence’s Jewelry District.

Today’s URI has strong undergraduate programs that attract Rhode Islanders as well as young scholars from outside the Ocean state, who now make up around half of the undergrads. URI is a renowned research university with celebrated programs in business, biological, brain and natural sciences, ocean studies and engineering, as well as liberal arts.

URI pumps millions into the economy of South County and is a fulcrum for educating the state’s 21st workforce. It attracts scholars from around the globe; about 500 foreign students are now enrolled.

PC and URI have long been basketball rivals – the annual game between the teams always fills the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence or the Ryan Center at URI. But former Gov. Lincoln Almond, a big hoop fan and the only URI grad to win the state governorship, put is best. In the 1990s, he told then PC president Rev. Philip Smith, ``I’m a big PC fan every day of the year except one, when URI plays PC.’’

Let’s root for the Friars and Rams in the post-season. And let’s do more – support the missions of these different pillars of education in Rhode Island.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow Scott’s political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics blog at