One on one with RWU’s new president By Bethany Vacarro | Photography by Amy Amerantes
When Dr. Donald Farish, Ph.D., is sworn in as the tenth president of Roger Williams University on October 13, he will have come a long way. His story begins in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, where he was once a kid collecting bugs and tadpoles. It traverses the United States as he acquired 40 years of experience in higher education on eight campuses in six states. Finally, the story leads to the picturesque waters of Mount Hope Bay, as Dr. Farish prepares to assume the reigns at a school currently ranked in the top ten of comprehensive colleges in the North by U.S. News & World Report. Dr. Farish holds degrees in zoology, entomology and biology, as well as a juris doctor. He is the author of six biology textbooks and spent 11 years as a full-time faculty member. He has worked in university administration since the 1970s, when he made the shift from faculty to assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Rhode Island. “I never really planned to move into administration,” Dr. Farish recollects, “but I found that I enjoyed it. It was satisfying to me to weave through bureaucracy and get things done.” He has proved remarkably adept at cutting through the red tape, coming to RWU after 13 years at the helm of
Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. During his time there, Dr. Farish elevated Rowan from below top ten to third among public institutions in the northern region. Highlights of his contributions to Rowan include starting a medical school, establishing a technology center and business incubator, and shepherding a $300 million, 26-acre downtown redevelopment project in Rowan’s host community. The oldest of three children, Dr. Farish was the first person in his family to attend college. “My grandfather had a sixth grade education, my father a high school education,” he says. “I’m a big believer in the redemptive power of higher education.” This appreciation is a large part of his motivation. “Higher education is incredibly important in how our society works. It provides a ladder. It doesn’t matter what your background is. If you have the drive, you can rise to the very top. We love that idea,” he says. However, the harsh economic conditions that have plagued our society over the past several years have taken their toll on these ideals. Many factors still make higher education inaccessible to the people who need it most. A lot of the breakdown has occurred as we as a nation have stopped investing in higher education, contends Dr.
Visiting the School of Architecture, Art and Historic Preservation
Farish enjoying his new office on Old Ferry Road
Farish. And the academy, in turn, has failed to be responsive to the needs of the communities around it. Looking at the history of higher education in his adopted country, Dr. Farish notes that from very early on, there was an incredible emphasis on its necessity in crafting our way of life. “Sixteen years after the Mayflower landed, they were already building a college, which was Harvard,” he explains. “Our colonial forebears saw education as
a vital social good.” Dr. Farish points out that, for much of our history as a country, higher education was directly linked with our growth. “Even in the middle of the Civil War, the federal government was looking to stimulate higher education. After WWII, with the GI Bill, higher education was no longer for the select few, but for the masses. We went from having 5% of Americans with a college degree in 1940 to 25% with a college degree in 1980 – that’s a factor of five in 40 years! This profoundly changed the economy.” The U.S. began to reap the economic returns on this investment, experiencing significant growth. But in the 1980s, he argues, we stopped investing in higher education. “The U.S. used to rank first in the world for its citizens having a college degree. We are now eleventh. And we don’t seem to be terribly concerned that this is a threat to our way of life.” A contributing factor to the lack of emphasis on higher education today is the disposition of the universities themselves. In many ways, higher education has failed to anticipate and respond to the changing needs of our society and the workforce, says Dr. Farish. Many of his goals for RWU revolve around closing this gap. “Right now, there are jobs
October 2011 | The BAY