Rhode Island Looks to Hire Dedicated Higher Ed Commissioner

Although the Office of Higher Education of Rhode Island is scheduled to be abolished in 2014, Eva-Marie Mancuso, the current chairwoman of the state’s Board of Education, is seeking funding to hire an interim head who would oversee a efforts to reorganize it, Linda Borg of the Providence Journal reports.

The job, which includes a $200,000 compensation package, is currently being held by Raymond M. Di Pasquale, who is also the president of the Community College of Rhode Island.

According to Mancuso, Di Pasquale will retain both positions until the board can hire another candidate.

Mancuso believes that the state’s public university system needs a dedicated Commissioner of Higher Education to become more “dynamic.” By “dynamic,” Mancuso means more than just overseeing the colleges in the state. The Commissioner of Higher Education would also work the heads of the state’s K-12 system in order to streamline the path of Rhode Island students from the beginning of their academic careers all the way through college.

Every state, she said, needs a visionary higher education partner who can work closely with the commissioner of K-12 education on such issues as public school curriculum, college readiness and teacher preparation.

In June 2012, in the waning hours of the legislative session, the General Assembly, with no public airing, voted to merge the Board of Governors of Higher Education and the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education into a new 11-member education board. That board began meeting earlier this year.

The law also called for the dissolution of the Office of Higher Education.

At the time when the decision to dissolve the Office was made, the state’s higher education authorities had been fighting off a number of political attacks, including the fallout from the decision to allow undocumented immigrants to quality for in-state tuition at public colleges.

Critics pointed to the inability of OHE to make sure that high school graduates were leaving school prepared for college as the reason why the office should be dissolved, but even prior to the decision being finalized, Governor Lincoln Chafee had intervened to prevent the Board of Governors from approving pay raises for faculty.

The General Assembly did not outline how the new education system would function nor did it explain how the two leaders — Di Pasquale and state education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist — would share one department and one staff.
Di Pasquale said the challenge is that someone needs to be responsible for the state’s three public colleges even if the formal Office of Higher Education disappears.

Higher education in Rhode Island is a big deal: it supports 44,000 students, employs 4,500 people and has a billion-dollar budget.

Mancuso said she is leaning toward hiring someone from Rhode Island to serve as an interim commissioner to lead higher education through this transition.