Select Page

The Providence Journal; Date: Oct 24, 2016; Editorial

Two years ago, Rhode Island voters approved a $125 million bond that is helping the University of Rhode Island to overhaul its College of Engineering dramatically.

This year, voters will be asked to approve another $45.5 million — $25.5 million to complete the engineering project with the renovation of a building in the heart of the university’s Kingston campus, and $20 million to create an “innovation campus” that would be affiliated with the university.

These projects will be on the Nov. 8 ballot as Question 4, and we urge Rhode Islanders to vote yes. There is no escaping that employers in the United States, and in Rhode Island, are in great need of engineers. Regardless of the field — defense, construction, computers, biomedical, road and bridge building, automobiles, communications technology — engineers are needed to develop new products and make them a reality.

Given the demand for their services, engineers make a good living. More than 96 percent of URI’s engineering students, for example, gain employment after graduation with an average salary of $63,000, according to President David Dooley. With more engineers available, many Rhode Island businesses would be able to hire the people they need to operate full-throttle. And other businesses would be drawn to the state to benefit from this talent.

In urging a yes vote on Question 4, Stevin Zorn, president and CEO of Mindimmune Therapeutics Inc., explained the connection between URI and a stronger business climate for the state. “Mindimmune has experienced firsthand the University of Rhode Island’s ability to innovate in business as well as in pharmaceutical research,” Mr. Zorn said.

“When we were determining where to locate our business, we looked in Cambridge and at other areas across the nation, but determined that Rhode Island was making the right investments in our field to produce the research and high-skilled employees we needed.”

In order to train the next generation of engineers and compete with such top-notch engineering schools as Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the University of Connecticut, URI needs modern facilities and adequate space. The bond approved two years ago is helping to provide that, in the form of a new engineering building that is scheduled to open in 2019. The $25.5 million sought this year would allow the school to renovate an antiquated engineering building, Bliss Hall, which dates to 1928.

The “innovation campus,” an idea pushed by Gov. Gina Raimondo, would involve a competition, one in which the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation awards $20 million to a winning group of businesses, researchers or medical providers that comes up with the best ideas for transforming research into commercial products. The winning group, which would have to match the state dollars, would be chosen by a selection committee of Commerce Corporation board members and external stakeholders.

While these measures involve spending, they should be viewed as sound investments in Rhode Island’s economy. We have long argued that the state has done taxpayers no favors by scrimping on spending on public higher education. If Boston, the Silicon Valley and numerous other locations have demonstrated anything, it is that excellent institutions of higher education play an enormous role in generating economic activity (including high-paying jobs and tax revenues to relieve the burden on all of us) in a modern information economy.

The bond issue through Question 4 is no mere case of frittering money away on new buildings. Engineering and innovation go hand in hand, and Rhode Island is not alone among states seeking to invest in these areas. Indeed, Rhode Island would be hard-pressed to find an area more worthy of investment.