Five Questions With: Brenton DeBoef

Brenton DeBoef is the dean of the University of Rhode Island Graduate School. He recently completed his first academic year as the new dean. DeBoef spoke with Providence Business News about his new role as the school’s dean and how the school will help the university shape the state’s blue economy.

PBN: Can you describe some key leadership traits that you hope to bring to the graduate school as dean?

DEBOEF: My goal is to always lead with goodness. That means that when making a tough decision or designing a strategic plan, my overarching goal is to do the most possible good – not to achieve a certain metric, or to increase revenue, or to rise in rankings, though those all may be desirable, but to do overall good.

That sounds simplistic and naive, but it is incredibly challenging to do. Higher education is a life-bettering endeavor for most people, so our challenge is to make that good thing accessible to as many students as possible. Realizing that goal will require creative strategies, shrewd implementation and difficult decisions, but those tools and tactics must serve the greater goal of goodness.

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PBN: What are your plans for the graduate school as the new dean?

DEBOEF: The graduate programs at the University of Rhode Island are a best-kept secret even though many of them have a global impact. It is time for them to grow. This will happen as we increase the number of academic programs and students that we serve, and as we create professional development and support systems for those students at URI and beyond. To do this, we need to change some of the systems and processes at URI. Much of that work will be done behind the scenes, but I like getting my hands dirty.

PBN: How will the graduate school be part of URI’s plans in shaping the state’s blue economy?

DEBOEF: Research is the essential component of graduate-level education. And research is the lifeblood of an innovative, high-tech economy. In order for the Rhode Island economy – and the blue economy, in particular – to grow and modernize, our state needs a steady supply of innovative ideas and innovators from the URI Graduate School.

In the past year, URI and the URI Foundation and alumni engagement have created 30 new fellowships to recruit and support new [doctorate] students who will work on grant-funded research projects. That’s 30 new jobs that we have already created to support cutting-edge research in the Ocean State. And as we continue to create incentives for more doctoral and master’s research at URI, we will create even more jobs and develop new technology.

PBN: Can you describe some of your research work in chemistry and has it led to any unique findings? If so, can you describe some of those findings?

DEBOEF: My research as a chemist is both basic and applied. In the realm of basic research, we invent new chemical reactions. Specifically, we have invented several new ways to make carbon-carbon and carbon-nitrogen bonds. This project has led to dozens of scientific publications and one patent. It is fundamental work, but since carbon-carbon and carbon-nitrogen bonds are key components of most molecules, the reactions that we have invented could be used by synthetic chemists to make new drugs, agrochemicals, or polymers.

We also deploy our molecule-making skills to further the field of diagnostic imaging. We are working with collaborators to develop a new form of magnetic resonance imaging. Thus far we have developed a suite of new molecules that can be used for the technique, called Hyperpolarized Xenon-129 MRI, and we have shown the first use of this technology in vivo. The patent for that technology was awarded this year. The project is still in its infancy, but I’m confident that we will be able to develop a safe method for acquiring high-resolution images of specific maladies such as lesions, tumors or inflammation.

PBN: What new programs, if any, do you hope to introduce at the graduate school?

DEBOEF: The graduate school is an incubator for academic innovation at URI. Some of that innovation is focused on developing new ways to help students earn advanced degrees, and some of that focuses on creating new programs altogether.

Fifteen of the 18 programs and certificates that URI Online delivers are at the graduate level. We are also looking to build on models with international partners, as we have with our Master’s in Environmental Science Program and our Master’s in Business Administration. In both cases, the students are funded by governments or businesses to take our programs, which are delivered partly online and partly in person.

We have lots of great ideas for new programs, including new public health degrees, new pathways for students to earn advanced degrees in data science and statistics, and even new degrees in the humanities and social sciences. Additionally, we are interested in developing micro-credentials that alumni and other professionals could easily take to upskill. The model for that will be our successful badge program in diversity, equity and inclusion.

I could go on and on about the new programs that we have in the hopper. But suffice it to say, the URI Graduate School is at a key inflection point, and the time to grow is now.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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