PROVIDENCE – The interim leader of Rhode Island College is staying on for another year, with plans to begin the search for a permanent president this spring.
The Rhode Island Council on Postsecondary Education unanimously approved an up to one-year extension to Jack Warner’s contract on Wednesday, keeping Warner in place as RIC’s interim president until June 30, 2024, or until a new president is hired. Warner was originally appointed by the council for a one-year contract as interim president beginning July 1, 2022.
The extension aims to give the council more time to find a permanent college president. A presidential search committee was formed in January 2022 after former president Frank Sanchez announced he was leaving, but the search never got off the ground. The delays came partly because of leadership changes to the R.I. Board of Education and Postsecondary Council, according to R.I. Postsecondary Commissioner Shannon Gilkey.
Gilkey in an interview on Thursday stressed the importance of not rushing the search, given the importance of the position.
“Rhode Island College, like many other institutions of their size across the country, has to evolve their business model,” he said. “This is a critical decision and it’s important we get the right position.”
Indeed, RIC has suffered from plunging student enrollment and mounting budget deficits in recent years which intensified during the pandemic. Warner, a longtime higher education administrator who served as commissioner of the R.I. Board of Governors for Higher Education under former Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, was brought on to help revive the struggling college.
In the six months since he began, Warner has ruffled feathers of some faculty members for appearing to make unilateral decisions – such as getting rid of majors that did not have many students graduating from them – without following the proper process of faculty review. However, Warner has also received support from the Postsecondary Council and R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green for his efforts including temporarily waiving standardized test score admission requirements for RIC’s teacher preparation program, better marketing to prospective students, and early retirement incentives for faculty and staff.
Gilkey acknowledged that keeping an interim president longer could perpetuate RIC’s recent history of instability, but felt confident in Warner’s abilities.
“If we didn’t have someone with Jack’s experience, I would be concerned,” he said.
Erik Christiansen, a history professor and president of RIC’s faculty union, offered a different perspective. While he welcomed the news that the presidential search was finally advancing, he said it was “harmful” to the college to have so many interim leaders – only Warner, but several deans and other top-level positions. As interim president, Warner cannot appoint permanent leaders to these roles.
“RIC needs stability right now,” he said.
Christiansen also criticized the Postsecondary Council and Gilkey for lack of communication with the members of the original presidential search committee, which included him.
“We were never told the original search was off, and never informed there would be an interim president,” Christiansen said. “It’s confusing how they can go ahead with a new search and a new search committee when the original one was never called off.”
The Postsecondary Council has not appointed members of the new search committee. Its first priority will be issuing a request for proposals to hire an executive search firm, with plans to name the search committee and begin the process this spring. A budget for the consultant has not been set, and will be based on the scope of work, Gilkey said.
There will also be a second, advisory council made of a “broader group of stakeholders” to allow for more input and feedback on the search, including from RIC faculty, Gilkey said.
Warner in a comment Thursday said he was “pleased” to have his contract renewed and pledged to continue working on the “important improvement agenda” for the college.
(Update: Contract extension clarified in 2nd paragraph)
(Update: Comment from Warner added in 16th paragraph)
Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.