Last week, I returned to my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Rhode Island, to give a talk as part of Dr. Jimmie Oxley's popular URI Forensic Science Seminar Series. For the second time, I spoke to a group of students and members of the community about the myths and realities of art theft. I gave the lecture in Pastore Hall, the same building in which I took a few undergrad course more than 20 years before. I was struck by the fact that the building hadn't changed a bit, and that isn't a good thing.
Pastore Hall is a smallish 1950's-era building. It's dark, dingy, uncomfortable, and, worst of all, badly outdated. In these days of economic uncertainty, that might not sound like much of a problem. Besides, who knew that URI's Chemistry department plays an integral role in our nation's fight against terrorism? Well, it does, and it's time Rhode Islanders woke up to the fact that a few years ago, URI was selected as a Center of Excellence for Explosives Research by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
After my lecture, two URI grad students who work under Dr. Oxley's stewardship, Joe Brady and Pat Bowden, gave me a tour of their facilities and a brief overview of the sorts of projects they and their colleagues have undertaken. Joe and Pat knew I had been as Assistant Federal Security Director with DHS/TSA, and were good enough to give me a behind-the-scenes look at some of the more interesting work they are doing.
I was immediately taken aback by two things: First, the level of effort that the Chemistry Department is putting forth in their role as a center of excellence. These were committed young men who energetic and passionate about their work, even as the sun set on a long Friday on campus. Second, though, I was shocked by the work conditions under which Joe, Pat, and their colleagues work. If the public could see just how antiquated the facility is, especially relative to the importance of the work these folks are doing, they'd immediately want to take action. As I said to Joe and Pat, "imagine what you folks could accomplish if you didn't have to work around these subpar conditions?"
Further, we hear every year about how American students continue to fall behind the rest of the world in the sciences. Yet university students in Rhode Island eager to study chemistry are forced to do so in an outdated facility that cannot keep up with the advances in science and technology.
On November 2, voters will be given a unique opportunity. A ballot measure will allow Rhode Islanders to cast their support for the work that URI is doing to fight terrorism and to aid U.S. soldiers -- who, remember, are still at war -- by voting "YES" on Question 2. Such a vote will approve $61 million for the construction of a new chemistry building to replace Pastore Hall on the campus. It really is the biggest no-brainer on the ballot this year.