Up The Hill

By Richard P. Morin / January / February 1999
November 21st, 2007
In an attempt to follow through on President Gee's vision of Brown as a private university with a public purpose, the Office of Community and Government Relations invited the entire Rhode Island state legislature to campus in December. The occasion was the first meeting of the Rhode Island Legislative Policy Institute, a day-long program of forums and informal gatherings aimed primarily at getting newly elected state legislators up to speed on the major public policy issues they are likely to face as they take office.

Forty legislators participated at this year's sessions, including about one-third of the legislature's incoming freshman class. Notebooks in hand, they discussed such subjects as Rhode Island constitutional and political history, education, and health care with Brown faculty members and representatives of state nonprofit organizations.

For the legislators still euphoric from their November victories, the day-long program was educational but at times sobering as well. For instance, Christopher Amirault, director of the Brown Institute for Elementary and Secondary Education, triggered numerous nods and raised eyebrows when he argued that, unless Rhode Island begins to train teachers on how to integrate their schools' computers into their curriculums, the millions of state dollars spent outfitting schools with the latest hardware will have been wasted. "Enormous amounts of money are being spent on computer technology, and virtually nothing is being spent on professional development," said Amirault. Unless that changes, "those shiny new computers will become very expensive paperweights."

Although the institute is new, Brown faculty have a long history of advising state legislators. Elmer Cornwell, professor of political science and a presenter at the day's sessions, long served as parliamentarian of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, while former President Vartan Gregorian helped guide the state through a banking crisis. Brown faculty members have also testified at the state capitol on a variety of important issues facing Rhode Island, including lead poisoning, HIV prevention, and effects of hospital mergers.

While these advisory efforts have sent Brown faculty members off College Hill, the Legislative Policy Institute, says Jim Rooney '89, incoming director of the office of community and government relations, is an attempt at creating some traffic in the other direction. "There is certainly a great deal of expertise on College Hill," Rooney says, "and we, Brown, want the state legislature to utilize that expertise."

By the end of the day, the elected officials seemed pleased. "This was an excellent program," said freshman Senator William P. Tocco Jr. "The interaction we're having with the Brown faculty will only help us to better understand the job we've been elected to do."

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January / February 1999