Brenda Dann-Messier named to top RI higher-education post

A graduate of Rhode Island College who has a doctorate from Johnson & Wales University, she began her career in higher education at RIC and then went to the Community College of Rhode Island.

WARWICK, R.I. — The state Board of Education approved the appointment of Brenda Dann-Messier to Rhode Island’s commissioner of post-secondary education Wednesday night.

The board’s vote followed the unanimous approval of Dann-Messier by the Council on Post-Secondary Education, which includes Gov. Gina Raimondo, and whose members are part of the Board of Education.

Dann-Messier was appointed acting commissioner in April after the departure Jim Purcell, who left to become the executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education.

Dann-Messier is no stranger to Rhode Island. A graduate of Rhode Island College who later earned her doctorate at Johnson & Wales University, she began her career in higher education at RIC and then went to the Community College of Rhode Island.

She served as president of Dorcas Place Adult and Family Learning Center in Providence.

Dann-Messier was also a member of the R.I. Board of Governors of Higher Education from 2006 to 2009 and the Board of the Higher Education Assistance Authority from 2007 to 2009.  

She later was named U.S. assistant secretary of education in the Office of Career, Technical Education and Adult Education under President Barack Obama. In 2013, she was appointed acting U.S. assistant secretary for post-secondary education.

After the council’s vote, Dann-Messier said she was committed to Raimondo’s vision of ensuring that 75 percent of Rhode Island’s young adults attain some level of college by 2025. 

“We have a high-quality higher education system and we need to make sure that it’s affordable and equitable,” she said. 

As commissioner of higher education, Dann-Messier is responsible for overseeing the state’s three public colleges, preparing a strategic plan, developing council policies and coordinating with the presidents of CCRI, RIC and the University of Rhode Island. She reports to the Council on Post-Secondary Education.

Her contract — not to exceed three years — will be determined through negotiations with the Board of Education’s chairwoman, Barbara S. Cottam. Purcell’s annual salary was $190,000.

Dann-Messier was one of six applicants for the position — one of whom dropped out before the names were sent to the search committee. The names of the finalists were not released by the Office of Post-Secondary Education.

The search committee conducted a national search that lasted about three weeks.

The committee included council members Rachelle Green, Chairman William Foulkes, Thomas Izzo and Vivian Caruolo, in addition to Clarke Greene from RIC, Kelly Mahoney from URI and Sara Enright from CCRI.     

Raimondo said Dann-Messier has a “fantastic track record” with deep Rhode Island roots.

“She’s a doer,” the governor said. “She’s passionate. And she will get it done.”

CCRI President Meghan Hughes praised Dann-Messier’s values, her belief in all students and her outstanding communication skills.

URI President David Dooley noted that Dann-Messier was on the committee that hired him almost 10 years ago.

“You bring exceptional experience to the role of commissioner,” he said. “Your range of knowledge is critically important to Rhode Island.”

Izzo, a member of the council, said Dann-Messier is one of those people who was “already fighting for Rhode Island — for the young, the old and the immigrants. They don’t come any better.”

Commissioner of Public Education Ken Wagner said he was thrilled to be working with Dann-Messier and added, “You will help me be smarter.”


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On Twitter: @lborgprojocom

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