Jane Williams, Visionary Leader and Founding Dean of the School of Nursing, Retires

Jane Williams

RIC President Frank D. Sánchez and Dean Jane Bodine Williams at her retirement reception.

Dean Jane Bodine Williams, whose passion for nursing education motivated her to lead Rhode Island College’s nursing department into becoming one of the best nursing schools in the nation, is retiring on June 23.  

From the moment Williams graduated high school in 1962 and enrolled in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at the University of Michigan, she knew that she wanted to be a nurse educator. Yet it would be 38 years before she discovered her life purpose.

It was the year 2000 and Williams, now a Rhode Island College professor of nursing, had been made department chair at a critical time. A significant number of nursing graduates were not passing the NCLEX-RN licensure exam, which is required in order to practice as a registered nurse. To be a board-approved program, all nursing programs in the State of Rhode Island must have an 80 percent pass rate on the NCLEX. RIC’s program was below that level.

“It was a leadership moment,” she said, thoughtfully. “I knew the department needed strong leadership. It was not a task that I prepared for or really wanted. I felt called.”

In answering the call, Williams read every book she could on leadership and set up her own guiding principles. “As a leader, I was determined to be an equitable administrator and to have those who disagreed with me always at the discussion table,” she said, noting, “I learned that from reading [Abraham] Lincoln.” Most of all, she kept the vision before her of a top-tier nursing program.

The first order of business was to get at the root causes of the low pass rate. Williams held numerous discussions with faculty. “We conducted a study of our students and discovered that there were 28 languages other than English spoken among our students. So, we read everything we could on how to design strategies that would help ESL students succeed,” she said.

Focus groups were also conducted. One consisted of successful ESL students and the other made up of those who had not been so successful. Williams learned that successful ESL students read each chapter twice, they were well-rested before class, they were disciplined in their study and they worked in study groups.

Those who had not been so successful relied on lecture notes rather than reading the chapters, they worked at jobs for long hours and came to class tired. This group had high levels of stress because of life demands that prevented them from putting their education first.

Based on their research, Williams and her faculty fundamentally changed the way the nursing program educated its students.

Jane Williams

Standardized testing was incorporated into every course to better prepare students for the NCLEX-RN licensure exam. “We studied the psychometrics of testing and determined the scores students needed to achieve on their standardized tests in order to predict their success on the RN license exam,” she said.

Almost every nursing student joined a study group and at the beginning of each course, faculty advised students to work no more than 20 hours a week and to read each chapter twice. Recognizing that the biggest challenge for students was life – parenting, bills, transportation, food and housing – nursing faculty assisted students in connecting with resources on campus, immersing them in a community of support.

Within two years, the program’s pass rate rose to more than 90 percent. “We raised the bar and our students met it,” Williams said. “We didn’t change the percentage of our multicultural students, we changed ourselves for the benefit of our students. We looked at ourselves and figured out what we could do better.”

Once curricular changes were in place, the goal of the faculty and chair was to turn the department into a school. At that time, the Department of Nursing was part of the Division of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. However, in 2006 their goal was realized. The School of Nursing was established. In 2007 the Master of Science in Nursing program was formed and Williams was appointed dean. 

“Becoming a school, meant that we could qualify for grants and awards and that we had the stature to partner with health-care facilities throughout the state,” she said. To date, the school has written successful multimillion-dollar grants and formed critical partnerships that have enhanced nursing education and practice and raised the school to prominence.

Jane Williams
The School of Nursing wing in the Fogarty Life Science Building.

In 2008 the school partnered with the Providence VA Medical Center on a VA Nursing Academy program, one of only 13 academic-practice partnerships in the nation funded by federal grants. This partnership led to the establishment of a post-baccalaureate nurse residency program, one of only 10 such residencies in the nation and one of only a few accredited by the Commission for Collegiate Nursing Education.

In 2014 St. Joseph Hospital School of Nurse Anesthesia partnered with the School of Nursing on the M.S.N. certified registered nurse anesthesia program, the first program located entirely in Rhode Island.

In 2016 the Doctor of Nursing Practice program, the college’s first independent doctoral program,​ was established to prepare licensed nurses who already had M.S.N. degrees to be leaders, clinical scholars and experts who influence health-care policy.

Since the school’s inception, more than 5,000 students have graduated and the school has become recognized for its highly competitive programs; its state-of-the-art technology and simulated clinical experiences; its faculty committed to excellence in teaching both in the classroom and in the clinical setting; and its high-performing students who continue to reflect the social, ethnic and economic diversity of the state.

Jane Williams
The Rhode Island Nursing Education Center, a shared RIC and URI​ complex.

 The B.S.N. curriculum continues to prepare students for the NCLEX-RN licensure exam, and for more than 10 years, the pass rate has consistently remained above state and national averages, reaching as high as 98 percent. Today, RIC’s nursing graduates are preferred candidates for clinical positions. 

The scope of William’s vision has been realized and is now a part of RIC’s rich history. Williams rose as a leader due to her willingness to learn and her unwavering vision.

Hospitals and health-care programs across the state and beyond have benefitted from her expertise and knowledge. She currently serves as a member of the Lifespan Board of Directors, the Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College Board of Directors and the Advisory Board of the Primary Care-Population Medicine program at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.​

“Jane is a strong, transformational leader,” said RIC Associate Professor of Nursing Joanne Costello.

“She exemplifies professionalism,” said RIC Assistant Professor of Nursing Sylvia Ross. “She’s incredibly smart yet humble, strong yet kind and a visionary who is willing to walk with people along the way.”

Most of all, she empowers her faculty and students.

Recent graduate Luke Rock ’18 said, “Dean Williams brought life and energy to the student body and made you feel excited to serve as a nurse.” 

“She also supports faculty and their professional development. She takes the same keen interest in consistently attending undergraduate student public policy and honors presentations as she does in mastering accreditation and serving as the only nurse on the Lifespan Board of Directors,” said Costello.

“And in the worst situations, she has an amazing ability to lead with grace and intelligence. I’m a different and better human being for knowing her and for having been under her leadership,” said Ross.

At this year’s commencement ceremony, Willia​ms was awarded the Honorary Doctor of Humanities. (In photo below she is hooded ​by RIC Vice Presidents David Gingerella​ (left) and Jason Meriwether (right).​

Jane Williams

In announcing the award, RIC President Frank D. Sánchez noted, “There are thousands of nurses in our state and across the country who are where they are today because of Jane’s administrative leadership, vision and focus, as well as her talent for teaching and mentoring. I am thrilled to recognize all that she has meant to our school and to the health-care profession by awarding her an honorary degree.”

With all these accomplishments, Williams remains consistently humble. A native of Schenectady, New York, Williams is the second of five children. She said she gravitated to the profession of nurse educator because it allowed her to both study and teach nursing in the classroom and in clinical settings. 

She​ attended the University of Michigan’s bachelor of science in nursing program, graduating with distinction along with being awarded a National Science Foundation scholarship to attend New York University’s master’s in nursing education program. Her Ph.D. in nursing was earned at the University of Rhode Island. In 1975 she began the first of 43 years of service to Rhode Island College, where she would model the importance of raising the bar of excellence and believing in the excellence in others.​