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New dean returns to her Rhode Island roots
Aug. 23, 2012
Lois Wims, the new dean of arts, humanities and social sciences at the Community College of Rhode Island, is a community leader.
She was one of Rhode Island’s first female police officers and later served on a commission to improve community relations and racial sensitivity within Rhode Island’s police departments; as a professor of psychology and criminal justice she always admired teachers who put their students first and strove to emulate them; and, after moving into an administrative role in higher education, Wims continues to encourage strong institutional support for students.
She started in her new job at CCRI in July but has a long history in Rhode Island. Born and raised in Pawtucket, she graduated from Bryant University and became a police officer in 1977, serving until 1985. She was the first female officer in Central Falls and the only woman serving there during her career.
Wims always wanted to be a police officer and as a child spent countless hours watching police dramas on television. “I was one of those people who always wanted to know what really happened and hated unsolved mysteries,” she said. “I thought police officers were people who always knew what was going on and could make a difference.”
She began applying to police departments before she was finished with college, being accepted to Central Falls just before graduation. She started on the force at age 20, so young that her off-duty handgun had to be registered to her father, a World War II veteran who was not happy with a gun in the house.
Only one other cadet was younger than Wims when she graduated from the police academy. “I was too young,” she said. “I can tell you now but I never would have admitted it at the time … it was interesting to go from a college student to a gun-carrying police officer in a matter of weeks.”
Wims worked hard to dispel the stereotype that standing up to criminals was something that only a man could do.
“[The Central Falls Police Department] gave me a shot to prove myself and I worked with outstanding people who I learned a great deal from,” Wims said. “And I changed some folks’ perceptions about women in law enforcement – some, not all.”
After serving for two and a half years, Wims had a rookie officer, Normand Gamache Jr., assigned to her and the pair quickly became friends. After a while they began dating and were married in 1983 “in a very police-themed wedding.” Gamache is a CCRI alumnus and remained with the Central Falls Police Department for 20 years.
Meanwhile, Wims began to transition to teaching. She had started working part time on a master’s degree in criminal justice almost as soon as she finished her bachelor’s degree. She finished her master’s degree from Salve Regina University in 1981and was recruited to teach the subject there, also sometimes teaching over the years as an adjunct at CCRI, Bristol Community College and the University of Rhode Island.
Though she enjoyed teaching and the academic environment, she initially put off pursuing a doctorate.
“I was scared about doing the dissertation,” Wims said, “but I was encouraged by my husband and my colleagues around me. I saw how much a college professor could impact a student’s life.”
Wims earned her doctorate in psychology from the University of Rhode Island in 1989 and became the chair of Salve’s criminal justice department. Then, in 2000, came an event that shocked and polarized Rhode Island: the accidental shooting death of Providence Police Sgt. Cornell Young Jr. by fellow officers.
The incident held racial overtones. Young was a black man shot by white officers while he was off duty and attempting to assist uniformed police. The officers were cleared of wrongdoing but many Rhode Islanders wondered: Was it a tragic mistake that caused the white officers to perceive their black colleague as a threat (Young was in plain clothes and holding his service handgun) or was this evidence of institutional racism within the department?
As a former police officer, Wims felt great sympathy both for Young’s family and for the officers who had accidentally killed one of their own. “Everybody who’d ever worn a badge had a really difficult time wondering how you’d feel in any of those different situations,” Wims said.
She took a sabbatical from Salve to serve for two years on the Governor’s Select Commission on Race and Police-Community Relations, which investigated the shooting as well as police relations with Rhode Island’s minority communities. The commission held extensive public hearings and made recommendations on everything from racial sensitivity to reform of police off-duty policies.
“It was a chance to work with people who had disparate viewpoints but were passionate about improving things,” Wims said. “I worked with some of my heroes … it was intense but it was a wonderful experience.”
Wims returned to Salve Regina but was starting to think about transitioning to a leadership role within higher education. She completed an American Council on Education Fellowship in higher education administration at Bridgewater State College (now University), resulting in an invitation to serve as associate dean of arts and sciences at the University of South Alabama (USA) in 2002.
It is an urban public institution and Wims said she enjoyed working with the many first-generation college students there. However, her family remained in Rhode Island and the distance proved challenging. Wims had a commuter marriage for three years, flying back to Rhode Island so often that she joked that Delta Airlines’ financial troubles began when her family was reunited (her husband became the campus chief of police at USA in 2005 and daughter Ellary attended the University of West Florida and USA).
Wims lived in Alabama for hurricanes Ivan and Katrina, had the experience of being an outsider with her Yankee accent, and enjoyed working with “a combination of people who were scholars and teachers in disparate areas in the performing arts and the visual arts, history and philosophy, as well as people who were in the sciences.”
Her duties at USA included funding and partnerships for the college, helping with the completion of a Center for Archaeological Studies and a targeted freshman year experience program.
But “being that far from family got to be difficult,” Wims said, as her in-laws and siblings still live in Rhode Island. In 2010 she took a job at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. She worked there for two years before seizing a chance to return to Rhode Island with CCRI.
Wims said she was attracted to CCRI’s mission of serving all types of students and “faculty who are primarily teachers and passionate about their teaching” rather than focusing on research. She said that she is also impressed with CCRI’s small class sizes and the range of student activities, something she said she missed out on somewhat in her rush to complete her bachelor’s degree.
“I’m familiar with CCRI and I’ve had a lot of affection for this institution,” she said. As for Rhode Island: “We have very strong roots here.”