URI breaks ground on center for LGBTQ community

Dignitaries break ground for a new LGBTQ Center on the University of Rhode Island Campus in South Kingstown, Wednesday, April 16, 2014.

The University of Rhode Island committed $2.1 million Wednesday toward building a new campus center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students.

With shovels in the ground, URI committed to building something most campuses already have, but this is the first of its kind that will be built from the ground up for the purpose. The LGBTQ center is expected to open next year.

Campus leaders said they hope construction of the center will improve their troubled relationship with the gay community.

"I think things are really changing and changing rapidly at URI for the better," university President David Dooley said.

Campus leaders are calling it groundbreaking, and if you know about the history of LGBTQ issues on campus, it is.

"I absolutely recognize that the history of LGBT inclusion on this campus has not been the best," said center director Annie Russell.

The Princeton Review consistently ranks URI as one of the least gay friendly campuses in the country. Students reported being bullied in the past.

Andrew Winters, a former staff member, said he was let go for bringing the bullying issue to light.

"A couple of us got together and we were speaking up about a seriously problematic campus climate and LGBT bullying, and because of that, two of us lost our jobs," Winters said.

"I saw what happened to him close by. I saw that he was suffering the stress of the situation," Peter Nightingale, a URI professor said.

Nightingale said he sides with Winters and fears the new center fails to address the injustice. Winters said he was simply advocating for LGBT students.

"If we don't speak up about bullying, if we squelch those voices, then we're never going to get it addressed," Winters said.

"I don't think the facts support that assertion," Dooley said.

A bill proposed in the Rhode Island House suggests URI should be investigated for the claims. Dooley said if it passes, the university has nothing to hide.