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One-on-one with Jeremy Haefner

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Photo by A. Sue Weisler

Jeremy Haefner, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, provides insights into RIT’s aspiration to become an “Innovation University” during an interview with University News Director Paul Stella.

Question: You have identified “Innovation” as one of the university’s priorities. How is that being addressed in changes to RIT’s curriculum?

Answer: Innovation and creativity are integrated into our mission, vision and strategic plan, so my hope is to align our curriculum in support of realizing RIT as an innovation university. To understand how a full integration of innovation into our curriculum might impact our university, it helps if we break this notion down into three central components. First, we must strive to graduate students who understand how innovation takes place and are enthusiastic to innovate. These “innovation receptive” students share a T-shaped perspective. The vertical portion of the “T” represents a depth in field–this is the expertise developed in a particular discipline that results in a level of confidence necessary to innovate and be creative. 
 But equally important is the horizontal breadth of knowledge that we give our students. This leads to awareness and intelligence required for collaborative activity that crosses disciplines and encourages teamwork among a range of peers.
 Next, we must ask the faculty to embed innovation into each program, and the upcoming semester conversion provides us that opportunity. We are all proud of the fact that last spring the Academic Senate voted to include innovation and creativity into the learning outcomes of our general education. In March, we began a process of developing the RIT Academic Program Profile, which is an organic document that captures the core characteristics we want all our programs to imbue. This profile is critical in redesigning our programs to include innovation and creativity. 
 And, finally, we have to unleash the spirit of innovation. Our students are clamoring for that, and often the rigidity of our academic structure stands in their way. We must allow students to bring forth their ideas and then provide them the freedom necessary to bring those ideas to life. 

Q: How has the Center for Student Innovation enhanced students’ learning opportunities?

A: The Center for Student Innovation has raised awareness to the opportunities for innovative activity here on campus. For example, last fall, RIT’s first-year students were provided access to the center through the First Year Enrichment program. Students toured the facility and were even challenged to help improve a project already in progress. 
 In addition, CSI serves as a pipeline to RIT’s Simone Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, further enhancing the level of resources available to students looking to engage in this type of activity. 
 Ultimately, it is my hope that CSI becomes the venue for a senior capstone initiative. Student teams, made up of individuals from every one of our colleges, would collaborate on projects with broad societal implications. Some may even offer the potential for commercialization. I look forward to the day when a group of students from a variety of disciplines walks through the CSI doors with a novel idea for the next generation Google and makes it happen. 

Q: In what ways has the faculty advanced RIT’s innovation agenda?

A: Our own faculty members are innovators and artists themselves. But they do more than their own innovation—they in fact mentor our students to become innovators themselves. They are enablers for our students and, through the ways they organize the teaching and learning process, the students develop their skills and confidence to create. We see this in abundance during the Imagine RIT festival. Any time you have faculty working alongside students, you have grassroots leadership that enhances the overall drive for innovation.
 In addition, faculty members serve as the primary drivers for moving our innovation curriculum forward. How they design the curriculum to encourage innovation will be critical, and I am excited to see how our faculty will make this happen. 

Q: Is inclusiveness an important aspect of innovation?

A: The key to innovation is that it must be inclusive. The more ideas and potential solutions are brought to the table, the greater potential you have for achieving success. That’s why we are focused on creating a multi-perspective environment as part of our innovation curriculum. Collaboration between students from various disciplines is critical, but so is the opportunity to incorporate the perspectives of individuals from differing backgrounds. This helps to ensure the greatest impact. 

Q: How will these changes better prepare students for success beyond RIT?

A: If we prepare students for the T-shaped profile I have described, they will enjoy the confidence that comes from the in-depth knowledge gained from studies within their chosen field. But we also provide them with a breadth of awareness that is gained by exploring areas outside of their major and by collaborating with peers representing a wide range of disciplines. 
 This serves as a recipe for success in the 21st century. The confidence of their skills and the awareness of the world around them will make our graduates ”innovation receptive.” With these characteristics, our students will do great things.


Photo by A. Sue Weisler