A history of RIT graduate education

Follow RITNEWS on Twitter

RIT Photo Archives

Instructor Frans Wildenhain and students, School for American Crafts, circa 1950s

With six doctoral programs—five of them established in the last seven years—
RIT’s academic profile in terms of graduate education is changing rapidly. 

The Policy Council, now called Institute Council, minutes of Nov. 20, 1957, states that “the possibility of the Institute’s offering work towards the master’s degree, possibly starting through the Evening School, was discussed.”  

In June 1958, after a visit to Albany to discuss revisions to the charter, President Mark Ellingson dispatched Harold Brennan and Stanley Wittmeyer, administrators in the School of Fine and Applied Arts, to begin work immediately on a master of fine arts program. Two years later, three students graduated with a master’s of fine art degree through the School for American Crafts. 

This step toward graduate education is particularly noteworthy given that, just a few years prior, RIT functioned as an independent technical institute awarding diplomas, but not academic degrees. RIT graduates were highly valued and very employable, but the school did not award bachelor’s degrees until 1953. From this single master’s program, 26 new graduate programs were added in the 1960s, including chemistry, photographic science, statistics, electrical and mechanical engineering, business administration, art education and printing. All of these new additions took place against the backdrop of the construction of the Henrietta campus, with its expanded facilities, and must have been spurred on by the charged atmosphere of new possibilities for the school. In addition, the 1950s and 1960s post-war economic boom and baby boom caused a surge in numbers of Americans pursuing higher education.

After the rapid progress with master’s programs, a committee was created in 1984 to review the state of graduate education at RIT and suggest future directions, particularly whether RIT should consider programs at the doctoral level. The committee pointed out that moving the university to this next level would benefit RIT by opening up avenues of development in faculty research, fostering a more vigorous intellectual environment for faculty and students, and attracting additional students interested in continuing at RIT after completing their undergraduate degree. They noted that current studies indicated that Americans were looking for new, more focused educational opportunities that advanced degree programs provide. And most importantly, they emphasized that doctoral programs would enhance RIT’s reputation and profile. Nevertheless, the report also spelled out some fairly significant weaknesses in the academic, financial and facilities infrastructure that needed strengthening in order to move forward. In particular, they emphasized that research, of the type that contributes in a significant way to the discipline under study, must be supported. To this end, they noted that the fledgling efforts toward sponsored research, grants, and contracts needed to be more organized and greatly expanded and recommended that an office to support this effort be established. A separate report published in April 1985 made concrete recommendations about sponsored research. With these recommendations in place, RIT made its first venture into offering doctoral programs when the imaging science program, the first in the field in the United States, was approved in 1989.