President Munson’s Address to the RIT Community

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President David Munson addressed the RIT community on Aug. 25 in the Gordon Field House. The full text of his speech is below:

Thank you! And thank you Jeremy, Chris, Kathleen, Farid and Keith for your passion and dedication to RIT.

Let me start by saying that my wife, Nancy, and I are thrilled to be here and be part of the RIT family! It is an honor and privilege to begin serving as RIT’s 10th president. I want to thank everyone here this morning and the extended RIT community for the warm welcome that we’ve received. We are energized by the cutting-edge nature of RIT, including its talented and ambitious students, faculty, staff and alumni. Nancy and I already are enjoying the Rochester area, and making friends on and off campus. Soon we’ll begin learning sign language. In that regard, please have patience with us!

We were attracted to RIT for many reasons. RIT has been rapidly ascending for many years under the leadership of President Bill Destler and his predecessors. This university is truly unique in American higher education. We have been shaping the world through creativity and innovation. RIT is now one of the top few universities working at the intersection of technology, the arts and design. We can leverage these strengths—the core of the university—to continue building important and unique programs in all disciplines, including business, the health sciences and the liberal arts. We can lead the nation, if not the world, in taking this approach.

RIT has a long history of programmatic innovation. We are known for NTID, sustainability, imaging science, and the list goes on. We’re accustomed to being on an upward trajectory – it’s part of our DNA. We expect to get better and I like that attitude.

At RIT, I feel an eclectic vibe. Not everybody has to be the same. In fact, different is good! We have people with blue hair, people with green hair, and of course, orange hair. We’re accepting of all, and what really matters are the ideas, the ideas and the passion that people bring and how they innovate. People at RIT work hard, play hard and definitely have fun. And this campus has a huge focus on diversity and inclusion. In this day and age, and especially with what has taken place over the last couple of weeks, this is a critical topic at every university in the nation. I’m very pleased with the work that I see here and I’ll be privileged to be part of that. We will continue to promote civil discourse, create community, and keep each other safe.

RIT is now a research university, and I include scholarly work and artistic expression in this same realm. We are creating new knowledge and understanding the world in new ways. That’s important to me. Our growing research programs are offering our students even more educational opportunities.

Most important, it is you, the fabulous people of RIT, that attracted me. You won Nancy over, too. This includes students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, and the larger community of friends and supporters. We’re impressed with how much pride and passion there is for this university.

Before I get into looking forward to the next academic year, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge some success stories from this past year:

  • Our students continue to compete at the highest levels nationally and internationally. A couple of quick examples:
    • The all-female RIT Hot Wheelz Formula SAE Electric vehicle team took home first place in the Electric-only category at the 2017 SAE Formula Hybrid national competition at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
    • And, RIT students became the first from a university to publish a video game on the Xbox One platform. Of course, our game design and development program ranks among the nation’s elite.
  • I didn’t know that when I left “Go Blue” at Michigan I would be joining an athletic powerhouse: With ample successes in the classroom and on the field of play, the RIT Athletics program enjoyed tremendous success during the past season. From Liberty League Championships to NCAA berths, to All-American status, and Academic All-America plaudits, RIT’s 675 student-athletes had plenty to celebrate. And this includes an overall GPA of 3.33. Let’s show them some Tiger Pride!
  • Research funding reached $58 million this past year. We had a record 722 proposals and it was our second best year with NSF and third best year with NIH in our history. We also had a record number of NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduate programs, placing us among the top schools in the nation.
  • We are transforming America’s manufacturing, which is on the upswing. Golisano Institute for Sustainability was selected by the U.S. Department of Energy to lead its new Reducing Embodied-Energy and Decreasing Emissions (REMADE) Institute – a national coalition of leading universities and companies that will forge new clean-energy initiatives deemed critical in keeping U.S. manufacturing competitive. RIT is now involved in seven institutes in the “Manufacturing USA” federal initiative. This includes five institutes at the “Tier 1” level – placing RIT among the top 10 most involved universities in Manufacturing USA.
  • We broke ground on MAGIC Spell Studios. The program is a first-of-its-kind effort in higher education that will link RIT’s internationally ranked academic programs with high-tech facilities needed to commercialize computer gaming, film and animation, and digital media projects. MAGIC Spell is expected to open next fall.
  • We celebrated the 10th Imagine RIT: Innovation and Creativity Festival. This left an inspiring impression on Nancy and me. We observed a sea of students with a strong sense of passion and purpose. We saw that RIT students are creators and they know how to put their creativity to use.
  • RIT has passed its academic check-up with flying colors. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education has re-accredited RIT for a full eight-year cycle after determining that the university complies with all its standards and requirements. Thank you to everyone who played a role in that important activity.

We have a great year in store thanks to a fabulous effort in student recruitment. We have reached some major milestones:

  • After a record year for freshman applications this past spring, RIT enrollment will be about 19,000 students for the first time in university history.
  • The 2,800 freshmen at RIT come in with the best statistics in the university’s 188-year history. Freshman class academic credentials include:
    • Mean GPA of 92 out of 100
    • Mean SAT score of 1283
    • Mean ACT score of 29
    • 73 percent of the class will be studying in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines.
  • This is also the most racially and ethnically diverse freshman class in RIT history.
  • 17.5 percent are from under-represented minority populations.

Congratulations to Jim Miller and his team on this outstanding class.

Indeed, for all the great work by everyone on student recruitment over the past year, let’s have a round of applause. This sets us up for future success!

Now let’s turn the page and look forward.

Before I started, Bill Destler offered some sage advice. Bill said: “Before you launch into any changes, see what RIT can teach you.” Accordingly, please know that I don’t have any intention of trying to make RIT just like any other university. I’ve been in the listening and learning mode over the past few months.

At this early juncture, I would like to offer some preliminary observations, comments, and questions to help us think about how we can continue the upward climb at RIT. I’ll briefly discuss five different areas:

  • Programs
  • People
  • Facilities
  • Campus appearance and vibe
  • and Resources

Let’s start with programs: How do we build the unique core of RIT, namely technology, the arts, and design, to become even more distinctive and attractive to prospective students? How do we leverage the core to strengthen the liberal arts, business, and health sciences in important ways? What about academic structure? I think that over time we’re going to need to examine the structure of our colleges and various units, and ask ‘do we have the right mix?’ Do we have the right arrangement, and what disciplines need to be strengthened or added? A number of you already know that one of my passions is the performing arts. That’s a place where I think we need to be much better than we are. We’re very strong in the making arts, but not as strong in the performing arts. A quick note: We can build programs on our campus that complement what exists elsewhere in Rochester. We do not intend to compete head-to-head with the Eastman School of Music! Maybe one of our goals should be that we offer the best performing arts programs in the nation for non-majors.

Let me comment on career focus. Career focus is a notable strength for RIT, but I am going to ask a controversial question. Is RIT too career focused? You might say, how is that possible? I’ll answer with another question: “Do we have higher aspirations?” Do we want for our students to have more than just careers? Maybe they can change the world! That’s what the alumni from our photography program have done, winning a dozen Pulitzer Prizes. Let’s shoot for the stars!

Co-op. Co-op is absolutely integral to RIT, and under my presidency, it’s going to remain huge -- it should remain huge. But I’ll have a broader emphasis on experiential education, which is includes a lot of things, for example, summer internships outside the scope of a formal co-op program having specific requirements. A biggie on my list is international experience involving study, work, research or service overseas. These experiences often are described as eye-opening and life-changing by our students, and their parents. Another critical component of experiential learning is enabled by our multidisciplinary student project design teams. Here, I am talking about activities outside the standard curriculum, such as the Formula race cars. There is nothing like starting with a blank sheet of paper and a goal to design X, where you, individually, do not have the capability to create that design yourself. Instead, it’s a team effort along with all of the complexities of managing a group and team dynamics. Of course, entrepreneurship is another path in experiential learning, and we will continue emphasizing these programs at RIT. I’ll also again mention our undergraduate research programs, which have been growing, and our hundreds of student groups and societies, which provide opportunities for our students to develop their leadership capabilities. Although most of our students will not have time to undertake everything I’ve mentioned, I think it all “counts,” and in a big way.

In developing our research programs, my question is what should be our longer-term strategy for growth? Should we continue to focus on specialized areas rather than traditional disciplines? Should we add new Ph.D. programs and, if so, which ones? In thinking about these questions, how might the answers affect faculty recruitment? If we’re looking for the very best faculty members, what are they hoping to find here when they come? Because we need to recruit top faculty, I think a long-term goal for this campus might be to have one-third of our students be grad students and two-thirds undergrads. This is more ambitious than what’s in our Strategic Plan. But I haven’t put any timeline here. I just think it would be a great long-term goal.

NTID is a gem. NTID contributes to the climate on this campus in a way that is totally unique and very powerful. But instead of thinking of NTID as a special attribute of RIT, let’s leverage one of our biggest strengths. What does and can NTID offer to the entire university that will make this whole place better?

Athletics: As you heard earlier, the program is doing really well. But what if we built a program that was perennially ranked among the very top in the nation in Division III? Would that further enliven our campus? Would it help us attract even better student athletes? Would the investment be worth it?

Overseas campuses and programs: These are important. They are a feature of most leading universities and they serve to connect us with the rest of the globe. But let’s make sure that the programs we have in place, and decide to put in place, provide value to students and faculty on our home campus here in Rochester.

Now let’s talk about people.

Building a top university is all about attracting the best people. Whoever has the best people wins. Period! In terms of faculty, it’s critically important that we look not just for outstanding teachers, not even just teachers and researchers, but also people who display leadership capability. We need to hire people who are better than we are. And, that’s hard, because we’re really good!

You heard earlier that we have possibly our brightest freshman class ever. Yet we must continually improve student quality each year via effective marketing and communications, expanded summer programs, special recruitment weekends, and increased scholarship aid from donors.

And let’s not leave out staff. Recruitment of top-notch staff is critical. Our staff are the people who literally make RIT function.

In all three areas, faculty, students, and staff, we need to continue to enhance diversity. For our student body, we need a more favorable gender balance and increased minority population. To do this, we’re going to need to improve STEM recruitment and to grow some of our existing non-STEM disciplines. And, we may need to add some new programs that disproportionately attract women and minority students. My own goal is that we have at least 40 percent female students on our campus. How fast can we get there?

Let’s talk about facilities.

As I mentioned, MAGIC Spell Studios construction is underway. It will be exciting to see that project completed. The Wallace Center needs to be renovated, repurposed, and probably expanded. Most of the books now are digitized, and journals and conference proceedings are available online. Jeremy and I think we need to turn Wallace into a center for information and engaged education, a place where knowledge is conveyed and teamwork is encouraged. This will require new facilities, including flexible high-tech classrooms to enable modern-day pedagogy and use of learning analytics. In multiple colleges, we need upgraded and expanded research facilities. This fact was borne out by our recently completed academic space study. Space is in particularly short supply in our B.Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, and our Kate Gleason College of Engineering, both of which have seen large increases in student numbers.

I believe that any campus of our size should have a major performing arts facility, and I think we must explore that. And, if we want to do anything more in Athletics, what about our facilities there?

This leads me to the campus appearance and vibe: Part of what’s really important is how the campus appears, both to visitors and to us. I think our campus should look and feel like creativity and innovation, because that’s what we’re about. Our landscaping, sculpture, and art galleries are terrific, and they provide a great backdrop for what I’m talking about. But there are other campuses that have nice sculpture, beautiful landscaping, and art galleries. RIT needs to somehow feel different so that, when you arrive, you know you’re at a different kind of place. When students are making things -- sculpture, or glassware, or furniture or the Formula race car -- I think those activities should be visible. We need to have a transparent campus so when you’re wandering through RIT you almost can’t miss the creation happening right before your eyes. Do we need a major, highly visible interdisciplinary making space for design courses and for student projects? If so, should we open it up to the entire Rochester community, so that our students can learn from community practitioners? Could we make the entire campus an outdoor, hands-on museum, with exhibits that are artistic, engaging, and educational? Doing so would make a huge statement! I have early ideas for the first several of these exhibits, but none of what is needed is commercially available. So, who wants to launch a start-up company?

I know what you’re thinking: The new president has all these grand ideas, but how do we find the resources?!

Let’s start with stewardship. We do need to use our existing personnel and financial and physical resources as wisely and efficiently as we possibly can. We must continually ask if there are savings from existing operations, and whether there are operations that can be consolidated.

Some of our resources include federal, state and industry grants and contracts. That’s becoming more and more important for us. Debbie Stendardi and her team do a great job partnering with State and Federal legislators and agencies on projects with potential economic impact. But increasingly, it’s going to be the job of our faculty to go after more federal grants. As dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan, about half of my budget consisted of research funds, almost all of that brought in from the federal government by faculty. I’m not proposing to necessarily go that far here, but that’s going to be an increasing fraction of the revenue coming into the university.

Traditional philanthropic fundraising is also critical to enhancing our resources. We need to focus on alumni and industry relations and building the RIT community. I’ll be working hard on that with Lisa Cauda and her team, the deans, the vice presidents and everyone else. We need to raise funds for endowed scholarships, professorships, program support and facilities.

With expectations from our Board of Trustees for my increased involvement in fundraising, I will have to balance my time effectively. While I won’t be on campus every day, I pledge to do my best to balance the needs of our students, campus, community, and external constituents nationwide and around the world.

My travels will begin shortly in an effort to connect with thousands of our nearly-125,000 alumni worldwide. Along with members of our Alumni Relations Office, I will embark on a “Tiger Tour” of cities meeting with distinguished alumni, parents and friends, and engaging current and future donors. This exciting program kicks-off in Buffalo, Silicon Valley and Boston in September and October, with more cities to come throughout the year. I am genuinely excited to go on the road to meet these RIT Tigers and to learn about our university through their many amazing accomplishments. RIT alumni are vital to our growth and continued success and they are a significant part of the fabric that is RIT.

One fundraising challenge is that RIT is not a very old university despite the 1829 date on our seal. The way I see it, RIT is about 50 years old, corresponding to the date that we moved to this campus and began to really blossom. About 40 percent of our alumni have graduated since 2000; and 20 percent since 2011. Fortunately, we have young alumni out there who are becoming very successful, which bodes well for the future.

Tying RIT’s combined efforts in federal, state, industry, and philanthropic fundraising together, I am grateful to President Destler and the Board of Trustees for launching the quiet phase of Greatness through Difference: The Campaign for RIT. While not yet publicized, this blended campaign already has secured substantial gifts, grants, and future commitments. I look forward to working with the vice presidents, deans, fundraisers, and faculty to continue to grow that success in the months and years to come. I am encouraged by the record number of philanthropic donors secured last year, surpassing 14,000 for the first time in RIT’s history.

The areas of programs, people, facilities and revenue are all components of the RIT strategic plan that was completed a couple of years ago. I want to thank those of you who worked so hard on constructing that plan and now are working on its implementation. That said, I think our current plan has too many objectives, some of which we probably cannot afford to pursue, and a few that even may be impossible to achieve. Thus, I’m inclined to simplify and streamline the plan. Fortunately, I think we can do so without wasting effort that has been expended to date. In my opinion, we need a crisp and exciting story describing the destination to which we are headed and then we need a focused set of objectives or difference makers that will clearly enable that journey. In the end, the strategic plan need not include everything we will be working on over the next several years. It should contain just the most important things. We’ve already begun some preliminary work in this direction, and I hope to use much of the fall for consultation with the Academic Senate and other groups as we work to produce a revised document. I expect that the new plan largely will be a reorganized and shortened version of the current plan. Please stay tuned on this!

Let me conclude this lengthy set of remarks by saying that RIT is a wonderful university on a steep upward trajectory. I am so pleased to have joined you. I look forward to working with everyone in this room to keep us rising toward preeminence. As we pursue that task, I urge that we think of ourselves as a global university that is changing the world. We have lots of work in front of us, but it will be invigorating and I promise that we will have much fun along the way.

Thank you all, and go Tigers!