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Working Knowledge

Throughout its history, RIT has taken a unique approach to its core business

Editor’s note: The themes for RIT’s 175th anniversary celebration are “Education, Exploration and Innovation.” The University Magazine will offer some insights on these topics in each issue during the anniversary year. In this edition, we explore RIT’s approach to education.

“Some universities don’t talk about careers,” says RIT President Albert Simone. “We talk about careers.”

The focus on preparing students for success in the workplace comes up recurrently in any discussion of what sets RIT apart.

The university traces its roots to two organizations created by 19th century civic and business leaders: Rochester Athenaeum, founded in 1829, and Mechanics Institute, begun in 1885. The cultural organization and the trade school merged in 1891, creating what has proved to be a potent mixture.

Certainly 175 years have brought extraordinary changes, but the essence is remarkably unchanged. RIT remains a career-focused technical university that also encompasses renowned programs in the arts. The university’s leaders are committed to carrying that identity into the 21st century: RIT’s Strategic Plan for 2005 – 2015, adopted in July by the Board of Trustees, states that “RIT will lead higher education in preparing students for successful careers in a global society, and career preparation is the most important element of the RIT brand.”

Simone often speaks of his vision for the future, when RIT will be the top choice for students interested in career education, just as Harvard is first for liberal arts and MIT leads in research.

“RIT will be the preeminent model of a technological university preparing our students for productive lives,” says Simone. “It will provide the most opportunities for students to work with industry and government agencies throughout their time at RIT – both through our co-op program and through on-campus opportunities for collaborative research.”

In connection to the emphasis on experiential learning, RIT actively cultivates partnerships with industry – historically quite unusual for an academic institution, says Wiley McKinzie, dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology. McKinzie came to RIT in 1974 to teach computer science and was instrumental in the introduction of numerous innovative programs including telecommunications, information technology and software engineering.

“Many of our programs have industrial advisory boards that help us stay current with developments in the field,” says McKinzie.

RIT traditionally has developed new programs to meet the demands of the marketplace. That’s another cornerstone of RIT’s approach to education, says McKinzie, who is leading RIT’s new Academic Program Incubator.

Typically, it has taken a decade from the time an emerging field is identified to the graduation of the first student trained in that area. In today’s fast-paced world, that’s too long. The incubator is intended to anticipate demand by students as well as industry. “We hope to cut the time to five years,” says McKinzie.

RIT’s connection to the world of work also is reflected in the approach to teaching, McKinzie believes. RIT looks for industry experience as well as academic credentials when hiring faculty, and teaching effectiveness is continually assessed through student evaluations and scrutiny by the department.

“That’s how the emphasis on teaching is reinforced,” says McKinzie. “The typical RIT faculty member thinks of himself first as a teacher and second as a researcher. That’s the opposite of other universities.”

This view is shared by Stanley McKenzie, who joined the faculty in 1967 and became provost and vice president for academic affairs in 1994. Provost McKenzie notes that emphasis on scholarship and research is increasing, but with a distinctly RIT approach. Typically, projects have a practical, real-world goal and are sponsored by industry or government agencies, and student involvement is encouraged.

“Our faculty focus on applied research that enhances the educational experience of students,” says McKenzie. “We have people doing world-class research in some areas, but they all teach as well. The teaching load here is three to five times greater than at a research institution.”

The importance of faculty research and academic scholarship is directly related to the increasing number of graduate students, who ultimately are expected to account for about 20 percent of the student body.

RIT has expanded the definition of career education, Provost McKenzie believes, to meet the demands of the global society of the future.

“A strong basis in the humanities and social sciences is absolutely essential to an RIT education,” he says. “We need the students to be not only specialists in their fields. We need them to be leaders in their professions, and to be citizens of the world.”