Papers and Speeches

President Destler's Opening Address to the RIT Community

President Bill Destler
Fall 2007  

It is with the greatest pleasure that I welcome all of you to the start of another academic year at RIT.  Rebecca and I have been so warmly welcomed by so many of you that we are still suffering from introduction overload, so please forgive us if we don’t always recognize you or remember what you contribute to this remarkable community.  RIT is indeed a “Category of One” university, and I am honored and humbled by the invitation to join the RIT family as your 9th President.

Rebecca and I are learning American Sign Language, but slowly, so I will not attempt to sign this speech, but we are committed to learning to communicate effectively with RIT’s extraordinary deaf community, and hopefully I will be able to sign at least part of next Spring’s commencement ceremony – stay tuned.

Since arriving on campus on July 2nd, we have visited each of the colleges and several of RIT’s other major administrative units.  To say that we have been impressed with the quality and range of RIT’s educational and research programs would be an understatement, and we have come to appreciate even more RIT’s unique emphasis on career-oriented educational programs and a student-centered learning experience.  Whatever we do together to move RIT to the next level, we much be sure to sustain this unique mission.

What attracted us to RIT?  I believe it was a number of factors.  First and foremost was the commitment of all of you to RIT’s special mission and your dedication to our students and their development.  A college education is still an extraordinary experience in the life of a young person.  It is a chance to grow from dependence to independence in an intellectually nurturing environment in the company of others who are on the same journey.  To be a guide along that path for our students is a responsibility that all of us, faculty, staff, and administrators, assume every day, and one which, if we perform it well, brings rewards to all of us far in excess of our compensation.

But there are other, more ominous, developments on the national and local scenes that make an opportunity to lead this extraordinary institution more like a call to national service.  In our lifetimes, we have seen global competition force the virtual elimination of the kind of jobs in this country that once allowed hard-working individuals to support their families even if they did not have a college degree.  Nowhere is this change more evident than in Rochester, where thousands of well-paying manufacturing jobs have been lost to global competition over the past three decades.

Individual success in America, therefore, increasingly means being able to contribute to a knowledge economy, and the earning of at least an undergraduate degree is becoming more and more a requirement for meaningful, and gainful, employment here.  At the same time, demographic shifts in our population have resulted in an increasing percentage of college-age men and women from groups that have not historically gone to college in great numbers.  Here, two specific examples will suffice to make the point.  First, in 2002, there were more African-American men in prison than in college.  Second, by the year 2020, there will be 50 million Latino/Latina Americans in the U.S., and the college-going rate of this population is less than 10% - the lowest of any of our ethnic minority groups.  Clearly, reversing these two trends must be among our highest priorities if we are to have the workforce we will need to sustain our economy in the future.

Nevertheless, to this point in our history America’s economy has remained strong and our standard of living, for most Americans, has remained high.  This has been largely a result of our country’s decades of leadership in science and technology, and the new products, services, and businesses that have resulted from leading-edge research and development.  But here, also, the trends do not appear promising.  Global competition has forced the elimination of all but the shortest term research and development programs in the private sector, and our corporate laboratories, once a remarkable catalyst for economic development in the U.S., have all but vanished.  At the same time, our corporate competitors overseas, taking advantage of lower labor costs in many cases, have actually increased their research and development efforts to the point where many are now superior in quality and productivity to our own.

Does America still possess any significant competitive advantages that we can exploit to both sustain and advance the quality of life here?  I think the answer to this question is a resounding yes, and happily, RIT is well positioned to take a leading role in these efforts.  First, our institutions of higher education in the U.S. are still without question the finest in the world, and they possess, in the aggregate, a reservoir of intellectual talent and creativity unmatched anywhere else.  RIT, moreover, counts among its faculty and staff an unusually rich mixture of scholars and practitioners, and that combination makes our institution ideally suited to meet the needs of industry for new technologies and new ideas for businesses, products, and services.

This unique combination of intellectual assets also places RIT in a strong position to become a national leader in addressing complex social problems such as global warming or sustainability, especially if we are willing to put together teams of faculty, staff, and students from across the intellectual spectrum to work on these issues.  The days in which significant problems could be addressed by engineers or businessmen working alone are gone, and the sooner we become agile at putting together cross-disciplinary teams to attack these tough issues, the better.

There is a second advantage that we in the U.S. have over our global competitors, and that is the innate desire of most young Americans to walk their own path.  Here a single example will suffice to make my point.  A few years back, when I was a dean of engineering, I took a group of Japanese educators to see our Freshman engineering students working on their first engineering project – in this case a human powered water pump for use for irrigation in third-world countries.  When we entered the large assembly room in which the students were building their projects, I saw my visitors’ jaws drop, and one turned to me and said, “In Japan, they would all be the same.”  In this case, of course, they were not all the same, and in some cases one might argue that our students had gone to unreasonable lengths to assure that their solutions were different from their classmates.  This inherent American desire to be different can be a powerful force for innovation and creativity if we have the good sense to encourage and develop it in constructive directions.  Here again, RIT is well positioned to take a leadership role in the development of these next-generation inventors, entrepreneurs, and artists because of the Institute’s close connections with the real world and the many faculty and staff who have experience with moving ideas into actual value-added products and services.

These factors, coupled with RIT’s unique program mix of the traditional “institute of technology” programs in science, engineering, and business combined with its strong programs in the liberal, design, and creative arts and the unique diversity provided by NTID, gives the Institute the potential to become a national center of creativity and innovation unlike any other.

So, with your indulgence, let’s dream a little about what we can accomplish together:

Imagine, if you will, a “Category Of One” university that not only educates its students for productive careers, but reinforces America’s greatest competitive advantages by expecting creativity, invention, and innovation of every student before graduation.  Imagine a university that teaches scientists and engineers how artists envision and create new works.  Imagine a university that uses diversity as a creative engine in this process and where the barriers between the hearing and the deaf dissolve in the face of this innovative energy.  Imagine the first student innovation center on the RIT campus and an innovation festival each year at RIT at which these efforts, hundreds of them, would be showcased.  Imagine RIT, not as just a “teaching university” or a “research university”, but as the first “innovation university.”

Imagine, if you will, a “Category Of One” university with close ties to the corporate sector that decides to make its faculty and staff, graduate and undergraduate students, and facilities available to companies to carry out short and medium term corporate research and development projects at low cost and without the usual intellectual property fights that usually derail such efforts.  Imagine a “Corporate R&D at RIT” program in which hundreds of companies discover that they can once again afford to do new product research and development, while identifying future employees at the same time.

Imagine, if you will, a “Category Of One” university in which complex social problems are not attacked by individuals working in disciplinary silos, but rather by teams of students and faculty from all disciplines who, from the outset, benefit from the ideas and contributions of those from very different perspectives.  Imagine RIT being the home of the first “Team PhD” program.  Imagine how exciting that would be and how much fun it would be to shake up the world of higher education with these ideas and others.

Imagine how much fun we can have working together to make RIT the university that captures the new high ground in higher education.  Rebecca and I are so grateful to all of you for giving us the opportunity to think big about what we can accomplish together.  We are honored to have been invited to join the RIT community.

Let me finish with a couple of important announcements.  First, a nationwide search for an individual to succeed Stan McKenzie as university provost has been initiated and I have asked Prof. Paul Rosenberg of Chemistry to chair a search committee composed of trustees, and faculty, staff, and students from across the campus.  I have asked the committee to submit the names of several qualified finalists to me by next February, and I hope that all of you will contact Prof. Rosenberg with any suggestions on possible candidates as the search moves forward.  Second, in line with our goal of establishing RIT as a national leader in creativity and innovation, our first “Innovation Festival” is scheduled for next May 3, and a planning group has already been put together to organize the event.  Any of you interested in getting involved in this ambitious project should contact me by email and I will put you in touch with the planning group.

I am very much looking forward to working with all of you during the next year.  Thanks to all of you for your many contributions to the “national treasure” that RIT has become.