RIT alumnus, Nike VP Eric Avar appointed second 2021 commencement speaker

Nike VP joins Nobel Prize winner in addressing ‘special class’ that persevered through pandemic

Elizabeth Lamark

RIT Distinguished Alumnus Eric Avar ‘90 (industrial design), Nike’s vice president and creative guide of innovation design, has been added as a 2021 Rochester Institute of Technology commencement speaker May 14-15.

Eric Avar ’90 (industrial design), Nike’s vice president and creative guide of innovation design, has been selected as a 2021 Rochester Institute of Technology commencement speaker on May 14 and 15.

Avar, who was honored with the College of Art and Design (then College of Imaging Arts and Sciences) Distinguished Alumni Award in 2016, joins Andrea Ghez—a 2020 Nobel Prize winner in physics for her work with black holes—as the university’s first-ever dual commencement speakers during a two-day celebration of the Class of 2021.

RIT President David Munson and Provost Ellen Granberg decided to appoint two speakers as an acknowledgement of the unusual and difficult year the Class of 2021 experienced. “The Class of 2021 experienced pandemic disruption during the last three semesters of their RIT education,” Granberg said. “Appointing two speakers is a symbol of this special class for whom so many senior traditions could not take place.”

Josh Owen, the Massimo and Lella Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design and director of the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at RIT, was instrumental in securing Avar’s agreement to speak.

Avar, recognized widely for marrying the art and science of performance design, is behind some of Nike’s most innovative designs, including his collaborations with the late Kobe Bryant on the former NBA legend’s footwear line. 

Avar started at Nike in 1991 and has helped design many award-winning products, including numerous within the Nike Basketball, Nike Free, Lunar and Bryant’s series of footwear. Avar became the chief creator of Bryant’s signature sneakers when the Laker star signed with Nike in 2003.

Approximately 3,000 RIT undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D. students in the Class of 2021 are expected to graduate this year. COVID-19 protocols mandate that the number of people attending commencement be limited, so 13 smaller in-person ceremonies by college are planned to allow candidates for degrees to walk across the stage. Most speakers, including Ghez and Avar, will be virtual, and each ceremony will be live-streamed.

All times and locations are listed on the Class of 2021 website. Tickets will be required for all events and specific information will be sent separately. More information will be forthcoming on the health and safety requirements for all participants.

RIT’s 2020 graduates, who were unable to have an in-person graduation last year due to the pandemic, have been invited to walk across their own stage on May 16. The commencement speaker who had been scheduled for them, Josephine “Jody” Olsen, who was director of the Peace Corps from March 30, 2018, to Jan. 20, 2021, will be commencement speaker for that class.

The schedule for commencement for 2020 graduates is listed on the Class of 2020 website. A survey has been sent to 2020 graduates requesting a reply if they plan to attend in person. Tickets will be required and participants will need to adhere to all health and safety protocols.

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