Destler welcomes back RIT community

Highlights: record enrollment, increased student satisfaction, new Innovative Learning Institute

A. Sue Weisler

President Bill Destler mingles during the coffee hour before his Address to the Community where he recognized recent accomplishments and outlined goals for the 2012–2013 academic year.

The largest student body in the history of Rochester Institute of Technology will arrive on campus this week with returning students more satisfied than ever with their college experience at RIT.

These are some of the highlights presented by RIT President Bill Destler on Aug. 28 during his annual “Address to the Community” where he recognized recent accomplishments and outlined goals for the 2012–2013 academic year.

With student applications on the rise for several years, enrollment will reach nearly 18,000 students for the first time in university history. Destler said campus life has seen vast improvements in recent years, as noted in a national survey of student satisfaction. The survey found that for the first time, RIT students are significantly more satisfied with their overall experience than are students from other four-year private colleges and universities.

Destler also introduced the Innovative Learning Institute, a new academic delivery model where RIT’s online educational programming will be coordinated.

“RIT’s time has come,” Destler told students, faculty and staff. “RIT’s financial health and our focus on innovation and creativity, coupled with an increasing national expectation that higher education institutions demonstrate real added value and prepare students for global employment, has positioned RIT to move strongly upward in the ranks of the world’s great universities.”

Here is Destler’s address in its entirety:

“First of all, welcome back to the beginning of another academic year. I believe that this coming year will be one of the most important in the history of RIT, for reasons that I will discuss later. But let me start with a review of what we have collectively accomplished last year, for I really believe that last year was a great one for RIT, and I want all of you to take pride in your contributions to the rapid rise of our university both nationally and internationally.

At a time when many New York state colleges and universities are struggling with the declining number of high school graduates in the Northeast and resulting lower numbers of applications and enrolled students, graduate and undergraduate applications to RIT continue to increase at a remarkable rate and our enrollment this fall will reach 18,000 students for the first time in our history. There are many reasons for this happy situation, including the exceptional efforts of our enrollment management team to extend RIT’s geographic reach, but in reality almost all of you have played important roles leading to this result. The most recent Noel-Levitz survey of student satisfaction at RIT indicates that, for the first time, RIT students are significantly more satisfied with their overall experience than are graduates from other four-year private colleges and universities. That experience, of course, includes their daily interactions with all of you in whatever division of RIT you serve, so thanks for all of your efforts to support our students. Those efforts, incidentally, are not only resulting in increased interest in RIT among potential students, but are also contributing to significant improvements in our current student retention and graduation rates.

And, as I have said often, more applications give us happy choices. We have used our rapidly increasing application base to make RIT more selective and able to attract better and better students; to increase the gender, racial and ethnic diversity of our student body; and to grow our enrollment, all at the same time. This is usually thought to be almost impossible, but we are doing it here at RIT.

And speaking of diversity, I hope all of you will consult the Multicultural Calendar on RIT’s home page before scheduling events. We are trying to minimize the extent to which we schedule events on important religious and cultural holidays.

RIT’s academic reputation continues to grow both nationally and internationally. Last year, both our gaming program and our industrial design program were ranked 2nd nationally, joining other nationally ranked programs in all of our colleges. The Kate Gleason College of Engineering was recently ranked 27th in the world by employers, and our online MBA program was just ranked 15th. The Fiske Guide to Colleges recently named RIT as one of the 21 private colleges and universities rated a “best buy” on the basis of our tuition rate and the quality of our academic programs. Listen to what they said about us: “RIT is the largest of New York’s three major technological universities. The school is strong in anything related to computing, art and design, and engineering. … Photography and imaging are among tops in the nation. RIT is devoted to undergraduates.” I could have written that myself! And our faculty are increasingly the recipients of national awards for their research work, their educational innovations and their artistic creativity. Last year we received the largest number of research grants and had more PI’s engaged in sponsored research than we have ever had, including a dramatic increase in the number of National Science Foundation awards, which total over $9 million and include the largest NSF awards in the history of RIT. And to top it all off, BestColleges Online just ranked RIT’s student innovation and entrepreneurship programs No. 1 in the nation, besting Harvard and all other institutions.

Because of these healthy trends, RIT is sound financially and we are able to invest in new programs and facilities at a time when many colleges and universities are retrenching. I encourage all of you to embrace this growth, even though I know that many of you have real needs for additional faculty, staff and facilities to support existing programs. Almost all of these new facilities and programs are being financed through additional tuition generated by the new programs, research overhead, and other revenues, and therefore are not being funded from existing sources that could be used elsewhere. Incidentally, RIT’s annual payments for debt service stand at about 3.5 percent of our unrestricted operating expenses, a very low level of indebtedness for any institution and especially one that has built so many new facilities over the past few years. It is frequently said that universities that stand pat are really moving backward, and I believe this to be even truer in the current increasingly competitive environment in which we operate.

One area in which RIT has seen the greatest progress in recent years is in the quality of student life outside the classroom. With a strong Student Government and over 200 student clubs and organizations, all students can find ways to become engaged in extra-curricular activities on campus, and our intercollegiate athletic program has contributed to a marked increase in school spirit and student pride. Last year our students competed in the Liberty League for the first time against some of the finest private colleges and universities in the nation, and they more than held their own, winning the championship in men’s lacrosse. Our Division I men’s hockey team had another successful season, winning 20 games, and our Division III (soon to be Division I) women’s hockey team won their first national championship.

All of this progress has not gone unnoticed by our alumni and friends. Last year we received $41 million in philanthropic contributions—a record for a non-campaign year. And increasingly, this support is coming from alumni who are noticing our progress and are more proud of their alma mater than ever before.

I mentioned earlier that I believe that the coming academic year will be an especially important one for RIT. There are many reasons for this belief but probably the most important is that this year will be our last year before we convert to a semester calendar in the fall of 2013. If you remember, when we made the decision to move to semesters, we made a pledge to our students that the change would not result in any increased costs or any increased time to program completion, and that in the year before the conversion all students would sit down with an academic adviser to ensure that they remain on track toward their degree. This is the year that we make good on those promises.

This year also marks the first full year of implementation of our new GeneSIS Student Information System. This system is long overdue and will enable us to work more efficiently in support of our students. I recognize that getting to this point has taken countless hours on the part of dozens of individuals across the campus and I thank you for that. I also realize that the new system is not perfect, and that your work is not yet done and will continue throughout the calendar conversion process. All I can say is keep up the good work; it will make us a better place.

And this is the first year of operation of RIT’s new Institute for Health Sciences and Technology and the associated College of Health Sciences and Technology. This important new unit is a result of extensive strategic planning efforts undertaken with our alliance partner, the Rochester General Health System. I am very pleased with the current efforts led by Dan Ornt to define areas in the medical and health sciences where RIT can take a leadership position that leverages our existing strengths in other colleges at RIT.

Last year we also submitted our five-year progress report to the Middle States Commission as a result of a yearlong process that involved the entire RIT community. In their response to our report, the Middle States reviewers “commend RIT for a thorough and well-written report. The RIT community must be proud of the magnitude of change and extent of accomplishments realized over this five year period. …” I want to express my heartfelt thanks to the periodic review report committee and the entire campus community for your contributions to this process.

Although RIT remains an institution in overall good fiscal health, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf is under stress from three consecutive years of level funding from the federal government. I am working with NTID President Gerry Buckley on ways to mitigate the effects of this situation, but it is clear that NTID will have to adapt to a much more constrained budgetary situation until the situation in Washington improves. In addition, it is clear that tuition rates simply cannot continue to increase at rates significantly above inflation, and for this reason Senior Vice President Jim Watters has assembled several working groups to look for potential cost savings all across the campus. He will be reporting to the campus on the recommendations of these groups at an open forum early this fall. After appropriate review of these recommendations by our campus governance groups, I will review and approve the most workable of them and next year’s working budget will actually assume cost savings resulting from these efforts.

One area that I expect to explore this year is the extent to which we can offer expanded performing arts opportunities to our students who desire them. As the quality of our students has increased, greater and greater numbers of them now want to augment their degree programs with experiences in the performing arts including minors and degree programs where we are able to offer them. I have therefore asked Provost Jeremy Haefner to establish working groups to evaluate our current programs and facilities, to make recommendations on how they can be improved and expanded, and to establish a vision for the performing arts at RIT that takes full advantage of our existing strengths in the humanities, music, theater, art, photography, film and animation, design, and other related disciplines. In this manner, we can truly create a performing arts program that will be unique and able to attract talented students from around the world.

This year we will complete construction on the new facility for the Golisano Institute for Sustainability, Institute Hall (for chemical and biomedical engineering), and Rosica Hall (an innovation and research center for NTID). We will also initiate construction of our new hockey arena (the Gene Polisseni Center) and an addition to Louise M. Slaughter Hall to house our new Institute for Health Sciences and Technology. So we will once again be a campus under construction, but you are used to that by now. Parking, however, will be a challenge over the next year, especially in light of the construction of the Polisseni Center. We do have plans to replace parking spaces lost in the construction of our new hockey arena and other facilities, but during the transition period we will all need to be patient with a tighter parking situation across campus. Speaking of sustainability, all of our new facilities are built to LEED standards and this year each incoming freshman student will receive a refillable RIT water bottle as we initiate our campaign to markedly reduce the purchase and use of bottled water on our campus. RIT has become a national leader in the area of sustainability, so let’s all get behind our efforts to ensure that non-renewable resources will be available for our children and grandchildren.

And while RIT remains on a remarkably positive trajectory, we must be aware that significant changes in higher education could result from new delivery models made possible by technology advancements such as those being explored by institutions such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT. We must move to ensure that RIT will be a leader, not a follower, as these new educational paradigms are developed. For this reason, we will work with the Faculty Senate, the Staff Council, and Student Government to stand up an Innovative Learning Institute at RIT charged with maintaining a leadership position for RIT in this innovative educational space. Several existing units will be moved into this new organizational structure, and RIT’s online educational programming will be coordinated and expanded through this new unit. Finally, if we are to leaders in this space, we must encourage educational innovation by our faculty and students. To that end, I am asking Provost Haefner to ensure that valid faculty scholarly work in educational technology and pedagogy is adequately recognized in tenure and promotion decisions.

Over the past five years, I have challenged you to work tirelessly to turn this fine institution into one of the world’s great universities. Your commitment to this goal has been unlike any I have seen in academia over my 40 year career, and I am humbled by and grateful for your efforts. I know it seems like our ideas for new initiatives never stop coming and that you are all working harder than ever, but look at what you have accomplished! You are contributing to the transformation of a very good university to a great one, a very uncommon occurrence in academia, and I hope you take real pride in what you are accomplishing.

In my opinion, RIT’s time has come. RIT’s financial health and our focus on innovation and creativity, coupled with an increasing national expectation that higher education institutions demonstrate real added value and prepare students for global employment, has positioned RIT to move strongly upward in the ranks of the world’s great universities. Let’s not be afraid to take advantage of this outstanding opportunity to create a unique and wonderful new kind of university here in Rochester. Heartfelt thanks for your support and your many contributions to this special place.”

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