President Munson’s Address to the RIT Community, August 2020

Welcome back, everyone!

I know, for many of us, this summer has been extremely busy, as we have worked hard to prepare for reopening of the campus and the launch of our fall semester.

There’s no way around it: 2020 has been a most challenging year. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered so many aspects of our daily lives and the operation of this great university, including the ways in which we teach and learn, and the ways in which we interact. But I am here to tell you that, even with these changes, we cannot, and we will not, let this pandemic define us.

RIT has a bright future, and together we will make the most of what promises to be an exciting academic year.

Let me start by welcoming some new members of our leadership team.

Phil Castleberry began as our new vice president of development and alumni relations back in February and is excitedly leading Transforming RIT: The Campaign for Greatness, which has raised $713 million to date toward its one-billion-dollar goal.

Jo Ellen Pinkham is the newest administrative team member, having joined RIT as our chief human resources officer just this week, after leading human resources at Nazareth College for nearly 13 years.

Not new to the team, but in an important new role is Lisa Cauda, now serving as vice president and secretary in the Office of the President, working closely with our Board of Trustees and the President’s Roundtable.

We also have some new leadership within our colleges.

Dr. LaVerne McQuiller Williams is serving as interim dean in our College of Liberal Arts, and Dr. Richard Doolittle is the interim dean of our College of Health Sciences and Technology. Our world-renowned Vignelli Center also has new leadership, as Josh Owen, our longtime distinguished professor in industrial design takes over the reins of the center from Distinguished Professor Roger Remington, who retired in May after 57 years of service, making him the longest tenured professor in RIT history!

We also have a new women’s hockey coach. Former Tiger hockey standout Celeste Brown, a 2015 alumna, returned to RIT this summer as the Bruce Bates Women's Hockey Coach.

I want to take a brief look back at the last semester, mostly as a way to highlight the resilience and ingenuity of our students, faculty, and staff. And I want to offer heartfelt thanks for the many hours of dedicated work that our faculty and staff put in to make the spring semester a success.

When it became clear in March that we needed to move to online learning as a health and safety precaution, our university sprung into action. The staff of Residence Life did a yeoman’s job helping students safely and expeditiously move out of their dorms. And they worked to assist those who could not return to campus secure their belongings and arrange for their later retrieval. They also helped some students, who could not leave, remain on campus.

Student Wellness dealt with COVID-19 quarantine cases, including many students who were forced to return early from their overseas experiences. They also implemented online options to help students with medical and mental health issues.

Academic Affairs and our faculty responded in magnificent fashion, converting, in roughly 10 days, more than 3,500 undergraduate and graduate classes to online or remote instruction, serving more than 15,000 students. By using resources like Zoom to facilitate most of our courses, there were more than 51,000 virtual class sessions, and participants joined in from more than 125 nations, including Kazakhstan, Fiji, and Uruguay.

Countless challenges were addressed by other groups, including our essential personnel who remained on campus and our COVID Task Force, so that RIT could continue to excel in education and research. At the end of the semester, we enjoyed an online commencement celebration as well as a Minecraft Commencement. Subsequently, the Fall Planning Task Force and its three subcommittees – Academic Planning, Infrastructure and Health Technologies, and Community Readiness undertook planning for the fall semester. Thank you to the hundreds of people who have tirelessly devoted their time and expertise to this vital work.

In addition, our RIT community went far beyond just taking care of our own business. In keeping with our mantra of improving the world, our faculty, students, and alumni were engaged in a variety of research, development, and manufacturing projects to help with the COVID response. Community members produced face shields and personal protective equipment for front-line health care workers, designed less costly, more efficient respirators, worked to develop antibody tests, and treated the affected at hospitals around the world.

I also want to thank those who have stepped up during these turbulent times to help our university and our community talk about the complicated issues of racism and social justice. With tensions running high, and overdue calls for needed change, it is no longer enough to simply say you are not racist. We must actively be antiracists. RIT has embarked on a mission of elevating diversity, equity and inclusion so that all our students, faculty, and staff, especially those who are black or brown, feel valued and appreciated, and are assured that they have the same opportunities for success as every other person here. Under the leadership of Dr. Keith Jenkins, our Division of Diversity and Inclusion has a large slate of new initiatives and creative programming in the works. NTID also has a comprehensive asset of initiatives, as does our Board of Trustees.  In the coming weeks and months, we will be integrating these efforts into a campus-wide plan.  I wish to emphasize that this cannot be the work of just a few. Success will require a university-wide effort and dedicated follow-through, with participation by all.

So much has happened these past few months, and the response from the RIT community has been truly amazing.  Yes, we have more work to do, because we still have challenges, but we also have even greater opportunities.

So let’s talk about where we go from here.

The summer was spent getting ready for the fall, with many infrastructure improvements and an adjusted fall academic calendar, all designed in response to making health and safety a priority. Kudos to our staff who readied the campus and to our faculty who will be offering a mix of classes, some face-to-face, some online, and some that will mix in-person and online learning.  All RIT laboratories, studios, computer facilities, machine shops, and other student-learning spaces will be open and available. Our students like to tinker and create, and these hands-on experiences add so much to an RIT education.

Putting safety first means that campus life will look different, but we have worked hard to ensure that we retain RIT’s unique culture and environment—all the things we love most about RIT. Our goal is to ensure that students have a well-rounded experience on the RIT campus, one that allows them to safely meet with professors, teaching assistants, and classmates and have access to the facilities and services that make RIT such a wonderful university for learning and growing.

A special message to those on our global campuses in China, Croatia, Dubai, and Kosovo: You each have your own safety plans corresponding with your regions of the world. We are here to support you, and we will learn from each other as we navigate this pandemic together.

When classes resume tomorrow, RIT will be welcoming the largest class in the university’s history, including a record number of female students. It is also one of the most diverse classes ever. And the academic quality of our entering students remains very high, as we continue to attract the best and brightest.

Another interesting note:  For the first time in RIT’s history, we have some new students starting their classes online as well as beginning their semester on our overseas campuses to accommodate the mobility challenges presented to international students by COVID-19 and immigration restrictions.

We’re also focused on the future. RIT is forging ahead with plans to become the nation’s premier university for those who want to study or participate in music, theater, dance, or other performing arts, while pursuing any major. This year, we have more than doubled the number of Performing Arts Scholars in our entering class, with more than 350, and we will continue to expand this program in 2021.  These are terrific students, with 50% being women, and 95% majoring in a STEM discipline or Art and Design.

In keeping with our 2025 Strategic Plan, we are expanding our doctoral offerings. We’re adding three new Ph.D. programs within our Kate Gleason College of Engineering, and we have additional Ph.D. programs in the works for other colleges, which will be in the queue for approval later this academic year. These new doctoral programs are important because they will help us attract top-notch faculty and help us recruit students who will become the world’s future leaders in research and discovery.

Transforming RIT: The Campaign for Greatness, mentioned earlier, is moving ahead, buoyed by a record $80 million in sponsored research dollars and the magnificent donation of the Tait Preserve and Leenhouts Lodge in Penfield, which will be used for instructional and research purposes beginning this year. And RIT was able to acquire the former Radisson Hotel on Jefferson Road, which sits on campus property.  This facility has been quickly revamped to serve, for this year, as our primary location for student quarantine and isolation.

You can see the RIT spirit rising across campus in new construction. Our Global Cybersecurity Institute – made possible in part through a donation from 2009 alumnus Austin McChord and a grant from New York state ­- is largely completed, and should be in use this fall. We expect to hold a formal opening ceremony in the spring to show off this state-of-the art facility that will train the next generation of cyber detectives. The Institute, built as a new wing of the Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, will elevate the university’s reputation as an internationally-known center for cybersecurity education and research. It will train students to meet the growing national demand for computing security professionals, while also developing technologies, protocols and human understanding needed to address the global cybersecurity crisis.

In the middle of campus, the location of our Innovative Maker and Learning Complex, or IMLC, is now plainly evident.  It looks like a gravel lot, because this summer, we undertook a project to move underground utilities between Wallace Library and Monroe Hall, in preparation for future construction of the IMLC. You will recall that the IMLC will be a 100,000-plus-square-foot facility that will embody RIT’s creative and innovative spirit, with makerspaces on multiple levels, student project teams, many new classrooms, an experimental theater, a dance studio, and music rehearsal spaces.  The construction will incorporate a redesigned Wallace Library to create an amazing venue for learning, creativity, and innovation. This is the venue where campus tours will commence.  This is the place where visitors will “get” RIT in just 5 minutes. The IMLC design is now past the half-way point and we will be able to show a full set of spectacular architect’s renderings soon.

Our new performing arts center also is under design, but is still in its early stages.  So far, we have seen exciting design concepts, but it will be a number of months before we have any architect’s renderings to share.  You will recall that this two-theater complex will be located just east of the Sustainability Institute.  The Performing Arts Center is slated to provide premier venues for RIT student and faculty productions, distinguished speakers, commencement events, outside performers, and more.

Preliminary design work continues on an addition to the Saunders College of Business, which will be funded primarily by philanthropy.  Finally, design work continues on a stadium and new set of athletic playing fields, but we expect that construction on this project will be delayed by the pandemic.  We look forward to sharing more on all of these projects as work progresses.

The Liberty League has cancelled all competition through Dec. 31, but our coaches are still preparing to work with our student athletes to hone their skills and maintain team spirit, while protecting their health. Our hockey teams play in other leagues and we do not yet have final information on what their seasons will look like.

We were very sad last year when the pandemic forced us to cancel Imagine RIT, the university’s signature event that typically draws 30,000 visitors to see firsthand the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit that are hallmarks of RIT. Now, with time to plan, we’re already employing our creativity and innovation to work on next year’s festival. We’re not sure if it will be an in-person, open campus festival as in the past, or whether it will be a virtual event. But Imagine RIT will go on in 2021. I promise!

Let me conclude with some thoughts regarding our health and safety as we navigate our way through the pandemic.  COVID-19 presents us with perhaps the most serious challenge our university has ever faced.  But, we have learned a lot about COVID and we know how to be safe.  In addition to relying on all the infrastructure safety upgrades and protocols for daily reporting, testing, tracing and quarantining, we are asking everyone to be mindful of the three W’s: Wear your mask, Watch your distance, and Wash your hands. We know that these precautions work, because entire nations have employed them successfully.  So, we actually can take control of our community health and safety. By adopting the three W’s, we will tremendously limit exposure and transmission of the virus on our campus.

Let’s be smart and conscientious. Let’s work together to create and preserve a vibrant on-campus experience for all. Let’s create an academic year that, years from now, we will reflect upon with great pride.

Finally, I wish to thank each of you for doing your part to move this university forward. I am honored and humbled to be working with such an exceptional group of talented faculty, staff, and students. Thank you so much.

This concludes our program.

Go Tigers!