Four RIT presidents reflect on decades of innovative changes

Their reunion is part of the 50 years of RIT at the Henrietta campus




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A. Sue Weisler

WHAM-TV anchor Don Alhart, center, spoke with four RIT presidents, left to right, M. Richard Rose, Albert Simone, Bill Destler and David Munson, to commemorate RIT’s 50 years on the Henrietta campus.

When M. Richard Rose became president of Rochester Institute of Technology in 1979, he remembers the campus was still fairly new and growing in its Henrietta location.

“They didn’t pave any sidewalks for a couple of years, the theory being they were going to figure out where the students were walking first,” Rose said. “Consequently, there was mud in every building.”

Rose and the three RIT presidents who followed him—Albert Simone (from 1992 to 2007), Bill Destler, (2007 to 2017) and David Munson (2017 to the present)—gathered together recently to reflect on RIT’s 50 years in Henrietta and the impact the university and its students, alumni, faculty and staff have made.

Hosted by WHAM-TV anchor Don Alhart, a 30-minute special of the reunion can be seen at 9 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 14, on WHAM-TV, and 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, on WUHF-TV. It may also be seen on the Henrietta 50 website in its entirety after it airs. It is the third such interview Alhart has hosted with groups of RIT presidents—the first, in 1992, included Mark Ellingson, who was RIT president from 1936 to 1969 and saw RIT’s campus move to Henrietta in 1968.

Rose, who started RIT’s microelectronics program, recalled students took off classes on May Day to plant trees to counter the stark look of the brick buildings on campus.

“We didn’t have many trees here at all,” Rose said. “The students understood what we were trying to do, we were trying to soften the campus. They planted ivy as well, but the ivy was taken off buildings because it was destroying the concrete under it.”

Rose also saw to it that a tiger statue was erected. “The RIT tiger wasn’t visible on campus. I thought that was a necessary identification,” he said.

 Simone, who helped launch RIT’s international campuses, came to RIT from the University of Hawaii, where he was president.

“There’s something that can be said about the four seasons,” Simone said.

But he also liked the potential he saw at RIT, especially with its strong co-op program for students. “It’s bringing the community in to look at our students before they even graduate and helping their educational process. And those students come back and help educate our faculty too because of what they learned in the business.”

Simone liked the spirit and opportunity that he saw at RIT.

“There was a sense of ‘we can do it.’ I like to take risks. Calculated risks are important,” he said.

Destler, who came up with the idea of the popular Imagine RIT: Creativity and Innovation Festival, wanted an annual festival “to show off the innovative nature of our community and to show off to the world what could come out of a place like this. I was astonished on how well it all went over.”

Destler said he was “very attracted to RIT because of the balance of programs between engineering, science, computing technology, business and the like. But also the fine arts, the arts and industrial design. Those combination of programs gave RIT an unfair advantage, and we could exploit that. It’s rather rare to have excellence in all those areas, especially in design, which is where art and function meet.”

As the new kid on the block, Munson said he came to RIT last year knowing it had a good reputation for creativity and innovation, and had enormous potential.

“I’m building on the foundation laid by these three gentlemen and their predecessors,” Munson said. “Not just putting a foot on the accelerator for creativity and innovation that Bill had already done, but really use that in a purposeful way, in terms of attracting specific types of students and specific types of faculty members and then providing the opportunities those creative students really want.”

He called RIT “a complete university” that is changing the world.

“The name ‘Rochester Institute of Technology’ is actually a little bit of a misnomer,” Munson said. “The institute is about much more than technology—we have very strong programs in art and design that are kind of blended together with the technology. In addition, we have colleges of business, health sciences and liberal arts. We attract the types of students and faculty that have ideas, and they want to act out on those ideas.”

Looking ahead, Rose predicted RIT will “become the premier institution in the country for innovation, new ideas and new technology because it’s inviting that kind of student. I think RIT will be a shining jewel in the future.”

Simone said the sense of family on RIT’s campus will continue to encourage new ideas.

“Because of all the changes, there’s this openness to new opportunities, shared governance so that the faculty, staff, students and trustees can work together with the community as partners to accomplish something special and unique,” he said. “Faculty and staff seem to know each other. They are comfortable with one another.”

Destler believes RIT’s growth is allowing it to take its place among the nation’s greatest universities.

“‘Technology’ is not a bad word here,” Destler said. “We actually have a college of engineering and a college of engineering technology. Having both of those helped us form a computing college that just not only had computing science, but it had things like network administration, computer security, and these other kinds of fields. And you allowed it to grow into one of the biggest computing colleges in the country.”

Munson said RIT continues to work—often behind the scenes—trying to attract new firms to Rochester that are eager to set up shop close to the skilled pool of multi-disciplined talent RIT is producing.

“I think in the future RIT will become one of the top universities in the nation, but unlike any other university,” Munson said. “We have no ambition to copy anybody else. For us, it’s all about creativity and innovation in every discipline, and in pulling down the barriers between disciplines. So if a student is majoring in one discipline, they’ve got room in their curriculum and maybe even the motivation and certainly the interest to cross boundaries and to learn from different fields, to assemble it all together, go out and do something magnificent in the world.”