A casual reader of the history of Rochester Institute of Technology could be forgiven for posing the question “How did a small evening school offering a single class in 1885 become one of the country’s largest and most leading-edge private universities, with multiple Ph.D. programs, five international campuses, and 19,000 students of whom almost 1200 are deaf and hard-of-hearing?” A close look at RIT’s early history reveals that the origins of this apparent sea change in mission were actually contained within the institutional character of the 19th-century Mechanics Institute, and that they serve as the perfect introduction of the new strategic plan before you.
The idea for the Mechanics Institute emerged from a group of Rochester employers with an urgent need for skilled draftsmen. Lacking confidence in the apprentice training model, they developed the novel idea of opening a school that would provide free instruction in mechanical drawing to the young men of Rochester. It was a novel, some might say impetuous, venture: novel, because at the time, there were almost no models of such a school in the United States; and impetuous, because on its opening day, the Institute had no money, students, teachers, or physical home.
Yet the Mechanics Institute grew quickly: in 1890, the curriculum had expanded from that single course in mechanical drawing to include classes in mathematics, natural philosophy, architectural drawing, industrial design, and oil and watercolor painting. So popular were the painting classes that within a year of their introduction, nine sections were required to meet student demand. In 1901, the Institute received $300,000—its largest gift to date—to solidify not its technical mission, but its fine arts presence.
The founders and faculty may have been unaware that the school’s increasing curricular breadth made it an exemplar of the “new education” movement, an educational philosophy espoused by John Dewey and Harvard president Charles Eliot Norton that called for the coexistence of technical and traditional studies in single institutions. Former Wellesley president Alice Freeman Palmer praised the Institute’s innovative character in her 1899 commencement address to Mechanics Institute graduates: “We are living in a new world,” Mrs. Palmer observed. “I congratulate you with all my heart that you are wise enough to be leaders in what is surely coming to be the new education.”.
The Mechanics Institute developed and diversified at a remarkable rate. By 1900, the original training school had developed into an agile and enterprising institution with a diverse and novel curriculum emphasizing both the technical and the artistic; a high comfort level with its own difference; the ability to make quick decisions; and an uncanny record of anticipating educational trends.
The school that became RIT in 1944 continued to prosper and diversify, offering courses and eventually career-oriented majors not only in technology and design, but also in business, the liberal arts, and the life, physical, and health sciences.
The relationship between the core areas of technology and art is particularly interesting within the context of RIT’s 2018-2025 Strategic Plan. Programs in these two areas remained cordial but distant neighbors until the introduction of degree programs in design in the 1950’s. Seven decades later, as program names like Photographic Sciences, Motion Picture Sciences, Media Arts and Technology suggest, technology, art, and design now cooperate within single degree programs. Today, the newly-named College of Art and Design is the third largest college at RIT with six schools: Art, Design, American Crafts, Film and Animation, Photographic Arts and Sciences, and Media Sciences.
The credit for the RIT difference belongs to its people. The early branching of the curriculum into the directions of technology and fine arts was due entirely to the bold flexibility of 19th-century leaders and teachers, and these qualities continue to distinguish today’s RIT. Begin with the extraordinary mix of talents and interests represented by RIT’s programs—from illustration to cybersecurity to digital humanities; then consider the 1968 addition of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID)—easily the largest and most significant single act of diversification ever undertaken by an American college or university. Add a steady increase in underrepresented, international, and Pell-eligible students, and you have a diversity powerhouse with endless potential for discovery and innovation.
RIT’s “New Education”
This strategic plan marks a significant shift in our career education mission. We do a better job at preparing our students for jobs and careers than almost anyone, but today the world needs more than people with a career; it needs people educated to mitigate the grave threats and complexities that surround us. It needs people who understand how to innovate. And with this strategic plan, we are embarking upon a new “new education” that reflects our concern for the future of the planet as well as for the future of our students.
RIT’s diverse and gifted students are uniquely suited to become constructive agents of positive change, provided they receive the requisite education in innovation. Old ideas, solitary geniuses, and elaborate technology will not save the day. The world needs border-crossing, collaborative, and original thinkers and doers with a deep commitment to the welfare of humanity. The world needs innovators, and few universities are better positioned than RIT to provide innovation education.
Greatness Through Difference 2018-2025 marks RIT’s commitment to providing the education necessary to develop imaginative, resourceful students into innovators, into the people with the right stuff to effect powerfully positive change, into the people, as President Munson likes to say, “who make good things happen.”
Technology, Art, and Design
RIT is the obvious university to lead the charge of innovation education. Its deepest academic roots correspond to the three pillars of human-centered innovation: technology, design, and art. And its history of difference, of forging non-traditional programs and practices, will serve it well in this bold new undertaking.
Technological and scientific expertise is of unquestionable value to innovation teams, and our students graduate with remarkable depth and breadth in multiple technologies. Their expertise will be necessary to effect many world-shaping solutions, but technology will be neither the solution nor the starting point. And in some of the most important innovations, technology will play no role at all.
To conceive and produce groundbreaking human-centered ideas and products, one must think like a designer. Designers practice a robust process of conceptualizing, planning, communicating, and visualizing. At the outset, their work is about possibility, about what could be—not about how things already are. That said, designers are expected to produce; there is an end in mind, which is to impact positively how people think, work, and live. At RIT, design is about making connections, building community, and exploring design through real-world experiences.
Art and Creativity
Creativity—by which we mean the creative process as practiced so well by artists—is a third pillar of innovation. Our students come to RIT brimming with creativity, but that does not mean they understand the creative process or how to make use of it in the service of innovation. Creativity in the innovation process is about the ability to see connections and relationships where others have not; it is imagination finding a practical application. It can be learned and it can be taught, and some of its best teachers are artists—artists like those at RIT whose deployment of the creative process regularly results in award-winning photographs, films, sculptures, and illustrations.
The highest potential for pivotal innovation lies within the intersections of these three areas and in their application to other disciplines. Regardless of their major, all our students will experience how leveraging this innovation matrix extends the reach and transformative possibilities of their chosen disciplines. Indeed, we plan to place all our programs—those in the life, physical, and health sciences, in business, and in the liberal arts—in close contact with this integrated triad of technology, art, and design.
The seeds for Greatness Through Difference 2018-2025 were planted within the first years of the Mechanics Institute, and those early traits of inclusivity, flexibility, originality, and boldness define the RIT of 2018 as much as the 19th century Mechanics Institute. It is this unique institutional character and the people, programs, places, and partnerships it has generated that will power us to the achievement of our ambitious strategic vision.