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Faculty Convocation, Fall 2017

Monday, August 21, 2017
Katie Murphy Amphitheatre

Good morning.  

Over the summer, while most of you were away, we published our annual report for the academic year 2015-16,  which is titled  Talking Teaching.  In it, you will find six of your colleagues, each from  different disciplines and different schools.  They were asked to talk about teaching, and from that came an illuminating interchange on pedagogy, creativity, technology, culture… and the future.  The future, of course, is what education is all about and it was gratifying to “listen”---so to speak---to listen  to them talk about breaking boundaries… working across disciplines… and most especially, to hear them reflect on how they can bring out the best in their students…how they can help them meet the future to realize their dreams.  As Shannon Maher, in Home Products Development, put it: “The basic question we face is how do we best propel our students forward.”

This is the basic question---and it has never been more relevant than it is today.  Fortunately, they---and all of you---work here, at FIT---and FIT has never been more poised to take on tomorrow than it is today.  As you know, we have been working vigorously, and with great enthusiasm and imagination, to forge a new future and identity for FIT, one that offers our students the tools and cultivates the spirit they will need as the 21st century speeds ahead.  A good many of you have been part of that effort, and in just a few minutes I will share some of the results of those efforts---but before I do, I want to share the news of the day…

I hope your summer was fun and fulfilling… maybe even restful.  Given the recent events in Charlottesville, however, I suspect you return, as I do, unsettled… and deeply disturbed.  I suspect as well---and with serious misgivings---that we will have occasion to return to this topic as the year progresses.  Yet given the circumstances, I would like to say a few words about it now.  I believe that those of us who have the privilege of living and working in an educational institution have a special obligation to protect, as best we can, the free and open society we cherish.  The malevolence and unholy ignorance on display in Charlottesville must be repeatedly repudiated.  That is not only the job of our leaders; it is our job as well.  In a few days, students of every race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity will be filling our corridors and classrooms.  Each one of them---and each one of us---must be made welcome here.  You know, I speak often about civility.  I can think of no time more urgent than now for us, as educators, to repudiate the ugliness of Charlottesville by modeling civility, and by dedicating ourselves to live and teach the values of brotherhood, tolerance and cross-cultural appreciation---and do so on a daily basis.  It has to be more than just a response to something we witnessed.  It really requires a commitment to be a beacon of light---not just heat---to channel our disbelief and outrage into meaningful action and dialogue that just might contribute to a solution… or at least help to slow this wave sweeping over our society.

I think that is what FIT stands for, and I will continue to count on you to hold our FIT legacy high and demonstrate the power of civility and measured behavior.

So…  I wish I could say that we had a restful summer here on campus, but as many of you know, we had a fire in the basement of the Feldman Center in June that shut down the college for several days.  Fortunately no one was seriously injured and in the scheme of things, the fire itself---caused by a spark from routine soldering---was minor and quickly extinguished.  But it caused extensive smoke and water damage and of course, considerable disruption.  There were numerous high school graduations and other outside events booked for the Haft Auditorium and Mary Oleniczak and her team plus Greg Fittinghoff and the media and IT team worked miracles to relocate and set up the events in other venues.

Meanwhile, you can imagine the impact of smoke and water on computers and furniture and everything else. The clean-up was painstaking and time-consuming---so, too, the renovations.  The upshot is that we had to discard and replace all of the computers, many of the machines, much of the furniture---even the wallboards and cables---in the labs, classrooms and other spaces that were affected by the fire.   The Open Computer Lab remains closed even now---but thanks to NJ Bradeen, 150 desktops were made  available to students this summer in the library and we will  continue to direct students there until the lab re-opens, which should be fairly soon.  We had to order new hand knitting machines from China; they just arrived---but the little knitting lab, where they would normally be housed, is not yet ready.  However, the large knitting lab---whose beautiful yarns were individually cleaned over the summer---is open for business, as are two general classrooms located in the Feldman basement. Upstairs, on the first floor, our admissions and registrars offices were also badly affected and staff for each was relocated for the entire summer---and our goal is to have everyone back in their first floor offices by the end of the week.

I want to thank George Jefremow, Allen King, June Ng and their teams---Meredith Perkins and her IT colleagues---and everyone else who worked endless hours this summer to clean and rebuild our facilities.  It has really been an “all-hands-on-deck” effort. 

Naturally, the fire-related renovations made our other regularly scheduled summer renovations something of a challenge.  However, work on the lobby of the Pomerantz building proceeded as planned.  The second floor lobby is already complete and we expect---not very long from now---that the exterior glass walls will be installed.  We hope that the lobby will open by the end of the spring semester.  We did complete the renovation of six classrooms and created a classroom on the sixth floor of Dubinsky for our new MFA program in fashion design.  We are also installing new doors between our buildings.  Unlike the forbidding steel doors that used to separate the buildings, these are glass---and I hope they will make our travel between buildings seem friendlier and easier to navigate.

As long as I am talking about construction, let me add some very good news: I have nothing new to report regarding our new academic building.  No one has snatched away our funding… or escalated our costs to yet further heights… or presented us with any further roadblocks.  We are now working on the engineering and design details---all according to schedule---and we expect to break ground in the latter part of this academic year.

This summer FIT made its debut in several new locations.  You may recall that we joined New York City’s “Made in New York” campus for fashion and film production in Brooklyn.  It is a sprawling campus in the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park and we are the only educational institution on it.  We launched with five noncredit evening courses, four of which count towards a Creative Maker Certificate of Achievement in Ethical Design and Local Manufacturing.  They attracted a sizable pool of students---enough so that we are offering eight courses for the fall semester. 

We also established an outpost in the Garment District---a 5400 square foot space in a building on Eighth Avenue at 36th Street.  We are calling it the FIT Design Entrepreneurs Collaborative.  This new location is an outgrowth of the Design Entrepreneur program we launched five years ago with the city to teach emerging designers how to develop effective business plans.  Since then, 173 designers in 155  companies have completed the program.  But no matter how successful they are, many of the designers, if not most, work out of their apartments, and still need affordable, appropriately located spaces to conduct meetings with buyers or retailers.  This Collaborative answers that need.  It offers nine private showrooms and a conference room for workshops, lectures and mini-marts during market weeks.  The  Design Entrepreneurs program is no longer affiliated with the city but we are operating it on our own.  Both the program---and the space---have received generous support from Foundation member Morris Goldfarb of GIII.  We have made those nine spaces available exclusively to FIT alumni and to Design Entrepreneur graduates, whom we think of as our own as well.  All nine are currently rented.  I have to tell you the entire office is beautiful---it is elegant and sophisticated---and we will be celebrating its official opening with a ribbon cutting in October.

Both the Brooklyn and the design entrepreneur project are under the auspices of our Center for Continuing and Professional Studies---and have been, and continue to be, managed with great skill and diligence by Chris Helm, so thank you, Chris.

FIT also arrived in the Hamptons this summer, many thanks to our trustee Joan Hornig who has a wonderful home there and who, as a jewelry designer herself, recognized the synergy between FIT and the community of artists in the Hamptons.  She has long wanted to bring us together.  As it happens, Valerie Steele was giving a lecture at the Parrish Museum in July, so we paired her lecture with a dinner at Joan’s.  But trust me: this wasn’t just another dinner.  The purpose was to showcase the talents of our students, and so we brought a full complement of toys, jewelry, accessories and works from packaging design, as well as the prize-winning student NFL project that was under the direction of CJ Yeh and Christy Shinn.  The works were displayed in a way that allowed guests, as they mingled, to closely observe and enjoy them.  About 70 people attended, many of them new to FIT.  I think we made some new friends for the college and that this will be the first of many such events.

As important as these new outposts are,  perhaps our most ambitious is in Korea.  As I think you know, in just a few days, FIT will launch two AAS programs at SUNY Korea: fashion design and fashion business management.  Your colleagues Lisa Donofrio and Vincine Collura from fashion design and Robin Baxter from fashion business management are there to chair or teach the programs.  Along with Milan and Florence, Korea is our third location abroad and it not only extends our global reach, it opens up a whole new chapter for FIT.  SUNY Korea is located on the Incheon Global campus in the city of Songdo, which is fast becoming Northeast Asia’s economic hub.  It is a vibrant campus that attracts students from 30 different countries---which means that students from Thailand and Japan, Vietnam and China, who are unable to travel to America can get an FIT education in Korea.  And there is no doubt but that FIT is highly regarded there.  Since 1993, South Korea has been the most frequently cited country of origin for international students.  This past year, it supplied us with 305 students, which represented 32 percent of our overall international population---and mind you: we have never even recruited there.  You can imagine the potential for an alumni association. 

The Incheon Global campus is a national project established by the Korean government and their higher education officials have been very eager to have FIT join SUNY Korea, which has been there since 2012.  Even before we signed the papers, they were talking to us about adding programs.  Meanwhile, they plan a number of high profile events to highlight our presence there; in fact, Jack will be flying over in just two days to attend convocation.  And I will be in Korea in October for a week’s worth of formal ceremonies, meetings and special events to mark the launch of FIT on the Incheon campus.

You know, we do not establish programs abroad often or lightly, and when we do, we do so strategically---we do so understanding their relevance to our future.  Asia has such a large fashion industry and South Korea is such a fast-growing market.  Planting our flag in its premier global campus is one more sign of how we see our future.  All of higher education functions globally today, and it is among our goals to educate students to be fluent in the entire global environment.

Indeed, it was with just that motivation that we entered into a partnership with Politecnico di Milano in Milan ten years ago.  Right after our commencement in May, I traveled there and met with our graduating class to celebrate our tenth anniversary.  Milan is a major international fashion and design center and our students have thrived in its rich and distinctive culture.  While I was there, I visited Fabrica, the communications research center outside of Milan, and I am very pleased to tell you that we are planting a flag there, too---at least for next summer.  We will be exporting our very powerful Impactful Language project and making it the subject of workshops so that it can be replicated internationally.  The workshops will be attended by six FIT students and six international students and will be taught by two of the people involved in the project: Christie Shin and CJ Yeh.   

So I think the time has finally come---as it always does when I speak at convocation---to utter the words “strategic plan.”  As you know, one mandate of the plan is to build a powerful brand and we have been busily at it for some time.  We now have something to share with you and it is, I think, quite exciting… even surprising.  It was imperative, of course, that the branding we develop reflect our refreshed mission,  our strategic goals… our aspirations.  It was imperative that it position and sustain us for the next ten years---and that it project, in its strategies, messages and visual materials, what is distinctive and compelling about FIT.  Informed by current market research, it does all that and more.  Many of you contributed to its development and it certainly has your imprint as well.  We will be holding Town Hall meetings in the early part of the semester.  We will send out notices with dates and times.  You will not want to miss this.  Our “brand and image” initiative is still a work in progress---it will be refined over this semester, in part in response to comments from you.  And we will formally  launch it at our spring convocation.

You will notice I haven’t used the “i” word yet---not once.  The word, of course, is “innovation.”  It is our ticket to the future… an integral part of our developing brand and image… critical for student success, and, by the way, the theme of our upcoming issue of Hue, whose wonderful cover I wanted to share with you.  It is, as well, at the heart of our second and most aspirational strategic goal---which is to become an innovation center for creative industries worldwide.  As a community, we have been seeking ways to bring this concept to life for a long long time.  This year, I believe we did it.  We brought in a consulting firm called Innovation Labs, led by Langdon Morris, to develop a strategic plan specifically for innovation.  Many of you participated in its creation---sharing thoughts in interviews, taking part in pop-up prototype sessions, and reviewing it in roundtable discussions.  It has 11 recommendations and an action-oriented timeline that provides a roadmap to integrate, strengthen and formalize our efforts.  The plan has been posted on our website for you to review and we will introduce it to the community-at-large at Town Hall meetings shortly.  I will notify you of the dates and times, and I urge all of you to attend.  We are eager for your feedback . 

I recognize, of course, that we have been “innovating”---so to speak---for years.  So many of our activities and initiatives are nothing if not innovative.  Think of the “Impactful Language” project I mentioned earlier, for instance… or some of the other inventive diversity grant projects that have received funding over the years.  Think of  your own sabbatical efforts, filled with discovery and more and more often, establishing new frontiers in your disciplines.  I think of the forward-focused capstone research in our MPS cosmetics program that has so impressed the beauty industry, and of all the work we are doing to advance sustainability: our experimentation with bee products… the amazing biodesign efforts… our dye garden… and all of the original research coming out of our TDM department.  Then there is our experimentation in virtual and augmented reality and a host of other exciting projects emerging from our FIT/Infor Design and Tech Lab.  This summer, for instance, our Infor colleagues were dazzled by the new approach to software training developed by FIT student interns. Right now, Michael Ferraro, the lab’s executive director, is leading a large-scale interdisciplinary project to create a retail lab on campus that will test emerging technology while developing, producing and selling a private label FIT brand.   

All of this---and a good deal more---gives us much to build on.  As I think you will see, the innovation plan’s 11 recommendations are strong and convincing and include everything from the role of innovation in the curriculum to space requirements, programs, leadership, partnerships, funding and so on.  Fundamental to all of them, however, is recommendation number one: FIT must create a culture of innovation throughout the college.  To quote directly from the plan:  innovation needs to be a mantra that the entire community espouses as one of FIT’s points of pride.

I know that the task is not easy.  Innovation is an experimental process.  It requires risk and uncertainty---a challenge for even the most adventurous among us.  It requires change---and for most everyone, change is uncomfortable and even undesirable.  But for innovation to truly radiate from the FIT culture, that is what we need---we need change in our processes and in our curriculum and in our approach to pedagogy.  As successful as we have been with our history of pioneering programs, we face new challenges daily.  So with all due respect to all that we have achieved to date---and it is considerable--- we cannot allow our “old ways”… our “same ways”… to  get in the way of innovation.  As one CEO put it, “The riskiest thing we can do is just maintain the status quo.”  In my view, to stand still is the same as going backwards.

It is my intention to provide whatever support you need so that each of you, even those who are most hesitant, can thrive in an innovation culture.  To the degree that our budget and master plan allow, there will be space and equipment and technology.  It may arrive incrementally, but it will be there.  There will be processes that will allow you time to conduct research, to experiment… to collaborate with colleagues.  Some of that is in place already.  There will be opportunities for you to meet and connect with thought leaders in the innovation economy.  It is my hope that this plan will inspire you… release your inner muse and evoke all of the optimism and creativity that attracted you to FIT in the first place.  It is my hope that it will become as much a part of FIT’s lifeblood as has the college’s overarching strategic plan.  But you---and only you---can make that happen.  I can help you find the tools, identify the opportunities and lay the groundwork.  Only you can seed the ground and dedicate your immeasurable creativity and energy to its success.

I know that all of you, no matter how wedded to new ways or old, are deeply committed to FIT and to our students.  But I want you to think ahead ten years… to the students who will be entering our doors in 2027 and beyond.  They are in third grade today and they know more about technology than most of us know right this minute.  They will arrive being fluent in whatever the new technology, new language and  mores of that time will be.  Your commitment has to embrace that future if you want FIT to remain relevant---or else those students will find other doors to enter. 

You know, when we first started work on the college’s strategic plan---way back at the start of the century---when we were first envisioning  what FIT could be in 2020 and beyond… I asked the members of the community to think outside the box, as we used to say.  I asked them to let their imaginations float free… to dream big and pay no attention to the price tag.  I was shameless: I even quoted Walt Disney: “If you can dream it,” he said, “ you can do it.”  Well, Walt was right.  We did it.  Yes, there were bumps along the way, but we came together as a community and turned that plan into a living, breathing document that we follow to this day.  That is what I hope we can do together with the innovation strategic plan.

I have invited Langdon Morris, from Innovation Labs, to return to campus to help us start to implement the first phase of the plan.  As you know, we have made excellent progress in fulfilling goals one and three of our college strategic plan.  We have strengthened our academic core and made significant strides in empowering our students.  You should be proud.  But it is the fulfillment of the strategic plan for innovation---goal two---that will distinguish us in the years ahead and will, I believe, go a long way to answer Shannon Maher’s important question: How do we best propel our students forward.

Their future rests with all of us---and especially with all of you.  As we take up this next essential phase of our growth---remember---everyone counts.  Each one of you is part of the value proposition.   I find it thrilling to think of what I know you can achieve ---and look forward with great anticipation to the college-wide culture of innovation that will, over time, emerge.  It is in that spirit that I welcome you back to another rich and productive  academic year.

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