Faculty Convocation, Fall 2020

Virtual Convocation
August 24, 2020

Thank you, calvin.  Good morning.  And welcome back.

It should be no secret that this has been---for all of us---the most unsettling school year in memory. We operated in a realm of anxious uncertainty---with unprecedented predicaments confronting us… unfathomable decisions to make…each of which had a series of cascading consequences. And yet we are fortunate.

Although the pandemic swept away every norm in the academic playbook, and exhausted all of us to our core, it did not touch the heart and the soul of FIT. Tested like never before, you---and I mean all of you--- selflessly supported our shaken student population in their curricular and extracurricular pursuits. And you did it without any guides or roadmaps.

It was a classic demonstration of the commitment and ingenuity that is part of the FIT DNA, and I remain grateful to every one of you for your fortitude and dedication. It was not easy for you or for any of us.  Who would have dreamed, just a few short months ago, that our world would have turned so utterly surreal, and our lives so utterly and completely upended.

The pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives---professionally and personally. Those of you with school age children at home particularly know what I mean. We remain today living with the same uncertainty that has been our companion since March.  We do not know when we will meet again on 27th street and under what circumstances.  But we do know that the pandemic ---and the black lives matter movement---have together created a sea change in much of higher education, in much of society---and certainly here at FIT. I will get to that momentarily.  But first, I would like to share some news of the college.  As you can imagine, we have had a very busy summer.

Let me start with the loss of Steven Frumkin, who, as you may know, passed away recently, a victim of COVID-19.  As Dean of the Jay and Patty Baker school of business and technology for eight years, he was that school’s most devoted and enthusiastic champion. He was a beloved figure on campus---a friend, a mentor and a colleague to many of you--- and a very valuable member of the community he will certainly be missed. You may be interested in knowing that his children, in collaboration with our foundation, have established a scholarship fund in his name. I hope to be able to appoint an interim dean shortly and look forward to making that announcement.

 At our annual June Board of Trustees meeting, Liz Peek stepped down as chair after serving---with great energy and dedication---for eight years.  Our new chair is Robin Burns-McNeill, who has served as vice chair for 8 years and has been a member of our board for 25 years. Jacqui Lividini will now serve as vice chair. We also have two new board members:  Gabrielle Fialkoff, a public affairs strategist and businesswoman who served for many years as senior advisor to mayor Bill DeBlasio and established his office of strategic partnerships. She is also the former owner, President and CEO of Haskell Jewels.  She now leads the GKF Group, a public affairs consulting firm. Mona Aboelnaga Kannan is an entrepreneur, global investor, and experienced CEO who is now managing partner of K6 Investments, a private investment firm she founded. She sits on numerous bank and business boards and is an investment advisor and board member of the Arab fashion council.

You know, this was really one summer when rest and relaxation had to take a back seat. For many members of this community, the pace was unrelenting.  As we prepared for the fall 2020 semester, we developed several detailed scenarios, all with the health and safety of the community as our first consideration. While we initially decided to open with a hybrid approach, we soon reversed course along with countless other colleges and universities---and determined instead to go remote at least for our undergraduate schools.

Our Graduate school will be hybrid with an in-person component in almost all of its programs. Not surprisingly, our undergraduate students were unhappy with our decision—particularly those in art and design----and they were not alone. In one survey of more than 3000 college students in the US and Canada, half said that on-line was worse than face-to-face, 16 percent said it was a lot worse, and 80 percent said online simply lacked the engagement---the important engagement---of in-person classes. None of this is surprising considering the abrupt circumstances under which faculty worked in the spring. But I think our students will be pleasantly surprised once they see the results of the workshops offered by the CET and the office of online learning- that so many faculty attended—all of them designed to enhance the remote experience.

As Dr. Oliva indicated, there were well over 2000 participants over the spring and summer. Meanwhile we have invested in new and sophisticated technology resources that will also significantly improve the remote environment for students.

The it division has worked diligently and creatively this summer not only upgrading the infrastructure and academic hardware and software you need but has also identified and delivered new services and equipment.  

We have been watching enrollment figures closely throughout these last months, with concern. At the moment, we seem to be holding steady---by which I mean we have a 5 percent loss in total registration compared to last fall---and that has been our expected projection all along.  The numbers for new students are lower than last year and non-degree students continue to decline, but the number of continuing students registered is similar to last year’s count, which is very good news. One never likes to see a decline in enrollment, but considering the circumstances, and that other SUNY colleges are experiencing drops of up to 20 percent, I think for now we are doing well. However, all of the data are not in yet. The tuition payment deadline has been extended so we will not know our true numbers until later in the week.

The pandemic put many of our innovation and research projects on hold. But the FIT D-tech lab continues to attract new national and international clients, and in some ways has become a beacon for post-virus retail, ---particularly in its range of innovative digital solutions for product presentation.  Tomorrow, for instance, the girl scouts of the USA and FIT will officially announce their collaboration with the launch of a new collection for girl scouts in grades 6 through 12, their first makeover in two decades. Designed by three FIT students, the collection is very stylish and very contemporary. As part of the launch, a shopping destination will be made available on a digital microsite that made use of the lab’s geodesic dome which is outfitted with 64 cameras that captured a young teenage model, in all her three-dimensional glory, wearing various pieces from this collection. The geodesic dome, which is called little Alice, now resides in the lab. In fact, we are exploring opportunities with the company Lafayette 148 to build a digital avatar of their FIT model---another step in the digital transformation of the fashion design process.

We have two events coming up in October---both virtual of course--- that I hope you will note in your calendars— the first is sustainability awareness week.  It will start on the 5th and include a number of opportunities for you to showcase your sustainability projects.  More information will be available in September on the sustainability page of the college website. Then, starting October 13th, we will hold our annual civility week—exactly three weeks before election day. We will focus this year on social justice and conduct numerous workshops on that theme.

As part of our emphasis on social justice, we are also organizing a major virtual voter registration drive for our students in September and we will offer workshops on the same topic during civility week. I believe we have an obligation here at FIT to ensure that every member of our community is registered to vote.

I was quite moved by an essay the great civil rights leader John Lewis wrote just days before he died this summer. This man, who endured some of the worst physical assaults one can imagine in his days of non-violent protest, remained true to his principles till the end. In his essay, he urged readers to vote---because, he wrote, it is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. and I think many of us believe that we need change.

There is no question but that we are living through a pivotal moment in our country. It's a moment of -rebalance of white privilege and black progress. The death of George Floyd touched a chord that reverberated across America…if not the world. His murder echoed with memories of other men and women of color whose deaths under similar circumstances preceded his. Only theirs were not filmed on cell phones. And with his death came historic protests—multiracial protests that are still ongoing---a long overdue reckoning of the racism embedded in the structure of our society and possibly in the very psyche of the American DNA.

In her latest book called “caste:  the origins of our discontent,” the Pulitzer prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson argues that race in America is a system of caste---and compares it to the caste system in India. “caste is the bones,” she says, “race is the skin.”  And she tells the following story: One day, many years ago, when she was a reporter for the New York Times, she was writing an article about a stretch of Chicago’s luxury district called the “miracle mile.”

Ms. Wilkerson, who is black, had scheduled one more interview, and when the man arrived in the showroom in which she waited, he brushed her aside.  He was late for an appointment with a New York Times reporter, he told her---and didn’t have time for her. When she told him that she was that reporter, he did not believe her even after she produced her identification. “caste,” she writes, “is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence---who is accorded these and who is not.” Her analogy is complex, and I will leave it to others to analyze and argue it. And I do not know if we have a caste system at FIT. But 30 years have gone by since Isabel Wilkerson was ejected from this man’s showroom in Chicago---and our students, staff and faculty of color tell us they suffer from similar soul-damaging insults.

You may remember that earlier this year, we began a conversation on campus about our own experiences with racism at FIT. It was driven by students who were inflamed by the MFA fashion design show at the start of the year.it was not so much a conversation as it was a kind of catharsis and confessional---a moment when our students told us, as candidly as they could,  what they experience  in their classrooms here at FIT. They were angry; they were solemn; they were hesitant; they were in tears. They were in pain. And they all wanted change.  It was a sobering and profoundly sad moment for me personally.

In my many years here, i don’t think i have ever witnessed FIT students as a group, so energized and determined to have their say---and so heart-wrenchingly honest in their pain. On the heels of that, the pandemic arrived, but we knew that that dialogue was far from over---there was much more to learn---much more to hear---and much that needed repair. And so i scheduled a series of virtual discussion sessions over the summer for students, faculty and staff ---smaller, more intimate groups—where people could have their say----and I wish all of you had attended.

We heard about couched but cruel comments, ugly stereotypes, limited expectations, opportunities denied. I’m not exactly a novice in this universe, but some of the things I heard took my breath away: a professor describing the eyes of Asian models as ”chinky” and using the word “chink” during class. Faculty touching or wanting to touch the hair of African American students.  Black staff members afraid to report micro or macro aggressions, experience having shown them they would not be believed and …everyone fearful of retaliation. Repeatedly the students told us that they wanted more diversity in the faculty ranks and among their peers. Interestingly, many of the white faculty said the same.

The students were demanding change, and like so many across the country who were marching for justice, they wanted change now.so what is the legacy of this moment? In his remarks at the democratic convention the other night, Governor Cuomo said, “only a strong body can fight off the virus.” He was speaking literally as well as metaphorically---referring to the state of the nation. But that metaphor applies to us as well, I think.

I attended every conversation, every town hall; starting in February and ending just the other day. I listened intently and found that the community that I thought I knew …the community that periodically and enthusiastically took on civility campaigns…also suffered from a virus that allowed debilitating behavior patterns to fester and grow. I want to believe we have the capacity to grow stronger. I want to believe that we have the desire to grow stronger.

It is probably  too late to change the hearts and minds of those who blindly or knowingly create unwelcome environments for students of color, who marginalize their African American peers or staff members---but  bad behavior can be changed; it can be called out if we are willing to call it out;  it can suffer consequences if we are willing to apply them.

We have the power to make those changes. In those summer sessions that i held with students and faculty and staff,  there was, first of all, an abiding affection for FIT even among those who felt marginalized; and there were others who were just there to listen and to learn,  people of good will who wanted to take a stand…who wanted to be part of the solution, and some who offered thoughtful, creative ideas well worth pursuing.

Our students made it clear that they were tired of lip service and so, following the MFA fashion show, we began to meet with them and developed an ambitious 11 point plan meant to eliminate the bigotry that was infecting our community. It calls for a range of actions such as mandatory annual discrimination and unconscious bias training for faculty, staff and the administration. Training on cultural competency, the creation of an ombudsperson position    to safeguard students against biased treatment. We will post the 11 points on our website so you can see the direction we will pursue. But that is just one part of the equation.  We have a vested interest in the creative industries.

We graduate 2000 students every year, and those are the industries in which they earn their livelihood. Today, through our foundation, we have launched a new initiative called the social justice collaborative at FIT. Its overarching goal is to change the corporate and organizational cultures that stand in the way of diversity in the workplace. FIT is the link between industry and education---we provide the pipeline of skilled people who fill the workforce and become its leaders.

I believe it is our obligation to transform the cultural competencies in the creative industries so that people of color will be identified, recruited,  placed, mentored and promoted into the leadership ranks with the same frequency and considerations as their white counterparts. And so we established this collaborative network and invited a selected group of leading  corporate and non-profit CEO  and influencers in the creative fields to join us in this effort.

Now, as I am sure you have noticed,  many companies have taken out  ads  and established programs declaring their commitment to social justice in the wake of the  George Floyd murder;  it is the cause du jour –some are skeptical and suspect that this new commitment  is just  part of a passing moment. That might  be the case elsewhere,  but if you had been at our initial meeting, you would have seen a deeply serious, results-oriented group of senior executives---presidents and CEO’s of companies like PVH, Mary Kaye, Kering America, Gucci, GIII and Harlem’s fashion row--- discussing their  concerns about their own companies and seeking actionable and measurable strategies for such things as recruitment, hiring and promotion of minorities.  It was a rich conversation with a real sense of urgency.

We are also developing a series of programs, ranging from a speaker series to a film festival to an executive education program---all with social justice as the dominating theme. Plus, we will establish a social justice scholarship fund to fuel all levels of minority talent in the pipeline. At the heart of these efforts is the promise of alleviating the impact of systemic racism.  Today we have no greater responsibility.

Our students will be the next generation of leaders in companies that will need to infuse their culture with the recognition that responsible practices are good for business and that consumers are questioning the corporate commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.  Companies---and we—need to recognize that cultural competence is an important element for change within an organization. We have an opportunity to reap the benefit of diverse voices in leadership roles and to teach and model behavior that can lead to enhanced productivity and expanded customer loyalty. We can generate conversations and actions to move these statements from platitudes to actionable behaviors and beliefs.  Our students are watching and evaluating our responses to their interests and demands.

So, as Calvin said, we have so much work to do. Between the challenges of remote education-- and the repair of our social fabric--- our dance card is full.   We all have a role to play if we want the principles of social justice to take root and thrive. We all have a role to play if we want to build a legacy that reflects the values, we claim to cherish values such as equity and inclusion and diversity.

As educators, we often learn from our students, and what I learned over these past months has been invaluable and reinforces my own determination to wipe out obstacles to achievement and build an environment that recognizes and celebrates the beauty of diversity. It is about respect and dignity; it is because silence signals complicity and it is up to us to make a difference.

In the words of Margaret Mead,  “I look forward to our weaving a social fabric in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.” and it is in that spirit that I welcome you back and wish all of you, wherever you are,  good health and a productive and rewarding academic year.