Convocation Fall 2022

Faculty Convocation Fall 2022   
Monday, August 22, 2022
Katie Murphy Amphitheatre

Thank you, Calvin.  Good morning.  And welcome back. 
 You know, when we last met as a group, it was mid- May at our faculty recognition ceremony-- a  truly marathon event that made up, in one fell swoop, for the pandemic years when we were unable gather together live.  So there we were---in Haft---honoring three years worth of excellence ---and it was quite extraordinary.  I don’t know about you, but I found it so gratifying to see the variety and extent of  exceptional achievement---a true composite of excellence and service. 
 It was a moment to savor, and one that reminded me, as I thought about it over the summer, of your resilience in the face of extraordinary circumstances…your dedication as a group to scholarship…to teaching and learning…to your students…to your calling as educators.  It certainly helped get me through this very hot summer. 

 And so here we are again…back at the business of education…of guidance and opportunity…back to start another academic year.  We do it in the company of 15 new classroom faculty members  and five new non-classroom faculty---to whom I want to add my own welcome.   We are proud to have you in our ranks and look forward to all you will contribute in the years ahead.

 I am pleased to say that we will be conducting searches in this academic year for an additional 21 new full-time classroom faculty members.  Indeed, we plan to continue to add to the roster annually so that by 2026, there could be as many as 275 full-time faculty members in place.  That is at least as many as we will need to support our special educational mission.  However,  as you know, a number of our long-serving  full-time faculty members are now retiring---which makes the actual number difficult to predict.  But I remain committed to conducting these searches every year until our ultimate goal is achieved.

 I am also pleased that we start this new academic year with a ratified, signed and board approved contract with the UCE and that your salary increases are being seen in this month’s paychecks.

 Now, turning to the administrative side of the house,  I would like to introduce you to Nicole Finigan Ndzibah, who joins us as the Executive Director of the Social Justice Center at FIT. Some of you may already know Nicole since she has been an adjunct professor in our Fashion Business Management department for the last seven years.  She comes to us from Tommy Hilfiger, where she was, among other things, retail business trainer and instrumental in implementing and supporting the creation of professional development programs for BIPOC employees.  Prior to that,  she served as business manager for marketing and operations with the Macy’s merchandising group. Her commitment to social justice and support for the advancement of BIPOC individuals and women has been a hallmark of all her professional and volunteer pursuits, and she has actively led community service, philanthropic, civic and mentoring projects aimed at empowering young people.  I look forward to all she will contribute to the SJC---so please welcome Nicole.
 Most of you know Jacqui Jenkins, who has been at FIT since 2018 as acting executive director of strategic planning and innovation. Jacqui is now wearing two hats:  she is also interim executive director of the Center for Continuing and Professional Studies.

 I am now pleased to make the following announcements of promotions within our administrative ranks:

 Mary Wilson, who has been serving as chair of the fashion department, has been appointed as acting associate dean of the School of Art and Design.

 Angela Brown, who has been serving as associate director of Residential Life has now been appointed to interim director.

 Marie Mekari has moved from acting to permanent director of International Student Services.

 Congratulations to you: I look forward to working with all of you in your new positions.

 Before I go any further, I’d like to say a few words about Michele Nagel, who, as many of  you know, passed away in early July.  This was---indeed, it is---a shocking loss.  Young, vibrant, full of energy and humor, she was a beloved figure in our community.  She arrived at FIT in 2001 and rose to the position of director of the Center for Continuing and Professional Studies, but it was the precollege program that was really her love and her legacy.  She was the force behind its development and great growth.  I can’t help but think how thrilled she would have been to have seen more than 600 young students---and quite a few parents---finally back on campus this year as part of our Summer Live program.  She will certainly be missed.

 As it happened,  for one week in July, 11 of those teenagers participating in our Summer Live program were our first Social Justice Scholars.  Thanks to the generosity of Gary Wassner, CEO of the Hildun Corporation, they were brought to campus to give them a preliminary taste of college life.  Many of these students are the first in their families to attend college---and while they are  talented and enthusiastic—some arrive with a limited awareness of what to expect from life on a college campus.  So this week was a really special experience for them.  

 They were a very impressive group:  curious, competent and accomplished in their high school and community achievements---all young women this time, and all from New York City or State.  They were housed in Alumni Hall, and with the help of Joanne Arbuckle, Angela Brown and our RA’s, they  were introduced to Chelsea and other city neighborhoods and were offered a variety of recreational activities at night.  Each chose her own workshop and was given a college supply gift card to purchase necessary materials as well as a laptop.   They had an opportunity to meet Mr. Wassner  as well as our corporate partners who will be providing mentorships and internships as they progress.   By the time they left, they had become good friends…had developed a support group… and were looking forward enthusiastically to the start of the semester.

 Each student, by the way,  has been assigned to a faculty mentor in her major to help navigate her years at FIT---and I want to thank each one of those faculty members who has agreed to serve in this capacity.

 And so, with Ms. Nzsdibah and this first set of scholars, the Social Justice Center at FIT is up and running.  We will follow these students closely and learn from their experience as we continue to develop and expand the center.  While we have powerful industry partners, we will seek to identify others---and of course, start to recruit for next year’s set of Social Justice scholars.  

 I want to say a few words about the pandemic protocols we are observing this semester.
A few weeks ago I sent out an advisory to the community stating that we will continue to observe the masking and vaccination policies that we have had in place for the past two semesters.  Not surprisingly, the reaction from the community has been mixed---some of you were relieved and grateful, some of you were aggrieved.  I recognize that in a situation like this we cannot satisfy everybody.  I expect you to understand that as well.  I believe strongly in the social contract---that we have an obligation one to the other, and that by following these protocols at this time, we are doing our best to protect everyone in the community---from the healthiest to the most vulnerable---even if it means some inconvenience to us individually.

 We are continuing to gather information regarding Monkeypox as well and will share information with you on the FIT website  We have some protocols ready to execute should it become necessary and, of course, we will keep you informed of the status of the campus in that regard.

 You know, there is nothing I would like more than to permanently rip this mask off my face---breathe easily---and  see each of you full-face.  And I hope that one day soon that will be possible.  Meanwhile, we will continue to follow the science, the data and the recommendations from health agencies bearing in mind the overall health and safety of this community.  If and when there are changes that will affect our protocols, we will take prompt action.
So…you will no doubt have noticed that construction continued apace over the summer.

 Turnstiles have been installed in Feldman, Goodman and Nagler Hall and they should be operational in just a few weeks.  We sent out a notice that our Public Safety office has been relocated to the first floor of 236 West 27th Street---a far more convenient location for the community.  There is a new roof over the student dining hall, and the dining hall will be open for the fall semester. The faculty/staff dining room will also be open.  And last but hardly least…our New Academic Building remains on schedule.  Façade and interior mechanical work will occupy the crews this fall, and we expect---fingers crossed---to open in the spring of 2024.  
 As you know, our renewed strategic plan has been in development since 2018, with stops, starts and re-examinations along the way caused by the pandemic.  We had great participation from you, our community, as members of the Planning Council, think tanks, committees and roundtables.  You responded to surveys and interviews.   The plan is always organic and it now stretches from 2022 to 2027. While it is a plan that builds on what we achieved in the past, it recognizes the world we live in today---a world affected by the pandemic, by a change in the way the world of work is viewed, how society functions, and by a broader understanding of the systemic racism in society, in industry and how we co-exist here on campus.

 I think it is an exciting plan with admirable goals and well-plotted, achievable initiatives, broken out into graduated time lines.  I could talk about this for the rest of the day, as you well know, but will instead comment on just a few goals and initiatives.  

      The first goal is to adopt a culture of flexible and dynamic learning --- and certainly some of the initiatives that support this goal seem primed to help us succeed at that.  For instance, using technology to expedite the curriculum approval process—all seem to be in agreement that could be achieved within the year.  Similarly, establishing a unified means to add innovation into the curriculum, perhaps introducing required elective courses outside of the chosen major or minor---and make them part of our graduation requirements,  giving students room within their programs to pursue innovation opportunities.  Further, establishing procedures for team-taught interdisciplinary courses and institutionalizing the process.
These are just a few of the ideas for this goal---which, in some form or another have shown up in every iteration of our strategic planning over the years, so I know  it is of great importance to you---and could make a significant difference  in the educational experience of our students.

 Another goal is all about staking our claim as an innovation leader and industry collaborator and involves numerous initiatives to showcase our strengths and achievements in interdisciplinary faculty and student research---as well as one to develop credit-bearing courses and curriculum flexibility for students working with faculty on innovation-related research projects. We’ve already made great strides in the world of innovation, and I’m confident that some of these initiatives will help to build on that.

 There is much much more to the plan which you can review on the FIT website, and I urge you to do so. 
You know, one of the things that has made me very proud is our success over the years at strategic planning.  Much of our progress stems directly from goals we established in our earlier efforts:  our much strengthened  academic core…our expanded school of liberal arts and its wide-ranging program of minors... the Innovation Center at FIT and the D-Tech Lab …research opportunities for faculty and students…our inroads in sustainability…our “unconventional mind” branding program…and so much more.  We were able to make these strides  because of the evolution of our strategic plans, which were bottom-up operations--- developed and implemented by you.    Like the earlier versions, our current plan has great promise.  Our planning council will be meeting in September---our Think Tanks are still in place.  So as I said, I hope you will review these plans, and then get involved within your departments to bring them to fruition.  They are all within your purview to achieve. And I look forward to working with you and supporting these inspiring goals and initiatives. 

 Now, if in late June, you all got a little bit of a happy  buzz in your ears, that might be because we got notification from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education to reaffirm our accreditation---with no recommendations or requirements from the visiting team for improvements. In addition, the Middle States reviewers commended FIT for a number of achievements, including ---and here I quote in brief---our “exceptional focus on experiential learning that aligns with (our) mission”…our “partnerships with industry (that) have breadth and depth and benefit students in their learning and career paths”…our “strong commitment to transparency with regards to ethics and integrity”…our “best practices in student health and wellness”…our “commitment to assessment” and in particular our creation of a “Pandemic Remote Learning Assessment Template.”  This should be a great point of pride not just for those of you who worked on the Middle States self-study, but for all of you, because it reflects precisely what I mentioned earlier on:  your collective calling as members of a higher education institution and your dedication to our students, for which you certainly deserve this praise. 

 Unfortunately, our NASAD review was postponed until Spring 2023 because the organization needed  to include on-site visits to our programs in Italy and South Korea and was unable to do so this year because of the pandemic.  
 So, as we start this new academic year, it is difficult not to acknowledge the chaotic world in which we live---a world in which every plague possible seems to be at play, if not literally at least metaphorically:   climate catastrophe, war, relentless disease, rampant bigotry and violence, economic anxiety…and worldwide threats to democracy, including---astonishingly—our very own.

 But it seems to me that we have a golden opportunity, in the midst of this angst
, to reinforce our obligation as educators to prepare our hopeful students both for the careers they crave and for the world that they inherit.

 You know better than I that the students who enter your labs and studios and classrooms are fueled by laser-clear ambition, focused front and center on careers.  That is what one would expect from a career-oriented college.  And it is our obligation to hone their talents and build their skills so that they can successfully enter the labor market---however that is defined these days.  For 78 years, FIT, your predecessors, and each of you have been doing just that.

 But your task is complicated.  Especially today.  I need not spell out any further the perils of the world.  “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold…the best lack all conviction while the worst/are full of passionate intensity.”  W.B. Yeats wrote those lines in 1921, but they apply just as powerfully today.  The issues are dizzying in their complexity and challenge the wisest and most experienced among us.  Our responsibilities as educators are awesome. 

 And so I think it is imperative for us to help our students make sense of the world and to galvanize them into caring citizens who can contribute to a functioning society and effectively participate in---and even, perhaps, help to heal---democratic life.   You have heard me say this many times.  However, I truly believe that this is the real purpose of education.

 That is why I have always placed such emphasis here---and I know you do, too---on the need for our students to learn to think critically.  To ask the right questions…to be able to discern fact from fiction or mere opinion;  to spot their own biases and set them aside…to see the world from the standpoint of others.  In the light of social media, this is a particularly tough task.

 I know many people believe that these skills are more naturally taught in a traditional academic environment.  However, I believe that in some ways, FIT has always encouraged critical thinking of our students.  Because creativity is one of the higher forms of critical thinking, I could even argue that our students are held to a higher standard than their peers elsewhere.  In their senior design projects, their portfolio or capstone projects, our students produce garments, ad campaigns, poems, packages…business  and marketing plans.  The creation of these products reflects all of those cognitive processes that make up the full complement of critical thinking skills:  knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis…synthesis…judgment.  No wonder you are so proud at the end of the year:  look at what they have achieved!

 However, the trick will be to ensure that even with these hard-won skills, our students will not simply become highly competent practitioners…but also actively engaged citizens of the world, prepared to make informed judgments and choices.  Long ago,  the social philosopher John Dewey charged that we, as a people, take democracy for granted.  Whether this is true for all of us after January 6th, I cannot say---but his point is worth taking.  “We have forgotten that it has to be enacted anew in every generation,” he wrote…”in every year and day, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions.”

 In our current environment, we must find every conceivable way to impress upon our students the need to think deeply about the world around them…to grasp and “enact anew” democratic principles.  Students take their cues from us and make judgments based on our own behavior.  As Toni Morrison once said to a group of professors, “Like it or not, we are paradigms of our own values, advertisements of our own ethics…we teach values by having them.”

 So the opportunity to be our students’ models and to guide them in the arts of democracy must not pass us by.  As we start this new academic year, I believe we can meet that challenge collectively.  And if we do it right---with dialogue, civility, and shared participation in a climate of trust---we will also “enact anew…the living relations of person to person” a vibrant model that we owe to ourselves and especially to our students who represent our future.  Indeed, as educators  you affirm your faith in them and in that future every time you open your classroom doors.

 I welcome you back with great hope for another rich and productive academic year.