Faculty Convocation, Spring 2021

Virtual Convocation
January 21, 2021

Thank you, Calvin.   As the year 2020 dragged to its dreadful end, I was one of  millions, I’m sure…who could not wait to say good riddance…and to welcome, with a sliver of optimism,  a new year.  After all, at the time, a vaccine was on the horizon;  there was a looming sense of  possibility… of recovery… of stability

Well, it has only been three weeks and it has been ….as we know, more challenging…more tense and  chaotic than ever.  But the academic calendar prevails and here we are nonetheless.  We return to our good work, and to our students.   I hope you were able to get some rest on the break.  You have been performing heroically since the start of the pandemic.  You have demonstrated exceptional concern and focus and “student-centeredness.”  It has been a struggle but you carried on.  Your ingenuity and your dedication---all focused on your students---have been exceptional. You persisted and so your students persisted, despite the chaos around us.

Of course, that chaos, the fall-out from this month’s unfathomable threat to our democracy,  has been dominating my thoughts ---and I will get to that momentarily.  But first I would like to share some news of the college.

I’ve been asked whether FIT will be dispensing the COVID-19 vaccine.  The answer is “maybe.”  I am equivocating because we have the approval to vaccinate, we just don’t have the vaccine.  As you probably know, New York City has not received the number of doses it needs and we are among many many sites that are  currently without a supply.  We continue to administer the COVID-19 test, however. The mandate from SUNY is that rather than administer the test bi-weekly to those who come to the campus regularly, we will administer it weekly.  Anne Miller, our tireless director of student health services, tells me that we have administered about 3-thousand COVID-19 tests since October.  We will let you know if and when the vaccine arrives on campus and what our capability and protocols will be.

Earlier this week, Governor Cuomo unveiled his executive budget, which is the first step in determining the state budget for fiscal 2022---and our own operating budget as well.  While we are still reviewing the details, I am pleased to say that the news for SUNY and for us is not as bleak as we thought possible.  Here are some of the highlights of the governor’s proposals:

State funding for base aid will not be reduced.  But as you may know, those funds are based on student enrollment, and we have had a six percent decline in enrollment, so there will be a reduction in our state aid.  But compared to what we had anticipated, it will still be better news than we had expected.

In addition, TAP funding for students will not be reduced.

The 20 percent of state aid that was delayed in this past year---that comes to $1.2 million---will be restored.

We will be eager to see the city’s preliminary budget and financial plan which we expect by mid-February.  And this is the information we have at this point, and it is, of course, subject to change.

The state legislature must vote to adopt the governor’s budget and traditionally that takes place on April 1st.  But this has been a rather untraditional year. 

Let me add one other piece of financial news, which is very good:

The federal stimulus bill has allocated $11.1 million to FIT---$3.5 million of which will go directly to students, and we will receive very specific  instructions About the expenses to which we can apply the balance of the funds.

All of this is much better news than we anticipated. Hopefully the final budget will keep these proposals in place.

We are making progress on the new academic building---although the shovel has not yet gone into the ground.  On the other hand, the  site behind the Feldman building---the courtyard where it is to be built--- has been thoroughly cleared and construction barriers erected.   DASNY issued contracts for both phases of the work---the foundation and the building construction.  And contractors are on the site securing all the permits and approvals we need from multiple city agencies.  Drilling  for asbestos behind Feldman actually started yesterday.  Sadly, the trees near the site on 28th Street are being removed---but we have received assurances that they will be replaced once the work is done.

I remind you that the funds for this project are from the state and the city capital budgets and cannot be applied for any other purposes.  If we do not build this building, we will forfeit the funds and they will go to another construction project elsewhere in the state.  In many ways, the release of the funds for our building is a signal of support for FIT and for the revitalization of Chelsea.

Last August at convocation I described a two-part project we were implementing to begin to combat the bigotry  that continues to fester on our campus.   There are a number of important campus-oriented  components of our programming, including your participation in annual workshops addressing unconscious bias and discriminatory behavior. I am pleased that many of you have already signed up or completed the workshops.

This is, of course, just one step of many that we must take in order to own our own behavior---because that behavior becomes our signature.  It defines our community and it either elevates or stains our image as we go forward in a world that is changing all around us.

We will do a climate survey so that we are certain about the nature and the scope of the issues we need to address-- and to ensure that we have consensus about the need for change.  We really cannot continue to just talk about it or undertake crisis intervention when the need arises.  It is time to act.  It is time for change.

The other part of our efforts has to do with addressing racial bigotry in  the creative industries---where so many of our alumni are employed.  Bias there cuts off opportunity for many, including our alumni of color who either do not get hired  or are left to languish in entry level jobs.  With our industry partners we formed the Social Justice Collaborative at FIT with the very ambitious goal of upending the corporate cultures that stand in the way of real diversity within their walls.  We were fortunate to be able to bring on Sherry Baker, an international marketing and brand-building executive most recently from the beauty industry, to direct the program.  I should stress that she is doing this pro bono.  She is a good friend of the college and she was good enough to say yes when I asked her for her assistance.

We are building a social justice  institute today--- but one with an eye on tomorrow.  We are in it for the long haul, and we will make systemic changes in the corporate recruitment, hiring and advancement practices in the industries where our graduates seek employment and recognition. We are starting the  behind-the-scenes work of developing infrastructure and procedures that assure accountability.  Once these core metrics are  in place, we will be in a position to program and to effectively help transform the corporate culture in the creative industries which, until now, have been able to function without serious acknowledgement of their own lack of diversity, equity and inclusion in their ranks or in their leadership.

This semester we are moving into an exciting new stage of our strategic planning process.  We are now in the 4th iteration of our strategic plan---which we reassess on a regular basis. In each of our plans, faculty have articulated the need for greater flexibility in the curriculum.  At this stage we have probably achieved as much in this area as we can without addressing the issue head on.  At our most recent  planning council meeting, faculty suggested that this is really at the core of the strategic direction the college should embrace going forward.

In order to address this initiative, I have formed a faculty committee to develop a collaborative and strategic approach to examining our curricular areas.  The collective thoughts seemed to crystalize around the concepts of more flexibility in the curriculum, more possibilities for transdisciplinary academic offerings and more opportunities for students to engage in research or capstone projects with cross disciplinary teams of students and faculty.

The committee has 14 members and its three co-chairs represent our undergraduate schools.    Their charge is to develop proposals and recommendations to be submitted to the departmental curriculum committees and the appropriate faculty committees for consultation, such that the agreed upon recommendations can be submitted to the college-wide curriculum committee this spring or early fall 2021.  It is an ambitious schedule, but if we are truly committed to this goal, I know we can do it.  I am prepared to support the work in any way that I can. 

Our Annual Sustainable Business and Design conference takes place this year on April 13th and 14th, so please make a note of it.  Programming, however, will extend till Earth Day,  which is a week later.    This year the theme is Makers in Action.  Our guest speakers include sustainability all-stars Eileen Fisher and Stacey Flynn, who is an FIT alum as well as ceo and  cofounder of Evernu. You will be receiving save the date notices next week with a link that will let you submit questions for them  to address during the program.

I am sorry to say that at this point, all signs are that commencement will once again be virtual.    We communicated this information to our graduating class last month so that they and their families could make or adjust their plans.  For many students---and for many families---this is devastatingly disappointing.   For many of them, this will be the first college graduation in their families.   

Students look forward to the ritual of walking across the stage in a cap and gown---and families  have waited generations to witness it---it is a  milestone and I know you understand  that since so many of you have been on that stage with me when they march across, filled with pride and joy.

We explored every possible option that would allow us to schedule an in-person event. But state, city and SUNY pandemic mandates, limited locations of sufficient size and availability in New York City, and numerous other issues  all combined to create roadblocks that we had no way to overcome.  I have promised the students that should the earth shift in some unforeseen way to make  it possible to be in person, I will do everything within my power to make it happen.  It just seems highly unlikely at this point.  Whatever we do we will do  in the best possible FIT style so that it will be festive and fun---and certainly memorable.

I cannot help but worry, though, and wonder:  Once these fresh new alumni leave our command,  I know they will be professionally prepared---but can anyone prepare them for the world they will enter?  Have we done enough to help them?   After almost a year of the pandemic and its related  anxiety, isolation and economic turmoil… after almost four years of congressional paralysis and growing  national tribalism,  were any of us prepared for the assault on the very heart of America two weeks ago?

The grief that we have been suffering since then brought me back  almost 20 years to  another soul-shattering event,  to 9/11. It was a time of     unprecedented challenge.  Those of you who were here will remember how this community came together..  Each professor, administrator and staff member…our building and grounds crews…our food service personnel…everyone worked tirelessly to keep our students, and indeed, the entire community, safe, to provide comfort, counseling, consolation or just simple information.

This sense of shared responsibility, compassion and dedication was replicated famously throughout the city and the nation.  It was a time of coming together…and oddly enough, a time of hope.

What I remember most poignantly was the way the country was able to forget the differences among us…differences in race…ethnicity…nationality…and religion…in order to forge bonds in a common cause and for a common good.  At that moment, as newly vulnerable as we were, we appeared strengthened in our determination not to succumb to the kind of fear and panic that breeds blame…and bigotry.

It appears now that we were, at the very least, naïve.

The past very eventful and clamorous two decades have been pockmarked by anger…extremism…incivility…war.  Our hope that we could count on that early collective spirit of cooperation and compassion gradually dissipated and these past two decades became a  time in which too often, unfocused fear turned us against…or away from…each other.

Today, our country is in a dangerous place…Joe Biden said that, standing in the fields of Gettysburg, just last October in the midst of his presidential campaign:  once again, he said,  we are a house divided.

The world was shocked by the desecration of our Capitol building by mobs of  anarchists.   

When Robert Kennedy Jr. commented that democracy is messy and hard and never easy, I do not think this is what he had in mind.  Our democracy is fragile.  It is what Franklin Roosevelt once called “a living thing…a human thing compounded of brains and muscles and heart and soul.” Democracy cannot thrive in an environment of animosity and distrust.  It must be nurtured, its principles taught and passed on to each new generation. It needs  citizenship, practiced by informed citizens…daily…and in good faith.

On this score alone, I do not envy our new president. How do you bring together a country so suspicious, so polarized, so angry?  

While speaking at Gettysburg, President Biden offered the beginning of a solution: It starts, he said, with how we treat one another, how we talk to one another, how we respect one another.  This is a sentiment we share, one you have heard me express repeatedly, often at convocation. 

It seems to me that we have not mastered the ability to exercise civility and respect in our disagreements.  But there is value in listening and learning and determining a path forward forged with respect for each other, the inclusion of differing points of view and a deep and abiding respect for all of humanity.

If that is the future we want for ourselves and for the students whom we nurture…then we must model it, and practice it, as we do democracy…daily…and in good faith.

I do gain hope and inspiration, even in dark times, from being here at FIT.  The creativity and brilliance of our students shine a light on the possibilities that the future holds.

Last Friday, for instance,  I observed five of our  students—four from design, one from TDM--- paired with six MIT engineering students in a presentation of solutions they developed in a two-week workshop for their sponsor, New Balance.  We saw amazingly inventive uses of polyethylene as a sustainable option for footwear and, in another project, the exciting potential of structural color-changing fibers. Both were achievable, scalable solutions and New Balance was thrilled.  It was sophisticated, futuristic and gave a glimpse of the world that will be.  I was beyond proud.

Then last month, I learned that a team of FIT students took third place in this year’s international  Adobe Contest.  Let me point out that this is a computer analytics contest--, computeranalytics---international in scope for both undergrad and graduate students, most of whom come from select business schools throughout the world.  This year there were more than 1600 entrants and the top prize went to the Indian Institute of Technology. Other winners came from the business schools at the University of Chicago and UCLA. And then there was FIT.  These are the things that keep me going at this work on a daily basis.

And then there are all of those grants you are being awarded---so many of them focused on the future.  Last week I received a note from one of the    grant directors at the National Endowment for the Arts regarding the $25,000 grant that Jack mentioned earlier.  She simply wanted to tell me  how deeply the NEA admires… and how  much the NEA is inspired by… the work of FIT.

I am inspired by it as well.  In times of trouble your work and the work of our students help to rekindle  hopes for a brighter, better future, one in which each of us can find, once again, the compassion and cooperation that characterized the aftermath of 9/11… and forge bonds for a common good.  It is in that spirit that I welcome you back and look forward to our work together in the coming months.