Convocation Spring 2022

Virtual Convocation  Spring 2022

Good morning and welcome back…and dare I say it, happy new year.  I know these are trying times.   When we opened the academic year last August, I was so pleased that we were back in person, able to greet our colleagues with an elbow-bump…and to give  our students the benefit of our unique, hands-on educational experience---something they had so long been craving. It may have taken a while for us to readjust and re-establish our old routines.   But  eventually things  settled down, and life on campus proceeded.

However, I suspect we all knew--- at some level--- that the pandemic might upend us yet again and force us to  pivot back to remote.  And so---unfortunately--- here we have been for the close of the fall semester and for the winter session, functioning once more in a virtual environment…anxious, certainly, but  at least practiced in our ability to operate in this mode.  No one thinks this is ideal---particularly our students who want nothing more than a normal college life, and we are working very hard to ensure a successful in-person return.

As you know, we have pushed back the start of the  semester  so that we can, indeed, open in-person.  This is a decision we made with great caution--- keeping  health  and safety as the top priority.  We have put in place a set of rigorous safeguards that reflect the mandates of federal, state and SUNY authorities---from whom we continue to take guidance. We have worked closely and with the support of the UCE and held conversations with the  executive committee of the Faculty Senate.  We all share a common goal:  to be careful and keep our community safe and healthy while delivering the best possible outcomes for our students.

Still, I know that it’s a nerve-wracking, stop-and-start existence---for you, for our students, for the whole world, really. Every establishment of every stripe is wrestling with the same challenges and devising solutions that ---no matter how well conceived and intended--are unable to satisfy all of their stakeholders, be they students, parents, employees or customers.

Through it all, here at FIT,  we have  had the great benefit of our Health Services team, under the direction of Anne Miller.  They are our front-line workers.  Even as I speak, they are in the Great Hall dispensing vaccinations, boosters, flu shots and tests…and behind the scenes, they are registering test results,  vaccination status…contact tracing… maintaining supplies, and attending to non-COVID health matters as well.  They are the ones who have to implement the thicket of critical, complicated and ever-changing city, state, federal and SUNY requirements---and with Anne’s leadership, have managed to devise new and inventive methods to get it done.  They have been selfless---and tireless---all in the name of keeping us safe. We are fortunate to have such a professional, dedicated team here to provide support and I am very grateful , as I am sure you are as well, to each one of them.

And so we return, in just over a week.  I will be here with you, in person, on opening day,  as you continue your own special work of transforming young lives so eager to be here…so eager to become the  innovative-- groundbreaking---  leaders of tomorrow.   I know how committed you are to our students.  I have watched with admiration your ability to guide them--even in this confounding environment---and to create the  unique and rewarding classroom experience that so defines an FIT education. 

So again, I welcome you back.  I hope you stayed safe, well and warm during the break. I  also hope you were able to get all of the rest you deserve and that you will need to carry you  to May 24th ---commencement. It seems like a long time away, but we know it will be here in a flash.

But for the moment, I would like to share some of the news of the day---as I always do at convocation.
As you may know, last month we formally launched the Social Justice Center at FIT.

I have been talking about the center as it developed over the past year---and I shared a video with the FIT community on the day it launched---so you may be familiar with its goals.  It is a first-of-its kind  in higher education and in industry---an initiative established to increase opportunity and accelerate social equity for the BIPOC---that is, the Black, Indigenous and People of Color--- community within the creative industries.  Its hallmark is a seamless and sustained interconnection between early education, college mentorship and training, and career support.  

From the beginning, we have enjoyed significant industry support.  In fact, we have three founding partners, each of whom contributed $1 million:  PVH, which was our first; Capri Holding, which is Michael Kors company, and Tapestry Foundation, whose corporate side is made up of Kate Spade, Coach and Stuart Weitzman.  Separately, G-III Apparel Group, headed by our Foundation Board member Morris Goldfarb, made the establishing gift to the SJC Scholarship Fund.

In fact, the Center has created considerable excitement among our friends.  For instance, the Fragrance Foundation, which honored our own Virginia Bonofiglia and Stephan Kanlian at a special event in November, announced that it was contributing $100,000 to establish a Fragrance Foundation FIT Diversity Scholarship.  Similarly, we received $100,000 from Puig (POOJH), the parent company of Carolina Herrera, to honor Carolina with a scholarship in her name.  Prada, Ralph Lauren, Target and Saks are among the numerous others who have pledged support.  At this time, we have already raised almost $5 million for both scholarship and operational support.

Jeff Tweedy  the former president and CEO of Sean John---and, I should add, an FIT alum---is acting as a special advisor to this project.  As you can imagine, this is a major initiative for the college and one that we believe over time will make real, lasting and positive change in the creative industries.  It has generated a good deal of media interest, starting with an exclusive in the New York Times style section last month which you may have seen.
On the fundraising front, I am pleased to tell you that Macy’s has pledged to become the Future of Fashion runway show  sponsor with a gift of $250,000.  The company’s involvement as sponsor goes beyond financial support.  As part of the show, a  Macy’s capsule collection will be presented, created by five students, each of whom will be mentored by Macy’s own stylists and designers.   All of them will get cash prizes but the winner’s designs will be produced by Macy’s and sold at its Herald Square flagship in the fall.  For an aspiring designer, it can hardly get better than that!

And we have other good fundraising news, some of it aimed at specific academic programs.   For instance, our undergraduate cosmetics and fragrance marketing program was the recipient of $1 million from the Lauder family to endow a scholarship in Leonard Lauder’s name.  Leonard pioneered the undergraduate program here at the college, so it is really quite dear to his heart.   Meanwhile, Bob Fisch, a Foundation board member, established a suite of gifts to benefit students in our Global Fashion Management and Fashion Design programs, both in our graduate school.  The gift covers scholarships, general program support as well as prize money.   Substantial gifts were also donated to our Toy Design and our Menswear programs--- the latter from a family and friend completely unaffiliated with FIT who simply wanted to set up a scholarship to honor the stylish  friend---and father---who loved menswear.   Another gift  goes to the heart of our sustainability efforts by establishing an exciting new and innovative photography lab  designed to support environmental goals on a global scale. Keith Ellenbogen, who will supervise the lab’s activities, was instrumental in its development and in securing the funds.

I know that many of you support the college financially;  you give generously to our annual fund and to other special appeals;  you give to your departments… contribute to scholarship funds;  some of you provide support for individual students who are in financial need.  It is a kind of generosity that goes above and beyond that which you give on a daily basis in your classrooms, labs and studios.

I was particularly moved this year by a fund set up by one of your colleagues, Susan Daykin in the Fine Arts department, who has been at FIT for almost 50 years. Like so many of you, she was inspired by her talented students and by what she felt her colleagues---and the department---needed to fulfill their goals.  So she established a multi-purpose  annual fund that not only provides students with scholarships, study abroad support, gift cards and outside residencies---but also supports the department with funds for equipment, new programs and mediums, as well as honorariums for speakers.  So to Professor Daykin--- and to all of you whose generosity of spirit contributes so much to our students  ---I say thank you once again.

As you see, our advancement team has had a very busy season---and in fact, Phil McCarty and Liz Manalio, our new alumni relations director, just returned from Beverly Hills where they hosted a remarkably successful reception for FIT alums.  More than 50 attended and they spanned the decades from the 1960’s to the 2020’s— and represented a wide cross-section of programs.  Most were strangers to each other but they welcomed the opportunity to meet other alums… to share FIT memories…to learn more about the college today and in the end, many of them  enthusiastically volunteered to help with future events.

I tell you this because we know how difficult it can be for our students to broaden their scope of friends  while they are here because they spend so much of their time with classmates within their programs.  But events like this give them the opportunity not only to meet, but to bond, with other alums whom they otherwise would never have met…and  to cultivate a new sense of school spirit.  And that, of course, helps greatly in our fundraising efforts. 

Meanwhile, we are well into the planning stages for our gala---our biggest fundraising event of the year.  It is scheduled for mid-April and will take place at the Shed.  We have a great line-up of honorees.  At the moment, they include Brandice Daniel from Harlem’s Fashion Row, who is an alum, Aerin Lauder---and  others I am not yet allowed to name in public but who have powerful marquee value.  In deference to the pandemic, we will be limiting our audience to 350, but with our lineup of high profile honorees, I think we will be turning people away at the door. 

This past semester we’ve made good progress on a number of institutional projects.  Just last month we held Town Halls to review and discuss the  Middle States accreditation self-study that has been in development since 2019.  The self-study is a monumental job that has occupied the time of over 80 members of our community in its preparation.  It provides a comprehensive picture of what we have and have not achieved in the last decade---and guidance for what we must do going forward.  The Town Halls have always been useful forums and last month ours elicited  additional recommendations, some of which will be incorporated into the report.   The Middle States evaluation team will visit us virtually in March and provide us with feedback…but we will get the final verdict on reaccreditation in June.

The School of Art and Design is similarly preparing its own self-study for a NASAD reaccreditation review.  It, too, has been an all-hands team effort, under the direction of Dean Troy Richards.  That review process requires an on-site visit from  the external evaluators to review the work produced by students and other materials in the school’s many disciplines.  They are expected to visit us in April.

Then we have our strategic plan.  You know, some years ago no convocation could go by without my commenting on strategic planning;  it is an activity we’ve been working at for much of my tenure here at FIT.  Just as a reminder, we are currently developing the plan’s fourth revision.  We started  this one in 2018---gazing into the future to  create goals for FIT based on changes we anticipated  in society, the economy and in the culture .  But then came  the pandemic---and in many ways that crystallized for us the immediacy of some of the predictions on which we were basing those  goals.  It forced us to re-think some of our original conclusions and goals and caused a delay in completing the plan.  This has been another of our team-efforts with over 450 members of the community participating one way or another in the plan’s development.  And we are now, finally, in the home stretch.  We expect to hold round table discussions this semester at which we will share the plan with a cross section of the community for additional ideas and insight and hope to complete it by the end of the academic year.

I should add that although it is not an explicit goal in the plan, it has long been my personal goal to grow our full-time faculty roster to 300---a number I believe is essential to support our special educational mission.  Last August at convocation, I told you that I planned to conduct searches and hopefully be able to hire 20 fulltime classroom faculty during this academic year---and I simply want to report that we are making good progress on that goal.
As you may recall, I appointed a committee, chaired by Professor Eric Daniels, to explore ways to address student concerns---and yours---about further diversifying our curriculum.  The committee met throughout the fall semester and decided to develop a survey to explore the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities regarding  existing curriculum that can be used to respond to those concerns.  It will include questions about existing courses that students throughout the college might take within your own departments, topics not currently being discussed or taught, study abroad opportunities and areas of research you might consider taking on.   It will be sent to deans, department chairs and curriculum committee chairs this spring with the hope that  the results can inform you on where your department might contribute to the collective offerings and shared topics---and give us a rich repository of information on how to move forward.

You know, of course, that in November, we launched a whole new college website---the first new comprehensive site in nearly 10 years.  It was developed and produced by our Communications and External Relations division with the collaboration of the entire community.  It required a complete assessment  and updating of the content of the old site whose 10,000 pages were reduced by half. Among its features is a new faculty directory that is easily searchable and provides the opportunity for you to build out an individual page with biographical or teaching materials, research, photos and links. 

Given the breadth of FIT’s experience and  expertise---and our mission to serve the creative industries---I have always believed that we are ideally suited to provide executive education for working professionals.  And so now, I am pleased to say,  we are launching an executive education program through our graduate school.  It is designed largely for alumni, mid-career managers, senior leaders, executives and other working professionals  looking to develop professionally or otherwise  hone their skills.  Interim Dean for Graduate Studies Brooke Carlson has developed the program with support from Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing Professor Mark Polson and in partnership with the Center for Continuing and Professional Studies.  There will be individual courses, certificates and workshops, and advanced education seminars. 

We are bringing in outside experts to work alongside our own graduate faculty and have planned three other pilot projects:  one on luxury and lifestyle brand strategy, another on cryptocurrency and NFTs, and the last, an immersive seminar for executives on leading  social impact programs within their own organizations. These are all substantive offerings which we will market strategically.  This program  not only expands the graduate school’s mission, but reinforces the college’s mission as well, especially now as we work with leaders in the creative industries through our Social Justice Center to enhance and accelerate diversity, equity and inclusion within their own organizations.
We have also made encouraging progress with our efforts for the adult learner.  Our Center for Continuing and Professional Studies has increased our number of non-credit certificates, including our successful Workforce for the Future master certificates, by 24 percent---for a total of 49 non-credit certificate offerings.  Beyond that, we continue to experiment with creative ways to court the adult learner with new groupings or bundling of business and design credit courses that, upon completion, award  electronic badges to the student.  At the same time, we also organized 15 of our evening credit-bearing courses into the kind of appealing creative categories that we believe will be attractive to adult learners and entice them to complete those categories of courses and start building their badges, certificates and credits through our continuing education offerings.  Our promotional campaign, which started last month, includes what we now call a “Concierge Desk” for better coordination of our support services specifically for these students.

So… on the 31st, when you return to campus, and throughout the weeks and months ahead, we are going to actually see our new academic building rise above ground as workers install its steel columns and girders, floor by floor. I am still amazed that we can speak about it in the present tense considering its incubation period of almost 20 years. 
The first phase of the construction—the foundation, which we started last year---is now complete.   Because the work was all underground,  you could not see it.  But you may well  have heard it—since it required  so much drilling into bedrock.  This next phase will not be as noisy, although you will certainly hear it if you are located near the north wall of the Feldman Center, which will become an interior wall of the new building.

I have always believed that this building expressed and embodied FIT’s aspirations for the future.  And even though it has undergone many changes since its inception to account for numerous budgetary challenges and our own evolving mission---it still reflects our original vision of a green, student-centered building, one that reveals our richness and complexity while encouraging and displaying our interdisciplinary goals. 

As of today, it is on schedule---a remarkable achievement for any construction project---and so it is expected to open for the Fall 2023 semester, just a year and a half away.  That means that all of our current AAS students---and all of you, of course---will be able to experience its many benefits.  This is another of those “from my lips to God’s ears” moments.

Our mission at FIT always compels us to look to the future. So as we reconvene, I greet you with optimism and enthusiasm.  I am ready to watch that building rise…to contemplate its dazzling promise...and to see our future…and the future of many scores of talented young people…unfold.  I welcome you back with a wish for good health and a successful spring semester.