NSCU College of Textiles, April 2011
North Carolina State University
April 4, 2011
I want to start by thanking all of you for inviting us here to the North Carolina College of Textiles. For Dr. Bataille, it is a homecoming. For me, it is a great opportunity to get to know you better, to see your campus, your students' accomplishments, and to help us explore the possibilities of collaboration between our two institutions.
As educators, we share common interests, of course. And even though our institutions are very different, we do have some striking similarities. We both, for instance, are public institutions whose missions are to serve our local communities; your local community has historically been rural. Ours is urban, but the spirit of the mission is the same. Perhaps because you are a land grant university, your identity as a public institution is no surprise. But even today, and even in , people are surprised to learn that FIT is public, and that it is part of the State University of New York. But FIT is very proudly, very loudly public, and our commitment to that aspect of our mission remains unabated. Another of our similarities is our profound link to industry. And that brings me to one more thing that I will address more fully later: because of that industry connection, we both operate—perhaps more than other kinds of educational institutions—in a heightened and constant climate of change.
But we are each unique as well. And I am going to take advantage of your invitation to speak by telling you a little bit about FIT and its history—and why, I believe, it is different from almost any educational institution you will ever encounter. You have told me that you are especially interested in how we operate with industry, which is why I think our history is particularly telling.
In the early 1940s, as I'm sure you know, the apparel industry in our country was thriving. It was the largest in and employed 500-thousand people in alone. Yet its leaders, largely European immigrants, were facing a dwindling number of qualified people to carry on the business. Their own—very fickle—children were defecting to the world of law and medicine. A group of tradesmen, manufacturers and labor leaders—FIT's visionary founders—concluded that for the industry to survive, they needed a trade school to educate high school graduates for careers in fashion. An MIT for the fashion industries, they called it—and rallied support from educators and public officials. Soon they established a private foundation made up of industry representatives, and with the collaboration of the city and state of , FIT was born. So when we say we are rooted in industry—we really mean it.
FIT opened its doors in 1944—we occupied the top two floors of a local city high school. We had 100 students and two programs. Our first president, (FYI: Mortimer Ritter) a former tailor who became one of the city's most creative educators, established a surprisingly progressive pedagogy. Experiential and collaborative in approach, it blended theory and hands-on practice. A work-study program was established, sending students into nearby industry plants and studios; faculty members were required to remain constantly in touch with current practices and changes in the industry. And most remarkably, the curriculum included a strong liberal arts component—which our founders actually requested—so that their future employees would be, and I quote: "cultured and enlightened" and would have the ability to observe, evaluate and to adapt ideas. After all, they said—fashion is a reflection of life. This basic pedagogical approach has not changed in 67 years.
So lets flash forward. Today, FIT has over 10,000 full and part-time students and offers 46 degree programs. We are officially a two-year community college, but we also grant baccalaureate and graduate degrees. We have a thriving school of continuing education and professional studies which provides certificate and other kinds of non-degree courses to thousands of people each year. We no longer occupy borrowed rooms from a local high school but have our own ten building campus—which a number of you have visited—located on Seventh Avenue which is still sometimes called Fashion Avenue. That original foundation made up of industry leaders remains, along with the city and state, one of the components of the three-legged stool that supports FIT, and today the foundation plays a major role as the colleges private fundraising arm.
I should add that this experiment in education—this MIT for the fashion industries—could only have happened in . Our campus was deliberately located next door to the garment industry not just so that our students could imbibe its piquant (pee-kahnt) atmosphere but largely to facilitate the flow of communication the foot traffic FIT and industry. Even today, with a dramatically shrunken garment industry, we are still surrounded by its remains—its corporate headquarters, designer showrooms, its small suppliers of mannequins and trimmings fabrics and furs, as well as retail: everything from Macy's just up the road to the experimental pop-up shops that are particularly popular in our neighborhood. Many colleges and universities like to say that is their laboratory. And like them, we take advantage of the cultural, scientific and commercial wealth that is at our disposal. But given our mission and location, when we say that is our lab, we mean it quite literally.
In fact, our location in is a major part of our attraction and together with our own aptitude for reinvention—a major reason for our growth. For like the industry we were created to serve, we have expanded into a multitude of related disciplines that now make up what I think of as the lifestyle industry. While fashion design remains our signature program, in fact we offer 45 other degree programs. Let me list just a few: of special interest to you, of course, we have textile development and marketing—as well as textile surface design and in our graduate school, fashion and textile studies. We have: home products development, cosmetics, interior design, photography, global fashion management, toy design, entrepreneurship, computer animation, advertising, package design, illustration, jewelry, international trade—the list goes on and on. And while our fashion design program is very popular, our largest major is actually one of its business counterparts: fashion merchandising management.
All of these programs have advisory boards made up of professionals in their specialty. And by and large, they are actively involved in everything from advising on curriculum to job placement for students. But then, we require our faculty members to have substantial industry experience—six to ten years, depending—and many keep their hands in as consultants or by maintaining their own businesses. Working side-by-side, they see the future together. Just in the last few months alone, with the encouragement of industry, we launched two new certificate programs—one in gemology and another in retail management—each one of them anticipating or responding to market forces.
Just to give you a sense of how deeply intertwined—and committed—our advisory boards are, I thought Id tell you briefly about how our textile development and marketing departments board interacts with our students and the department. This happens to be one of the colleges oldest departments and as I think you know, it long ago turned its focus from production to the consumer market. Our chair, Jeffrey Silberman—whom many of you know himself the director of marketing for Cotton Incorporated before he arrived at FIT. And the advisory board reflects this market focus. Over 30 people serve on the board —and they are fiber artists, exporters, financiers, social media gurus, designers, denim producers, filmmakers, specialists in international trade, sourcing, packaging, marketing, advertising, sales and branding.
Not surprisingly, Cotton Incorporated is represented on the board. Like you, FIT is the beneficiary of this organizations interest and generosity. It supports numerous projects for the college, including our annual runway show for graduating fashion design majors. And it works very closely with textile development and marketing—and co-sponsors the departments capstone course for graduating seniors each year. The course objective is to expose students to every step in the process of making and then marketing a textile-based product. For a textile, they use denim, and the students assignment is to create four lines of jeans—two each for men and women. They must not only develop the yarn and fabric, finish and fit—but they must also research their product, identify their consumer and develop new social media strategies and concepts in order to brand, market and sell the jeans. And then they must bring them through to full factory prototypes. Advisory board members play a crucial role in this project—working directly with the students throughout the year as they move through the process. By the time these students are done, they are market ready—so it is not surprising that 90 percent of them are hired right out the door.
Advisory boards—many of whose members are alumni— take on similar projects in other departments. Or they will finance trips abroad—as one recently did for a group of children's wear students who attended a forecasting conference in Florence. They will sponsor competitions, as they do annually in our textile surface design department; they will come into classrooms to critique portfolios, conduct seminars on the latest advancements in their fields, and of course, they offer internships.
I know that you, too, work very closely with industry—so this may be very familiar. But as I said, being in New York gives our students unusual access. And although many in industry work with us through advisory boards, many others do so individually. They may act as judges or critics for our annual runway shows—as do designers such as Carolina Herrera and Calvin Klein and Dennis Basso. They may lecture or appear on panels. In addition, companies come to us to involve our students in projects, very often high profile projects that result in new product lines in shoes, for instance, for Nine West or outerwear for LVHM or junior wear for Macy's. Our students, with their fresh youthful perspective, are, after all, the trend setters of the moment—and a great resource for industry.
This intimate interaction between FIT and industry is why we do so well in job placement. Nearly 2500 New York organizations sponsor internships for our students and one-third of them lead to offers of full-time jobs. Indeed, 90 percent of our graduates go directly into the workforce—and almost all of them take industry jobs located in New York City. We have built on what we began in 1944—creating the workers and the leadership for industry's future.
And the future is always on our mind. After all, we serve an industry whose very nature, identity and survival ride on an ability to read the future and to change. And I hardly need tell you that today the dynamics of change spin at warp speed. To be relevant be successful need to be nimble and to reinvent ourselves regularly—not an easy task for a large, public institution with many stakeholders and constituencies. For instance, some years ago, we phased out patternmaking as a major and turned it into a certificate program. This was a decision that met with some internal resistance—but it was in keeping with the reality of a market in which available jobs could be counted on two hands—if that. At the same time, we have launched more than ten new programs in recent years—programs that very much speak to tomorrow, such as sustainable interior environments and technical design and visual arts management, a new discipline that prepares students for administrative roles in museums and galleries.
In fact, several years ago, FIT developed a strategic plan that was designed to take us 15 to 20 years into the future. It was a plan that was built with total institutional participation so that it has become today a living and breathing document—a blueprint that we use daily to move us forward. Many useful lessons and initiatives emerged from it, but there are three in particular that might be of interest to you.
One was an acknowledgment of the essential importance of the liberal arts to students such as ours— and a commitment to raise its curricular and campus profile even higher. I cannot tell you how often and consistently we hear from industry leaders that they want culturally sophisticated employees who can communicate well exactly as our founders did. And it is really only through the liberal arts that students will gain exposure and sensitivity to the global cultures that will be critical to their careers will learn to communicate—orally and in writing. I should add that our students are required to learn a foreign language—and that Mandarin Chinese is one of the five that we offer. (fyi: + Japanese, Italian, French, Spanish)
We have also been examining—and doing so in real depth—the kind of competencies and qualities of mind we will need in our faculty of the future. We are keenly aware of the fact that today's scary techno-savvy third-graders will be entering FIT (and NCSU) in 2020—and that there is a good chance that the faculty members whom we hire today will be here in 2020 to greet them. By the time those third graders graduate from FIT, they will be going into a market with jobs and professions that at this point do not exist. As an institution, it is our job to do those students justice—so we launched a year long project to help us determine how to best project what we will need in our faculty. Our current faculty played a prime role in this project—and we have emerged with consensus around an excellent and detailed guide that our search committees will be using. But let me add: we also included industry in this initiative. One of the most lively and productive sessions took place exclusively with industry representatives. In fact, they face the very same quandaries as they consider their future workforce, so it was very useful for us to share ideas and concerns.
Finally, given the changes that are engulfing industry, we saw an opportunity to become a kind of creative hub—drawing together industry leaders with members of the faculty and students to foster research and interdisciplinary initiatives that explore new possibilities. We hope to eventually become a source of answers and innovation for our industry partners and for scholars and researchers in the fields we serve. We are just beginning, but we have already conducted several interesting projects—one for the U.S. Army, for which we developed a prototype for an all-weather clothing system to be used by our troops in Afghanistan. More recently, we completed our first real research project—one in which we were asked by Wacoal to test a new kind of woman's undergarment. We know that this only the start, but it leads me to one of the reasons I am so pleased to be visiting with you here today.
It seems to me that there are a number of ways in which FIT and the North Carolina College of Textiles can collaborate...and the potential for collaboration is, of course, one purpose of our visit. One area that I hope to explore is in research. You have a rich history in theoretical research—our history, while more limited, is in applied or practical research. Perhaps with our different skill sets we will find a project—or processes—in which we can both work together and learn from each other.
There are opportunities, too, for faculty exchanges, for a sharing of information that will enrich our respective students and programs. You have graduate programs that may be of interest to our faculty—and to our students. And of course there are opportunities for student exchanges. We have a one-year visiting student program for juniors, for instance—and even though it is very intense and very rigorous, it is very popular. We get about 200 students a year from more than 30 institutions. These students return to their home campuses for their senior year, and when they get their baccalaureate, they also receive an associate degree from FIT.
And then we share an interest in international outreach. In that respect, we both have students from Donghua University in Shanghai studying on our home campuses. But our two colleges are now—right at this moment—in discussions about a collaboration that would send FIT students and yours together to Donghua for a one-semester residential program. I think that offers some very exciting possibilities. FIT has a variety of other relationships with institutions throughout the world, from Istanbul to Moscow to Hong Kong. We also have programs in Italy that might offer collaborative opportunities between us—for students as well, perhaps, as faculty. Our fashion design students attend programs in Florence at Polimoda or in Milan at Politecnico di Milano. And our FMM students attend programs in Florence as well. For students majoring in any aspect of fashion—or indeed of textiles—I can't imagine anything better than a year in the vibrant center of the European fashion world.
I know that you, too, have other programs and I look forward to learning more about them, about you, and about your ambitions as the day progresses so that we can share more ideas about how we might work together for the future of all of our students. Thank you.