Faculty Convocation, Fall 2021

August 23, 2021 

Thank you Calvin….and good morning. It’s so good to see you.  But before I say another word, I have something I would like to share with you:

Welcome back video  

That lovely video was produced by two alumni of our Film and Media program:  William Munn, who was its director and Diamond Abreu who was its cinematographer.  It was overseen by FIT’s chief story-teller, Alex Joseph, in our Communications and External Relations Department.  It’s one way of many that we all wish to welcome you back.
 
You know, in all my many years at FIT, you have never looked better to me than you do right now:  out of the ether, away from the distorting screens  …the cut-off heads…the  disarming close-ups.  Live and in-person, you look absolutely wonderful. It is thrilling to be back on campus and to be resuming our real communal lives.  I don’t want to ignore those of you who are streaming in.  I look forward to seeing you on campus in the days and weeks ahead.

 When we left in mid-March of 2020, I thought---I suspect many of us thought---that this would be a brief hiatus, that in just a few weeks we would be back.  In the almost 18 months that have gone by, we have all acclimated to another way of life and so I recognize that this return to campus might be something of a jolt, one that requires readjustment---psychological and otherwise--- which I certainly do not want to minimize.  It will take time to reacquaint ourselves with the commute…no matter how short or long…with our offices and our desks…our classroom equipment…the changes on Seventh and Eighth Avenues.  And even if you were among those who were more social over this summer and spent time with people outside of your pod…it will still take time to adjust to the buzz and the hum and the energy of a newly re-opened environment,  and re-establish old routines and perhaps create new ones as well.  

But we should count ourselves lucky.  Blessed, even.   With all the loss the world has suffered---and many of us have experienced personally---we are here.  We have survived.   We continue to live in unsettling, unpredictable times.  But that is why I am so appreciative to have an FIT to return to, and to focus anew on FIT and the business and challenges of  a work-a-day life.

Fortunately, the work we do---I believe---is the most fulfilling in all the world. Our work is to transform young lives, to create pathways for thoughtful, brave and innovative creative leaders.  It is the work and the business of education… of guidance and opportunity. There is much to say in that regard, which I will return to later… but first, as I do at every convocation in August,  I’d like to share the news of the day.  As you can imagine, we have had yet another very busy summer and I have much to report.

Let me start by adding my congratulations to our faculty colleagues on their well-deserved promotions.  And I am now pleased to announce the following promotions within our administrative ranks:
  
Deliwe Kekana,  who started at FIT as an administrative aide in my office in 2008, and then became the college’s Affirmative Action Officer in 2013, has now been appointed our Affirmative Action director and Title 9 coordinator.  

Shadia Sachedina, who arrived at FIT in 2015, has been promoted from Assistant to Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Success, and she will remain Dean of Students.  

Devon Vidal started as counselor associate in the Academic Advisement Center in 2013, and quickly advanced to director of academic advisement.   She has now been appointed to the position of interim assistant dean for curriculum and instruction.

Congratulations to each of you.

Over the summer, the School of Liberal Arts voted to expand its name to the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences---an apt designation for a school whose math and science department is growing in both size and renown.  At this very moment, FIT is the recipient of four  active grants from the National Science Foundation--- four!  That is a record for us, and one to be proud of.  
 
One, for $187,000,  as you may recall, was awarded to Material Science Professor Deborah Berhanu, whose  co-principal investigator was Karen Pearson, chair of Science & Math, for a benchtop analytical scanning electronic microscope , which arrived just before we went remote. This machine, which is meant to be shared, magnifies objects by thousands of times---and will be of value to researchers throughout the college.     

Computer Science Professor Maria Hwang was the recipient of a $175,000 NSF grant to create and test a nutrition app for young people. She is working with student researchers to program a more sophisticated version of a game she developed before arriving here called Meals for Monsters with goals like losing weight, managing a chronic disease, or training to be a runner.

Professor Pearson received a planning grant from the NSF to explore wearable technology manufacturing in partnership with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and Carnegie Mellon. 

 And our fourth NSF grant went to Science Professor Theanne Schiros and Fashion Design Professor Asta Skocir, who are collaborating with Stony Brook University to explore a chemical recycling process for cotton fabrics---a process of special interest to us since muslin is used in all of our fashion design classrooms. This is a $300,000 grant, the majority of which went to Stony Brook as the lead institution where most of the lab work has been conducted. This is another of the projects in which we are also engaging our students, enabling them to learn about interdisciplinary research opportunities which can ultimately change the landscape of design and manufacturing.

I am pleased to say that FIT distinguished itself as grant recipients from a variety of organizations this past year---not just the NSF.  Let me give you just a few examples---I wish there were time for  me to name them all:

The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded Professor Kyunghee Pyun from art history, Professor Rebecca Bauman from Modern Languages and Cultures and Professor Vincent Quan from Fashion Business Management $150,000 to develop curriculum and other teaching resources for a broad spectrum of fields that community college graduates might enter.  This is the largest NEH grant in our history.

FIT was also awarded almost $185,000 from the Council on Library and Information Resources, a private foundation, to digitize the entire Ruth Finley collection, whose Fashion Calendar was bequeathed to our library’s special collection archive a few years ago.  This is a collaborative project between our archivist Karen Trivette and art historian Natalie Nudell, and quite a coup, because this is a very competitive grant.

 And I am very proud to say that FIT was one of only seven SUNY colleges to be among the first batch of SUNY Prepare Innovation and Internship Program grants from Chancellor Malatras.  Professors Amy Sperber from fashion design, Ajoy Sarkar from TDM, Peter Chan from production management and the very busy Karen Pearson from science and math are working with students to develop PPE that fits diverse body types.  This work will continue through a collaboration with Stony Brook students.

Kudos to all of you and to our hardworking staff in our Grants and Sponsored Programs office who provided such skilled and enthusiastic support.

And I have more good news along these lines.  FIT also distinguished itself as the recipient of two silver Telly awards this year. The Telly, as you may know, is the premier international award honoring video and tv across all screens, and silver is its highest honor.  This year, it drew 12,000 entries.     One of our silvers went to Professor Elena Romero in marketing communications for an episode on her show Latinas, which airs on CUNY-TV.  The other went to our own Communications and External Relations division, headed by vice president Loretta Lawrence Keane, for our on-line graduation celebration for the class of 2020.   My congratulations to everyone.

It is much to your credit that even as the pandemic dominated our hearts and minds, our moods, our day-to-day activities--- you all pursued your scholarly and creative ambitions.  FIT benefits from the halo effect, of course. Our growing presence in the world of  research and related creative activities is a great benefit not only to our current recipients, but also to  FIT’s future as increasing numbers of other scholars, scientists, artists and designers seek us out for new and exciting collaborations.

And while we are celebrating achievements, I want to take advantage of our time together this morning to recognize our most recent winners of the SUNY Chancellor Awards for Excellence.  Typically, as I hope you remember, we hold an end-of-the-year ceremony at which we acknowledge these awardees as well as recent retirees. Unfortunately we decamped before we could do it for the 2019-2020 group and were not there for the 2020-2021 group.  While the winners received their medals and certificates, they were never publicly acknowledged, so I am delighted to have the opportunity to do it here and now.  If you are in the auditorium would you please stand as I call your name---and stay standing till everyone is named and we can give all of you a well-deserved round of applause.

The awardees for Excellence in Teaching in 2019-2020 were:

Professor of Science  & Mathematics Theanne Schiros
Professor of Modern Languages & Cultures Mario Valero

The awardees for Excellence in Adjunct Teaching in 2019-2020 were:

Professor of Production Management Nicholas Barratt
Professor of Interior Design Marvin Clawson
Professor of Textile/Surface Design Deborah Hernandez
Professor of Visual Presentation & Exhibition Design Reginald Rogers

The awardee for Excellence in Teaching in 2020-2021 was:

Professor of English & Communications Studies Katelyn Burton Prager

The awardee for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activity in 2020-2021 was:

Professor of  Modern Languages & Cultures Erica Moretti

The awardee for Excellence in Professional Service in 2020-2021 was

Professor Michelle Van Ess, Director of Student Life

Congratulations to each of you. Let’s give them all a round of applause. 

There is another award that I want to mention, one that gives us an opportunity as an institution to recognize the work that allows FIT to flourish:  the work that you perform.  It is the Faculty Excellence Award and the candidates are nominated by you, our faculty.  Recipients receive a certificate and a check for $1000.   (Would each of you stand as I call your name?) For the academic year 2019-2020, our recipients were:

Professor Ann Cantrell, in Fashion Business Management and
Professor Nomi Kleinman, in Textile/Surface Design

The awardees for the academic year 2020-2021 were:

Professor Laticha Brown in Fashion Business Management
Professor Christina Lyons in Exhibition & Experience Design in the School of Graduate Studies.
Professor Sarah Mullins in Fashion/Footwear and Accessories Design
Professor Richard Sunday, Admissions and Strategic Recruitment in Enrollment Management

Congratulations to all of you.  This year we will resume our in-person celebration for the next set of winners  and will look forward to having  all of you join us as part of the festivities.

You know, we have long recognized that a number of our programs share priorities in terms of content and course offerings.  Over this past year, the deans and faculty members in a variety of programs explored ways of taking advantage of that synergy and bringing the content together in new and innovative curricula--- curricula that more closely reflect today’s industry needs and better serve our students.  With the cooperation of the UCE, with which we have signed MOU’s,  we have therefore made the following changes:

Advertising and Marketing Communications and Direct and Interactive Marketing   have merged into one department which we call Marketing Communications.  Al Romano remains its chair.

Illustration and Animation, Interactive Media and Game Design have come together as one new department which we now call Illustration and Interactive Media.  The Creative Technology minor is also housed there.  I have appointed Dan Shefelman as its chair.

I want to thank Terry Blum, Ed Soyka and Loretta Volpe for their many years of devoted and effective leadership in the programs that they chaired---and for their cooperation and collaboration as we worked on these very forward-looking initiatives.  

For some time, our Fashion Department has incorporated fashion design, menswear, jewelry design, footwear and accessories design and some credit certificates.  I am pleased to tell you that I recently appointed Mary Wilson to be its  chairperson.  I want to thank Sandra Markus for her service in leading the department for the past year and a half.

Last month we held a Town Hall to address questions regarding health and safety that  had emerged---particularly after we announced our fall return to campus.   It was attended by more than 400 people and I hope that having that open communication alleviated some of those concerns.  But for those of you who were not there---and even for those who were—I would like to repeat my assurance that as a community we are taking every measure possible to keep you, your colleagues and our students healthy and safe.  At that meeting you raised and we answered questions about cleanliness, ventilation, classroom equipment and other health protocols.  Together with the Employee Health and Safety Committee, the Faculty Working Group, which is co-chaired by the president of the faculty senate, Professor Williamson,   and the Budget Advisory Group---all excellent examples of effective  shared governance---we have addressed every concern that has been expressed, and our preparations are all the stronger for it.

We  taped the meeting, which you can find on the MYFIT homepage, in the Covid information section.  We also developed a FAQ sheet with the questions  that were raised and prepared detailed answers, all of  which is available on our Fall 2021 Return page on the FIT website. 

I realize that there is a considerable amount of controversy surrounding the  Covid-19 vaccine and recognize and respect those who feel they have a right to decide if they will be vaccinated.  I also recognize our obligation to be good citizens of our community and our need to exercise care and concern for our colleagues and family members so that they are protected from the ravages of this insidious disease.  I would urge you to be vaccinated unless you have some underlying medical condition that contraindicates the effectiveness of the vaccine.

We have put in place every safety and health precaution that is possible and has been recommended by scientists and health professionals. Each of us has a responsibility to adhere to these best practices while on campus for our own safety and to safeguard our environment for all with whom it is shared.

As you know, the FDA has not removed the emergency authorization for the vaccine that has been in place since last year.  Until such time as final approval is granted we cannot mandate that all students must be vaccinated.  However, it is generally assumed that that day is coming at which point all students at SUNY and CUNY colleges will be required to show proof of vaccination.  One can only assume that in due time, the same will be true for employees as well.

At this point, 80  percent of our regular employees have been vaccinated.  I would like to achieve 100 percent—with the exception of that small fraction whose religion or medical conditions do not allow it.  All students living in our residential halls are required to be vaccinated.  They can attend classes if they demonstrate proof of ongoing negative Covid tests, but they cannot take up residence in our dormitories without being vaccinated.

Fortunately, our health services staff is able to provide vaccinations here on campus ---which makes it easy and convenient for anyone who would like to receive the vaccine.  But as you know, we are no longer conducting tests, so if you are not vaccinated, let me reiterate that you will have to submit proof of a negative test result to our Health Services every week or be denied access to campus.  

We will continue to monitor our situation and follow all guidance coming from the New York State Health department, the governor, the FDA, the CDC, and the Chancellor of SUNY  and are prepared to  pivot as circumstances dictate.  
    
One of the questions that came up at the town hall was whether the hiring freeze will still be in effect this year. The answer is yes.  I understand the impetus for this question:  throughout this difficult period, a number of  people have retired or otherwise left their jobs and that  has often created vacancies that we need to fill.
  
But the fact is that we are still in financial jeopardy.  While we survived last year, it was largely because of the restrictions we had implemented over the last three fiscal years—particularly the hiring freeze and spending cutbacks in OTPS.  We were able to “survive”  the impact of the financial losses we suffered due to our empty residence halls because we restructured our debt service for the student housing corporation---giving us three years in which to pay it back.  I recognize that the past restrictions required sacrifice,  and I am very grateful  for your discipline.   But the reality is that we are not yet back on our fiscal feet.  As you may know, one of our major streams of revenue---tuition---has been frozen by the state legislature for the next three years. At the same time, the source of tuition, our enrollment, has been declining, and given demographic trends, we expect it to be flat for the next few years.  Indeed, this year’s enrollment is about the same as last year’s---during which it dropped by six percent. So it is imperative that we maintain the discipline that we have been exercising and keep our belts as tightened as possible.  

Still, I believe that we must also continue to invest in those areas that are critical to our future. In that regard, I am happy to announce that this year, we will search for and hopefully hire 20 fulltime classroom faculty-- to arrive in time for the fall 2022 academic year.  And in the next two fiscal years, we hope to do the same so that 60 full-time faculty positions will be filled over the next three years.  That could bring us up to 270, but that would assume no reductions in currently filled positions, which, of course, is unrealistic given the ever-changing number of  retirements, relocations and so on.  I realize that this still leaves us 30 positions short of my long-term goal to have 300 full time-faculty---a number I believe is essential to support our special educational mission. But we will continue to work toward our goal.

Last year at convocation, I told you about a major effort we were undertaking---as part of our reaction to the worldwide response to the murder of George Floyd and all that it revealed about the underlying psyche in America…as part of our reaction, too, to the surfacing of racism on our own campus and the ways in which we were challenged by it…as well as the recognition of the open secret about the obstacles confronted by people of color, including our own graduates,  as they try to build a career in the creative industries.   We have a vested interest in the creative industries, of course. That is where our thousands of alumni earn their livelihood.  The statistics for the BIPOC community in the creative economy are, frankly, depressing.  And so we have spent this past year working very hard to develop a viable, sustainable pathway for the BIPOC community to enter and succeed in the creative industries.  To do that required a strong financial foundation to support our work.  So today, I am proud to announce the formal launch of the Social Justice Center at FIT with a $1 million pledge from PVH, our founding partner.   And I am pleased to say that we have other early contributors as well, such as  Ralph Lauren, G-III Apparel, Saks and Prada.

The Social Justice Center at FIT is a first-of-its kind in higher education, one that will position us as  a leading voice in the national dialogue on equity and inclusion.  It is holistic in scope and has two  primary and parallel goals: one is to increase the number of BIPOC students seeking and achieving careers in the creative industries; the other is to transform the cultures in those industries so that current and future BIPOC employees  can advance and thrive.  

We intend to achieve these goals by tackling them across the entire educational and career life cycle starting with middle school students all the way through to BIPOC professionals already employed in  the industry. We will create a robust pipeline of BIPOC talent through our pre-college programs, exposing youngsters to  careers in fashion and beauty, advertising and communications, among others.  For college students there will be scholarships, internships, mentoring, apprenticeships---all in collaboration with our network of industry partners.  There will be career advancement support through graduate and continuing education programs, as well as the corporate mentoring and executive training that will help BIPOC professionals reach senior management,  the C-suite or any other  of their career dreams. 

We have already made headway on some of these goals.  We have raised over half-a-million dollars in scholarship money for BIPOC students so that they can take advantage of what the Social Justice Center will offer.  We will be expanding our recruitment outreach  for middle and high school students through our precollege program and strategizing on efforts to attract more BIPOC undergraduates.  In fact, we just received scholarship money from Target to fund 10 BIPOC students for our precollege program for the spring 2022 semester, and Target will additionally fund and produce a series of career seminars aimed at BIPOC youngsters.

This initiative is as ambitious as it is necessary---and I hope it will serve as a role model for educational institutions, professional organizations and for all of corporate America.   Situated as we are at the intersection of industry and education,  I believe FIT has the intellectual capital, the reputation, the industry network---and the will--- to make a difference.  I am especially encouraged by the commitment and sense of purpose of the corporate executives with whom we are working and their own desire to transform the culture within their own ranks. 

Internally, we continue to press ahead with the anti-bias initiatives that emerged out of the many conversations I held with students and other members of the community over the last year or more.  We are starting our second round of mandatory annual  harassment and discrimination training. They were well-done and well-received last year.  We are doing this annually not only because of ever-changing laws and rules, but because we believe we all need reminders to  reinforce  and broaden our understanding---and where necessary, to change our behavior.

We have not conducted a campus climate survey in many years, and we have now identified a firm to administer one for us  We expect it will provide us with the data on attitudes and behaviors that will help us develop  more targeted initiatives for the creation of a safe and inclusive environment.  We hope to begin this work in the spring semester

This year I appointed a faculty committee to make recommendations to diversify the curriculum---which is certainly long overdue and a topic our students are passionate about.  The committee is a cross section of representatives from our faculty  who have all distinguished themselves in their fields.  I have asked Professor Eric Daniels to chair the committee.  The diversification that the committee will seek to explore will span not only race, culture, gender and sexuality, but also global issues of sustainability and climate change.  My hope is that we can spark a community-wide dialogue and develop a process for broad exposure to differing belief systems and interpretation of  literatures from around the world.

There are numerous other initiatives that are in the works, whose efforts we will  share with you as they come to fruition.  But clearly, we have much work to do.  Between the challenges of our return to campus---and the repair of our social fabric--- you might just say that our dance card is full.

In the alternate reality in which we have lived for these past 18 months, there is no doubt but that you all performed heroically.  Your ingenuity…your dedication…your focus on your students and the business at hand was exceptional.  But now we are back, and  I can barely keep track of the lessons we have learned.  For all of our nostalgia, we will never go back to doing all that we did in exactly the same ways that we did it.  The one bright light of the pandemic is that---would it never have occurred—we would still be in committee wondering if we could deliver instruction remotely.

We developed new skills and we developed a level of confidence in our ability to not only survive but to excel, and to remain goal-driven, and to never give up.  We have had guest lecturers speaking to us from the other side of the globe; we have commandeered  computers in labs such that students in China could utilize the specialized software in those labs from their  computers at home.  We have created U-Tube demonstrations and will continue to use those as long as there are personal concerns about social distancing.  We have done research with colleagues on the other side of the ocean with none of us having to set foot on a plane.

Whole industries have been disrupted and transformed.  Our jobs have changed too---we are being challenged to harness all of our energy and to direct it to the creation of new systems, new processes, new outcomes.  We must be innovative;  we must be change-agents in a changing world.  Our students will be the leaders of that world, and our job is to guide and advise, and perhaps most importantly, to listen.  We can help them to unleash and find their voices, their passions and their purpose.  It is an awesome challenge and responsibility, and I know that you are up to it.

I know that some businesses are giving their employees the option of continuing to work remotely.  But ours is a special  business, the business of teaching and learning…of education.  This is business that builds and fuels civilization, and at its ideal, it is communal.  It takes place in a room, a studio, a laboratory--- vibrant with professors and students together, interacting directly, not behind a screen. And that is true whether the course is “strategies of business communication,” “contemporary Korean cinema” or “draping fundamentals.”

From the very beginning, FIT embraced experiential learning as part of its mission. We practiced a dynamic, forward-looking pedagogy that blended theory and practice.  77 years later, we remain true to that original pedagogical core.   These past 18 months have taught us many amazing ways we can use technology to enhance our classroom skills.  Webex, Google Meet and Facetime all have their great advantages, but you cannot honestly say that any one of them is better than face-to-face, in-house communication with your students.

Many years ago---and I was here--- at the end of one of our Middle States reviews,  the visiting evaluators deemed our faculty a “singular treasure.”  You were then;  you are now.  Your gifts as educators are best deployed in your natural habitat as educators:  in the classrooms, studios and labs that  our students, despite lingering concerns about the virus, are so eager to occupy  once again.   That is where I look forward to seeing you and your students in the days, weeks and months ahead. 

I am so proud of what we have managed to accomplish together.  My plan is to support you as you continue the special  work of transforming young lives aspiring to create a better world than the one they inherited.  I know that you will guide them and they will build a more sustainable environment, a more inclusive society, and a more equitable system of rewards.

 I hope to see you in the Breezeway today between ll:00 and 1:00 for an informal reunion  with all of our friends and colleagues, and where I can thank you personally for all you  accomplished during a very trying time….and where I can, as well, welcome you back  with a wish for good health, and a rewarding academic year.