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Infusing a formula for learning

Jeremy Haefner searches his seventh-floor office overlooking the Rochester Institute of Technology campus, finally pulling a drink coaster from a meeting table. Etched into the stone is an equation known as Euler’s identity, showing a number e to the power of pi multiplied by an imaginary number. This number, added to one, is equal to zero.
To Haefner, the equation symbolizes the beauty he sees in mathematics.
“These are the quintessential irrational numbers, if you will,” Haefner says. “They have no pattern to their decimal representation, and one is even imaginary. Who would have thought that if you combine those numbers in that way and add one to it, you get zero?
“It’s a mystery there, and just a little piece of what mathematics is all about. The thrill of discovery and the elegance of that formula is always thrilling to me.”
Haefner, who became RIT’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs in July, aims to infect students with the same level of enthusiasm he has when describing the equation.
The RIT provost serves as a second in command, often running the campus in the absence of the president. The provost also plays a key role in academic leadership and the colleges’, research centers’ and academic support centers’ operations.
To do this Haefner plans to promote experiential, or hands-on, learning by focusing on expanding and strengthening the university’s co-op program, growing undergraduate research, stressing the importance of innovation and creating more opportunities for community learning.
“I think the institution that excels in experiential learning will have a diverse portfolio of what that means, and I think RIT is exceptionally well-positioned to do well with that,” Haefner says.
His love of mathematics began in seventh grade. Throughout high school in Iowa City, Iowa, he knew it was a field he would one day pursue, Haefner says. Though this love of math developed organically, it was something closer to genetics that led him into academia: His father was a professor, and his four siblings all have advanced degrees and work in various fields of education.
Haefner came to RIT from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he had multiple roles, including associate vice chancellor for research and innovation. He joined RIT at a time when President William Destler set goals for the school to bolster its national standing as it stresses innovation. It is a mission Haefner has supported enthusiastically through his own work.
“The reason I was attracted to RIT was the vision the president laid out, the incredible programs that were already in place and the people who helped make those programs and then deliver on them,” Haefner says.
For his first year, he has been largely on his own because his wife, Maurin Anderson, stayed behind in Colorado while one of their sons completed high school this year. The 51-year-old Haefner says he enjoys living in Rochester-which he finds a little warmer than the Midwest but also snowier-and spends his free time running and swimming.
During his nearly nine months with RIT, Haefner has assumed a number of duties. He served as co-chairman of a working group with Rochester General Health System as the two institutions begin to form a strategic partnership. He has been working to develop a master’s program in sustainability and issue a report to the school’s accrediting body, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.
They are duties Haefner tackles with the same energy and intensity he reserves for the scaled-down sprint triathlons in which he regularly competes.
“He’s been a great multitasker and has taken on everything I ask him to do related to the innovation and creativity agenda that we set for the institution,” Destler says. “He’s also been very active with relation to our new programs on the curricular side.”
His inclusive approach has earned Haefner praise from faculty members and administrators. Kristen Waterstram-Rich, director of the premedical studies program and chairwoman of the Academic Senate, says he has added ways for stakeholders to have input throughout the decision-making process as initiatives are developed.
“People have talked about doing this, but he is very transparent and actually does it,” Waterstram-Rich says. “He purposely and deliberately involves people and faculty, and we really just appreciate that. He comes to the Academic Senate and presents his ideas on a very regular basis for discussion and input.”

Innovation

Haefner can point to a specific moment that turned him from his work as a theoretical mathematics professor toward a role with a greater impact on learning.
It was nearly 12 years ago, and one of his sons was ill. As he reflected on his career to that point, Haefner realized he wanted to have the same transformational effect on students that the doctors had on his son.
He took to this role by promoting more innovation in his classroom and becoming engaged in teaching and learning on the Colorado Springs campus.
“I caught the bug for taking what we normally do on a day-to-day basis and fusing it with creativity and innovation,” Haefner says. “That was really a piece that was important to me.”
At the time, the technology to allow online interactive teaching was in its infancy. There was no provider of the infrastructure to support the whiteboard system that is common today, so Haefner and his students took to building their own. They developed what was called MathOnline and also created a systemwide online tutoring program.
The technology allowed students without access to math courses beyond the calculus level to listen to lectures and read notes and equations on the whiteboard.
“We found a niche in that area and did a good job of putting a robust learning experience online,” Haefner says. “They could interact in real time with a lecture going on on campus or, if they couldn’t watch then, could see it online later and on the whiteboard see whatever happened in the regular class lecture.”
For his contributions Haefner won the inaugural Innovations in Teaching with Technology Award from UC-Colorado Springs and the inaugural University of Colorado President’s Faculty Excellence Award for Advancing Teaching and Learning through Technology.
As he rose through the administrative ranks at UC-Colorado Springs, Haefner tried to create an identity for a school often in the shadow of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“We knew that as a college we wanted to excel but knew we had to do it in our own special way,” Haefner says.
He did so by building research in key areas and helping to establish the multidisciplinary bachelor of innovation degree. The idea came from one of the faculty members Haefner hired. It gave students a rounded program to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation while grounding them in the core of their academic field. It included classes in licensing intellectual property, technical writing and business fundamentals.
“(The program’s founder) knew that when kids go through the innovation process, they’re bitten by a bug that lives with them the rest of their lives,” Haefner says. “They want to continually invent and innovate and discover, and that’s really what lifelong learning is all about.”
At RIT, Haefner says, he sees pieces of the program already in place. Students’ senior design projects require them to work on multidisciplinary teams, and a forthcoming center for student innovation will allow students from all programs to become involved in the innovation process.
The center is part of an estimated $15.6 million project that will feature a 10,000-square-foot ground-level facility. It will also house administrative services. Haefner says he has high hopes for the center to bring the level of creativity that attracted students to UC-Colorado Springs.
“It’s really a grassroots approach,” Haefner says. “Students will have the opportunity to work in teams on problems, and, just like Colorado’s program, they’ll work with students from all over different programs.”
Though the push to make innovation a higher priority at RIT predates Haefner’s arrival, he says he hopes to add his expertise in bringing the kind of learning that takes students beyond textbook lessons delivered in the classroom. He believes this experiential learning will be key in achieving the vision Destler articulated for RIT.
Experiential learning at RIT ranges from the co-op program, which places students with companies in their fields of study, to undergraduate research and community projects. A large part of this learning is shaped in response to the needs of the industries where students will work after graduation.
“We do get a lot of feedback, and we’re constantly surveying and assessing what our industry partners need in this,” Haefner says. “They talk about students needing the core skills of engineers and scientists but also want them to have really strong foundational skills in communication and problem solving and critical thinking, and also a global awareness.
“But more than anything they want them to be creative and innovative in these processes and bring that fresh problem-solving approach to whatever problem that industry is working on.”

The future at RIT

Haefner identifies much work to be done as RIT pushes for higher national stature. One challenge is increasing the university’s name recognition among students across the country and abroad, something Haefner says can be done in part through an increase in research.
“Our faculty and students play a big role, and one area where our faculty can contribute a lot is raising our reputation through their own scholarship and research,” Haefner says. “Faculty tend to go to conferences and write papers and apply for national grants, and that really gets our research known across the country.”
Despite a more constrained spending climate, Haefner says RIT is positioned well to continue seeking grant money that will fuel the kind of research to propel the university. Its particular strengths in imaging science and biotechnology will help RIT reach its goal of bringing in $100 million in sponsored research each year, he says.
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2008, RIT received $48.5 million in research funding from a mix of federal and state grants, corporate sources and foundations.
“The great thing about RIT is that our research is very applied in nature,” Haefner says. “We have some basic research going on, but most of it is in the applied aspect, taking an idea and making sure that it has either a commercial impact or a social impact.”
Some challenges will play to the school’s strengths. As the master’s degree in sustainability is developed-the first of its kind in the nation-RIT administrators have the experience of crafting other cutting-edge programs, he notes. In the 1980s, RIT became the first school in the country to offer a degree in biotechnology.
In all academic programs, including those being developed, the approach is to blend the core of the subject with the latest technology and advances, Haefner says. Much of the direction is determined by the expertise of the faculty involved.
“It’s the faculty and their research programs that will attract the students and provide guidance and direction for what research they do themselves,” Haefner says.
The Golisano Institute for Sustainability’s work on sustainable production is a good example of this, he says. There researchers are looking at the creation of manufactured products, beginning with materials mined from the earth and extending to how the end products are recycled and put back into the process. Last year sustainability efforts brought $14.3 million in funding to RIT.
More growth also is planned within the 2-month-old partnership with RGHS. Haefner is on a steering committee to develop educational programs and research opportunities, including some long-term projects.
“We’ve been having lots of conversations with our counterparts over there, and the level of excitement is very high in both institutions and runs deep throughout the ranks,” Haefner says. “In fact it’s blossoming so much now that it’s a challenge to keep track of it all.”
Despite his brief tenure at RIT, Haefner’s thorough and thoughtful assessment of the college’s many projects has been a great strength, Waterstram-Rich says. Because of this his learning curve has been short and his impact great, she adds.
“He came to our institution and he seemed to very easily and quickly learn all the idiosyncrasies and dynamics of the community here,” Waterstram-Rich says. “That’s important for trying to move ahead all the initiatives we have.”
rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

Jeremy Haefner
Position: Provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, Rochester Institute of Technology
Age: 51
Education: B.A. in mathematics, University of Iowa, 1979; M.A. in mathematics, University of Wisconsin, 1983; Ph.D. in mathematics, University of Wisconsin, 1986
Family: Wife Maurin Anderson; sons Nicholas, Ramsey and Omar
Residence: Brighton
Activities: Running, swimming, competing in sprint triathlons
Quote: “I caught the bug for taking what we normally do on a day-to-day basis and fusing it with creativity and innovation.”

04/24/2009 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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