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RBJ 75: RIT pursues goal of boosting its national standing

In the six years William Destler has been at the helm of Rochester Institute of Technology, the university has added the equivalent of a small college’s worth of students.
During that period the student body increased by nearly 3,000, one of a seemingly endless number of yardsticks by which the institution has measured its growth in recent years. RIT has boosted its total budget, increased sponsored research and expanded its campus with many new buildings.
The university’s ongoing expansion began nearly 20 years ago under former president Albert Simone, noted James Watters, senior vice president of finance and administration. Simone put RIT on a path that led to 80 percent growth in the student body.
"From 1996 until today, we have spent almost $800 million on construction and renovation on the campus," Watters added.
For Destler, the growth reflects a plan RIT has laid out to achieve a more national and international stature. Facing bleak demographics around its traditional recruiting base in New York, including a dwindling number of high school graduates, RIT officials had already embarked on a plan to move the university from a mostly regional to a more national standing.
It has worked, Destler said.
"We’ve essentially added 500 students a year, and it’s occurred because RIT has to some extent tried to add offerings like a college of health sciences and technology," he said.
The university has targeted a total enrollment of 18,500 and in recent years has moved steadily toward that goal. Last year, enrollment was slightly more than 18,000, Destler said, and in the 2012-13 school year RIT’s freshman class increased by 2 percent.
But almost as importantly for RIT, applications from across the country have grown. Destler said California is now the second-largest contributor of applications, and Texas ranks fourth. In all, more than half of RIT students now come from out of state.
James Miller, RIT vice president for enrollment management and career services, has said the university’s enrollment is increasing due to RIT’s "increasing presence across different college guides and ratings."
"It all bodes well for us," Miller said in announcing RIT’s enrollment totals in 2012.
Enrollment also is up at RIT’s international campuses in Dubai, Kosovo and Croatia. Combined, these campuses had nearly 1,250 students in the most recent school year, an increase of almost 100 from the previous year.
Increasing enrollment also comes with a greater number of applications, which Destler said gives RIT a lot of "happy choices."
"With increasing application numbers, you can choose to be more diverse or selective or grow, and we’ve chosen all three," he said.
Diversity, measured by the number of African-American, Latino and Native American students, increased 10 percent last year.
Destler said RIT is well on its way to 18,500 students, and beyond.
"Over the next three to four years we’ll make that goal and maybe even exceed it," Destler said. "We don’t want to get too much bigger, but where there are opportunities for us to offer programs where there’s a substantial market for graduates, we’ll take those."
As the number of students at RIT has ticked steadily upward, the university’s financial measures have increased as well.
The university reported total revenue of $603 million for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2011, the latest year available. That is an increase of nearly 12 percent from $538 million in the 2005-06 fiscal year.
Sponsored research reached $43.7 million for the year ended June 30, 2012. While down from $58.4 million in 2011, in large part because a $13.1 million grant to the Golisano Institute of Sustainability came off the books, the total is roughly 40 percent more than the $31 million in sponsored research funding RIT reported in fiscal year 2004.
RIT officials said despite an increasingly competitive environment and lower funding from many government sources, the university expects to remain strong in sponsored research funding.
Much of this is coming through strategic hiring, selecting faculty who sponsored research director David Bond said are "more attuned to research than professors were a decade ago."
The expansion of academic programs to fit the needs of graduates is central to all other growth, Destler said.
RIT has a knack for adding ground-breaking programs. The Golisano Institute, which this year moved into its own building, has been a pioneer from the outset. It offers what was the world’s first doctorate in sustainable production and also has added a master’s program in sustainable systems.
The Institute of Health Sciences and Technology, opened in 2011, was another cutting-edge program. It developed as part of a partnership with Rochester General Health System and was praised by RIT officials as a major step. The program focused on medical research, training providers in RIT’s physician assistant program, and providing local, community-based care.
The careful selection of new academic programs has brought great results, Watters said. Roughly six years ago the Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences launched a video game design program, one that started with roughly a dozen students; it now has close to 600.
"In a short time you see a rapid ascension of a technology program because RIT’s leadership understood the importance of that emerging field," Watters said. "We’re a very nimble institution, able to assemble academic talent quickly to meet a market need."
This program growth means continued expansion of the physical plant of the college, which has been steadily adding new buildings in recent years.  In addition to the Golisano Institute, RIT has recently built Global Village, an international student center that combines retail space with administrative offices and living space.
Destler said as he looks to the future, he sees more room for RIT to grow in areas that align well with the university’s mission to focus on innovation.
The groundwork for that growth actually was laid decades ago, Destler said, when RIT relocated to Henrietta from the city of Rochester.
"In the 1960s, when RIT was forced to consider moving out of Rochester’s downtown, the trustees made a courageous decision to purchase a large block of 1,400 acres," Destler said. "That decision is one of the things that’s allowed RIT to grow without constraints on available real estate.
"Now, as we look to expand more, we’ve got 500 to 600 acres of undeveloped but buildable land, so we’ll always have room to grow."

7/26/13: RBJ 75 Special Supplement (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].


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