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Pillars of the Economy

University of Rochester, RIT drive region's growth

The University of Rochester, in conjunction with UR Medicine, employs 30,142 people in the Rochester area.

The University of Rochester, in conjunction with UR Medicine, employs 30,142 people in the Rochester area.

This story appeared in the RBJ’s commemorative 30th Anniversary section. See more content related to the RBJ’s anniversary here.

For the residents of Rochester, several names have stood out in the annals of our history; Henry Lomb, George Eastman, Colonel Nathaniel Rochester, Frank Ritter, among others. These names spawned industries that rose to stratospheric heights before either tumbling back downward, or all out fleeing the Rochester community. Yet their legacy lives on through Rochester’s post-industrial age, as the educational institutes they helped spawn continue to captivate minds, invest in the community and build the next leaders who may one day lead Rochester back into the spotlight as a “boomtown.”

For now, the University of Rochester  and Rochester Institute of Technology take on important roles as two of the largest employers in Rochester; the former—in conjunction with UR Medicine—leading the way with 30,142 employees  and the latter at number six with 4,500 employees. The two institutes carry legacies of unique approaches to education, research, job creation and community engagement.

“Where I see RIT at now is a natural culmination of its original intent,” said Albert Simone, who served as president of RIT from 1992 to 2007.

Rochester Institute of Technology is the sixth-largest local employer with 4,500 employees.

Rochester Institute of Technology is the sixth-largest local employer with 4,500 employees.

Simone points to the history of RIT, reaching back to the founding of the Rochester Athenaeum in 1829 by Col. Nathaniel Rochester and community leadership, a place for philosophers and political discourse Simone describes as much like a liberal arts college. In 1891, the Athenaeum merged with the Rochester Mechanics Institute, becoming a center of culture as well as practical technical skills, a framework for the RIT seen today.

Today, what Simone sees as the true benefit of RIT that keeps students from around the world clamoring to attend is the cooperative studies program. In this campus-wide program, students are granted the opportunity to attend school for two years, then begin working full time with a company in their field as they stride toward graduation.

“This is why so many students who come from families who may not have much we try to encourage to come to RIT,” Simone said. “We show them, hey, look, you can actually get a job while you’re getting your degree.”

The program, founded in 1912, now plays host to 2,200 employers around the world.

“2,200!” Simone exclaimed. “That’s huge, that’s all of these employers from all over looking at our students, and they’re getting real work experience with them.”

Despite RIT’s reputation as a school oriented toward science, technology and engineering, Simone says the spirit of the Athenaeum still holds an important role.

“Especially when we’re talking about now with all of this alt-right, alt-left, neo-nazis and whatever else going on, we need a place where we can invite speakers, talk about these things and give our students a chance to learn what’s going on,” Simone said.

If RIT has gained a reputation as a haven for engineering, design, photography and technology over the years, the University of Rochester has gained as striking a reputation for its medical institutes. From Golisano Children’s and Strong Memorial hospitals to the Eastman Institute for Oral Health, along with care centers across the metropolitan area, the University of Rochester has grown to represent all facets of the medical field locally.

Yet, as a place in the community, UR has become a staple far beyond the bounds of medical science and research. In three decades, the school has overseen an expansion of the Memorial Art Gallery by 60 percent, making it larger than New York City’s Guggenheim, as well as increased access to homes in the city through their Mortgage Housing Incentive Program.

University of Rochester president Joel Seligman.

University of Rochester president Joel Seligman.

“The kind of size we have comes with a social responsibility,” said Joel Seligman, president of the University of Rochester. “There’s a famous quote from George Eastman, you’ll find it engraved at the Eastman Theatre, that says ‘for the enrichment of the community life.’ That is a value we try to uphold.”

From tutoring programs to anti-poverty initiatives, Seligman describes the university as “very much involved” with Rochester.

“It’s so striking when we give out our community service awards, how many of our staff and faculty so quietly do amazing work,” Seligman said.

In the surrounding community, the University of Rochester has had, in many ways, a complicated relationship, said Rev. Judy Lee Hay. A resident of the southeast Sector 6 neighborhood since 1973, Hay is one of the leaders of Sector 6’s Neighbors Building Neighbors Coalition, a neighborhood activist group.

Home to the popular Swillburg and South Wedge neighborhoods, as well as the College Town development, Sector 6 is a neighborhood ripe with change and development—and not detached from the University, Hay explained.

“Certainly, the investment in business and revitalization has been vital for local business,” Hay said. “Things look different, feel different, there’s more small business. It’s a very healthy thing for a neighborhood to develop this way and to keep it economically viable for small business. It’s also about finding the right businesses, not just aimed at students.”

The issue of development catering to a profitable student market is a concern that Hay focuses on, especially when third-party developers come in.

“It’s not just the University of Rochester’s developments, it’s developers who see economic benefit from the U of R and Strong system.”

Hay also expressed concern that the mortgage program does not go far enough in helping the staff working at the university and its medical centers, and with developments seemingly tailored to life off campus, some are forced to live elsewhere.

“People in housekeeping deserve just as much of a home as a doctor,” Hay said. “The issue that always ends up getting lost in the mix of development is affordable housing.”

Hay’s concerns are not unfounded, especially when factoring in the economic difference between the typical UR student and the greater Rochester community. According to a study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, the mean income for the parents of a UR student clocks in at $129,200. Conversely, the median household income for the City of Rochester is $30,784.

Despite her concerns, Hay insists that the Rochester community is “very lucky” to have the university in its backyard.

But Seligman argues the university itself is the lucky one, and the pathway to revitalization is one he wants to be at the forefront of, referring to Rochester as having the “secret sauce” for development.

On the note of revitalization, the benefit of the colleges’ presence, Simone said, plays a massive role in stimulating the economy.

“RIT has students from every single state and 100 different countries,” Simone said. “They come here, they rent spaces, they spend money, their parents come to visit and spend money at local shops. The college being here is itself an economic driver, even without all of the students we introduce into the workforce.”

Yet, as far as community engagement goes, Simone said one specific program has sslipped through the cracks: a plan to place a thousand long-term mentors for school children as they make their way from K-12.

“That was one that just never happened, but it was a great idea,” Simone said. “We do some with K-12, but we really need to do more.”

For Seligman, the future of the university’s role in the community is one he sees as bright, as much for the colleges that call it home as the citizens who do the same.

“I don’t want this to be a city where successful young people want to leave, I want it to be a city where successful young people flock to,” Seligman said. “Rochester will bounce back. I believe all cities sort of go through a pendulum swing, and we’re now on an upswing.”

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