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RIT’s Munson discusses joys, challenges of his time in Rochester so far

RIT President David Munson
RIT President David Munson (Photo by Kate Melton)

Rochester Institute of Technology, with its more than 19,000 students and focus on career-minded majors and job creation, is the fifth-largest employer in the Rochester area. Locally the university employs 4,123 people with the vast majority of those in full-time jobs.

RBJ Reporter Diana Louise Carter and Editor Ben Jacobs sat down in March with the man who manages all that, RIT President David C. Munson. He arrived less than two years ago but in that time, he has proved to be a quick study on Rochester, and quick to come up with bold plans for RIT.  This interview has been edited for length.

RBJ: How have you and your wife settled into the RIT community and Rochester at large?

Munson: I think we’ve settled in well.  Rochester is probably the friendliest place we’ve lived, and we’ve lived in really friendly places in the past. It’s a very welcoming community. Obviously it’s a philanthropic community. There is a lot of arts and culture supported around the city. We happen to like the outdoors and so that’s been great, too. You don’t have to get very far outside Rochester for hiking or kayaking. That’s been terrific. The only hard part really has been that we have four sons and four grandchildren and none of them are here. So we have to occasionally slip out of town for birthdays and things like that.

RBJ: Has anything surprised you about RIT or Rochester?

Munson: Certainly no big surprises. When I was thinking about this position I looked into RIT really carefully and was somewhat familiar with the Rochester area. I had visited here a couple of times. I had visited the research labs at Kodak,  and I attended a technical conference that was at the convention center. When I was in grad school in Princeton, my brother was in grad school at the same time in Cornell. (We had) a lot of visits back and forth. So I knew this part of the state pretty well.

That doesn’t mean that things were in any way dull or unexciting.  I had been at the University of Illinois for a long time and later at the University of Michigan and I decided I wanted to go to a different kind of university. So I looked into RIT very carefully and decided, at least for me, it was a very different kind of university. When I got here it was different in just the ways I expected. We have a lot of really creative students who have ideas and they just can’t sit still. They’ve got to get their hands dirty. They want to create something. They want to do something.

I also knew RIT was very strong in the arts. For me that was a major attraction. I don’t have much affinity at all for universities that only do technology. … RIT is also a place , and I found this attractive, that has rapidly been getting better for at least the last 20 years. And there’s a lot of headroom to be doing even more. People are excited about doing more and doing better. So the job here is not just to maintain quality where it is, but to shoot for the stars and just keep doing one new thing after another. That had happened under Al Simone, it happened under Bill Destler.  And it’s still happening.

RBJ: How important to your choice was RIT’s involvement in Rochester’s economic development?

Munson: It was really important. There’s another university I won’t name where they were courting me for president. That particular university sits right adjacent to the community and I just didn’t see much interaction and I wondered what was wrong, what’s going on. It was almost as if–they hadn’t literally built a wall around the university, but it felt like that. You were right on the edge of campus. Where were all the restaurants and things, where do students hang out? There weren’t any. Everything happened on campus. Now here, we’re out on–I jokingly refer to this as “The Farm”–but we do a lot to integrate with the city. We’ve got programs that bring our students into the city for cultural events, we have programs that involve our students giving service, and as I mentioned, I’m very involved with some of the economic development agencies. I’m downtown a lot. Of course, we own the old bank building at 40 Franklin Street. Recently we leased space in the revitalized, rehabbed Sibley building for an art gallery and various kinds of events. We haven’t decided what else we will do in the city, but we’re certainly considering things that are much more major than done in the past.  A lot of people sort of chuckle because, hey, we started in the city and then we came out here. Now the new president talks about going back to the city. Of course, we wouldn’t take the entire campus back to the city, but I would like to see us do more in the city.

RBJ: One of those stars that you’re shooting for, that you mentioned when you first arrived, was doing more with the performing arts. How’s that going?

Munson: It’s going well. And let me be clear, obviously we’re not going to compete with Eastman. We already have an outstanding classical-type musical school. I think we’re going to emphasize a lot of things Eastman probably doesn’t work so hard at. The centerpiece for us ultimately is going to be musical theater because that involves music, theater, dance and technology, which we’re really good at. We’re going to need some new facilities to push that along, so we’re thinking about that. And we have a list of the types of faculty we want to hire in the performing arts. We’re getting started–and I don’t really want to tell you everything we’re doing yet, because there are a whole lot of things cooking behind the scenes.

This semester we started the steel drum band. That’s just sort of the tiny little tip of the iceberg. Not every university has a steel drum band, but now we do. We’re very strong in the realm of a cappella groups. We’ve got about 10 a cappella groups.  The men’s group called Eight Beat Measure is really absolutely outstanding. … There’s a huge intersection in terms of how human brains work, in talent in math and science and talent in music. So we’ve got so many students who are good in math and science, and a lot of those students are also really good in music.

We have some other things we’ll be hatching pretty soon but we’re not ready to announce. Some things that will involve more being in the community and not just sit on our campus here.

RBJ: Do you foresee partnerships with any of Rochester’s performing arts organizations?

Munson: Well, so we’ve talked to a couple. We’ll see how that develops and I can’t say for sure. Our geography makes some things difficult because we do need to have some new facilities right here on our campus just for the sake of convenience. But we certainly have thought about possibly having some facilities downtown that could be shared with others.

RBJ: What do you think your best work has been in this job so far?

Munson: Oh, boy. Now you’re really putting me on the spot. Really others should make that judgment. I don’t think that’s my call.

I guess what I’m told is that there’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm around the campus for where we’re headed. A lot of that is charted out in our strategic plan. So when I first arrived, the campus was operating under a strategic plan but it had an enormous number of goals and objectives. I thought maybe we should try to focus more. So we spent a lot of my first year kind of whittling down that strategic plan and then adding a number of new elements to it. We got the number of goals and objectives down from about 121, I think it was, down to 25. And 25 that fall into four categories: people, programs, places—including the physical facilities–and partnerships including the external world. One can just go to our website…there’s a high-level description of it there.

Another thing just has to do with that people category. We really just have to continually strive to bring in–as good as our faculty and students are–even better faculty and students. That’s something that I’ve always worked on, probably harder than anything else. It was all about accumulating talent. Kind of whoever has the best talent, they end up winning at the end of the day.

Our former provost left to take another position and the first thing we did was recruit a really unbelievable provost, Ellen Granberg. She was at Clemson and was one of the sparkplugs behind really raising the profile and kind of the reality of Clemson in a major way.

We’re also very fortunate to recruit Ian Mortimer, who is our new vice president for enrollment management. Ian had been at Nazareth and was looking to be at a bigger place. And Ian doesn’t just recruit students. He gets involved in a lot of the strategic conversations around RIT. He’s only been with us since August but already making major impacts. Our number of applications are way up. I think the selectivity of RIT is going to be coming way down in the sense that it’s going to be a lot harder to get in here. We’re going to have many, many more applications. We’ve got now a much bigger focus on New York City, that area of the state, and we’re going to be developing  a much bigger focus on the international realm, as well as some other selected areas in the nation. We’re a tuition-driven institution, so we really have to be able to recruit students, including some families who can pay something close to full price. With Ian on board we’re set. It’s just really exciting to be pulling some talent into the administration. But we’re also hard at work recruiting deans, and this will trickle down into department chairs, and we’re also looking at how we’re going to be taking talent away from other universities.

RIT President Dr. David Munson
RIT President Dr. David Munson (Photo by Kate Melton)

RBJ: What have been your greatest challenges since you started here?

Munson: There have been some challenges. They’ve been more on the internal communications, sort of public relations side. We have a very activist student body.  I like that. In fact, depending on what they’re protesting, I’ll be out there with them. But there were a couple of things that occurred in my first year. And one had to do with the level of care that we–medical care, health-related care–that we offered to transgender students. When I arrived, there was a doc in our health center who had been working with some transgender students. And she had been let go. I can’t really comment on why and what happened there; it’s a personnel thing. I just kind of walked right into that. I had nothing to do with the decisions or anything that occurred before that. But our student body, understandably, was very upset. We took a lot of criticism over that, not just from our students but from some faculty and staff, from some alumni. And we took our time to figure out what we were going to do. We don’t really and didn’t at the time have experts in providing hormone therapy to transgender students. So we contracted with a doc at the UR and he’s been spending time now, this whole academic year, with our staff. Our staff is getting trained and the doc is assisting in developing care plans, if you will, for the trans community. That’s turned out well, but it was really rough for a while. Could we have communicated better or differently? I’m not so sure, because when you have personnel issues, you simply cannot talk about them.

Then a second thing that occurred, completely unrelated, was the student suicide…at the end of October.  In a big community, we lose people to all sorts of things, whether it’s student member or faculty member. We do have suicides, we do have drug overdoses, we do have deaths due to various medical kinds of conditions. We do have deaths due to automotive accidents. When your community is big…the numbers are so large that things like that are pretty much going to happen every year. But in the case of suicides, a lot of times they’re not visible to the community. This one was very visible. …This one was different, which involved the young man leaping out of the top floor of a building. Another complicating factor, though, is that we couldn’t really talk about it very openly, especially early on. You’ve got to figure out what is going on, what has occurred. ….

We immediately–because of all the uproar we had heard from the student body–scheduled an open forum for all of our students to attend. If you get in front of the students and talk about the services you offer and all the ways we might be able to help, a lot of students take that as defensive. They want to be able to talk about what happened, not about how great we are, or that we’ve got this amount of counselors, or that we’ve increased the staff in some way in mental health counseling or whatever. So we decided to hold a listening session. That occurred just a day or two after the suicide, so it was very quick. It was scheduled to go on, for I don’t know, an hour and a half or two hours, but there were students that probably stayed for three and four hours.

That was difficult, I think, for the whole community because most of the session involved students walking up to microphones we had in Ingle Auditorium and telling their own personal stories. Again, in a community this size, there are going to be people that have almost tragic kinds of stories. A lot of students displayed an awful lot of courage to talk about their own personal situation. I think that kind of session has a way of kind of unravelling things a little bit. You’re not starting to feel better, for a while you’re going to feel worse. And that’s what happened.

We took the weekend to decide how we would respond. On Monday we sent out an announcement to the campus that we were going to add a lot more staff in the mental health counseling area and a bunch of other actions we were going to take, including that we’ve launched a mental health task force, and a number of other things. I think the whole campus is now feeling way better about where we are. We’ve hired a number of those new counselors, the mental health task force is off and running and doing a great job. There’s a lot of student representation on that task force. We also have set up, or are setting up …more of a standing committee, not just for mental health but for overall health and wellness, which will include students, faculty and staff, and provide advice for the services we offer. We’re in a better spot now. That was rough. I never would have anticipated this sort of thing.

In my previous position at the University of Michigan, I certainly encountered numerous student deaths. That was always the hardest part of my job, even if you didn’t know the student. (Munson went on to describe two “totally heart-breaking” tragedies from his former university job. Both involved motor vehicle deaths of international students, whose parents had to come from abroad in the aftermath.) 

These things happen and our students, some of them, want to see a real emotional response. But we also do need to talk about the kinds of services and counseling and things that are available. So we advertise those things. You’re kind of walking this fine line where you kind of want to mourn with the community, but you also have to provide at least some leadership about how we’re going to create a path forward out of this chaos if you will. I’m still figuring some of that out.

RBJ: Recently a black-face photo from RIT’s past emerged and you responded immediately. Can you tell us about your decision process?

Munson: We’ve got a lot more emphasis on what I would label as crisis communication. That has developed since my arrival. I don’t take a lot of credit for it. There was a whole team of us that tried to figure out what we needed to try to better in this realm. So we actually made a new hire in Bob’s organization (Bob Finnerty, chief communications officer for RIT) and he’s heading up crisis communication. He was in place when this photo emerged. By that time I think we all had decided that we’re going to be really proactive on certain things and not kind of wait and to see what community reaction develops and then we’ll comment. But rather if we see something and we think we’re going to need to comment, let’s comment sooner rather than later. Bob and his team alerted me that this was being looked into by USA Today, that they had found something in one of our old yearbooks. Frankly, when I saw particularly the one photo with the students dressed up in the Ku Klux Klan outfits, I went ballistic. I wasn’t here at the time, obviously, but man, oh man, oh man. This was in the late ’70s, hey, I was in college in the late ’70s. That was not acceptable. We came out with a very strong statement alerting our community that something might come out. We felt better just telling our community ahead of time: We heard something and it’s not good and then I used the words “we condemn this in the strongest possible terms,” and that’s accurate. It turned out it took a little while for the USA Today and affiliates to put the story together but ultimately it did come out. By the time it came out, our community had already been warned about it, and they already knew how we felt about it. I think we managed that as well as we could.

Now, once the photo’s out and people see what it is, obviously people are upset, we’re all upset. We have a discussion group called “Grey Matters.’ That group discusses a lot of difficult topics throughout the year. So we just convened a special session and invited everyone to attend. There were a hundred or so people that attended. I think we had a lot of good conversation. (Racism) is something we’re always working on. I’m not going to pat ourselves on the back or anything, but I think we handled things as well as we could.

RBJ: How do you react to systemic issues, such as the recent scandal about parents paying for test takers and athletic positions so their children can attend Ivy League colleges?

Munson: The first thing is I don’t think it’s systemic. Maybe we’ll hear something else. As far as I know it’s not systemic. What occurred is definitely pretty atrocious stuff.. They’ve identified so far , I guess, 50 students or something that benefited from this fraudulent scheme. That’s 50 students out of millions, right? We’ll see.

On the other hand, the biggest negative is it’s coloring all of higher education. In my time in academia in three different institutions, I never heard a single story even remotely like this involving our students.

RBJ: Does that spark a larger conversation about colleges giving preferences to legacy students or children of large donors, which isn’t illegal?

Munson: That conversation might get a little bigger but that’s not a new conversation. It’s been going on for decades. It’s picked up steam in recent years. I think it’s a conversation worth having. I think it’s true that at some of the quote wealthier schools, wealthy donors can have at least some influence on the admissions process and there are two camps on that. Some people say, hey, that’s wrong! But other people say, wait a minute, if this person gave enough money for a whole facility or a gigantic number of scholarships, that benefits the campus, that benefits the students on the campus, so maybe it’s OK. I think it’s a healthy conversation to talk about that.

RBJ: What evidence will there be in the future of your tenure here?

Munson: The things spelled out in the strategic plan are the things I want to achieve. If we get all those things done, I’m going to be feeling good, not just for myself, but for the whole organization. I’ll feel like we really accomplished something.

The trick is to elevate the whole institution in about every possible way but try to remain distinctive as we do that. We’re not trying to be like any other university and that’s a very strong sort of desire or request from our alumni base. So when I talk about us elevating our research and development programs, I have alums that will put their hand up and say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, that’s what every other university does.” So I point out to them that I don’t think everything Harvard and MIT do is necessarily bad. There are some things that are probably OK. And I also point out we can do more than one thing at once.  The students, they’re passionate about ice hockey, but they’re also equally passionate about Humans vs. Zombies. There’s a lot of craziness on this campus and we want to keep that going.

RBJ: RIT is the fifth largest employer in Rochester area. Do you feel any particular responsibility because of that status?

Munson: We do. Because of our size, we’re one of the larger entities in the community so I think we have to feel responsibility. For example, the United Way Fund Drive. We take that very seriously. We just kicked that off. We have a nice-size goal and we feel we have to do our part. I already mentioned economic development. I serve on the boards of (Greater Rochester Enterprise, The Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council and the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce.) Anytime Matt Hurlbutt at GRE has a company coming into town that might need talent that RIT could provide, we’re right there, meeting with people and trying to get them to move here. We’ve had some big successes recently. I’ll give most of the credit to Matt and his people but we were instrumental in a number of companies coming here.

There are a couple of (alumni) that have been attracted here recently. They’re in the bay area, but they’ve opened a branch here in Rochester. The one that’s probably getting the most attention is called EmployeeChannel. The alum is Mark Oney. He’s become a huge Rochester champion. He lives in the bay area of California, but he’s talking up Rochester: “Hey let’s all move to Rochester. There’s a lot of talent available there, the cost of living is low and you can actually hang on to your employees, they don’t just skip around from one company to the next every year or two.” He’s  thrilled to be here. We’re talking to other alums, too, saying “Rochester is it, you’ve got to think about Rochester.”

RBJ: What are your thoughts about the Rochester economy?

Munson: The Rochester economy is doing better than people think. Rochester has been through this long period where the number of employees at Kodak, at Xerox, at Bausch and Lomb, what have you, has been declining, declining.  Especially with Kodak, which I understand in its heyday had 64,000 employees and now has something closer to 1,000. The thing people have to remember is at some point those declines are over. At some point you hit zero. We’re getting pretty close, right? For the last few years, actually, I think if you look at the job statistics, we’re actually growing a little bit. I think from here on out, we’re going to see just steady growth. That’s the way I look at it.

Some of the companies that have been brought to town recently, I’ll mention another one by name, LiveTiles, based in Australia. We played a role in getting them to move here. They’re looking to hire 500 employees. They work in artificial intelligence. Man, it doesn’t get more cutting edge than that. They’ve already hired a whole bunch of employees. We just couldn’t be happier that they’re here. It benefits the community obviously to have this kind of economic activity but it benefits the university, too. If more of our alums stay here locally, we can interact with them. They can work with our students. It’s all a great thing.

I should also mention we have other kinds of start-up activity here. We’ve got massive startups for our undergrads. We have the Simone Center, that works in the area of entrepreneurship on campus. Right adjacent to campus we have on John Street, we have Venture Creations. At any one time we have about 25 startup companies there. I kind of jokingly refer to them as the grown-up startup companies because they tend to be faculty or faculty and graduate students and others. We have a remarkable success rate out of Venture Creations. About 80 percent of the companies that have graduated out of there are still in business. Some of them are really poised to do amazing things. We’re just blessed across the board in entrepreneurship and economic development.

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