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Leveraging technology, the arts, and design to drive creativity and innovation

David Munson, President of Rochester Institute of Technology
David Munson, President of Rochester Institute of Technology
David Munson became president of Rochester Institute of Technology on July 1, 2017. He previously served as dean of the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering. In Munson’s first year at the helm of a top 100 national research university, he has been focused on leveraging RIT’s strengths in technology, the arts, and design to drive creativity and innovation.

Question: RIT has a strong national reputation for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, but you also have been talking a lot about the arts and design. Why is this important for your university going forward?

Answer: RIT has been rapidly ascending for many years under forward-looking leadership and is now one of the top few universities in the nation working at the intersection of technology, the arts and design. We have a rich history in the arts where we will be placing increased emphasis, along with research and discovery. We can leverage our strengths in technology, the arts, and design — the core of our university — to continue building important and unique programs in all disciplines, including business, the health sciences and the liberal arts.

RIT is also home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. And NTID not only provides educational programs in technology and the arts, but also collaborates with researchers throughout the campus in the development of assistive and accessibility technologies for people with physical challenges.

Q: Why is the creativity imperative a necessity for today’s students?

A: The path to major success in business and industry now relies more than ever on creativity and innovation. This is a product of the Digital Age, where change is rapid, information is instantly available and nations and economies are globally interconnected. We live in one world and, across the planet, we share both problems and opportunities. Issues that come to mind are poverty, nuclear nonproliferation, global warming, sufficient clean water, renewable energy and affordable health care. Although technology can help in solving these problems, much of the solution will not be technical. But we may not have the political and social answers, or the leadership and willpower.

Of course, new technology often brings new challenges. Think about the future, when it will be possible to have your genes edited to make a better you. In what cases will this be ethical? What might be the societal risks? With progress in artificial intelligence and robotics, how long will it be before we are routinely interacting with machines in very complex tasks? Will humans always be in control?

What kind of education should our students receive in order to help answer some of these questions and thereby contribute to guiding the future of society? Clearly, we need strengths in science and technology, but we must go beyond the purely practical. According to a World Economic Forum report released in 2016, by year 2020 about a third of employment skills that were considered important in 2016’s workforce will have changed. The Forum’s report says the top three skills for 2020 are complex problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity. The Forum also highlights collaboration, emotional intelligence, judgment, service orientation, and cognitive flexibility. So, we are moving in this direction at RIT.

Q: What does this mean for a student at RIT?

A: As a starting point, each student should choose a discipline for which he or she has a passion. And then, no matter which discipline is selected, the student should learn about and gain experience in critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, innovation, collaboration, communication, and other high-level skills. This calls for experiential learning, including co-op and summer jobs, international experiences, participation on project teams, entrepreneurship, research, and participation in student groups in and out of the classroom. Maintaining RIT’s steep upward trajectory will be made possible by working across disciplines to help solve the most pressing issues of our time and by offering an education that embraces the future. We must continue to rethink our educational systems so that we are building a broad, multidisciplinary skill set where creativity is exercised at every turn.

We intend to double down on making the RIT campus a thriving ecosystem to stimulate creativity and innovation, which is the translation of an idea into a product, service, or process that has economic or social value.

Q: How will RIT students make a difference across the globe?

A: Our students “grow up” during their time on campus, in every sense of that term, receiving an education (both formal and informal), making friends for life, and preparing for a career. But, we can aim higher. I want for our students to become citizens of the world, to be leaders, and to strive to make the world a better place.

It has been my experience that students thrive in a culture of intellectual curiosity, especially when it is possible to turn that curiosity into action. So, when I attended the 10th annual Imagine RIT: Innovation and Creativity Festival last year, it left me with a distinct impression of a university whose students can indeed change the world. I observed a sea of students with a strong sense of passion and purpose. RIT students are creators and they know how to put their creativity to use. They demonstrated the art and science of movie making. They simulated NASA rockets and engineered hybrid formula race cars. And they solved problems in the health care arena with the potential to improve lives. Creating something fundamentally new ignites all sorts of possibilities for learning.

Creativity and innovation are best used for noble purposes. Goodness is an essential consideration as we strive to make our mark. I tell our students, alumni, faculty and staff: Let’s get busy creating and innovating. Let’s share our goodness with the world!

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