Free Community Colleges

In 2012, in the heat of a presidential election campaign, President Obama made the apparent mistake of wishing out loud that all of our nation’s children could have the opportunity to go to college. That would seem like a fairly innocent, “American as apple pie” kind of wish, but not in this highly divided nation, and certainly not in the midst of a political year. He was attacked by his opponents as a “snob” and an “elitist”—and colleges, by the way, were also attacked as being a flagrant waste of money.

So here we are, three years later. President Obama—re-elected despite his elitism—has turned his wish into a concrete proposal to make community colleges tuition-free throughout the nation. The basic outline includes a $60 billion investment over the next 10 years to cover tuition for students who maintain a 2.5 GPA. While Washington would pay for the majority of the costs—75 percent—the states that participate would cover the rest. The president projects that the program, if enacted by Congress—a very big “if” of course—as many as nine million students would benefit.

Naturally, this proposal has been greeted with skepticism; many political observers simply say it is dead-in-the-water given the general polarization in Washington. But this is really a big idea—a visionary idea—one that may have enough strength to influence the national conversation about the role of higher education today in America, its role in our globalized economy and in any attempt to reach equity for so many of our nation’s underserved populations. As one economic analyst said, “…nothing may have a greater effect on the future of living standards than education policy.”

A number of observers have pointed out that what the president really wants to do is make two years of college the norm for students today—the same way that four years of high school became the norm for American students at the start of the 20th century—a time when the country was rapidly evolving out of its agrarian roots. His wish—his vision—should come as no surprise. Throughout his presidency, he and Mrs. Obama have aggressively promoted higher education both through their thoughtful presentations and their on-the-ground programs. While the naysayers are already nit-picking details of the president’s plan (many of which have yet to be revealed), they are not—I am pleased to note—being vitriolic in the way that they were during the 2012 campaign. I am sure there will be plenty of opportunity and even legitimate reason, once the plan is fully unveiled, to debate its details. But I hope that it is a serious debate—one that does justice to the power of this vision—a vision that reinforces the optimism of our sometimes elusive American dream.

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A Gift of Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks, circa 1980s; Photo by Morris Lane
Gordon Parks, circa 1980s; Photo by Morris Lane

Last month, I received a five-volume boxed set of the collected works of Gordon Parks. It came out of the blue—as a gift from the publisher, Gerhard Steidl, and Dr. Thomas Schwarz, the president of SUNY/Purchase, which is where the Gordon Parks Foundation is housed.

It is a magnificent collection—one that reflects the arc of an artistic career that almost defies description. Gordon Parks was a photographer, musician, author, poet, and filmmaker—a pioneering story-teller with an unerring eye, acute intellect, and empathetic heart. He was the first African-American photographer to work at Life and Vogue magazines; the first African-American to work for the Office of War Information during WWII and the Farm Security Administration; and in bringing his novel The Learning Tree to the screen, the first to write, direct, and produce a film for a major motion picture company. He was a Renaissance man.

At Life magazine, where he worked for 20 years, one might say he covered the waterfront: fashion, crime, entertainers, society, the civil rights movement, Benedictine monks, and Harlem gangs. Most notable, perhaps, were his heart-rending photo essays on the hidden worlds of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, as the senior curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art points out in these volumes. “His stories transported readers not only to other places and to the diversity of their fellow humanity, but to a better sense of themselves.”

Ten years ago, FIT recognized Gordon Parks with an honorary degree from SUNY at our 2004 commencement ceremony. Already 92 years old, he was still actively involved in his many pursuits—gracious, lively, and delightful. At a luncheon following the ceremony (held in the employee dining room in Dubinsky), we surprised him with a performance by his old friend, the renowned jazz artist Grady Tate, playing “Don’t Misunderstand”—with words and music by Gordon Parks himself. It was a real treat for everyone present.

These five volumes offer a survey of his entire 70 year career, including work from years long before and years long after his tenure at Life. Some are iconic and are among the most memorable visual symbols of moments in time, of individuals. They range from explorations of New York’s old Fulton fish market to South American hovels to landscapes and abstractions. In color or black and white, these photographs have universal reach. The volumes also contain enlightening essays from colleagues at Life, art historians and other scholars—as well as from Parks himself.

I am ever grateful to Dr. Schwarz and the publisher for this gift. The books will reside in the Gladys Marcus Library where I hope they will provide insight and pleasure to all who reach for them.

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Season’s Greet-inks!


With the opening last night of FIT’s second annual holiday pop-up shop, I believe that the college has established a new tradition. And given that we are also celebrating FIT’s 70th anniversary this year, this is a particularly lovely and appropriate tradition to establish. It brings together students, staff, faculty—a great curricular challenge—and philanthropy, all in the spirit of the season.

The holiday pop-up shop—designed, fabricated, and installed by third-semester students in the Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design (VPED) program—is a collaboration between FIT and The Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s thrift shop. Last year, when we produced it for the first time, the shop raised an amazing $35,000 for the hospital in just five days.

The shop is located in the Pomerantz lobby and occupies no more than 600 square feet, but it is filled with a bounty of vintage luxury goodies from The Society Boutique. You’ll find many high-end designer labels on clothing, jewelry, handbags and other accessories as well as unique gift items—all at bargain prices.

Its stock (and bargains) notwithstanding, this pop-up shop is worth a visit, if only for the visuals. It is almost like performance art! The theme—Season’s Greet-inks—is a play on words on old-fashioned holiday tattoo images. And you can see them throughout—from the giant pin-up “girls” in Santa hats at the entrance to product hang-tags, shopping bags, and window displays. Temporary tattoos are on sale as well. The shop also features woodland animals—evoking a fantasy forest environment. A total of 36 VPED students submitted twelve proposals for themes to The Society Boutique team who chose Season’s Greet-inks. Once this theme was chosen, all of the students went to work to put the shop together.

The shop is staffed by FMM students in the Merchandising Society, which operates the college’s Style Shop.

As it happens, the curriculum for third semester VPED students focuses on retail and display, according to the program’s chair, Professor Craig Berger, and Professors Anne Kong and Mary Costantini, who all worked with these students throughout the process. So the pop-up shop project is a kind of hands-on culmination of their studies.

Seasons Greet-inks will be open to the public from Wednesday, December 10 through Saturday, December 13. Hours are 11am to 8pm, except on Saturday, when the shop will close at 7:30pm. All of of the proceeds will go to Memorial Sloan Kettering—so this is one time that I will join the retail choir and sing: Shop Till You Drop!

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Foreign Language Poetry Recitation Competition

The Foreign Language Poetry Recitation Competition celebrated its 25th anniversary here at FIT this year in two days of recitations in November. In a way, its longevity is a surprise—it is counter-intuitive. Who would expect, after all, that a college like FIT, whose entire raison d’etre is to promote career education, would so enthusiastically support an activity that really celebrates the principles of the liberal arts?

Winners and runners-up of the Foreign Language Poetry Recitation Competition.
Winners and runners-up of the Foreign Language Poetry Recitation Competition.

Still, here we are—25 years after Professor James Cascaito first inaugurated this competition—and we had, once again, a full house of students, faculty and friends cheering on our students who recited beautifully—in Chinese, French, Italian, Japanese and Spanish. Perhaps its success really shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to us. In its way, it is a testament to our remarkable and always surprising students as well as to Professor Cascaito that this competition took root here.

In fact, it expresses one of the core values and goals of an FIT education: to expand the learning experience across cultures and boundaries. And it reflects our commitment to the liberal arts—as well as to the global perspective that is a hallmark of the nation’s best institutions of higher education. In a very special way, it also honors the whole FIT community—which is made up of people from a multitude of religions, races, countries and cultures. What better tribute could be paid to this community than this effort to teach, understand and speak other languages—and to share an appreciation for the poetry of other cultures.

I have often said that this is one of my favorite FIT events. It is such a pleasure to listen to the recitations of our talented students. This year, they chose poems from ancient Chinese and Japanese masters, as well as from the 19th century French poet Paul Verlaine and the Latin American literary giant Jorge Luis Borges—among many others. The first place winners all come from our Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology. In Chinese, the winner was Daeyoung Foo (Fashion Merchandising Management); in French, Parinaz Heidari (Advertising Marketing Communications); in Italian, Sergio Falquez (Fashion Merchandising Management); in Japanese, Sara Vondruskova (Fashion Merchandising Management); in Spanish, Steven Simione (International Trade and Marketing).

I was only able to attend the first day of the competition so I had the opportunity to hear all of the finalists recite in the run-off. As far as I am concerned, each and every one of these students is a winner. By mastering another language, they opened their eyes, minds and hearts to another culture. By studying that culture’s poetry, they learned something of the power of its language to distill meaning and emotion. Finally, by entering this competition, they went beyond the classroom requirements and challenged themselves to seek true excellence. In the process, they expanded their horizons in a way that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. How wonderful that they were able to do that as an intrinsic part of their FIT career-focused education.

Listen to the winning recitations:

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New Film and Media Studies Program

It is always exciting when FIT launches a new program. Any new program, after all, offers our students new perspectives, new career direction, new opportunity. But it was particularly exciting this semester when FIT welcomed 25 students as charter members of its new Film and Media Studies program. Even though the program has just launched, students have been clamoring to get in since it was first advertised. Indeed, we were forced to turn away many dozens of excellent applicants because—at this stage—we could only accommodate one cohort of 25.

For so many of today’s young people, going into film—in any of its many guises—is as cool and luring as joining a rock band. And since film programs are offered at colleges and universities throughout the country, you might wonder why ours was so much in demand—even at the outset. And the answer, I think, is what makes FIT and its entire curriculum unique: it blends the practical with the theoretical, the hands-on with the academic. Housed in the School of Liberal Arts, it is an interdisciplinary program with the School of Art and Design—and as such, it offers an altogether new approach to the study of film.

From their first semester, students are introduced to filmmaking skills, such as lighting and visual storytelling while, at the same time, they are exposed to the analytic tools fundamental to the study of film. Over time, they will master the technical and production skills of live-action visual storytelling, both fiction and documentary, while studying film and media history, critical writing and the work of great directors. Programs at most other institutions cannot—or do not—offer a curriculum with both sides of the filmmaking craft, and both sides, of course, are essential. Indeed, many of our applicants made a point of telling us how important it was to them to have this dual exposure.

I am eager to watch this program grow. Each new academic year will bring more and more students, and as they graduate—either with an associate or a baccalaureate degree, or both—they will populate the expanding fields in which the moving image plays such a prominent role. Their opportunities are vast, ever-growing and ever-evolving, and I am sure that 10 years down the road, our cool FIT alums will be among the rock stars in the field.

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