Goodbye, Winter!

It is hard to believe that daylight savings time has arrived. Just the other day we had to close the college early—yet again—because of the treacherous snow-driven weather. But now Accuweather tells us that all that snow will be melting—it is predicting temperatures in the 40s and 50’s, and even the 60’s over the next few weeks.


As I measure it, we had almost eight weeks of cruelly freezing, disabling weather this winter—and like everyone else, I am bored by it. The irony, for me, is that I normally like cold weather. I’m sorry to say so, but it’s true. Well, what I really like is the clothing that winter requires. I love the wonderful fabrics that keep us warm: the wide variety of wools, the sweaters, the coats, the beautiful leather gloves and boots, the shawls. But I am ready to close the door on my winter closet. So is BeBe, by the way.

BeBe has never liked having to wear booties or storm coats or little woolen sweaters—handsome as he is in them. BeBe does not need a summer wardrobe and he is panting in anticipation of that 60 degree day. At this point, so am I.

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Career Success Depends on Liberal Arts, Part 2

One of the disturbing outcomes of the surveys I posted about recently on college learning and career success is the disparity between what employers and college students think about how prepared the students really are for the workplace. In fact, the survey report is titled: Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success.

One of the major finding was that employers “overwhelmingly” endorse what they call “broad learning” and cross-cutting skills as key to career success. And in that category, they include all of those skills we associate with the liberal arts: critical thinking, oral and written communication, analytic reasoning, to name a few. But the report summarizes two separate national surveys conducted at the same time: one of business and non-profit leaders and the other of current college students. Both groups were asked some of the same questions, and yet they arrive at some startlingly different conclusions—some of which may be detrimental to students as they start to seek jobs.

In fact, the students seem to fully agree with employers on the career value of broad learning and cross-cutting skills such as critical thinking…oral and written communication…analytic reasoning…and so on. The problem is that students by a large majority think they have developed those skills—whereas employers disagree. Only about 25 percent of employers say that recent college graduates are well prepared in these areas. And more than two-thirds say that “improvements are needed” if recent college graduates expect to advance and get promotions in the workplace.

Why the discrepancy between the students’ and employers’ assessments? Unfortunately, the report is silent on that. It simply states the outcomes.

What are we, at FIT, to make of this? We believe we prepare our students well in the areas in which employers say students—and colleges—are “falling short.” Over the last decade as we implemented our strategic plan, we raised the profile on liberal arts learning and emphasized the acquisition of critical thinking skills.

In recent years, our students have demonstrated considerable improvement in tests on critical thinking; indeed, our Middle States evaluators noted in 2012 that students report they are challenged to think critically in completing their assignments. Of course, that could speak to the same misleading confidence that the students in this survey expressed. The millennial generation is nothing if not self-confident.

On the other hand, I think of other metrics that one might use to assess how well we do on this score. One third of our student interns are hired by their places of employment, which at least suggests that employers are pleased with their abilities. Our job placement rate is over 80 percent. And then, late last year,—the salary, benefits, and compensation information company—reported that FIT alumni had the highest mid-career median salary of all 349 community colleges in the survey. Surely that would suggest that these FIT graduates managed to advance in their careers quite well.

Our students have another advantage as well. One of the additional findings in these surveys is the importance that employers attach to “applied learning.” Well, applied learning is really one of FIT’s hallmarks. With our roots in industry, we developed a pedagogy at the outset that emphasizes both theory and “applied” or “experiential” learning. Internships, senior or capstone projects, the competitions our students enter…all of these require the acquisition and application of real world skills, and I believe this helps to make our students very attractive in the job market.

None of this is “proof,” of course. I think what this report tells us is that no matter how well we think we are doing, we cannot afford to be complacent. Even if we think our students are the exception—and we have no way to “prove” that they are—we still must maintain the pressure on ourselves to ensure that when FIT students graduate, they do, indeed, possess the skills that employers value most. Our students—and their future employers—deserve no less.

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Career Success Depends on Liberal Arts

A recent survey of business and non-profit leaders conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) concludes that “broad learning” and “cross-cutting skills” are the most important kinds of preparation for long-term career success. When hiring new employees, these employers “overwhelmingly” look for skills in oral and written communication, teamwork, ethical decision-making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings. And more than 90 percent say that a “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than (a candidate’s) undergraduate major.”

These findings should not be surprising to anyone in the field of higher education—or to those familiar with hiring practices, even in the creative industries that FIT supports. Higher education wonks will have seen results like these often—indeed, these findings are consistent with similar surveys conducted over the past five years by the AAC&U. Neither are they surprising to us at FIT. The industry leaders who visit our campus every year form a virtual chorus calling for employees who are adept at critical thinking, who have strong communication skills, and who have the capacity to deal with the ethical business-related issues they will inevitably confront

However, these findings may surprise the public at large, which has been bombarded in recent years with attacks on the very academic disciplines in which these cross-cutting skills are most readily developed: the liberal arts. Its critics see liberal arts learning as an indulgence and a distraction for students who face an intensely competitive, technologically advanced job marketplace. But it is through the liberal arts that students learn the very things employers clearly want: to think critically, ask the right questions, analyze, and problem solve. It is through the liberal arts, too, that they gain exposure to the global cultures that are critical to the careers they will pursue. It is through the liberal arts that they will learn to communicate well.

That is why today, at this career-oriented college, liberal arts study is a strategic and integral part of the curriculum. It is a fundamental building block for all of our academic programs. I find it gratifying that liberal arts courses are so popular that we now offer 21 minors—ranging from Asian studies to economics to ethics and sustainability, a topic of urgent interest to the design and fashion industries our students enter.

There are many fascinating findings in this survey—most of which, on reflection, bode well for FIT. I expect to share my thoughts on some of the other findings in future posts.

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Fashion’s Economic Impact

I was delighted that Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney chose FIT as the place to unveil a new report showing the economic impact—$887 million, in fact—of New York Fashion Week. She was here on February 6, a week before that glorious designer showcase—a perfect time to celebrate fashion in New York City. Fashion is, after all, a signature industry for our city, one that people the world over identify with New York.

Representative Caroline Maloney does a press conference at FIT

In her FIT press conference, Congresswoman Maloney emphasized the industry’s impact on the city’s economy: it employs more than 180,000 people, including 16,000 in manufacturing jobs, and generates almost $2 billion in tax revenue each year. More than 900 fashion companies have their headquarters here.

As a member of Mayor’s Fashion Working Group, I know how important it is, as well, to tout the industry’s strength, its primacy, its huge economic impact—not to mention glamour—and to help maintain the city as fashion’s global capital.

But I really have to point out: it all starts at FIT. Seventy years ago, a small group of visionary industry leaders opened the doors to a new institute to secure their industry’s future. Out of that bold move, we have, today, Michael Kors and Norma Kamali, Calvin Klein and Nanette Lepore…Ralph Rucci…Francisco Costa…and of course Karolina Zmarlak, who was honored at Congresswoman Maloney’s event. Karolina, a Polish American designer, is a proud 2007 alumna who has built a successful fashion brand in New York. She is among the tens of thousands of gifted alumni who populate every level of the design industry.

As the Congresswoman said, “Here in New York City, fashion is big business,” and she noted, “FIT faculty and students are some of the most creative, dedicated and talented people in the industry.”

I could not agree more and, as president of FIT, I was especially pleased to tell the audience about the college’s 81 percent job placement rate. The vast majority of alumni not only get positions in the fields in which they studied, but they work and stay here in New York City. Which only reinforces my point—it really does all start here.

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“Snow” Nice to be Back at Work

I do not envy Mayor De Blasio or Governor Cuomo today. One “failed” snow storm—and they are criticized, castigated, berated, and blamed for making what their fault-finders call a bad decision.

As we all know, the city was shut down late Monday and Tuesday—the roads closed and, in an unprecedented move, the subways shut down as well. FIT closed on Monday at 2:00 pm and remained closed all day and evening on Tuesday. As we all know, the monster blizzard turned out to be a much gentler weather event for the city, with gusty winds and about eight inches of snow. Long Island and New England were battered by the storm—and I suspect residents there were grateful that their elected leaders took all necessary precautions.

I am not responsible for millions of people as are the mayor and the governor. I am, however, responsible for the safety and security of 10,000 FIT students and 1,700 employees and I take that responsibility very seriously. Keeping the college open or closed under these circumstances will always have consequences, and the consequence I will always want to avoid is one affecting anyone’s safety.

I recognize that the mayor and governor walk a tight-rope when dealing with weather predictions and completely sympathize with their decision to…as they say…err on the side of caution. I believe that if the brunt of the storm had veered just a bit more to the west, the critics would today be hailing the mayor and governor as heroes. New York City was lucky. It’s as simple as that. Were we inconvenienced here at FIT? We were. Classes were cancelled, meetings postponed. Our valiant Buildings and Grounds crew was on duty throughout the storm—Monday and Tuesday—keeping the grounds safe; Aramark workers maintained food service for our students. Considering all, I think we have nothing to complain about and I am delighted to be back at my desk on this frigid but sunny day.

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