Why Midterms Matter (The Elections, That Is)

For many of us in the academic world—and especially students—the word “midterm” inevitably means exams. But there is another kind of midterm approaching—one that is terribly important, and yet one I fear that many of us might just miss. It is, of course, the national midterm election—that period between presidential elections when many congressional and local seats are on the line. Historically, these elections seem to put the nation to sleep.

This year certainly doesn’t bode well. Polls tell us that the country is thoroughly disgusted with Washington, and our distaste for a dysfunctional congress has spilled over into our attitudes toward local races. Governor? Judges? Local council or school board members? Few seem to care.

The other day, there was an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by the writer Ann Patchett in which she mulled over her close call with apathy as the primaries for the midterm elections approached. This is a woman who takes pride in voting in all elections. But this time out, she didn’t seem to much care and decided that it would be enough to vote in the midterms. However, at the last minute, she realized that some state Supreme Court justices whom she admired just might lose their seats. It was her “eureka” moment. “Just when I thought it was safe to nap through a little local primary election, I was reminded that enjoying democracy meant getting off the sofa,” she wrote.

It is a bit frightening to me that so well-informed and ardent a voter as Ann Patchett almost gave it up. Our country is not especially well-informed—I think we know that from endless surveys conducted over the years. (One survey of 1000 Americans found that 44 percent could not define the Bill of Rights, 73 percent did not know why we had engaged in the Cold War, and more than a third couldn’t identify in which century the American Revolution took place.) Yet as we know, a well-functioning democracy requires a well-informed population.

I’d like to think that because FIT is an academic community that this particular population is better informed—and will show up at the voting booth. I recognize that politics are not high on the agenda for students across the nation this year—including those at FIT. Yet every day, when I walk into the Marvin Feldman lobby and see the almost empty newspaper stand near the elevator—the one that dispenses free copies of The New York Times—I am encouraged. Maybe I’m looking at it with rose-colored glasses, but I take that almost-empty stand to mean that our students are engaging in some kind of conversation about the world around them.

Surely, the problems we face today could not be more disturbing or compelling. Climate change? Terrorism? Immigration reform? Abortion? The fate of Guantanamo or Jerusalem? Minimum wages? Teacher evaluations? What books your child reads in school? Whoever occupies a particular congressional seat or a state assembly seat or a local judgeship can, and likely will, vote on issues like these—issues that will affect you— indeed, all of us directly. So…yes…these tiresome, boring midterm elections are important. Critically important. As Ann Patchett wrote: “Voting is like brickwork—the trick is to keep at it every election season, laying brick after brick…if you miss one, the whole thing starts to slide.” It is also both the quid pro quo and the privilege of democracy.

Midterms fall this year on Tuesday, November 4th. Vote!

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FIT Goes to Washington

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“Is this not cool?” Those were among First Lady Michelle Obama’s opening words when she addressed the crowd of high school students and famous fashion designers at a luncheon as part of her recent Fashion Education Workshop. I watched Mrs. Obama’s speech on my iPad as I traveled to Washington by train for the reception to celebrate the fashion industry that would culminate the day.

Indeed, how cool is it that the First Lady of the land has not only recognized the importance of the fashion industry to our country’s economy—but also, and perhaps especially, has consistently made such a strong link between the future of the industry and education? How cool is it that she brought in 150 high school students that morning to participate in workshops led by the elite of the fashion design industry—Jason Wu and Diane von Furstenberg and Phillip Lim? How cool is it that she approached FIT last spring with a secret request that we sponsor a contest to design a dress for her to wear to this event?

As I think most members of our community now know, Mrs. Obama selected designs by two of our students: Natalya Koval and Chelsea Chen. At the luncheon, she was wearing Natalya’s design and next to her, on a mannequin near the podium, was Chelsea’s dress. I could not have been prouder.

We met up with Natalya and Chelsea that evening as we waited, along with many of today’s fashion industry luminaries, inside the East Gate to enter the White House. They were elated—and wearing, I should add, newly created dresses of their own design. Many of FIT’s good friends and “family members” were there, including trustee Robert Savage and his wife Nanette Lepore ’83, Lafayette 148 designer Edward Wilkerson (which is trustee Deirdre Quinn’s company), Carolina Herrera, Fern Mallis, Michelle Smith’93, and Zac Posen. The corridor leading to the East Room, where the party was being held, was lined with mannequins dressed in designer gowns that Mrs. Obama had worn to a variety of formal occasions. The mood—enhanced by a small music combo and champagne—was exuberant. I am estimating that Mrs. Obama shook about 300 hands that night as the receiving line snaked through the East Room, the Green Room and finally, the Blue Room where she stood. And although, under the circumstances, none of us had an opportunity to hold a “real” conversation with her, her appreciation of FIT—and her dedication to education—was palpable. She could not have been more gracious or more impressive.

This is not the first time I have had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Obama. Last spring, she invited 10 FIT students to join her as she cut the ribbon to open the Charles James exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our students joined a large contingent of fashion’s most celebrated names, but Mrs. Obama nevertheless took the time to meet separately with them and to speak with them individually. Her message to them was the same one she delivered to the students at the White House luncheon while wearing Natalya’s dress: combine your passion for design with higher education and hard hard work…take risks, because, she said, “Risks, failure, it’s all part of being great.”

With great good humor, Mrs. Obama reiterated her own love for fashion and respect for the fashion industry in the East Room that evening. Wearing a blue embroidered Oscar de la Renta dress, she cheered the designers but circled back, as she always seems to do, to the centrality of education and the role it must play for the industry, and young people, to succeed.

Natalya and Chelsea had a life-changing experience—one clearly only available to FIT students. I am thrilled for them. I am also thrilled for FIT and grateful to our fashion design faculty—whose members nurtured our two students every step of the way—allowing them, and FIT, to have this memorable White House moment.

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College Rankings

I am not a fan of college rankings. Their quantitative approach to educational institutions and questionable criteria invariably fail to capture the true zeitgeist–and quality–of a college. Nor can they predict if a college is the right fit for a particular student, no matter how highly it is ranked. But choosing a college can be an overwhelming experience, and it is easy to understand why college applicants and their families look to them so often for guidance.

Recently a new and insightful college ranking system was developed by a research company that wanted to learn where students who are admitted to more than one institution actually enroll. It found that colleges with a special mission far outrank the Harvards and Yales. The top ranked national liberal arts college in this survey turned out to be the U.S. Air Force Academy, which is number 25 on the U.S. News & World Report list. Mt. Holyoke, one of the country’s few remaining women’s colleges, is number 38 in U.S. News’s rankings, but number 13 in this survey.

Where does FIT fit in this picture? Well, because we do not “fit” into the categories used by U.S. News, we are not part of its survey. But in a recent article in the New York Times about this research, FIT was mentioned as one of those mission-specific institutions–like RISD or Brigham Young–with a great, if hidden, advantage. As the article pointed out, “many students have found that the best school for them is not necessarily the highest ranked, but one that is most tailored with respect to type of education or fellow students.” So if they are looking for a specific kind of education or even environment, they might choose a religious institution like Brigham Young, for instance, over Carnegie Mellon or Wesleyan.

This is no surprise to me. FIT has no shortage of applicants. Moreover, a remarkable 82 percent of the students we accept actually enroll–which tells me that those who apply to FIT really want to be here. On the other hand, I worry about the thousands of prospective students who rely on U.S. News and other such guides, and never learn about schools such as FIT that do not appear in the rankings–or even why those that do, such as Mt. Holyoke or Brigham Young, may be just the right ones for them.

The numbers that make up rankings are incapable of telling a story–of reflecting quality. They cannot convey a college’s atmosphere, the tenor of its student body, the rigor of its programs (and which among them are special or unique to that college), the quality and passions of its faculty, indeed, the quality of campus life, its physical environment, its co-curricular programs–or a host of other related matters that prospective students should consider. They cannot tell why a particular student would–or would not–fit a particular college, regardless of its ranking. That is why U.S. News & World Report, and all of the other metric-based guides, do such a serious disservice to the American public.

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Couture Council Honors Carolina Herrera

Last month, FIT helped kick off Fashion Week at Lincoln Center with our annual Couture Council luncheon. We had the pleasure of honoring Carolina Herrera who drew a house full of admirers, including the crème de la crème of the fashion world. Spirits were high, thanks in part to Seth Meyers, whose repartee as emcee kept everyone laughing–and in part, of course, to the warmth everyone present felt for Carolina. It was all in a good cause: the luncheon raised almost $900,000 for The Museum at FIT.

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No Impact Week

As a college, FIT does a good deal to promote the goals of sustainability. But in the end, those lofty goals will go nowhere if we do not make them personal and take individual responsibility for putting them into practice: recycle our trash, consume mindfully, turn out the lights and so on. This week, FIT is joining a host of other colleges and universities for seven days of “green” activities–designed to raise our collective consciousness–called “No Impact Week.”

Sponsored and organized by the FIT Sustainability Council, it has already generated great buy-in from our entire community: students, faculty and staff–and this does not surprise me given our record on sustainability. Over the course of the week, opportunities to improve the quality of our lives will be offered in many different ways: field trips–to a recycling plant one day to see what happens to our waste and to Coney Island Beach another day to observe marine wildlife; safe biking lessons; a green market on our breezeway with local farmers selling fresh produce; a “weave-a-thon” using salvaged yarns and textiles ; lessons in LEED and a potluck vegetarian dinner–among many others.

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Weave-A-Thon is a crowdsourced art project using salvaged yarns and textiles. Everyone is invited to contribute.

I don’t know if any of us will ever be able to match the “achievements” of Colin Beavan, the man behind “No Impact Week,” who, with his wife, children and dog, famously lived a zero-impact life in the middle of New York City for a year. They used no paper goods, no electricity, no carbon-fueled transportation; they ate only local organically grown foods, etc. and he lived to write about it. The experiment became the subject of a popular book and documentary. I don’t know how many of us want to go that far in our attempt to heal the planet. But certainly we owe it to ourselves and to our community to try–if even with small steps–to do as much as we can to lower our impact on the environment.

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