The Streets of Chelsea

When I talk to groups of prospective FIT students, I always mention our location in the heart of New York City, because I know that the city is a big part of our draw. As the creative capital of the world, we have incomparable museums, art galleries, theaters, and night clubs; dazzling shops; and restaurants. But here, in my little corner of Chelsea, on 27th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, I think New York’s fabled excitement and dynamism—its energy—spring not so much from those celebrated establishments, but rather from the busy, buzzy, bustling side streets abutting FIT, each one a teeming marketplace—a continuing spectacle of excitation, to borrow from E.B. White.

In fact, if New York is home to about 90,000 small retail and wholesale businesses, as the statistics claim, it really feels like you might find 89,000 of them on 24th through 30th Streets between Sixth and Seventh Avenues—and at least half of their 80,000 employees as well. At least it seems that way to me. The action is so intense—sidewalks so packed with food carts, people, racks of bargain-basement clothing, the detritus of constant construction—that you can be forgiven if it takes you a while to actually notice the breathtaking array of idiosyncratic little shops and businesses surrounding you. The streets themselves are bumper-to-bumper cars, trucks, taxis, bicyclers—all contributing to the roaring cacophony. But if you walk slowly and focus, you will find a proliferating potpourri of commerce: wholesale and retail; tacky and elegant. The businesses rub up against each other creating that quintessential New York City buzz. Cell phones, perfumes, wigs, window treatments, picture frames, dry cleaners, 99 cent stores, pottery studios, thrift shops, linens, crystals, lingerie, fortune tellers, camera equipment, baseball caps, jewelry, leather goods—both knock-off and artisan, veterinarians, antiques, bicycles, home lighting, carpeting, lunch counters of every ethnic description, restaurants, wine bars…and that’s barely scratching the surface.

With all the variety, there is precious little to suggest the streets’ proximity to the
Garment District or even to FIT. A fur shop here and there, remnants of the now faded
fur district—a few mannequin businesses. The flower “district”—28 th Street between 7 th
and 6 th —has shrunk from its glory days, but each side of the street still overflows with
greenery of every description—creating a narrow, colorful, zig-zagging pedestrian

Aside from 28 th Street, with its floral imprint, the streets are walking
advertisements for the extravagant diversity of New York’s commercial marketplace.
And each outlet— with its hand-made cigars, halal foods, baby t-shirts or cosmetics—–
represents a kind of enterprising optimism that I think is the heart, soul and very fuel of
New York. So if you are in the neighborhood, and are so inclined, stroll down these side
streets and be prepared for an eye-opening “spectacle of excitation” and a jolt of real
New York City energy.

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Congratulations to FIT’s Class of 2018

Commencement is my absolute favorite event of the year, and what a pleasure it was to return to Radio City Music Hall for the ceremonies this year. With its gorgeous art deco interior and sweeping scale, it is as elegant—and appropriate—a venue for these milestone celebrations as one can imagine. FIT last conducted commencement ceremonies here in 2010. At that time, we held one exercise only for the entire graduating class, and because of the space limitations, the number of guests per graduate was limited, and the graduates were not able to walk across the stage. Despite all that, because of its elegant ambiance, we would have happily returned each year, but Radio City began renting its space to Circque du Soleil in 2011 and remained unavailable to us until now.

And so here we are, eight years later, back at Radio City, and because we have a larger graduating class and more students choose to participate, we conduct two ceremonies. Two ceremonies means that students can have additional guests. Our students always wanted to walk across the stage and have their names announced—and who can blame them? It is one of the great rites of graduation. So, with two ceremonies we can accommodate that request.

At commencement, everyone is happy—it is a wonderful, festive occasion. Bouquets of flowers abound, the audience is filled with cheering smiling families and friends. The graduates are excited and applaud at key moments, even at the exchange of colors, that unique FIT ritual at which the graduating class turns over the flags of the United States, the State of New York, the City of New York and FIT to next year’s class. That ritual is a reminder of the significance of the occasion—a significance that is not lost on anyone. And that would be true no matter where commencement is held. But to me, being in this beautiful, quintessential New York environment, elevated the spirits even more. I am pleased to share with you some images from Commencement 2018.

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An Investment in Philosophy

In January, a Wall Street investor named Bill Miller donated $75 million to the philosophy department of his alma mater, Johns Hopkins. Not to computer science, not to the business or medical school, but to philosophy. Think of it! What prompted this remarkable and unconventional gift was Mr. Miller’s gratitude for “the value that it had for me.” Indeed, he attributes his legendarily successful career to the “analytic training and habits of mind” he developed as a philosophy grad student at Hopkins.

I am delighted to see this dramatic statement of faith in the liberal arts from someone who is the personification of Wall Street success. In an interview in a recent Chronicle for Higher Education, Mr. Miller said that he found philosophy intellectually, psychologically and emotionally enriching. Even though he never went on to write his doctoral dissertation, he said his life is “a lot better for having studied it”—not the least because of the rigor of the discipline and the critical thinking skills he developed. As he put it, “I didn’t study philosophy because I thought it would help me in my career to make a lot of money, but it certainly has done that.”

Those critical thinking skills are among the many reasons why here at FIT the liberal arts are a strategic and integral part of our curriculum. We are, after all, a career college. Our mission is to prepare students for careers in design and business, but as I say as often as I am allowed, fundamental to the success in any of those fields are the “habits of mind” that are nurtured in the liberal arts, particularly so in today’s global economy.

Some will say that the liberal arts need no such justification—they are good in and of themselves. And I would never argue with that. After all, the liberal arts offer those life-enhancing pleasures we so cherish: literature and poetry; an appreciation of history, economics and art, the plays and films we see. But as president of a career-oriented college, I still must stress the more practical tools that the liberal arts provide our gifted, ambitious and highly focused students. So kudos to Mr. Miller and all those future analytic thinkers who will benefit from his wisdom. Perhaps his singular gift will encourage others to invest in this fundamental building block of higher education.

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Civility Begins with Us

If we made a list of useful, real-world antidotes to the divisive forces running rampant in our current political climate, civility would certainly be among the top entries. It is important that we not dismiss civility as mere politeness and courtesy. Civility is much more than a simple social lubricant. It arises from the bedrock recognition that we are all humans beings, all deserving of respect.

We selected civility as the theme of the current academic season to jump-start dialog among all members of the FIT community about how we talk and interact with each other, not just here on campus but in the wider world as well.

There is no better way to “think globally and act locally” than to approach every interaction as an act of civility, whether we are buying a cup of coffee from a man in a street cart or talking to our loved ones or participating in our February Town Hall Forum on diversity and inclusion in our own Katie Murphy amphitheater, which was organized by the UCE.

We heard from a number of faculty, including Dr. Paul C. Clement, Chair of the United College Employees’ (UCE) Diversity Committee; Professor Roberta Elins, President of UCE of FIT; and Dr. Ron Milon, FIT’s Chief Diversity Officer. Along with formal presentations, we also heard a remarkable outpouring of personal experience from the audience about what happens when our civilization steps away from the restraining bonds of civility in favor of hateful rhetoric and police-state tactics.

Projected on a screen above us during the Town Hall was an image of Martin Luther King, Jr., for whom civility was a vital aspect of nonviolent change.

“Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step,” Dr. King said. “It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. But it is political, too, in the sense that it is about negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s is ignored.  And civility begins with us.”

Common ground. Dr. King worked in exceedingly difficult times and yet he embraced the need to find common ground. And in our own difficult time, we must dedicate ourselves to our common humanity. As educators and students, we are on the front lines of promoting the values of brotherhood, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence.

In his 2018 “New Year Prayer to Mother Earth and All Our Ancestors,” Buddhist monk, teacher, and philosopher, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote, “We have felt the strength and warmth of brotherhood and sisterhood, and we know that together, we can face our challenges and realize our aspiration. We vow, in this solemn moment, to continue to build our family, our community and to open up the path for ourselves and our descendants.

Yes, civility can be very hard work. Tolerance and acceptance are equally hard. But it is our job to build up our community, just as Thich Nhat Hanh says, and I am certain that we at FIT are up to the task.

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