A LEGACY IN THE MAKING
An interview with Dr. Joyce F. Brown, the college’s sixth president

Seventeen years is a significant period in the life of any institution, but especially at FIT, where changes in technology, the fashion and related industries, and the culture of New York are constant reminders of time passing. The college’s sixth president, Dr. Joyce F. Brown, has been its steward since 1998. She has overseen a significant expansion of FIT’s footprint—additions and renovations to campus buildings, laboratories, and a new residence hall; an increase in full-time faculty; and new initiatives to address diversity, sustainability, and the pedagogy of the future, among many other upgrades and improvements. The first woman and the first African-American to hold the position, Dr. Brown has also provided a roadmap in the form of a comprehensive strategic plan. This vision of the college has contributed to a shift in the campus environment, with a new emphasis on dialogue and collaboration. “Hopefully people see a little bit of themselves in the things we’ve gone about trying to achieve,” she says. What drives her commitment, however, and inspires her greatest passion, are the students. “They are truly the best part of the job. So talented, and so driven. You hear the same thing all the time: I wanted to go to FIT my entire life.”

What does it take to helm a huge, heterogeneous public college through the fluctuations of 17 years? Hue sat down with President Brown recently to find out, and to discuss some of the highlights of her administration.

THEN AND NOW

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President Brown with her husband H. Carl McCall, chairman of the SUNY Board of Trustees, and her dog Bebe.

When Dr. Brown arrived on campus, she saw opportunities everywhere. “I knew we could be more than we were then,” she says. “It wasn’t that we were not good. It was simply that there was so much potential.” The college’s technology infrastructure was out of date, and curricula needed serious attention. Her role, as she saw it, was providing strong, focused leadership. “Without somebody creating opportunity to move forward, things stagnate,” she says. Dr. Brown was up to the challenge. She came with extensive experience, as a deputy mayor for public and community affairs during the David Dinkins administration, and as a vice chancellor at CUNY and acting president of Bernard Baruch College. Her PhD in psychology (from New York University) also helped—“I often teasingly tell people if they’re not careful I’ll bring in my couch,” she says, but she is serious when she says the training helped make her a shrewd listener. “You have to care about what you’re listening to,” she says, “and help people find ways to articulate what they want, and be willing to pay attention to it.”

Michael Kors give the first President's Lecture

During her time at FIT, Dr. Brown has mingled with boldface names from the fashion and creative industries, not to mention FIT’s brightest students. Some highlights are shown on these pages. Above, she appears with alumnus Michael Kors, who spoke to students in 2013.

Today, many of the changes visible on West 27th Street are products of contemporary life, she says. “I am certain that the students all emerge from the womb with an iPad. Their attention span is different, the way we teach and learn is different.” To get a sense of the real transformation that has occurred, however, it’s necessary to talk to people in the community. That’s when an important shift in thinking emerges. “People are very invested in changing the curriculum, running their classes so that students are used to the way businesses are run,” she says. There’s a real sense that the work here matters, and a related feeling of expectation, and excitement.

THINKING STRATEGICALLY

Francisco Costa ‘90, Leslie Blodgett ‘85, fashion journalist Kate Betts, and William P. Lauder, executive chairman of Estée Lauder, at commencement in 2008.

Francisco Costa ‘90, Leslie Blodgett ‘85, fashion journalist Kate Betts, and William P. Lauder, executive chairman of Estée Lauder, at commencement in 2008.

From the start, Dr. Brown appreciated FIT’s uniqueness, and she understood the affection long-standing members of the community have for it. She wanted to respect their feeling while making progress. That, she knew, would require participation across the board: “If you believe the way to move an institution is to have a shared vision, and a shared set of objectives for reaching it,” she says, “then you devote the time to establish the goals together.” Hence the strategic plan, drawn from people at every level of the college—faculty, staff, students, administrators, FIT trustees, and FIT Foundation directors—who contributed ideas through working groups, committees and group discussions. First drafted in 1999, updated twice, and now called Our Legacy, Our Future: FIT Beyond 2020, it outlines core objectives for the institution, and sets the stage for the next half century.

Calvin Klein ‘63 and Carolina Herrera at a 2010 BFA fashion show reception.

Calvin Klein ‘63 and Carolina Herrera at a 2010 BFA fashion show reception.

The plan includes measures to ensure academic and creative excellence, and describes ways to empower students (more on that in a moment). Yet the part of the plan that Dr. Brown is most eager to discuss relates directly to the founders’ original idea of the place; they named it FIT because they wanted “an MIT for the fashion industries.” Dr. Brown says MIT’s reputation as a reservoir of research and innovative ideas does indeed provide a good model for the college.

Karl Lagerfeld, winner of the Couture Council’s 2010 Fashion Visionary Award

Karl Lagerfeld, winner of the Couture Council’s 2010 Fashion Visionary Award

“People—industry, entrepreneurs, investors—ought to think of FIT as a destination where they can come and say, ‘I have an idea for a product and I’d like you to help me develop it,’ or ‘I have an idea for research, something that needs an interdisciplinary kind of solution. I am not sure there is a single place in the world where my idea can be realized. Rather, it needs to draw on a rich reservoir of resources.’ That’s where the whole notion of creating an innovation center comes from,” she says. The plan lays out the center’s key components—an R&D “think tank,” an “incubator,” a “laboratory” designed to move projects from concept to reality, and a “collective” that promotes collaboration between the college and other New York educational institutions, governmental agencies, nonprofits, and businesses.

Pierre Cardin in 2003.

Pierre Cardin in 2003.

The word “interdisciplinary” is all over the plan, and Dr. Brown says FIT is the ideal environment for combining modes of study. After all, she points out, “we have a school of business but no one’s coming here for an MBA. They are coming to do the business of the creative industries.” She envisions ever more opportunities for students in the Baker School of Business and Technology to interact with the School of Art and Design. Faculty of the Future, an initiative Dr. Brown spearheaded in 2011, assures that new faculty hires will be flexible enough to teach these courses—and diverse and tech-savvy as well.

SPACE ODYSSEY

In 2002, the college broke ground on a new conference center and new dining hall on 28th Street, the first major additions to campus since 1975.Dr. Brown has also overseen the construction of additional laboratory space, and the acquisition of a new residence hall. “We do not fulfill our promise to students if we don’t continually try to have state-of-the-art facilities and equipment,” she says. A new, nearly 100,000-square-foot academic building planned for the north side of the Marvin Feldman Center, and designed by the award-winning architectural firm SHoP, has been funded by the state; construction is contingent upon city matching funds, and Dr. Brown continues to seek those funds from the city administration with a focus on securing mayoral support. In addition to addressing a space shortage, the structure’s innovative layout creates opportunities for the interdisciplinary interactions she has long envisioned. “The faculty and students continue to express a desire for a place to congregate, where they can have an exchange of ideas, and an environment conducive to collaboration,” she says. It is central to the objectives of the strategic plan.

Dr. Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at FIT, and Giorgio Armani in 2008.

Dr. Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at FIT, and Giorgio Armani in 2008.

It can be tough to expand in Manhattan, where it seems like every street corner is the locus of some turf battle. Some universities, Dr. Brown says, have shifted their focus to distance and online learning, but FIT still needs non-virtual, on-site classroom space. “FIT is very tactile,” she says. “A major dimension of our interactions is an appreciation for all the nuances and intricacies of textiles, of construction, of the mathematical dimensions of garments and the inner workings of equipment and the application of technology. All of those things really require a presence that exceeds the virtual experience.” So, FIT will continue to require state-of-the-art facilities, no matter how much time we spend in cyberspace.

PUTTING STUDENTS AT THE CENTER

The 2013 FITSA Awards Dinner at Espace

Dr. Brown honors the FIT Student Association award winners in 2013.

More than perhaps any other project, Dr. Brown’s focus on student-centeredness is front and center in her attention. The phrase, which signifies a commitment to create a supportive environment and to centralize and streamline student services, turns up numerous times in the strategic plan, and its spirit is felt in many of the initiatives she has put forth.

FIT - Homecoming basketball game, 11/12/09.

Tipping off the homecoming game in 2009.

Creating a community that prepares students to be cooperative, contributing members of society requires attention across a broad spectrum of issues, including diversity of faculty and staff. “There’s a richness in different points of view that is educational and can be shared, different customs to be respected,” Dr. Brown says. “We owe it to ourselves as well as to the students to see that diversity is reflected in the administrative and academic hierarchy. That is the world they will experience when they leave here.” In 2007, she established FIT’s Diversity Council, whose members, among other objectives, oversee the administration of grants totaling $15,000 annually to members of the community for diversity-themed projects that are educational at their core. They also organize events designed to raise an awareness and appreciation for diverse points of view.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren at FIT’s 2010 gala.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren at FIT’s 2010 gala.

The updated strategic plan includes sustainability as part of the college’s mission, and that is deliberate, Dr. Brown says. “I think we have an obligation to protect the planet. We have been extremely wasteful as a society.” FIT has adopted curricula that teach ecologically sound values and ideas in Packaging Design, Production Management, and the new MA in Sustainable Interior Environments, and the college’s annual sustainability conference has grown immensely in stature since it began in 2007. Meanwhile, the college itself has become increasingly eco-conscious. In 2013, it met—and exceeded—Mayor Bloomberg’s “carbon challenge,” reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent.

Photographer Gordon Parks receives an honorary doctorate, presented by Edward Cox, former SUNY trustee.

Photographer Gordon Parks receives an honorary doctorate, presented by Edward Cox, former SUNY trustee.

When asked what concerns her about the future, she speaks about the state of the world into which we are sending our graduates. “The violent and inhumane acts recently broadcast in the media tend to undermine our sense of stability. The internet creates immediate access to mass audiences, and it can be used for good or for evil. We want our graduates to be contributors to the common good and to be productive citizens. We want them to have the core strength and conviction to counteract the forces that compromise our social fabric. It’s a major reason that we have worked to emphasize the liberal arts in our business and design curricula.” In our ever more boundary-breaking, interdisciplinary environment, it is important to comprehend other cultures, and that’s one way the liberal arts are valuable: “They help in terms of critical thinking and analytic abilities,” she says. “They create a construct, an environment, for problem solving and understanding.” The greatest gift she can give students is the sense of how they fit into a much broader context—of the industry, New York, and the world.

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A PRESIDENTS PICKS

FAVORITE NEW YORK CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS: “Lincoln Center is magnificent, elegant, and a wonderful cross-section of cultural outlets. I’ve always loved the Museum of Natural History. I liked to go there as a child, and still do. It seems as if there’s always a lot to learn.”

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Bebe

FAVORITE BOOK: Toni Morrison’s Beloved. “It’s so well written, the melody really carries you. She weaves this story and pulls you along.”

FAVORITE-NON HUMAN: “I’ve always been a dog person. Bebe [her bichon frise] is going to be 12 in March. Little puppies give unconditional love. And they’re smart, they make you laugh. They can do everything but talk, and they think they can do that too. Bebe has no idea he’s a dog. None!”