Remaking RIT 

Dr. David Munson points to an empty stretch of wall near the ceiling in his seventh-floor office on the campus of Rochester Institute of Technology.

"Yeah," he says, "we still have some shadows of banjos up on the wall there."

click to enlarge RIT President David Munson. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • RIT President David Munson.

Indeed, the vague outlines of banjos — perhaps it is dust out of reach of the custodians — can be discerned on the wall of the university president's office, nearly three years after Munson moved in. The banjos belonged to RIT's former president, Bill Destler, who played the instrument, and owned hundreds of them.

The public perception of RIT is that it is primarily about science and engineering. Not banjos. But if Munson has his way — and he's confident he will — the school's performing arts will soon be on par with its technical expertise.

"For us," he says, "the arts are not sort of at the edge of what we do, we want them right in the middle of what we do."

To that end, Munson envisions two new buildings on campus. One, a home to two performing arts stages. The other, the far larger of the two, will be a conglomeration of arts, hands-on manufacturing, and wide-open classrooms, called the Innovative Maker and Learning Complex, or, IMLC."The IMLC by itself, I think, will be the largest construction project we've seen on this campus since the university moved to Henrietta," Munson says.

It's been 60 years since the school left downtown Rochester. But Munson's plans go beyond ambitious architectural renderings. What he's setting up is a realignment of the university experience. The IMLC will integrate RIT's separate colleges into one university of shared learning and goals. And it may help open the suburban campus to the city, through arts organizations eager to not only use these new venues, but for people to see what's been happening behind the school's red-brick walls.

By 2023, when Munson expects this new construction to be completed, RIT will be positioned to accommodate a re-wiring of student brains as well.

"There is a pretty high correlation between human brains that do math and science and human brains that do music," Munson says. "There's some, I think, neurological connection there. And I noticed that when I was the dean of engineering at the University of Michigan, and found that 70 percent of my engineering students were musicians. And lots of my faculty colleagues were musicians. In fact, some of them had been professional musicians before they ever went back to school and got their degrees in engineering and became university professors later on."

click to enlarge WADAIKO Japanese drums. - PHOTO BY SUE WEISLER
  • WADAIKO Japanese drums.

The correlation between the arts hits Munson close to home, and his brothers and sisters, aunts, and uncles. "Almost everybody did music and math," he says. "I don't think my family was unusual."


Perhaps the most observably unusual aspect to Munson is he's a shade over 6 feet, 6 inches tall. Playing high school basketball aside, he holds degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Delaware and Princeton University. He was a professor of electrical engineering at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and dean of the University of Michigan College of Engineering before coming to RIT. He is a past president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Signal Processing Society, which requires no secret handshake, but does demand familiarity with imaging system signal processing.

Yet Munson, 67, is clearly not your standard seventh-floor administrator.  As a high school student, he sang with a folk group, played saxophone in marching band, built rockets from cardboard tubes and balsa wood, and was an Eagle Scout. In recent years, he has tried his hand at community theater, including the role of the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz," and last year was involved in the Geva Summer Curtain Call, a fundraiser for Geva Theater Center.

And he's gone where few other college administrators dare go: Performing in videos at the University of Michigan. As Obi Wan Munson in a Star Wars parody, he dons Jedi Knight fashions, levitates construction equipment, and waves a lightsaber as he raps:

Innovation arises from collaboration

different disciplines do more in combination.

Which is why I have devoted my time to finding ways

to align bright minds for ideas that blaze.

To support creativity in all of its forms

ArtsEngine is for everybody here on the Norm.

Artists, architects, musicians and dancers

Engineers, designers and yes, urban planners.

click to enlarge Cabaret at NTID. - PHOTO BY MARK BENJAMIN
  • Cabaret at NTID.

That's the rap Munson is bringing to RIT as well. "Norm" is a reference to the north campus of the University of Michigan. ArtsEngine is a program initiated by Munson at Michigan, with the same left and right brain collaborative vibe as his idea for the Innovative Maker and Learning Complex.

"The IMLC kind of idea, I had pursued something similar to that when I was the dean of engineering at the University of Michigan," Munson says.

"I was not able to get that sold to the administration and the university before I left Ann Arbor, and I didn't come in here thinking we would necessarily build such a thing. But it just so happened, when I arrived, the university was completing a study on how we might redesign our existing library. Which is a big topic on a lot of university campuses, because libraries are not what they used to be.

"And when I got here, I noticed there was this huge grassy spot, empty, right between the library and the student center. And instead of simply re-designing the library and stopping there, we thought about this bigger project."


But the IMLC didn't simply pop out of an empty field. In some respects, the elements for this fusion of technology and the arts were already in place.

"RIT as an institution has historically been very strong in the studio arts," Munson says, pointing to the university's long history in photography, ceramics, jewelry and furniture designs, to name a few.

And yet, he says, "We've had the performing arts, but I think they've been underdeveloped, in terms of a university priority, compared to the studio arts."

Perhaps a hint of what's to come can be seen in the Imagine RIT: Creativity and Innovation Festival. Every spring, it draws 30,000 people to see what the school's students, alumni and faculty have been working on. "We put everything out on display for one day," Munson says. "And then, when we're done, it all goes back into the individual labs and behind walls."

The RIT Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction & Creativity — with the handy acronym MAGIC — also points to the future. The MAGIC Spell Studios opened in 2018 as a center for exploring digital technology and as a film-production studio.

So with a wave of Munson's lightsaber, and an estimated $105 million, that huge grassy spot that he saw when he first came to the campus will be transformed into the Innovative Maker and Learning Complex. It will be Imagine RIT 365 days a year. A building connecting the student center and the library.

click to enlarge RIT a cappella group Eight Beat Measure performs. - PHOTO BY SUE WEISLER
  • RIT a cappella group Eight Beat Measure performs.

Financing the IMLC and performing arts center construction is a high-wire budget balancing act, balanced on a Transforming RIT capital campaign to raise $1 billion. Through donations from alumni, corporations and research foundations and agencies, the campaign is nearing 70 percent of its goal. Approximately $150 million in tax-exempt proceeds was created by refinancing previous bonds at lower interest rates, some of which will go toward renovation of student housing and a new athletic stadium complex. Also figuring in the math is $17.5 million from a record $50 million donation from RIT engineering grad and Trustee Austin McChord.

The idea is to move away from RIT's signature red-brick aesthetic.

"It will be very transparent, unlike a lot of our other facilities, which are covered with brick walls," Munson says.

He imagines visitors peering through the IMLC glass to see machine shops with milling lathes and race cars being assembled "almost side by side." There will be a dance theater and music-rehearsal rooms. A black-box theater, a generally featureless space often used for experimental performances, will seat somewhere between 150 and 200 people. Classrooms will have video monitors for students to watch other activities throughout the building.

"It will be a major gathering spot for students, to spread out and work together and drink coffee," Munson says. "To see all of this making going on around them."


Making. Makers. Munson uses the terms often. It's a new word for the Oxford English Dictionary, a reflection of today's technology-based, do-it-yourself culture.

"One of the purposes there is to create what I refer to as 'classrooms of the future,'" Munson says. "Classrooms that are set up for active education, technology on the walls, all of the furniture is on wheels and everything is reconfigurable and really suitable for having lots and lots of students. Groups of students, working together within the so-called lecture hour, except now there's not so much lecturing anymore. There's a lot of pedagogy that's heading in this direction."

Thomas Warfield is already plugging pedagogy, the concept of interactive learning experiences, into RIT's dance programs.

As director of dance at RIT, Warfield deals with the dichotomy of technology and the arts every time he offers a new class or program. "I have students who are majors in all these other things," he says. "And I wanted to find a way to connect what they were interested in. And what their majors were. And that they also had a passion for performing. And how do I marriage these things?"

In some arenas, this kind of thinking has already arrived. "If you go to a Broadway show right now, the technology on those shows are out of this world," Warfield says. "It's beyond anything people thought of five or six years ago."

click to enlarge Thomas Warfield, director of dance at RIT, performs. - PHOTO BY SUE WEISLER
  • Thomas Warfield, director of dance at RIT, performs.

To move the student collaborations from theory to practice, Warfield finds himself working with RIT's School of Interactive Games and Media, "Writing an app that the audience will be able to use on their phone to interact with dancers, live."

His response arrives next month: Dance 2020: The Rhythm and Motion of Light. It runs April 17 through April 19 at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf's Panara Theatre on the RIT campus, with dancers moonlighting from their majors of electrical engineering, aeronautic engineering, anthropology, architecture, American sign-language interpreting, and medical illustration.

The new performing arts complex, which will consume a portion of the J Lot parking on the northwest side of the campus, should enhance these multimedia, multi-college experiences.

One venue will seat between 600 to 800 people, a nice size for musical theater. The price tag will be about $35 million. The second will have 1,500 seats, suitable for major lecturers, with the stage and backstage area large enough to accommodate a symphony orchestra. It will be the final piece of the arts puzzle, with the cost of it yet to be determined. As a bonus, donated to the school and undergoing renovation now, is a beautiful theater organ that has been in storage since the 1962 demolition of Detroit's Hollywood Theater.

With these new venues, Munson imagines events such as a collegiate, nationwide rock-band competition. New opportunities for students in the arts, such as the recently formed steel-drum band. Perhaps the school will award small scholarships in the performing arts, going to local students to help build a relationship between the community and the campus.

Munson says several performing arts groups have approached the university about using the new spaces.

Some of his conceptualizing comes from firsthand research.

"I do want for people to know that, early in my time in Rochester, I quietly toured through as many of the different theaters as I could," Munson says, "because I was hoping that if we were to head in the direction that we have, that we wouldn't be reproducing any of the venues that currently exist. We really need to add to the community and try not to overlap too much.

click to enlarge Latin Rhythm Dance Crew. - PHOTO BY SUE WEISLER
  • Latin Rhythm Dance Crew.

"For the size of the city, Rochester is just awesome in the performing arts," Munson says. "And so my wife and I, we often hang around on the weekends in bars and whatever, you know, and listening to the local musicians, and that's great. There is a nice theater scene, the RPO is fantastic, the Eastman School is fantastic.  But, with what we wanted to do at RIT, we would not be able to do it but for the fact that we are in Rochester, and there is so much talent to draw on."

Jeff Spevak is the arts and life editor and reporter at WXXI, a media partner of CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].

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