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Destler Dodge

In the midst of his 10th and final year at RIT, it has been business as usual for President Bill Destler. Both he and his wife Dr. Rebecca Johnson, an associate of the university, have prepared accordingly for his retirement come the end of the school year, while remaining as involved as ever. 

"It's been fine. Pretty normal, the usual sort of overloaded schedule and events of various kinds,” noted Destler. In his opinion, however, people mentioning how almost every event he attends is his last [insert event here] has gotten kind of old. “I went to the exhibition hockey game and somebody came up to me and said, 'This is your last exhibition hockey game.' I said, 'Boy this could get old in a hurry.'”

From the perspective of Student Government (SG) Vice President and fifth year Computer Engineering student Amar Bhatt, both Destler and Johnson have been as committed as always this school year, particularly when it comes to student life. "Whether it's eating lunch at Brick City, going to a lot of student events, he's been doing that more than ever in his final year. I think him and Rebecca Johnson [both]," said Bhatt.

Johnson, who plans to still be involved with many of the same initiatives she’s championed while at RIT after Destler retires, still feels especially driven this year. "I think for me it's been a year where I've felt more focused than usual,” said Johnson. “I often have my fingers in a lot of pies, so I felt more free to really devote myself to what feels particularly important to me."

According to Andrea Shaver, president of SG and fourth year Graphic Design major, Johnson has fervently sought out causes relevant to students' well-being and topics that need to be discussed on campus — especially ones that have needed to be heard by administration.

This year, Johnson has been excited to discuss an array of issues including those related to diversity, sustainability and dialogue across differences. “I guess that doesn’t sound very focused,” she joked. “I was involved in five different, one every day of the week, organized conversations about difficult issues. About Columbus Day, race, police, hate — and they were all such impressive discussions showing such a thoughtful and diverse RIT community.”

Bhatt specifically recalled how both  Destler and Johnson have been willing to discuss potentially contentious issues. He cites their willingness to participate in conversations like the one surrounding the PawPrints petition to fly the Black Lives Matter flag.

“I'm always saying, if you can't have those kinds of discussions on a college campus, where can you?” asked Destler.

Looking Back

"I think in terms of what the overall last 10 years have been like, you want to be very careful of what you take credit for, because I have this sort of 'genius' administrative strategy of getting out of the way of good people," explained Destler. "A few of the things that have happened were actually my ideas, but certainly not all of them."

RIT has changed significantly over Destler's tenure. Imagine RIT, an idea of his, came to fruition and has since grown exponentially. Both Shaver and Bhatt also point to the large growth in the number and variety of offered academic programs.

"Since he's been here, several more programs and colleges have been added, just trying to diversify," said Shaver. "RIT's super unique in the fact that there's the nine colleges and they're all so different," said Shaver. 

Under Destler, RIT has opened the College of Health Sciences and Technology, as well as several additional global campuses. The door has also been opened for more and more research opportunities with RIT's recent reclassification as a "doctoral university."

In Bhatt's eyes, all this change culminates in something which benefits almost every student on the individual level. "My degree is worth more because of a lot of the things he's done," he said.

Destler sees such endeavors as community achievements. He's particularly proud of how RIT has managed to grow the stature of the university, quality of enrolled students and overall diversity of both the faculty and student body concurrently. As well as how, during the midst of the past decade, the university hasn't lost sight of its core.

"I'm very proud of that, as it's easy to forget some of your fundamental values that drive the institution," expressed Destler. "We want to be an undergraduate-focused institution. We want to make sure we don't dilute the quality of the undergraduate experience even as we move into more research."

"We want to be an undergraduate-focused institution," said Destler. "We want to make sure we don't dilute the quality of the undergraduate experience even as we move into more research."

Destler said that much of what has come to fruition was something he saw the "seeds" for before even starting at RIT. "I talked about it during the search for the president, when I was one of the finalists," he noted.

At the beginning of his tenure, in September of 2007, Destler told Reporter about the potential he saw in RIT. He recognized the uniqueness in having engineering, science, technology and business programs occupy the same academic space as the design and creative arts.

"I began thinking of it as a place that could be turned into a center for innovation and creativity," he said. 

Shaver sees how Destler has sought to foster the potential for innovation he imagined. Imagine RIT has been perhaps the most direct manifestation of this. 

"He’s a who’s like a student. He’s curious about new creations or technologies,” said Shaver. "He wanted to create a space where any student can create or show off something they made or built, and people could come and see it."

"He’s a who’s like a student. He’s curious about new creations or technologies,” said Shaver. "He wanted to create a space where any student can create or show off something they made or built, and people could come and see it."

Today, Destler sees RIT as one of the greatest collections of "geeks" and artists in the world. "The extent to which those people can get together is the extent to which you can build top five gaming programs, industrial design programs [etc.]," said Destler. Over the past 10 years, he has come to realize that RIT is an institution where both sides of the brain are in abundance. To Destler, we've begun taking advantage of that uniqueness, something which he still defines as a focus on innovation and creative work.

"Creative work is sort of on the arts side and innovation is on the science, technology and business side," explained Destler. "I think RIT has had these kinds of assets for a long time, but I'm not sure they quite understood what they could be as an advantage. You know I'm always looking for unfair advantages, and this is really RIT's unfair advantage."

When asked about what he and Johnson would hope graduates from 10 years ago might notice while visiting RIT, Destler hoped that they would take pride in what their alma matter has become and be engaged with the school as it continues to progress.

"I'd love [for] them to just come to campus, walk around and see all the people, see all the students," added Johnson in reference to both the exponential growth in student life and the diversity they've seen since initially coming here. Destler noted how RIT has come a long way from being mostly a night school 20 to 30 years ago for the likes of Kodak, Bausch & Lomb and Xerox employees. "People have community and learning experiences that are outside the classroom that equal in importance their classroom experience," he said.

The Decision to Retire

"A couple of things happened. One: I turned 70," said Destler, laughing. "When I first took this job, I told the trustees that if they appointed me and they didn't throw me out, I'd stay for 10 years. So that's always been my plan."

Destler believes that change can be good for an institution. It opens the door for new talent able to embrace RIT's fundamentals while also bringing fresh ideas to the table. "I've always had some things I'd like to do a little bit more of. I'd like to play a little more music," said Destler, adding that he is also involved in a number of community and corporate boards that would continue to occupy his time.

Destler plans to be pretty "hands-off" to make way for the next president. "I'll try to be supportive in the same way Al Simone was with me," he added. He intends to be available to give advice when asked for. "[Simone] also supported me in the community and I'd like to do that for the next president as well."

Johnson, on the other hand, still imagines that she'll be quite involved, doing much of the same work with sustainability, diversity and opening up dialogues on campus. "We think I can continue a lot of what I am doing at RIT, which I would very much like to do," she said.

To students like Shaver this was not surprising. "'Retiring' is not a word I would use to describe Dr. Rebecca Johnson," she said.

In addition to still having their house in Maryland from before they moved to Rochester, they're about to buy a home in Rochester as well. "So we may spend some time in both locations, but I think that probably we're now at the point where we're so rooted in this community that we'll spend a lot of time here," explained Destler.

For Destler and Johnson personally, these past 10 years at RIT were the first time in their lives that they've actually worked together. "It's the first time we've really known each other professionally," noted Johnson. "We've known each other as spouses and parents. To know each other professionally, that's been a lot of fun."

Goodbyes

Being on the search committee for his successor has only reminded Shaver and Bhatt that Destler is a one-of-a-kind president. 

Shaver recalled an instance where she ended up stuck in a Chicago airport with Destler after missing a flight connection. The two of them ended up driving a rental car all night. "With a normal president, would that have really happened?” she asked.

It's qualities like this which Shaver and Bhatt find hard to put into words — as well as being hard to ask for in potential candidates. Bhatt compared Destler to what he's heard about presidents from other universities: 

"I have a lot of friends who went to different universities, they don't even know who the president is," he pointed out. "They might know the name, because it's on some building somewhere, but they don't know what he looks like. And the fact that our president eats lunch with us — especially in a school of 16,000 students — that's crazy." This has made Bhatt realize just how unique it is to have someone able and willing to wander out of what might seem like an administrative bubble.

While sad to see him retire, both Shaver and Bhatt acknowledged just how much Destler has been able to accomplish and grow the university in 10 years. “He’s definitely going to leave a really strong legacy,” said Shaver.

"We had been in Maryland for over 30 years. Bill did not move around, he was at the University of Maryland his whole other career," said Johnson. "We met, we married, we raised our kids there ... we had roots there, we had a community. I was not anxious to leave." She recalled how, after an initial reluctance, one visit convinced her RIT was a pretty cool place. "Dog-gone if you guys haven't wormed your way into my heart!" she said. "This is a really special place and it's been just as Bill said, just a real privilege, growing experience and joy to be here."

Destler felt similarly. "This has been the greatest experience of my life. To be able to cap off your career at an institution like this and see the progress we've made ... it doesn't get any better than this."