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Destler Dodge

When the curtains close on one act, they inevitably open on another. Although the Decade of Destler is coming to a close, there is a new face emerging in the spotlight. Dr. David C. Munson, Jr. was recently selected as RIT’s incoming president, making him the 10th person in RIT history to take the helm. Although he is still acclimating to his new position, Munson has already forged a connection with the campus and aims to develop that connection in the months before officially assuming office in July 2017.

“RIT has been rapidly ascending over the past 10 or 20 years, thanks to the previous presidents and the faculty, students, staff — everybody working hard,” said Munson. “I see a chance for RIT to get even better yet, and I like to be a part of things that are growing and ascending.”

From a student’s perspective, with summer and winter break intervening, this process may have seemed like it took no time at all — but Munson was selected from a highly competitive, nationwide pool of candidates, and he came out on top.

Casting Call

The search for a new president began last year when President Bill Destler announced his retirement on May 9, 2016, and ended with the selection of Munson, announced Jan. 25, 2017.

By no means was this an arbitrary choice; Destler’s announcement was followed by the formation of a special committee dedicated solely to finding a replacement. The committee, which included Andrea Shaver, fourth year Graphic Design major and president of Student Government (SG); Amar Bhatt, fifth year Computer Engineering student and vice president of SG; and several members of RIT’s faculty, staff and alumni, was aided in its search by Isaacson, Miller, a recruiting company based out of Boston.

The committee’s first job was to decide what, exactly, RIT was looking for in its next president — and then to find someone who would fit the bill.

“It was important that they were a holistic enough person that they would understand, and be able to work with and support, majors from all colleges at RIT,” said Shaver. 

“It was important that they were a holistic enough person that they would understand, and be able to work with and support, majors from all colleges at RIT,” said Shaver. Other characteristics Shaver mentioned the committee thought of as crucial were a dedication to RIT’s mission of diversity, equity and inclusion (for faculty and staff as well as students); interest in expanding global opportunities for students; and keeping RIT a student-centric university.

There were several rounds of deliberation, each of which whittled down the pool of candidates from across the nation. The candidates sent in letters and went through two rounds of interviews. Finally, the committee recommended three top choices to the Board of Trustees. Out of these three choices, Munson was determined to be the best person for the job — after surviving some seriously tight competition.

“Amar and I were really happy with all of the top three,” said Shaver. “We were in a really great position.”

Attracting the Spotlight

So what did the committee see in the engineer from the Midwest that really set him apart?

“He was just really genuine,” said Shaver. “You can just tell he really did his homework, he was really interested in RIT and then, from there, he just wanted to learn more.”

The committee was also impressed with Munson’s resume and his history of bridging multidisciplinary gaps. Munson earned his B.S. degree in electrical engineering from the University of Delaware and his M.S., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from Princeton University. He has a long history in higher education and engineering; his past roles include his 24-year tenure as an engineering professor at the University of Illinois, 3 years as the chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan and most recently the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, again at the University of Michigan.

Although all of his degrees are in engineering, Munson is far from one-dimensional. While at Michigan, he developed a program known as ArtsEngine, which encourages multidisciplinary work across University of Michigan’s schools of Engineering; Music, Theatre and Dance; Art and Design; and Architecture and Urban Planning. He also founded his own company called InstaRecon, Inc., sang in a folk music group growing up and considers himself an amateur photographer.

It’s not hard to see what the committee saw in Munson, but there was a mutual attraction at play.

“I had never seen the campus, never been on the campus, and was just very favorably impressed,” Munson said about his visit after his initial interview with the search committee, which took place the day before a snowstorm caused RIT to cancel classes last semester.

“As things progressed, I got to meet more and more people from the RIT community,” he continued. “I just really liked all the people that I spoke with.” He expressed appreciation for the grounds, and after taking some time to explore town — and experience  Dinosaur BBQ for the first time — he decided that he could indeed see a future for himself and his family in Rochester. His wife, Nancy Munson, whom he said played a huge role in his decision to accept the position, was equally impressed. “She also really fell in love with the place and really adores the people,” he said.

Munson also expressed an interest in the Deaf community at RIT/NTID and noted that he has a personal connection to that aspect of the school, as several of his family members have experienced hearing difficulties in the past.

"I think the fact that NTID is at RIT, that is really one of the jewels in the crown of RIT," said Munson.

“That has a little bit of a special place in the hearts of me and my wife,” he said. “I think the fact that NTID is at RIT, that is really one of the jewels in the crown of RIT. It adds some vitality to the campus.” He noted that both he and his wife are excited to learn sign language and get more involved with the Deaf community. 

A Work in Progress

Although Munson is still in the learning process, he discussed a few things that are on the forefront of his mind as he prepares to take on his new role — some of which are explicitly included in RIT’s Strategic Plan, such as expanding RIT’s research programs and updating the university’s library to the digital age.

Shaver also mentioned a few aspects to which SG believes Munson will have to pay special attention. Among these were growing the endowment, establishing and maintaining relationships with alumni, a commitment to diversity, global experiences, keeping the university student-centric even as it moves to increase its research efforts and the ever popular concern about tuition:

“How do you make the cost of higher education more affordable?” asked Shaver. “That’s something he’s very aware of, too, and he had a lot of ideas around.”

In his previous roles, Munson participated in several initiatives that provided experience for him to help RIT advance in these initiatives.

“At the University of Michigan, I was a huge proponent of international programs,” said Munson. “Under my watch, we greatly expanded what we were doing.” He also has experience in fundraising for new facilities, such as a new library. “I’ve done quite a lot at Michigan in terms of fundraising for renovations and new buildings, and very much enjoy doing that,” he said.

He also has a few ideas concerning things that might not be mentioned in the Strategic Plan.

“I’ll also add that even though the arts on campus are really strong, especially the studio arts, I’ve got some ideas there as well — especially for music,” Munson said. “It certainly didn’t escape my attention that RIT does not have a major performing arts facility.”

“I’ll also add that even though the arts on campus are really strong, especially the studio arts, I’ve got some ideas there as well — especially for music,” Munson said. “It certainly didn’t escape my attention that RIT does not have a major performing arts facility.”

Nothing of that nature is guaranteed, however. Munson still has to get the lay of the land before he can really consider any major changes.

“I see a number of things we might do together, but I’m still in learning mode and meeting people,” he said. “I have ideas, but I need to vet those ideas with a number of people before I go public with any of them.”

The Show Must Go On

Transitions are never easy, and switching from one leader to another has a huge effect on the community. RIT will be no different.

“I think that he knows he has big shoes to fill, and that’s really good,” said Shaver. She noted how involved Destler and his wife Dr. Rebecca Johnson have been in the RIT community. She worried that the next president will have to spend more of his time off-campus, and won’t be able to maintain the same kind of visibility and approachability that Destler has achieved .

“A lot of people know who [Destler] is, you would see him at Brick City,” she said. “So [Munson] will be going up against that when the role now is going to be more shifted to kind of really move the university to the next level.”

Shaver believes that “next level” will require Munson to work with government agencies, develop relationships with private companies to assist students in getting co-ops, network with alumni in order to increase the value of RIT’s degrees and procure external fundraising in order to keep the cost of higher education down as much as possible.

If those concerns weren't weighty enough, Munson will have to follow the fact that Destler has taken on an almost folklore-like position in the culture of RIT. Students speculate about new banjo album releases and concerts, and his manipulation of the famed Weather Machine underneath the Sentinel is all but infamous. That begs the question: will the Weather Machine be passed down to Destler's successor? Maybe, or maybe not.

“He’s going to have to find his own thing, and figure out how to get students kind of behind that,” said Shaver. “He can’t be successful if he’s expected to be someone else.” 

Munson seems to be thinking along the same lines.

“I’ll probably have my own quirkiness, and prompt maybe some different things.”

“Bill Destler is really great, and I’ve enjoyed looking at videos on the web of various things he’s done,” he said. “I’ll probably have my own quirkiness, and prompt maybe some different things.” When asked what we might be in store for, however, Munson was unwilling to elaborate, preferring to show the RIT community his personality when the time is right instead of telling us what to expect.

“I’d rather it be a surprise than for me to spill all the beans right now,” he said. “The students can expect me to be a fun person and kind of a participant in their activities. We’ll dream up some fun things to do together."