Composed of a cluster of brick buildings isolated from the rest of Rochester, RIT can occasionally seem cut off from the larger city — not to mention the other big university down the road: University of Rochester (U of R).

That couldn’t be further from the truth, of course. In recent years, the two universities’ relationship has not only been built upon existing common ground, but has continued to investigate ways in which they can complement one another. 

Where We Were and How We Got Here

Over the course of her 38 years at RIT, Deborah Stendardi, vice president of the Office of Government and Community Affairs, has actively taken part in the evolution of RIT and U of R’s relationship. When she joined RIT as director of Government and Community Affairs in 1979, there apparently wasn’t much collaboration happening between the two universities.

“I honestly don’t know how much collaboration between RIT and the U of R occurred before I came here, and I don’t claim credit for it,” said Stendardi. “What I can tell you is that when I came here [one of] my counterparts at the U of R and I immediately started working together.”

Stendardi recalled how there were many avenues, particularly when it came to lobbying the state government, that were of mutual interest to both schools. Together with her U of R partners, they organized Rochester’s higher education community in order to advocate for each other.

“That goes all the way back to 1979,” she reiterated. “It’s evolved and RIT was a different institution at that time."

Stendardi mentioned that the collaboration back then didn't extend to areas like research. RIT was almost entirely just an undergraduate teaching institution at the time. Yet as RIT has evolved into a doctoral university in recent years, it has also become a more prominent place for research — much like how the U of R has long been perceived.

This change has been closely followed by faculty like Dr. Mary-Anne Courtney, who is a lecturer at the Thomas H. Gosnell School of Life Sciences as well as an assistant professor at U of R since 1980. According to her, U of R has been known to prioritize research, whereas RIT has valued teaching more.

Stendardi posited that having two significant research institutions in one area has served to make the Rochester community stronger.

“Most regions around the country just have one,” Stendardi pointed out. Since Rochester is no longer dominated by Fortune 500 companies, like Xerox and Kodak, both colleges have increased economic importance. In fact, she said that a lot of the joint endeavors between the two colleges are started because of just that.

"We're non-profit universities, but we do drive development."

“The focus is really on ‘how can we take our research and really create economic development opportunity out of it,’” Stendardi explained. “We’re non-profit universities, but we do drive development.”

Complementary Collaboration

Courtney isn't the only faculty at RIT to have noticed the university's shift to a research institution similar to the likes of U of R.

“I have been here at RIT for 17 years and when I first joined — compared to now — it has changed a lot,” said Dr. Peter Hauser through an interpreter. Hauser is RIT’s program director of the Rochester Bridges to the Doctorate program.

Started in 2013, Rochester Bridges to the Doctorate is actually a joint endeavor between the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at RIT and U of R’s Medical Center.

“The goal is to increase the number of deaf or hard-of-hearing people going into PhD programs to do research careers,” explained Hauser.

Funded by grant money from the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Bridges Program is for scholars in the clinical, translational, bio-medical and behavioral sciences. This program has worked to get more deaf and hard-of-hearing people into those research disciplines.

There are currently five students in the program, many of whom did their undergraduate studies at NTID. Two to three new scholars typically get accepted each year.

“We try and pick the top students and give them all the resources and tools they need to increase their chances of getting into a top PhD program,” said Hauser. He went on to explain that most PhD programs are filled with students entering straight from undergraduate programs.

“Some Deaf people feel like they haven’t had the same amount of opportunities,” he conveyed. “Because lab work is very awkward sometimes trying to work with a mentor, or the mentor trying to work with a deaf or hard-of-hearing student.”

The Bridges Program provides aspiring deaf or hard-of-hearing PhD students two years of research and lab experience, to make them more competitive for top-tier research programs.

“We require our students to do three to four lab rotations, and three of them are at the U of R,” noted Nikki Cherry, Rochester Bridges to the Doctorate’s program coordinator and interpreter.

This arrangement widely expands the variety of mentors and disciplines available to these scholars.

For instance, if the courses necessary for a particular PhD plan aren't available at RIT, the scholars are allowed to take them at U of R. This speaks of a complementary dynamic that Stendardi had brought up, and Hauser delineated.

"RIT has our strengths and weaknesses, and U of R has their strengths and weaknesses.”

“RIT’s strength is more on the STEM side of things — the Engineering and Imaging Science — that’s something that the U of R does not have,” said Hauser. “The U of R is stronger on the medical and biomedical end of things — those types of sciences — so it’s very complementary. RIT has our strengths and weaknesses, and U of R has their strengths and weaknesses.”

Hauser and Cherry recalled the work of Gloria Wink, a 2015 Master's in Environmental Science graduate. While in the program, she worked with an RIT-NTID mentor on the aspects of the project related to chemistry, and a U of R researcher for the biological aspects. Being able to see other disciplines' side of the same project is something the Bridges program apparently excels at.

Cherry accordingly expressed that an underlying goal they have is to teach scholars to navigate working within academia, scientific culture and such interdisciplinary spaces. Much like the larger institutions they are a part of, these students are learning more and more to reach out and collaborate with others outside of their own surroundings.