In fall 2023, Rochester Institute of Technology will unveil its largest construction project on campus in more than 50 years. A showcase for technology, arts and design in a central location, the Student Hall for Exploration and Development is intended to capture the essence of RIT.
“The center of the university is technology, the arts and design, and everything else somehow relates to that center. That’s different from almost every other university in the nation,” says David Munson, the university’s president.
Topping $100 million, the SHED is just one hub of construction activity at RIT today. Multiple projects, estimated at more than $200 million, are under way and on the books, including a performing arts complex, improvements to athletic facilities and a new $6 million facility for science and engineering labs at Brown Hall. Together, these projects mark the most construction the university has undertaken since building its original Henrietta campus in 1968.
Despite challenges brought on by COVID-19, RIT has kept its focus on building for the future. For example, the university opened its Global Cybersecurity Institute at the height of the pandemic. A 52,000-square-foot facility designed for advanced cybersecurity education, training, and research, GCI was built in part with designated funding from a donation made by alum Austin McChord, founder and former CEO of Datto, and a $5 million grant from New York through its competitive Higher Education Capital Matching Grant Program.
“We did what we had to do, we’re still doing what we have to do in order to run a safe campus, but we just keep thinking about the future because it’s so much fun,” says Munson, who credits the RIT team for not skipping a beat. “The pandemic wasn’t fun, is not fun. But building for the future, I think that’s kind of why we’re all here. We’re having a grand time and that’s where the excitement comes from.”
These building efforts are fueled by the university’s 2025 strategic plan. Places, one of four dimensions of the plan, calls for a campus with flexible spaces that nurture creativity, discovery and collaboration. RIT’s $1 billion fundraising effort Transforming RIT: The Campaign for Greatness, which was publicly announced in 2018, has used a blended approach, seeking support from a mix of investors including alumni and friends, government and corporate partners, and research foundations and agencies. It has raised $841 million so far.
“Most campaigns are purely philanthropic, getting a donor specifically interested in a particular element of the campus, which they believe he has a passion, or she has a passion for,” says Jim Watters, senior vice president of finance and administration. “This is asking donors to think about things in the sense of their relationships, or their commitments to the university, leveraging more than one aspect of the university.”
So far, RIT has several examples of the blended approach. In addition to the SHED, the expansion and upgrades at the Saunders College of Business, the creation of GCI (with donations from IBM and Cloud Cover and Lenel), and renovations at the College of Art and Design (funded by a $3.5 million gift from alumnus Chance Wright and his mother, Pamela Mars Wright) are some ways that various sources of public, private and government funding came together.
The campaign’s success is an illustration of RIT’s evolution, one that has been two decades in the making. RIT was known for giving students an education for a position in the workforce—a transactional approach, Munson says. While students continue to earn degrees and find jobs, it is their connection with the university that prompts them to give back and maintain that relationship.
“Everybody I talk to tells me it didn’t used to be that way,” says Munson, who has led RIT for five years. “If you go back many years, the parking lots were full at night, with people from local industry—especially Kodak and Bausch & Lomb and Xerox—coming to RIT, working on night degrees.
“Our parking lots, they’re not full at night. You can come out and see now they’re empty at night, and it’s because we cater almost exclusively to full-time students now, and students who either reside on campus or right adjacent to campus. RIT has grown up, and so what we’re seeing is the evidence of that.”
Watters notes that students now leave with a gratitude and warmth for RIT. Alums continue to give generously.
“Twenty-five years ago, there was no reason for them to leave that way because we didn’t act in that fashion,” he says. “We didn’t have the assets to do that. Now we do.”
Facilities have evolved on the RIT campus, making way for the new while honoring original buildings and their Brutalist architecture. John Moore, an RIT alum and associate vice president of facilities management services, points to past projects such as Global Village, the Student Life Center and the Gordon Field House. He believes those facilities prompted students to come together, in addition to growing athletics and arts programs.
“Over the course of time, we’ve started to really leverage all of those things that make RIT unique and make it great and make it more of a home and a place that students can engage and connect with,” Moore says.
RIT’s economic impact in Rochester goes beyond the many construction jobs on campus through these projects. The institution is cognizant of having a presence downtown—it recently moved RIT Venture Creations into its Center for Urban Entrepreneurship, combining incubators at 40 Franklin St. In 2018, RIT City Art Space opened at 280 East Main St. in the Sibley Building.
“So, now you have a dynamic facility being fully occupied in the center of the city,” says Watters of the Venture Creations’ move, helping “accomplish the goal of having a bigger footprint downtown and having RIT contributing to spin-outs and startup companies in a much bigger way for the community.”
When it comes to students, RIT is home to 14,000 learners and more than 6,800 live in university housing. The rest live and spend dollars in Rochester, Watters says, adding that half of the university’s freshman class are out-of-state residents. Faculty and staff members play active roles in the community, contributing time and money to various causes.
Still, the community isn’t very aware of RIT’s influence on the economy, Watters notes.
“When you get locals who come on our campus, they have no idea how big and impressive we are,” he says. “They’re just fundamentally surprised at what has been here this whole time that they just never recognized.”
As Rochester strives to become a magnet for business and talent, fostering the growth of high-tech firms and attracting investment, RIT will play an integral role, officials say.
“The economy is undergoing a tremendous transformation and I firmly believe that RIT is the sparkplug in that transformation,” Munson says.
A closer look at a few projects highlights the scope of RIT’s construction activity:
■ The SHED
Jonathan Dharmadi, a fourth-year new media design student from Elmhurst, won a student contest to name a complex that centralizes RIT’s makerspace and performing arts. The SHED will cover more than 120,000 square feet of new construction and many more thousands of square feet of renovations in two existing buildings. The facility is expected to foster student collaboration among project teams, performing arts groups and others who use the makerspaces. (Renderings below: William Rawn Associates)
In addition to individual rehearsal spaces, and dance instruction and music rehearsal studios, the SHED features a black-box/glass-box theater—seating 180—that can be reconfigured to control the light entering the facility, officials say. Instructional space within the complex will create 27 new classrooms and 1,500 additional seats.
The project is funded in part by $17.5 million from RIT trustee and alumnus McChord’s gift, and financing through the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York.
William Rawn Associates Architects Inc., a Boston firm, designed the SHED and Rochester firm HBT Architects—the current architect of record—is handling construction details. HBT created the new design for Wallace Library, one of the existing buildings under construction, which will open up the entrance and the first floor with seating and browsing collections. Each floor of the library flows into the SHED creating a traffic pattern, offering added exposure to the Cary Graphic Arts Collection suite and the RIT Press on the second floor, and the renovated RIT Archive space on the third floor.
Moore estimates 1,500 to 2,000 students will pass through the SHED every hour, amplifying the activity at the center of the campus.
The SHED extends into RIT’s Monroe Hall, where a gallery dedicated to RIT’s partnership with the Genesee Country Village & Museum will showcase research and scholarship from the university-wide partnership. Funding for the gallery comes from the Philip K. Wehrheim RIT-GCV&M Endowed Partnership Fund.
■ Performing arts complex
RIT expects thousands of students to be involved in performing arts in the next few years. It hopes to develop a leading performing arts program in the nation for non-majors, enabling students to continue their passions for music, dance, theatre and other performing arts.
Given that goal, RIT is moving forward with a performing arts complex that will feature a 750-seat theater (which comes first) and a 1,500-seat orchestra hall for larger audiences.
“There is a pretty high correlation between human brains that do mathematics and human brains that do music, and that is, I’ll call it an untapped market,” Munson says. “If I’m just being selfish, trying to get the best students to come to RIT, and if no other university is going after that kind of student, and we can create a program that’s designed specifically for that student, then that’s a good thing.”
Already, RIT has offered performing arts scholarships to several students. RIT welcomed a record 457 new students with a performing arts scholarship in 2021, up up from 366 scholarships in 2020, and 126 in 2019, the first year the scholarships were offered, officials say. These students represent all of RIT’s colleges, with the majority from engineering and computer sciences.
Munson is a big believer in the fact that an individual’s life is more than a career. A well-rounded approach involves the performing arts and the studio arts. He points to RIT’s history in photography, ceramics, jewelry making and glass blowing. If a computer science major decides to learn how to blow glass or nurture an interest in drawing, RIT offers the opportunity to do so.
“In a STEM discipline, what we really teach people is a lot of structure and going very, very deep in different topics and becoming experts on different things,” Munson says. “But the real world requires that you think laterally, you have to think sideways, and you have to take time out from that sort of pounding and going deeper and deeper. You’ve got to chill out and refresh your brain, and then come back at it again. And that’s where a lot of new ideas come from, … when you take that kind of refreshing approach. And I think the performing arts is one way to do that.”
The complex will be built next to Institute Hall and Engineering Hall, offering more venue options on campus and to the community at large. The first phase, at more than $40 million, begins next year, with a completion slated for January 2024. The three-story building will span 40,000 square feet. The theater is expected to have two balconies and feature a historic, restored theater pipe organ. Costume and scene shops and offices will be part of the complex.
The second phase, dependent on funding, will feature an expanded lobby and more than double the size of the building with the 1,500-seat orchestra hall and a stage big enough to accommodate a large philharmonic orchestra, events and lectures.
■ Athletic facilities
Athletics is also in the mix for improvements. The first phase of the multimillion-dollar project is the relocation of the outdoor track to a new area and with an upgraded synthetic running surface, officials say. Baseball and softball fields are being upgraded to all-weather artificial turf fields. All three venues will be ready for spring competition.
Renovations include a full stadium complex with locker rooms, training facilities, concessions and a press box and suite accommodations along with an artificial turf field. A grand concourse will also flow between the stadium and the Gordon Field House, RIT says, which will benefit athletics and other events, including commencement ceremonies.
Soon, campus visitors will be greeted with four new athletic facilities.
■ Saunders College of Business
One RIT project that has particularly benefited from gifts from alums and RIT friends is the more than $19 million expansion and renovation of the Saunders College of Business. Expected to be complete in 2023, the new design doubles the building’s footprint while offering collaborative, teaching and learning spaces.
Features of the expansion include student team rooms, applied research and case analysis labs, an event space and reception hall, state-of-the-art auditorium, a café, an executive MBA and executive education suite, a wine room in support of hospitality and service innovation programs, and outdoor spaces.
Donors Philip Saunders, Chance Wright, Susan Holliday, the late Klaus Gueldenpfennig and his wife and daughter, Brigitte Gueldenpfennig and Dinah Gueldenpfennig Weisberg, together committed nearly $12 million toward the project. Funds were also awarded by New York’s Higher Education Capital Matching Grant Program.
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor