Welcome

Wow, you came.

Wonderful trustees; brilliant and inspiring faculty; tireless staff; creative and inquisitive students and alumni; friends, family, and honored guests: Thank you so much for joining us.

I know that at moments like this, the “thank yous” tend to be perfunctory, but that is not so here.

As a collaborator, I am fortunate to share this moment with so many extraordinary people.

So, since this is not the Oscars but a different academy, I’m going to thank you all (but like the Oscars I’m going to miss some of you!)

First, Emeritus President Schutte, who built Pratt into an institution fueled by curiosity and a willingness to challenge assumptions, who created an arena of great generosity, civic engagement and visceral beauty.

All of the former leaders (many of them Pratts) who made this a place committed to professional, intellectual, and personal growth.

The faculty of Pratt who devote themselves to our students and who share their tremendous expertise with our community. Thank you. Our partners at Munson-Williams.

And this magnificent stage party, who represent the current leadership of Pratt—members of our dedicated board and alumni, senior staff, students, rabbi—as well as leaders from higher education and our Brooklyn community.

There are people in this room from every stage of my life—starting with my own family who have come from as far as the west coast and from that remarkable country north of us, to an amazing kindergarten friend, who propelled my trajectory by helping me build an architecture portfolio for Columbia, to deans at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute whom I’ve known for 33 years.

It is incredible to have in our midst my design teacher from McGill University, many of my early faculty and student colleagues, my most recent President, all of whom invisibly (ok not so invisibly) guided me (well, didn’t stop me) through the years.

My colleagues and former students—now stars from RPI, University of Oregon, Illinois Institute of Technology. My new Pratt, Clinton Hill, and Bensonhurst family.

My dearest friends who cooked for me, hosted me, handled me (?), as long as I provided the entertainment. My Aunt Henia and Uncle Wolf, cousins and friends who are watching from afar - Kip on Running!

The people I run with, walk with (the Dopplers)—the people with whom I share a more speculative journey.

I thank you all for being there for the 3 and 4 AM calls and emails, for listening, cajoling, asking, advising. For humoring me and walking with me on the phone. We have traveled thousands of miles together.

I honor my parents who built a home of unconditional love. My father, a holocaust survivor, who only completed 2nd grade and had to go to work at 9, was a laborer making purses and was also an early teacher.     Who asks a 4 year old to figure out how to get a wolf, a goat and a lettuce in pairs safely across a river in a canoe?

My mother built an extensive social network as a sales clerk, playing cards and going dancing. Between my father, the logic puzzler, and my mother, the gregarious organizer, is it any wonder I see science and social systems as symbiotic?

My brother and his family, my husband’s parents and family, my cousins have effortlessly—or not so effortlessly— been my next lines of support, with great kindness, and yes, some critique.

More than anyone, I have to thank my wonderful children and husband, who bob and weave when I move here and there—truly evidence of movement in space and “space in the making” (for those who know my research where physical and architectural bodies are dependent upon each other) —or in this case, making space, for me, always.

Ileana and Asher are capable, smart, funny, beautiful, always present and independent. I couldn’t be prouder. They have tolerated my almost daily invocation to ‘work hard, and look at the light.’

And none of this could have happened without the open, willing to try anything, thoughtful, brilliant Jeff, who knows everything and is never too busy to be there for everyone. If you ever have a question, don’t ask Google, ask Jeff.

Jeff, your support, constant love and encouragement (my own booster club) cannot be measured.  

I really could not have done or do or imagine a future without this amazing array of family, friends, mentors and collaborators.  

And it has never been easy for me to leave—not Montreal, not Troy and RPI, not Eugene and UO, not Chicago, not Illinois Tech. I have had an incredible journey, loaded with deeply meaningful partnerships that I carry with me here.

At home at last

Although today marks my official inauguration as Pratt’s 12th President, I’ve actually been in the job for the last 10 months.

For students, this would be the point where you’re no longer getting lost on campus, when you can tell the difference between Main Hall and Thrift Hall.

I’m happy to report I’ve reached that milestone. Ok I’m lying. Anyone who knows me at all also knows I am always moving too quickly and too engrossed in conversation to figure out where I ever really am situated.  

And directions? Always someone I can ask.

All my life I’ve thrown myself into the unfamiliar—into floor hockey, engineering, the Army, the food packaging industry. Often male majority spaces where I wanted to prove I’ve “got this.”

And although, at Pratt, we prepare our students to get familiar with the unfamiliar, I’ve found that here, belonging is the easy part. We speak a similar language of inquiry. I don’t have to start from initial principles. I can go easily to the tough stuff. When I suggest something, there seems to be interest and engagement.

Now, it's true, I'm president, so you have to do that. But it's not just that.

Pratt is home to some of the most remarkable big thinkers I've ever met. The things I've been dreaming about doing for decades? They're already happening right here.

Our legacy — where we’ve been

That is part of the DNA of Pratt. We have never been afraid to be bold. Or to go first.

In 1887, Pratt was among the first colleges in the U.S. to welcome students of every background, without regard to class, color, or gender.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience this at other great colleges who have also shared this commitment. And indeed, we all must.

From our founding, Pratt offered opportunity to a new professional class.  

We were a pioneer in combining first-rate engineering and design with a liberal arts curriculum that gave students the context and insight to navigate the transformations of the 20th century.

That legacy continues today. We are an elite academic institution when it comes to the quality of our programs. This year, for example, Pratt Institute has been ranked:

  • #1 one in graduate interiors
  • #7 in the world in art and design.

We have gone up 71 tiers in three years in the WSJ/Times of Higher Education rankings into the highest quintile. Let me remind you, we don’t have a business school here; art and design is clearly on the rise.

Because of this, we attract the brightest minds in the world. Our graduates have gone on to author award-winning books, develop breakthrough medical technologies, create artifacts and ideas that challenge assumptions and occupy our galleries, our built environment and our educational landscapes.

Excellence, performance and aspiration have always been our platform. And we strongly believe “there is no excellence without all voices.”

We’re proud to say that as an Independent Art and Design School, although we are one of the elite colleges by academic ranking, we are also among the top in our peer group serving Pell-eligible scholarship students and enrolling low- and middle-income students.  

And while we are a national and international school, 28% of Pratt’s undergraduates are from New York State, with most from New York City.   

Nearly one-third are from underrepresented groups, and our diversity plan commits to increase that percentage.

By every measure, we are in an enviable position—and that includes our physical locations in Manhattan and in the heart of Brooklyn, at a moment of great aspiration for this community. You know the hype about Brooklyn—and it is all true. BUT, let me be clear: We are not simply in the right place at the right time; Pratt has been an agent in making that right place in the right time, fueling the creative and technological booms taking place around us, with us, because of us.  

For all of these reasons, Pratt has never been stronger. So again, to my predecessors I say, thank you. To the faculty and students, current and past who power this wonderful institution, thank you.

Now, the question before us is this: what will we do with all of this potential?

Since I began, Pratt has welcomed new faculty, a new dean, a new VP, a new center, new chairs and directors and of course the most talented class of new students. We’ve launched new research, new searches, new strategic planning, and forged new collaborations.

Our charge, now, is to push ourselves further. To wander into the same unfamiliar, uncomfortable territory we ask our courageous students to explore every single day.

In addition to making the investments and building the infrastructure we know we need now, we should be asking ourselves, what experiments are we running? What risks are we taking? What will be our moonshot?

Our challenge — where we are

Our world offers no shortage of problems to choose from— crises in leadership, intolerable rhetoric and inhumane action, partisan divisiveness, climate pressures, social and economic inequities. This has been a particularly daunting month.

But there is one problem I want to focus on, because it is one we are in a position to affect.

Today, higher education is under siege. The costs, the outcomes, the preparation, the need, the value are all under scrutiny.  

These times demand vigilance and new ways of seeing, new abilities, modes of learning, collaborations into arenas we don’t usually enter.

You have heard this for decades, we live in complex times, and the moment for new ways to solve difficult problems is now. As the child of a Holocaust survivor, I am only too aware that we are always living in complex times, and the moment for creative, ethical and collaborative solutions is always.  

On Monday, Cathy Davidson, author of The New Education, and I had a public conversation about a 21st century learning arena. The 20th century model of education, still dominant today (although you would not know it here!), leans toward the uni-directional, teacher-centric, acontextual and often linear practice once required for industrial work.

If, as many predict, much of the work upon which this model was predicated will soon be obsolete, what does tomorrow’s new education look like?

In many respects, it looks like the education we provide at Pratt—focused on critical and creative thinking, reciprocal problem setting and solving, collaboration and communication, experiential, embodied, interdisciplinary and self-directed learning.

Where in many places, this immersive practice, if it exists, is relegated to the perimeter, to the experimental, here it is central.  

Our curriculum—rooted in the pedagogy of design—offers a model for what higher education, and indeed all education, must become. But even that model must continue to evolve.

Now, as we write Pratt’s next strategic plan, is the time to challenge ourselves, and our partners, to reimagine what education can be.

We face many big questions. Today, I will focus on four:

First, how will we keep our academic programs relevant in the midst of an uncertain future?

Today, the most valuable education we can provide is one in which our students are not just learning but creating knowledge.

As our strategic planning committee has stated: Pratt must be “a place where students and faculty are empowered to be change agents.”  

To address big problems, we must invest in our faculty, in supporting them, their work and their ambitions—there is no excellence without their incredible insight and leadership.

We must ask ourselves: What resources can we free up or raise to underwrite the new programs, the new partners, the more diverse community we envision?

With faculty support, our prescient students are already anticipating the unpredictability of our future, asking: What does labor practice look like in a digital workforce? What is our role as artificial intelligence grows? Listen to their inquiry and proposals:

There is MUCH more that machines are not ready to do: be original, perceptive, empathetic and creative, strategic, and think critically, know which borders must be permeable.

Technical and cultural leadership will require judgment, designing, planning, boundary crossing and systems implementation with questioning and civility as base currencies.

That should serve as a clear call, not just for how we imagine the future of work, but for rethinking lifelong education.

To do this, our strategic planning committee establishes that “Our most path-breaking teaching, research, and creative work can happen at disciplinary meeting points—where artists and writers work with architects, designers, and policymakers to shape a world no one of them could have imagined on their own.“

At Pratt, some of this is taking place under the ever-expanding programming of our Fuse nexus, where students and faculty can experience integrative courses, create customized and interdisciplinary learning initiatives and join interdisciplinary hubs.

So where will we go next? By putting our energy into art and design, Pratt became a powerful hub for Brooklyn’s creative explosion. Twenty-five years ago marked the closing of our engineering school at Pratt, but technical rigor will always remain part of our DNA.

We can be a model, demonstrating how the competencies of art and design and tech overlap and intersect.  Here, robotics, data, digital competency, political potential, math, science, art, entrepreneurship, and design can all sit on a continuum.

As we integrate our teaching with research, our focus on interdisciplinary learning must be paired with deep disciplinary knowledge.

Our students and faculty must also develop greater expertise that includes understanding the varied ways in which different cultures approach and value content and delivery. If we are truly committed to listening to all voices, then we have to build a pedagogical frame for actually working in that space.

That leads me to a second big question: How do we leverage accessibility and diversity to enhance a thriving  intellectual community?

As a first-generation college student, indeed first generation high school student—and as the beneficiary of a full scholarship (I thought it was because I was so smart, it was also because I was so poor)—this is a defining question for me. I would not be here if institutions had not invested in opening doors for promising students, regardless of their financial means.    

Pratt’s long-standing commitment to serving students of all backgrounds is one of the characteristics that drew me here. We will continue to build on that legacy.

This year, Pratt’s leadership unveiled a Diversity Strategic Plan that set bold targets for expanding accessibility in all its forms—from financial to social to physical.

We will invest in increasing retention, so that once students are through our doors, our campus provides a healthy and thriving learning environment,  a space where diversity—including ideological diversity—is intentionally fostered and supported.  

Our physical infrastructure is being reconfigured for that same access, so that content, curricular, and environmental structure are in sync.

From our founding, Pratt has set the bar for inclusion in higher education. To fulfill our mission, we must raise it once again.

Which brings me to a third big question: What impact will we have on our community?

Pratt’s mission has always been linked to social engagement, and, indeed, activism.

When climate change and environmental pollution surfaced as major societal threats, Pratt students and faculty built them into the curriculum across all disciplines. Today, sustainability is a priority focus in every school across Pratt.

A resolution drafted by our students to divest Pratt from fossil fuel has influenced our board’s investment decisions as well as our building practices.

Our incredible Pratt students are at once creating the tools of sustainability innovation and the momentum for social change.

This is evident at the Pratt Center, where faculty and students work together with city officials, shaping public policy to make life better for New Yorkers.  Imagine this coupled with our MFA Writing program that addresses our constantly evolving social and political climate.

Right now, these powerful initiatives are often unit dependent; the next few years must be a time of building bridges for even more impact.

And beyond that?  

As a civic-minded institution, it’s our responsibility to share our knowledge and resources with our neighbors. That includes our physical campus.

Our future School of Art Building by Allied Works will be emblematic of our aspirations, celebrating experimental, world-class and immersive studio practice, coupled with community discourse and learning.

We have been doing this for more than a century—our Saturday Art School for K through 12 students has been running since 1897. And there will be more opportunities to open up our campus and our community, and to grow the creative economy in Brooklyn.

Still, we know our challenges are both local and increasingly global — that in this interconnected and digital era, and indeed, intolerant time, it is incumbent upon us to build coalitions that cross borders of all kinds.

That brings me to a final big question, how will we foster a global education for our students?

Our strategic planning committee asks of us: If the world looks to Pratt as a global leader in art and design, how do our students look at the world? Do they understand what global education means beyond study abroad? Do our faculty integrate global learning into their classrooms?  How do we care for our current international communities—understanding other cultural modes of learning?

As our committee has expressed, we have an opportunity to push the edge of global learning, to frame the value of a global education, and of a global comparative imagination.

Pratt Partners

Much of this will come from initiatives we launch inside Pratt, but so much depends on our relationships beyond the gates.

We do not have to do any of this alone. In fact, we would be foolish to try.

The new era for higher education is about COLLABORATION. With limited resources, we will all need to share what we do best. Our future lies in connecting student to student, departments to departments, universities to other campuses, higher-ed to corporations and government agencies—in the free and open exchange of ideas that make a difference in people’s lives.

So let us ask:

As New York City invests in world-class science and engineering spanning from Roosevelt Island to Harlem to Brooklyn, what does our partnership look like?

As the Navy Yard (a stone’s throw away) where we are already a civic and robotics partner, builds a center for workforce development and entrepreneurial culture, how else will we contribute?

As the community colleges surrounding us think about building an access conduit, what will smooth transitions look like? What is the role of a private school for the public good?

As art, information, critical engagement, architecture, technology and design grow more and more important in Brooklyn’s landscape, how will all of our collaterals—cultural institutions, schools, industry, tech startups, developers work with us?

As the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods continue their rapid growth, how will Pratt be a resource, building on the work begun by President Schutte?

If we are truly the team that is not just in the right place at the right time, how can Pratt Manhattan partner in shaping the emerging Manhattan 14th street tech corridor?

As we build our vision for the future of Pratt, we want every member of our growing community to participate and contribute.

To our faculty, staff, students; to our over 60,000 living alumni; to our neighbors and peers:

You are the heart of this institution. We need your voices. And I promise, as President, to create more opportunities for us to convene. (After all, I hope, in a few years time, to have an even longer list of names to thank for all we will accomplish together.)

if not us, who? if not now, when?

This is, as I have said, a moment of strength—a moment to venture into places that might not feel familiar.

So, what does risk look like for Pratt? What will be our moonshot, in our time?

We must be a voice in the national discussion on the value of higher education.

Pratt is already a laboratory for research and reflection in art and design education. Through individual faculty scholarship, active faculty learning communities, and through our new Center for Teaching and Learning, we are now poised to lead in shaping the future of our fields.

We have to insist (and take action to ensure) that what we do here—creative and critical inquiry—can lead our society today.

Pratt has produced influential government, policy, and cultural producers and leaders, from City Hall to Silicon Valley.

But I think it’s fair to say that our country has had far too few leaders from our disciplines that can conceive, as one of our faculty members writes, “beyond the traditional affairs of the state.”

On this campus, we are developing a new generation with the skills and the vision to make a difference in the way cities are organized, practices are understood, structures and products are designed and developed; who can contribute to the world of imagination, making, and building.

Now is our time to claim the mantle of multiple modes of engagement, for all levels of the academy, from industry to critical citizenship, from gallery to practice, and share more of what we—our faculty and our students—are doing with the world. This is our collective challenge—and our charge together.

For my part, I pledge to keep us moving, agile, daring, partnering, and always just a little uncomfortable. Because, what are we, if not that?

If Pratt Institute does not push the limits and stretch the boundaries of what is possible, who will?

On Founder’s Day 1888, Charles Pratt declared: “Let the work done here be earnest and good . . . work for the genuine and the true will sweeten and give courage for life.”

So it has been, in this most extraordinary place, for these last 131 years.  

And so it will be with us—here and now, when “earnest and good” work matters, perhaps, more than ever before.

Thank you for entrusting me with this honor and responsibility. Let us all do our work and walk forward together.

Postscript: And please, please GET OUT AND VOTE next Tuesday!