High-Tech Damnation at RIT

Against the Current, No. 71, November/December 1997

A.S. Zaidi

“RIT SHOULD STAND for ‘really in touch’ with the real world,” said Carl Kohrt, executive vice president of Kodak, in his keynote address during the Nov. 14, 1996 installation of the cornerstone for the 157,000 square foot Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies (CIMS). The building was financed at a cost of $21 million, $11.25 million of which was provided by the federal government and $9.25 million by the state of New York.(1)

The Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) has also earned the appreciation of the Central Intelligence Agency, which has designated the institution as a “strategic national resource worthy of explicit development and support.” In a 1985 (Memorandum of Agreement( between RIT and the CIA, the school agreed that its curriculum would be “responsive to certain defined specialties of the CIA.”(2)

RIT’s responsiveness to those specialties may well explain its recent attempt to cut art programs and the ensuing student unrest there. In late April ’96, four weeks before the end of the final academic quarter, RIT professors leaked word to students that several art programs, including painting, printmaking, glass, textiles, ceramics, art education, medical illustration and interior design, were about to be discontinued or placed on “probationary continuation.”

The cuts would have devastated RIT’s prestigious School of Art and Design (SAD) and the School for American Crafts (SAC). A couple of days after learning about the cuts, students gathered at RIT’s Bevier Art Gallery on a Monday to organize. When they heard that the trustees were meeting at that very moment on campus in Building 1, they moved to its lobby to get their attention.

Soon President Simone and Provost Stanley McKenzie came down from the trustee meeting to hear the concerns of the students. Simone might have calmed the students, right there and then, with some vague words of reassurance. Instead, one of his gaffes, caught on videotape by a film student, propelled the students into action.

When a student asked Simone where the art schools fit into his vision of RIT’s future, Simone replied that while RIT was primarily known for its engineering and computer science, there was a danger that graduates could be too “narrowly focused.”

What the schools of American crafts, photography, interior and graphic design did for engineers, said Simone, was to provide them with “breadth of experience.” “As they walk on campus they see, uh… somebody… there are not too many engineers with, uh…long hair, for example,” he said, pointing to Kurt Perschke, a grad student in ceramics.(3)

There was a moment of stupefied silence. Troy Liston, writing for the student publication GDT, describes what followed:

“I think I heard a cricket at this point. The silence in the room was actually tangible as everyone had to stop and take a mental step back. I know that I was whispering inside my skull, ‘Please dear lord, let this be a metaphor for something. Please don’t let him mean what I know he’s saying.’ Of course, he had to keep talking. I, and everyone else in the room who had been repeating that silent plea, could no longer block it out: he was indeed saying what we thought he was saying. In the wake of that aftershock, the room(s ambient animosity level grew ten fold and threatened to precipitate out of solution. Simone eventually realized his folly and made a feeble attempt to save his floundering position by saying, ‘Well I guess there are a lot of people here with short hair.’ All was lost.”(4)

The next day, students rallied in a breezeway, packed tightly together. A new activist group, Save Our School (SOS), had been born of panic and anger. “The art programs are world-renowned,” said engineering student Jesse Lenney to the crowd. “Who runs this place? Who are they trying to please by booting the art students?”(5)

Later, at a RIT community meeting, students expressed their concerns to Margaret Lucas, the dean of the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences (CIAS). On Thursday, students formed committees for speakers, alumni and parent contacts, rally organizers, research, as well as media and community outreach.

At a mass rally attended by hundreds at Webb auditorium, students viewed the videotape in which Simone made his infamous hair remark. “That’s what we’re here for, to run around so the engineering students can have some diversity,” said Kurt Perschke, unappeased by Simone’s apology to him a couple of days earlier. “I want an apology for cutting my school. I don’t give a damn about my hair.”(6)

That day, the faculty voted unanimously to support the efforts of the SOS students to save the art programs. Professors who had previously limited themselves to slipping information under the door of the new SOS office at night, now openly criticized the process that had led to the cuts.

Evaluate This!

RIT professors had been given an “Academic Program Review Criteria” form to numerically evaluate their programs according to their centrality, financial viability, marketability and quality. Administrators were to recommend programs for consolidation or discontinuance based on the raw data provided.

The professors do not appear to have understood the purpose of the valuative “tools,” which were meant to give the appearance of “scientific objectivity” to corporate downsizing. Not surprisingly, the programs that won out in the valuative process were those dear to the corporate interests on the RIT trustee board, including accounting, business administration, management, finance, information systems and marketing.

In a memo to RIT administrators, written during the first week of student protests, Thomas Lightfoot, an associate professor in CIAS, said:

“Numerous proposals have been put forth… which have not been seriously considered or even responded to. Is the faculty the driver of the curriculum or the administration? Is the faculty even a partner in the process? Or are we just employees, to do what we(re told, as the President has suggested?… I must add that the faculty, of at least the SAD/SAC component of the college, also pointed out its judgment that the review instrument was seriously flawed…It is also notable that the reasons for discontinuance keep changing. The President wanted to identify a pot of money that could be saved through this process. He was convinced that there was lot of waste and money being lost by our programs. When it was discovered that there was no money to be found, the reasons shifted to a resource reallocation rationale.”(7)

That week, SOS obtained donations from parents, student groups and alumni. They passed out flyers to students and asked alumni to write to the trustees, some of whom professed to be unaware of the proposed cuts. They got coverage from local television stations.

The rallies were followed by image-oriented protests. With the permission of Albert Paley, an RIT artist in residence, SOS students symbolically shrouded his sculptures outside the Strong Museum and the Eastman School of Music. They also wrapped the Main Street Bridge railings that Paley had designed.

At the Memorial Art Gallery, ceramics grad students Molly Hamblin and Kurt Perschke used gauze and string to cover works by Paley and Richard Hirsch, an RIT ceramics professor who attended the event in support of the arts. “We intend to keep the heat on,” said Perschke. “Today’s demonstrations are about showing the fundamental connection between the school and the art community.”(8)

The media images of a Rochester without art succeeded in embarrassing the trustees, and the RIT administration quickly backed away from its intention to cut the arts. In under two weeks, SOS had proved that students, alumni, faculty and even much of the business community strongly supported the arts. Through efficacious aesthetic persuasion, the students had saved their programs, at least for the time being, while alerting the RIT community to the implications of the Strategic Plan.

It was impossible, however, to sustain this activism, which began to wane as finals drew near. “A lot of students have shown how dedicated they are, but their work suffers,” explained glass grad student Luis Crespo. “Come ‘crunch time,’ people will feel torn. In the end it boils down to the fact that they are students and have to get a grade.”(9)

In a series of informational meetings, Simone tried to promote the Strategic Plan, but the authoritarian character of the plan made it a hard sell. In addition to downsizing programs, the plan calls for outsourcing RIT’s physical plant services. Anthony Burda, an editor of the student weekly The Reporter, was present at one meeting. He describes Simone’s response to a woman who had asked him about the outsourcing:

“’As an alternative to out-sourcing… we might move towards student help… like fifty percent, something like that…’ He points to catering, where the student staff comprises about 90%. He also points to savings in pensions, health insurance, etc., by having student janitors. Not to mention the saving in flat pay, resulting from paying students only around $5.25 an hour. ‘By the time they’re ready for a pay increase, they graduate.’ He starts laughing before he can finish his sentence. Everyone laughs. Well, the professors laugh. The lady in the audience, and the janitorial staff of about thirty, sit in the back quietly. For some reason, it appears they really don’t find getting replaced by student workers too funny.”(10)

At another meeting, an undergraduate asked Simone what role students played in the decision-making process at RIT. Christopher Hewitt, writing for The Reporter, provides an example of Simone’s sensitivity to students:

“He responded by telling the student that ‘in my opinion, the 18-22 year-old age group is not qualified in making decisions. You’re a customer…and if you don’t like it, you can vote with your feet.’ When asked about Simone’s comment, the student replied, ‘We can vote with our feet by stamping them down in protest. Why should we run away from a place that we belong to when we can stay and make it a place that others will come to, not run away from. I think that these old men who are making the decisions don’t realize how qualified the 18-22 age group is in making change and solid, competent decisions.’”(11)

Thus did Simone squander the trust and goodwill that had come to him as RIT’s new president–soon after the CIA controversy.

The CIA’s State of the Art

Cut to 1991. The collapse of the Soviet Union had threatened this country with a peace dividend, but now the United States was avoiding that danger as it edged towards Bush’s reelection campaign and the Gulf War.

In this climate, Richard Rose, then president of RIT and a former Marine, announced that he was taking a four month sabbatical to work on (national policy and procedures) in Washington. It occurred to someone to try to reach Rose at the CIA. When Rose answered the phone, the RIT-CIA scandal had begun.

Though most documents pertaining to CIA activities at RIT were shredded, a few were leaked to the press after a highly publicized theft from Rose’s office. Many professors and administrators recalled their experiences with the CIA when the press and a fact-finding commission began to investigate the affair.

The “lead organization” in the CIA-RIT relationship, according to the 1985 Memorandum of Agreement, was the Center for Imaging Science. New courses were to be added in artificial intelligence, integrated electro optics and digital image processing. Rochester journalist J. B. Spula explains why the CIA helped build RIT’s imaging science facilities:

“RIT offers the CIA, and the national security establishment in general, state-of-the-art support in things like aerial photography, image-analysis, and high-tech printing. These and related technologies are the building blocks of surveillance, spy satellites, and, at the end of the militarist’s rainbow, ‘Star Wars’ in all its imperial glory.”(12)

In 1985, Rose consulted with CIA agents over the choice of a new director for the imaging science center. One agent, Robert Kohler, became an RIT trustee in 1988. Another, Keith Hazard, later joined RIT’s advisory board for imaging science.

In 1989, the administration tried to remove the center from the College of Graphic Arts and Photography and place it under the RIT Research Corporation (RITRC), which administers most of the CIA training, recruitment and research at RIT.

CIA influence extended to the rest of RIT as well. The Federal Programs Training Center was created at RIT in 1988 to give technological support to the CIA. There, students were paid $8-10 an hour to produce forged documents. The crafts were also put to CIA use. Woodworking majors designed furniture with secret drawers, and picture frames with cavities for listening devices.

In one course, students identified only by their first names designed wax molds for keyholes. The CIA even tried to place an interpreter at RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

Andrew Doughtery, Rose’s executive assistant and a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, supervised CIA activities at RIT. He authored the 1985 memorandum and consulting reports for the CIA, two of which caused a stir. The first, “Changemasters,” resulted from discussions among six panelists, including Robert McFarlane (of Iran-Contra fame) and former vice presidents of Xerox and AT&T.

“Changemasters” advocated economic espionage against U.S. trading partners, the transfer of government-funded technology to the private sector, and the repeal of antitrust legislation. The second report, “Japan 2000,” was an outgrowth of discussions with such experts on Japanese culture as McFarlane, Tim Stone, a former CIA agent and director of corporate intelligence for Motorola, and Frank Pipp, a retired Xerox executive. It warns our nation’s decision-makers:

“Mainstream Japanese, the vast majority of whom absolutely embrace the national vision, have strange precedents. They are creatures of an ageless, amoral, manipulative and controlling culture–not to be emulated–suited only to this race, in this place.” The report concludes, “‘Japan: 2000’ should provide notice that ‘the rising sun’ is coming–the attack has begun.”(13)

When the contents of “Japan 2000” were disclosed, Rose tried to distance himself from them by saying that the report was only a working draft. Although he later released a revised version, the report still caused widespread indignation. Rose later issued an apology to the Japanese students at RIT.

RIT historian Richard Lunt observes, “It is the height of hypocrisy to solicit gifts from leading Japanese corporations to finance the imaging science building while at the same time preparing a confidential document for the CIA which claims the Japanese government and Japanese corporations are conspiring to attack and destroy the United States.”(14)

The graduation ceremonies in May ’91 were marked by protests. Visitors to RIT found the outlines of bodies drawn in chalk on sidewalks and parking lots.

Investigating RIT-CIAgate

That June, the administration announced that a blue ribbon trustee committee would investigate CIA activities at RIT. Somehow, a committee containing the likes of Colby Chandler, then chairman of Kodak, and Kent Damon, a former vice president of Xerox, did little to reassure critics of RIT-CIA ties that its inquiry would be impartial.

The administration later added two students, five professors and an alumnus, who happened to be a Kodak vice president, to the committee. It also brought in Monroe Freedman, a former law school dean at Hofstra University, to serve as its senior fact finder.

As the scandal unfolded, Rose and Doughtery hastened to reassure the RIT community that the CIA was not unduly influencing the curriculum or threatening academic freedom. Claiming that “morality is built into every fiber of my being,” Doughtery said that the CIA would never do anything morally objectionable. “They are really gun-shy about doing anything improper with an academic institution,” he maintained.(15)

Monroe Freedman, the senior fact finder of the commission that investigated the RIT-CIA ties felt otherwise. In his report, he wrote:

“Intimidation and fear are recurring themes in comments about matters relating to the CIA at RIT and, specifically, about Mr. Doughtery. One Dean called him ‘authoritarian,’ ‘harsh,’ and a ‘threatening individual.’ Another Dean said that Mr. Doughtery ‘had the power to make you or break you.’ ‘To clash with him meant that you were going to be fired,’ the Dean said, giving the name of one person who, he alleged, was fired because he had said that Mr. Doughtery did not understand what a university is. One Vice President expressed resentment that he had been compelled to accept the appointment of an unwanted subordinate for an administrative position, noting that the subordinate also had responsibilities at the RITRC. ‘Things were done,’ said the same Vice President, and I had to go along.”(16)

Some RIT faculty and administrators declined to cooperate with the intelligence agency. Edward McIrvine, dean of RIT’s College of Graphic Arts and Photography, twice refused CIA security clearance requests. Nonetheless, the CIA conducted a check on McIrvine without his permission and asked to see his medical records when it found that he had seen a psychiatrist a few years earlier.

Malcolm Spaull, head of the Film and Video Department, was asked to train CIA agents in video surveillance. Spaull declined because he is a friend of the family of Charles Horman, the journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in Chile during the 1973 coup. Spaull said that there was “some evidence that the CIA knew he was in captivity and acquiesced in his execution.”

Another professor, John Ciampa, head of RIT’s American Video Institute, refused to work for the CIA by pointing to a clause in his contract that says that the institute would only engage in life enhancing activities.(17)

As the RIT scandal drew attention to CIA involvement at other universities, Doughtery advised his CIA superiors that time was of the essence if the agency’s activities at RIT were to be preserved. “Every day that the Federal Programs Training Center can be identified with RIT compounds our problem.”(18)

Doughtery proposed replacing the RITRC with a non-profit university foundation that would include the University of Rochester. In June, Rose announced that he would sever all personal ties with the CIA, and Doughtery resigned as his assistant. Two months later, in September, Rose announced that he would step down as president the following year.

As a result of the CIA controversy, a committee was created to oversee research contracts at RIT. Recently, however, the committee informed Simone that it was not receiving the information that  it needed to do its job.  In fall ’96, RIT trustees unanimously voted to designate President Rose as RIT President Emeritus.

Albert Simone’s No-Class Act

RIT’s current president, Albert Simone, took office in 1992. At first, the RIT community welcomed Simone’s accessibility and his involvement in university affairs. He was quoted as saying, “If you’re not an open person, a sensitive person, a person who genuinely likes others, you can’t be an effective decision-maker.”(19)

Compared to his predecessor, Simone appeared forthright and in touch with students and faculty. In an early speech, he expressed his commitment to the liberal arts. “He’s a breath of fresh air,” said philosophy professor Wade Robison.(20)

About six months after his inauguration as president, Simone began to craft a ten year Strategic Plan for RIT, calling it “the most participatory plan in all of academia.” He then embarked the university on a path of managed attrition, and began to make plans to expand partnerships with industry and to revamp the curriculum. Having slashed $6 million from the annual budget, Simone announced his intention of cutting $10 to 20 million more, citing the need for “teamwork” if the RIT community was to benefit from the plan.

“If we have the sense of community I’ve talked about…I believe that we’ll be able to find ways to–if we have to–downsize, restructure, reorient, reprioritize, reallocate…,” Simone said, adding reassuringly, “I think we’re going to have to do all of those things, but that doesn’t mean we have to do them and have a lot of hurt and bloodshed and despair and destruction.”(21)

Had the RIT community been more familiar with Simone’s tenure as president of the University of Hawaii (UH) from 1984 to 1992, it might have been wary of the changes in store for RIT. David Yount, who served as vice president under Simone at UH, says in Who Runs the University? that it was widely rumored that Simone had been brought in as a “hit man” and that approximately one-third of the twenty-four deans left office early in his administration.

According to Yount, Simone’s brash personality did not endear him to the UH community:

“Many of his listeners echoed the sentiments of former Manoa Chancellor Marvin Anderson when he confided privately to his staff that Al Simone has no class.( Especially embarrassing were the sexist comments and ethnic slurs that sporadically popped out–his golfing double entendre about the hooker or his careless pronunciation of local names…Although he was coached for years by female staffers who managed most of the time to put the right words in his mouth and the right thoughts in his head, the wrong words and thoughts continued to emerge. He habitually said ‘woman’ when he meant women,( introduced professional couples as ‘Dr. and Mrs.,’ instead of ‘Dr. and Dr.’ and betrayed genuine surprise whenever the career of a married woman surpassed that of her husband.”

Several student groups, including Students Against Discrimination and Hawaii Women of Color, held a mock trial of Simone. Their mentor Haunani-Kay Trask, Professor of Hawaiian Studies, charged Simone with incompetence, racism, sexism and ignorance of Hawaiian history. The jury found him guilty on all counts, and the judge pronounced him “an embarrassment to the entire university community and to the human race.”(22)

The Corporate Security State

The origins of RIT’s crisis in the arts do not lie, however, in the colorful personality of Albert Simone, but in the convergence of the interests of large corporations with those of the national security state.

The development of Kodak and Xerox products depends in large part on the advances made in the imaging sciences. Simone, who is both RIT president and chair of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, has built up the well-connected CIMS at the expense of the arts.

Speaking of connections, CIMS was built by the Pike Company, a construction firm which tops the list of a dozen Monroe County companies that last year exceeded the legal limit on corporate campaign contributions. Tom Judson, Pike Company president, claiming to be ignorant of the New York State statute that limits such contributions to $5,000, said: “Maybe I can get some money back.”

Indeed. No corporation has ever been fined for violating the statute, which was enacted in 1974.(23)

Thus are connections made. The first off-campus RIT trustee meeting convened in Washington, D. C. in April ’97. President Simone explained, “We want Washington to know us better. We have had a lot of support from the federal government. We need more.”

During their three day stay in Washington, the trustees met with members of Congress and federal officials to discuss such matters as technology transfer and research, and were briefed by a Department of Defense (DOD) undersecretary on U.S. technology policy. Anita Jones, the director of DOD’s Defense Research and Engineering, observing that she didn’t know of any other university board coming to Washington, said of the RIT trustees visit: “I thought it showed a lot of forward thinking.”(24)

The Student Perspective

In March ’97, I interviewed Kurt Perschke and fellow ceramics student and SOS organizer Molly Hamblin. They related to me the history of the School of American Crafts, which owes its existence to Aileen Osborn Webb, founder of the American Craft Council. SAC opened at Dartmouth in 1944 and moved to RIT in 1950. As the first school in this country exclusively devoted to crafts, SAC was inspired by the Crafts Movement, which has been a counterweight to the values of the Industrial Revolution for over a century.(25)

To hear Hamblin describe the material with which she works is to come to feel that it has a life of its own, giving new meaning to Keats’ “strife between damnation and impassioned clay.” Hamblin believes that RIT students are too engrossed in the information highway, too dazzled by the prospect of being able to purchase groceries by computer, to bother to express themselves. She describes to me the eeriness of RIT buildings that are full of people and silent except for the clicking of computer keyboards.

While Perschke and Hamblin are elated that the art schools have earned a reprieve, they know that their existence remains precarious. Hamblin says that the art schools have been given a three to five year “umbrella,” during which they have to successfully market their programs. While advertising has increased student enrollment in the art schools for next year, the RIT administration remains uncommitted to the art programs.

Hamblin notes that positions are being left unfulfilled as professors retire, and that the increased number of art students has not led to an increase in the space available to them or to improvements in their facilities. SAC may eventually have to leave RIT and become independent again in order to survive, says Hamblin, who does not relish the idea of being in an institution where she is not wanted.

Perschke laments the absence of institutional memory at RIT, where students know little about the 1991 CIA controversy. Unless the disjunction between past and present is overcome, the arts and crafts may go the way of the dodo and the carrier pigeon.

RIT activists need to discover their own “strategic national resource worthy of explicit development and support,” Infusion, the quarterly of the Center for Campus Organizing (Box 748, Cambridge, MA 02142), which is available for $25 a year ($15 for students).

It’s a publication whose time has come. For as Jonathan Worthen, an RIT undergraduate ceramics major tells us, “When the voices of the messengers, the artists, the poets, the teachers, when they cannot be heard, there will be no future for any of us.”26


  1. “Cornerstone ceremony: CIMS ‘Making A Difference To Industry,'” News and Events (RIT Administration Newsletter) Dec. 1, 1996.
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  2. Douthwright, Jean. “Rochester Institute of Technology: A CIA Subsidiary?,” Covert Action Information Bulletin No. 38 (Fall 1991): 6.
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  3. Video Transcript.
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  4. Liston, Troy. “Martyr of the Week,” GDT. Vol. 4, Issue 7, April 28, 1996: 5.
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  5. Jackel, Donna. “Art Students Rally,” Democrat and Chronicle,  April 1996.
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  6. Livadas, Greg. “Cuts at RIT Protested,” Democrat and Chronicle, April 26, 1996: B1.
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  7. Lightfoot, Thomas. Memo to RIT administrators. April 26, 1996: 1-2.
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  8. Jackel, Donna. “A Shroud of Visual Silence,” Democrat and Chronicle, May 1, 1996: A1.
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  9. Hewitt, Christopher Robin. “Don’t Tread On Us,” The Reporter, May 3, 1996: 18.
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  10. Burda, Anthony. “Wolf at the Door,” The Reporter. April 26, 1996: 17.
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  11. Hewitt, 17.
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  12. Spula, Jack Bradigan. “RIT and the CIA: the Company They Keep,” City, Dec. 4-10, 1996: 5.
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  13. Hyman, Jennifer. “Secret RIT Study Bashes the Japanese,” Democrat and Chronicle May 24, 1991: A12.
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  14. Hyman, Jennifer. “RIT Took With One Hand, Skewered With The Other,” Democrat and Chronicle, May 24, 1991: A12.
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  15. Hyman, Jennifer. “Millions in CIA Funding Pumped into RIT Coffers,” Democrat and Chronicle, May 16, 1991: A4.
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  16. Freedman, Monroe K. “Deficiencies of Leadership,” Fact-finding report, Nov. 14, 1991: 6.
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  17. Hyman, Jennifer. “Faculty Member Recalls CIA Offer to Train Spies,” Democrat and Chronicle,  May 16, 1991: A4.
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  18. Hyman, Jennifer. “Stolen Papers Suggest Plan ‘To Cut Losses’,” Democrat and Chronicle, June 8, 1991: A1.
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  19. Murphy, Derek. “He Plans to Make a difference at RIT,” Henrietta Post, Oct. 10, 1994.
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  20. Wagner, M. Kathleen. “New President Still Charms RIT,” Democrat and Chronicle, April 14, 1993: 8A.
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  21. Wagner, op. cit.
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  22. Yount, David. Who Runs the University? 25, 26-27, 32-33.
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  23. Wilson, David McKay and Gary Craig. “200 Firms Exceed N. Y. Campaign Gift Limit,” Times-Union, May 8, 1997: 1.
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  24. Wentzel, Michael, “RIT Trustees to Wine and Dine Washington.” Democrat and Chronicle, April 10, 1997: 1B, 4B. See also “Trustees Hold Historic Board Meeting in Nation’s Capitol,” News and Events. May 1, 1997. Spula, Jack Bradigan.
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  25. “PrioRITies: How Go the Arts at the Institute?” City. May 16, 1996: 4.

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  26. xxvi. Hewitt, op. cit.

ATC 71, November-December 1997