A $3 million donation is no laughing matter. That kind of money may first smell like just another brick-laden building waiting to happen or more funding for an invisible office. However, the $3 million anonymously donated earlier this year promises to impact the students of RIT in a meaningful and lasting way: by teaching students how to think critically and analytically.
The second largest single donation RIT has ever received from an alumnus, it will aid in the creation of the Eugene Fram Endowed Chair in Critical Thinking, named in honor of former professor Dr. Eugene Fram. The position will be held by a faculty member who will work to carry on the legacy of caring and critical thinking that Fram embodied for the anonymous donor.
Fram came to RIT after working as a research director in New York City. He joined the school in 1957, when the campus was situated downtown. The J. Warren McClure Research Professor of Marketing from 1989-2008, Fram worked at RIT for 51 years before retiring. During RIT’s 2008 commencement ceremonies, he was honored with the distinction of professor emeritus and awarded the Presidential Medallion. Fram’s work has also garnered him attention from such big names as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Money Morning and CNN.com.
Fram’s tenure at RIT was well remembered by his colleague and friend Dr. Ashok Rao, dean of the Saunders College of Business. Says Rao, “He had that ability to relate to people of all ages. He still has a lot of warmth towards RIT.” Fram also has fond memories of RIT, explaining that, “My work is … also my avocation. Some people play golf, tennis, poker — I work. It was always a joy to get up to go to work. So many interesting and different things.”
Since retiring, Fram has kept up with his passion, being, as Rao puts it, “very committed to his niche of marketing.” He has written five books on marketing, releasing a third edition of nonprofit management book “Policy vs. Paperclips” earlier this year. Additionally, he regularly updates his blog on nonprofit management and is doing some consulting work, all while taking classes at Stanford University on everything from religion to law to mobile technologies. Says Fram, “You’ve got to keep your gray matter busy. Otherwise it just withers away, and I certainly don’t want to do that.”
The donation, made by a former student of Fram’s, was given for the purpose of developing a chair position that will be housed in the Saunders College of Business. The Eugene Fram Endowed Chair in Critical Thinking will serve not only the College of Business, but all of RIT’s colleges in an effort to better understand methods of analytical thinking and how to teach them in a classroom setting. Fram recalls his experience in learning that his name would go to such an honored position. “[Senior Director of Development] Mark Boylan called me up and asked, ‘Do you remember so-and-so?’” Fram recalled one of the student’s nicknames from his time at RIT. “I then got a call from the Provost on March 4th. He asked, ‘Are you willing to lend your name to this critical thinking chair?’” says Fram. “It’s like saying, ‘Do you want the Pulitzer Prize?’”
After being notified of the donation, Fram was able to sit down with his former student and discuss the impact of his teaching. “The donor was a student in only one of my classes; an MBA student,” says Fram. “My area was marketing, but he had other interests in more financial areas. He just wasn’t really motivated by marketing.”
This particular course was one that Fram described as “an MBA course with a critical thinking overlay.” Papers that Fram assigned during the course placed a particular emphasis on critical thinking. Students were required to take a statement or issue presented by Fram and respond to it in two to four pages, providing documentation detailing how they came to their reaction. Fram particularly enjoyed this exercise because of what it demanded from his students: thought. “[These papers] required students to go to the library where they wouldn’t find any single answers,” recalls Fram. “They’d have to actually think about these issues.”
Fram was still able to recall the papers the donor turned in, noting that he got As on the first two despite only “a peripheral interest in marketing.” The third paper however, is perhaps where the story begins. “The third [paper] he got busy and he knew he didn’t do a good job and he turned it in late,” says Fram. Knowing the student was capable of better work, Fram told him so and insisted he redo the paper. It was something that resonated with the student, leading him to honor Fram many years later. “He told me that any time he had a problem in his business life he said, ‘I can hear you talking to me, asking if I’m doing the best I can on this particular project,’” says Fram. “Thirty-five years it’s been. He says that’s really motivated him.”
What truly motivated the donor was Fram’s insistence on teaching critical thinking. According to Fram, “[The donor] claims he uses critical thinking in both his personal and business life and found it was very successful. He said in the business world there were people brighter and sharper than him, but this process [of critical thinking] placed him far above them.”
Critical thinking is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, becoming little more than a maxim without meaning, a buzzword plugged into mission statements alongside “synergize” and “innovation.” But critical thinking is a necessary tool, not only in the business world, but in day-to-day interactions as well.
To explain critical thinking, Fram invokes a principle often used in understanding learning and development called Bloom’s Taxonomy. Often represented as an inverted pyramid, the model ranks different behaviors and skills that we as individuals learn as we develop. Individuals start at the level of remembering, akin to what Fram believes many students prefer to do — memorize. Next is understanding, followed by applying, analyzing, evaluating and finally creating. Critical thinking, as Fram sees it, encompasses these “higher level” skills, taking material beyond a superficial understanding and knowing how to use it.
The person holding the endowed critical thinking chair will aid in this process, looking at ways to teach RIT students across all nine colleges. Dr. Jeremy Haefner, provost and senior vice president of Academic Affairs has been in contact with the donor to help solidify what the chair position will focus on. An endowed professorship, the chair will be part of a research program on critical thinking. Says Haefner, “We want to see a cutting edge, deliberate way to teach [critical thinking]. And having someone dedicated to this topic will help faculty see how to teach these things.” The chair is a unique position, one of only three in the country, and for Haefner something that’s “even more unique at a technical institute.”
Haefner’s own vision of what’s to come is also unique. “I envision a typical course on a topic of interest on one of the world’s big problems, global warming for example.” He states the course will be upfront. “We’re not going to solve this problem. The course will instead be about how you take a big complex problem and put it all together. It should be a broad topic, one that interests students from all over.”
Whoever is in the position will have responsibilities such as working on developing new theories regarding critical thinking, as well as researching the best practices for implementing and teaching such skills in the classroom. According to Fram, “The donor hopes — and he’s very passionate about this — that RIT students will have a leg up on other students. That RIT students will be recognized for this ability whether in their areas of study or religiously or politically, this technique will help in every phase of life.” Rao corroborates this notion, stating that, “Throughout life you’re constantly trying to analyze and synthesize and convince people.”
Yet despite the obvious importance of being able to apply the concepts and skills that we as students are now learning, there’s a dearth of critical thinking within the classroom. Solutions to homework problems are often just a click away online, and with friends who have taken a class before or a professor-sanctioned cheat sheet in hand, students can take and pass classes without needing to know anything more than a few mnemonic devices.
Even beyond the classroom, we encounter both groups and individuals who have rejected this idea of higher thinking, opting instead to listen to buzzwords and bullet points without continuing on to a worthwhile understanding. “You open a newspaper and it’s so apparent how polarized this country has become,” says Haefner. “I think we’ve lost an ability to have a meaningful dialogue. We glom on to spin and quick facts because they catch our attention. Then we don’t bother asking the questions.”
Interviewed under the condition of anonymity, the donor explained his own experience with the importance of asking questions. When working for a corporation, he and his team were preparing to take the company public. While they needed vital accounting information from Wall Street, this particular information was historically unavailable for two to four weeks. The donor, curious about this practice, asked why.
“I got no answers that were based on fact. I was able … to have this information on the day of the close by poking at all the arguments about why they couldn’t do it. They had just fallen into a trap and not considered why,” the donor states. “By showing what they believed wasn’t factually based, we were able to pull off what, outside of the company, looked like a miracle. Inside though, we just saw it as clear thinking.”
The donor credits his appreciation of these skills to Fram’s teaching, citing the same story of his former professor’s infamous papers. In response to his desire to remain anonymous, his reason is simple: “I don’t want my phone ringing off the hook.” Looking instead to honor Fram while also to bringing attention to the need for better reasoning, the donor says, “[Fram] was critical, generous, demanding; he wanted from his students more work. Obviously the memory stayed with me.”
The donor, now retired, was a student at RIT some 40 years ago. Seeing this lack of critical thinking as “an active problem,” he’s seeking to promote what he views as one of three necessary human characteristics, the other two being courage and integrity. “As far as courage goes, I’m not like the Wizard of Oz, so there’s not much I can do. Integrity — family is the origin of that,” the donor says. “But critical thinking, there is something that I can do.” Still he remains modest, saying, “I’ve simply identified an aspect of learning. I don’t know how to teach these things. But kids need these things.”
While in school, bogged down with homework and supplied with endless resources, there are many reasons why critical thinking may seem like a waste of time to some. Yet it’s a skill that needs to be learned, especially for those looking to enter into a competitive workforce. “What skills do organizations want?” asks Fram. “Two that stand out are communication and critical thinking.” The donor warns of the future as well, reminding, “In your career, you can’t copy.”
While the critical thinking chair may not come to fruition for a while, there is still reason and cause to analyze the way students approach learning. In parting, the donor reminds students in particular of their responsibility to think critically: “It’s your generation with its hand on the throttle. And goodness knows there’s a lot to be fixed. … You’re the people who will be making the world now. You have to have these characteristics. You have to drive the conditions of life.”