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Remembering Red Burns

August 26, 2013

As the new semester is about to begin, I write with sad news. After a long illness, the legendary Red Burns, died peacefully in her home Friday afternoon, surrounded by family.

Red, (nee, Goldie Gennis), and dubbed  “The Mother of Silicon Alley,” was one of the co-founders in 1971 with the late George Stoney, of the Alternate Media Center at NYU In 1979, she created what would become the world-renowned, Interactive Telecommunications Program or ITP.  Under her leadership, ITP faculty, students and alumni have been the driving force behind the digital revolution that has swept downtown Manhattan for the past thirty years.

To say that ITP has changed our lives is in an understatement. Red created a DNA for ITP, that made the department synonymous with innovation and change.  She balanced a blend of bedrock guiding principles with an adaptive, resilient spontaneity that encouraged whimsy, play and the fortuitous encounter.

As a result, ITP has graduated alums who developed everything from Foursquare to the New York City MetroCard Kiosk and subway car seats to an app currently in use in the Sudan and Uganda to find lost children. 

ITP was Red’s idea of a twenty first century Bauhaus, a place where the engineer encounters the poet, the dancer discovers the computer programmer or the architect partners with the painter. She believed that in inviting the most exciting students from a mix of disciplines, the department could form the core of a vibrant creative community in which the unexpected can happen. She believed that technology was a tool in the service of ideas and people and because people and ideas drove technology forward, the environment had to be as social as it was rigorous.   

Red led a stellar faculty from multiple disciplines, forged creative partnerships with institutions and organizations that offered challenging problems, and created post-graduate research opportunities for ITP’s most exciting alumni.  Over the years, under Red’s leadership, ITP faculty developed and honed ITP’s key components: a few essential foundational courses; an unsentimental faculty review of the curriculum at the end of every academic year; the willingness to disassemble the physical space to accommodate new ideas, new proximities, new pedagogical approaches and the pursuit of their own groundbreaking research.

In 2002, Red received the prestigious Chrysler Design Award—one of literally dozens and dozens of awards and encomiums she received in her lifetime. (the ITP web-site has posted the complete list). The Chrysler Award, at the time, was the interactive world’s Pulitzer Prize.  I remember that the year she won was also the year that Steve Jobs won.  The Award recognized Red’s brilliance and forward looking design that included the selection of faculty and students, the curriculum, the creative partnerships, the research fellows and the game changing projects and people that kept pouring out of the department. That was 2002; over ten years later, ITP, that also boasts one of the school’s most successful business models, has only gotten better.

ITP kept getting better and better because of Red’s unrelenting drive to move the department forward. She gave herself about five minutes to enjoy whatever Award she was receiving and got back to her no nonsense style of perfecting and honing the good into the best.

Red had an ethical core that anchored her to her values and nothing could derail her from her principles and beliefs. She could be as generous and kind as she was demanding.  And, as everyone who knows her will say, even as she told the truth directly, fearlessly, and succinctly--as she was wont to do--she did so with wisdom and insight.  

Red’s family have been stalwarts and part of an extensive network of support that Red enjoyed outside of Tisch.  To Cathy, Barbara, Michael, her children, three grandchildren, Daisy, Sally and Olive, I extend my deepest condolences and thank you for everything you have contributed to Red’s work at the school and the university.

In what was to be her last week, I sent through Red’s daughter, Cathy, a note that described to Red yet another great article in the NY Times about ITP.  The note read in part:  “Your handprints are all over everything in ITP and at Tisch and NYU.  We all walk taller and more determined and bend and sway at the right points because of what you've taught us. I know you are under the weather, but I am sending this message to say we miss you. But we feel you living all around us.”

I know that we will all want to celebrate our remarkable colleague and her extraordinary legacy. The school and department, working with the family, will organize a memorial service in the coming weeks.  In her honor, ITP has established the Red Burns scholarship fund, at  http://itp.nyu.edu/redburnsfund/


Mary Schmidt Campbell
Dean, Tisch School of the Arts