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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

The New Polytechnic: Locally Relevant, Nationally Competitive, Globally Recognized

Category: University Events
March, 2017

Spring 2017 Town Hall Meeting

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Welcome, everyone. Thank you for coming.

Greetings to those who are watching us online, in Troy, in Hartford, and around the globe.

Please allow me to begin by introducing my leadership team, the Cabinet:

  • Prabhat Hajela, Provost (absent);
  • Craig Cook, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel;
  • Jonathan Dordick, Vice President for Research, and the Howard P. Isermann '42 Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering;
  • Graig Eastin, Vice President for Institute Advancement;
  • Virginia Gregg, Vice President for Finance, and Chief Financial Officer;
  • Richie Hunter, Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations;
  • John Kolb, Vice President for Information Services and Technology, and Chief Information Officer;
  • Lee McElroy, Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics;
  • Curtis Powell, Vice President for Human Resources;
  • Claude Rounds, Vice President for Administration; and
  • Jonathan Wexler, Vice President for Enrollment Management.
  • Attending Cabinet meetings on behalf of the Student Life Division is Travis Apgar, Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students.

Please allow me to introduce, as well, our academic deans:

  • Tom Begley, Dean of the Lally School of Management;
  • Curt Breneman, Dean of the School of Science;
  • Evan Douglis, Dean of the School of Architecture;
  • Shekhar Garde, Dean of the School of Engineering;
  • Mary Simoni, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences;
  • Linda Schadler, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education; and
  • Stanley Dunn, Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education.
  • Aric Krause, Dean of Academic and Administrative Affairs, Rensselaer at Hartford (watching via weblink)

When I arrived at Rensselaer in 1999, we focused on transforming Rensselaer to live up to its full potential, both in education and research. With the Rensselaer Plan, we put in place a roadmap for such a transformation, encompassing the people, programs, platforms and partnerships required to remake Rensselaer into a top-tier technological research university with global reach and global impact.

When it came time to refresh that plan a dozen years later in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of our founding, with the Rensselaer Plan 2024, we had indeed succeeded in transforming Rensselaer, and now could focus on our external and internal impact—on being transformative in our research, teaching, and in the lives of our students.

To ensure that we remain and are even more nationally competitive and globally recognized, within an intellectual framework we term The New Polytechnic, we remain focused on the greatest challenges that the world faces—such as climate change; humanity’s food, water, and energy supplies; our need for resilient, sustainable infrastructure; and national and global security. These are challenges that cannot be addressed by a single person, no matter how brilliant—nor by a single discipline or sector, working alone. So, we have positioned Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a great intergenerational crossroads, where essential connections can be made to take on intricate and networked problems, and to improve lives on a grand scale.

Three pillars undergird this vision: first, the world-class interdisciplinary platforms we have created here, such as the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center that surrounds us, our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, and our Center for Computational Innovations.

Second, are extraordinary new tools and technologies, many of them being developed at Rensselaer, in fields such as genomics, data science, and cognitive and high-performance computing—tools with applications in many disciplines, that give us a new capacity to address complex challenges, and that power collaborations. We created the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, or the Rensselaer IDEA, in recognition of the crucial role of data science and Big Data in driving new insights in every field.

Now, the Rensselaer IDEA has provided the impetus for a new partnership with IBM, a Center for Health Empowerment by Analytics, Learning, and Semantics, or HEALS, which will be directed by Rensselaer Professor Jim Hendler. Located on the Rensselaer campus, the HEALS Center will be a five-year, $20 million effort to prevent the progression of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension through the application of the advanced cognitive computing capabilities of the Watson system, which was developed at IBM under the leadership of a number of Rensselaer alumni. HEALS will bring together Big Data analytics, state-of-the art machine learning, and the technologies of the Semantic Web, to find insights within data from many different sources, including clinical data, lifestyle data provided by the patient, health or wellness data from mobile fitness tracking devices, and social network data from shared online activities. The goal is to help individuals understand their own health risks, as well as opportunities to improve their health—providing health information customized for their specific medical, environmental, and life situations.

The third factor undergirding this vision is our world-class faculty, which includes four members of the National Academy of Engineering, three members of the National Academy of Inventors, one member of the National Academy of Sciences, 176 Fellows of technical and professional societies, 63 CAREER Award recipients, and numerous recipients of national and international awards.

Our faculty members have done transformative work, often collaborating with each other, and forging new ground at the interstices between disciplines, particularly within the Rensselaer signature thrusts in multidisciplinary research in…

  • Biotechnology and the Life Sciences;
  • Computational Science and Engineering;
  • Media, Arts, Science, and Technology;
  • Energy, Environment, and Smart Systems; and
  • Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials.

Our faculty truly do take on the hard problems.

Allow me to offer just one among many examples. Over recent decades, the number of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder has increased, and the current estimate is that 1.5% of children have autism. Nonetheless, we still understand frustratingly little about the physiology of the condition, so it is diagnosed through behavioral observations. Clearly, this makes an accurate diagnosis in small children difficult, although early interventions are important.

Now, however, a team led by Professor Juergen Hahn of our Department of Biomedical Engineering has developed the first physiological test for autism, by applying a Big Data analysis technique to investigate the patterns of metabolites in blood samples. In a clinical trial, the research team was able to classify whether an individual child has Autism Spectrum Disorder with a high degree of accuracy, as well as to predict the severity of some autism-related symptoms. This new understanding of the biomarkers that indicate Autism Spectrum Disorder eventually may point the way towards the development of treatment options. Professor Hahn will now expand this work to larger data sets and younger populations.

Rensselaer intends to be transformative, as well, in the radically innovative methods we use to teach future leaders. Our groundbreaking Mandarin Project, which has used mixed reality and immersion, as well as a semester-long multi-player game, to teach the Mandarin Chinese language and culture is an excellent example.

Now, we are moving forward, using the Mandarin Project as a test of the intelligent immersive classroom being developed in our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory—another partnership with IBM, which is creating smart Situations Rooms that react to and anticipate the needs of their occupants, to enhance group decision-making and learning. Within this classroom, we will deepen our students’ language skills by asking them to complete a task within an immersive setting: ordering food, for example, from artificially intelligent cognitive agents in a restaurant. The task will allow students to practice both listening and speaking, and to participate in a multimodal narrative that incorporates culture, as well as language. Eventually one of the great challenges of the Chinese language—tones—or the fact that the same word said in a different pitch will have different meaning—will be added to the basic task, with multimodal feedback being given.

To encourage our faculty to incorporate new active and blended learning technologies and techniques into their teaching, we have created the Teaching and Learning Collaboratory, which includes a faculty board that considers the cutting-edge pedagogical possibilities arising out of Rensselaer research, and that runs workshops for faculty, staff, and graduate students about teaching innovations. The resources of the Collaboratory also include a well-equipped Beta Classroom located on the first floor of the Folsom Library that allows our faculty to pilot new technologies and pedagogical approaches.

Further expanding our pedagogical offerings, we are in the process of creating a Bachelor of Science in Music program that will educate students for professional careers in music at the cutting edge—linking music with science, technology, architectural acoustics, and electronic media.

And we are leading the way with a transformation of the academic calendar through the Summer Arch, which will have its first pilot this summer. By the Summer of 2019, all Rensselaer students will spend the summer after their sophomore year on-campus in junior-level classes, so that they can spend one semester of the traditional junior year away.

The Summer Arch occurs at a pivotal moment in a college career—when our students move from an internal focus on success at Rensselaer to an external focus on the opportunities in the wider world. As such, it is a natural evolution of CLASS, our Clustered, Learning, Advocacy and Support for Students—which offers social support and intellectual opportunities through both residential and developmental clustering.

The Summer Arch accomplishes both. As the only class on-campus, our rising juniors will reside together in the Quad—and, as a group, become even closer, with a common set of academic and pre-professional experiences. They will benefit as well, from the full attention of their professors and our Student Life staff, as well as the recreational and cultural experiences to be found in the Capital Region only in summer. In addition to their classes, they will engage in field trips to local companies, to museums, to local landmarks such as Lake George and the Erie Canal, and short pop-up courses devised by our faculty.

We will work to strengthen their bonds with each other and with Rensselaer, before they pivot to a broader exposure to the world during their away semester. The opportunities for this time away will include internships with industry, both nearby and around the globe; research experiences abroad, both paid positions and as part of a credit-bearing course; internships at government laboratories, and service learning positions in government and at not-for-profit companies; as well as the opportunity for budding entrepreneurs to launch their own businesses.

As Rensselaer seeks to be transformative in its research, teaching, and in the lives of its students—a few obstacles must be recognized. We face an uncertain environment for federal research funding, which has already declined in recent years in inflation-adjusted terms, and which appears likely to decline further under the current administration’s proposed budget.

To accomplish the Rensselaer Plan, we have borrowed, in a total amount less than our endowment, to make much-needed capital investments in our physical infrastructure, and to achieve the overall goals of the Rensselaer Plan. We also had to borrow to meet our obligations under a legacy defined benefit pension plan, which had not been funded for 15 years before I arrived. And, like other universities, we were impacted by the Great Recession.

Because of our progress under the Rensselaer Plan, we now are in a position to consolidate and strengthen our balance sheet. We are focusing on accelerating the pay down of our long term debt, to achieve a crossover over the next 2-3 years, so that our endowment exceeds that debt. We will accomplish this while continuing to make strategic investments, and to meet the requirements of the deferred benefit pension plans.

We are working hard, in multiple ways, to make the best possible use of our resources and to further strengthen our financial picture. That includes fundraising—more about that shortly.

Now, looking ahead to the cost of attendance—beginning in the fall semester—tuition for full-time undergraduate and graduate students will be $51,000 for the 2017-18 academic year, an increase of three percent, which is comparable to tuition increases at other universities.

That said, our financial aid budget will increase 5.5 percent from its current level. Because of financial aid, the vast majority of our students do not pay the full tuition. The minimum academic-year stipend for graduate students will increase to $22,000, so that we are competitive with our peer institutions.

And we are making an important investment in an Off-Campus Commons as a physical place on 15th Street, which will open in May, and offer off-campus students a gathering spot, a place for CLASS programming, and a safe ride home service.

We are adding teaching fellows to help with the expanded academic calendar under the Summer Arch, and the larger classes we are seeing, given the rising demand for a Rensselaer education. That demand, by the way, shows no signs of relenting. We have had 19,452 applications to our 2017 freshman class, a new record, and up 5% from last year.

In addition, hiring for tenured and tenure-track positions will continue, through the filling of endowed chairs, constellation professorships, and the development of new constellations.

On October 13th, during Reunion and Homecoming Weekend, we will launch a new capital campaign, designed to increase our endowment—to support our marvelous faculty and students—and to ready us for our third century of discovery, innovation, and the education of young people ready to change the world. It will be an exciting and watershed moment for Rensselaer.

And now, it is my great pleasure to announce our honorary degree recipients and speakers for our 211th Commencement.

First, we will welcome Dr. Roger Ferguson, President and Chief Executive Officer of TIAA, the financial services firm that is a leading provider of retirement services. Dr. Ferguson, a lawyer and economist by training, is the former Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, who led the immediate response of the Federal Reserve System to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

We also welcome Mr. Andrew Liveris, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Dow Chemical Company, which is expected soon to conclude a $130 billion merger with DuPont. A chemical engineer by training, Mr. Liveris was born in Darwin, Australia and educated at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.

Both of these honorands will address our graduates at Commencement.

Finally, as our main Commencement Speaker, we welcome Dr. Ernest Moniz, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems Emeritus at MIT and Special Advisor to the MIT President, as well as co-chairman of the Board of Directors and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Dr. Moniz, a theoretical nuclear physicist, as well as an expert on energy policy, served as United States Secretary of Energy from 2013 to 2017. Among many accomplishments in that role, he was key in the negotiations with Iran that led to a comprehensive agreement to halt its nuclear weapons development program.

We anticipate a lively and thought-provoking conversation with these three guests at the President’s Commencement Colloquy, which will be held on Friday, May 19th at 3:30 pm here in the EMPAC Concert Hall. I hope all of you will join us!

And now, I would be delighted to answer any questions…