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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at Annual Retiree Day Luncheon

Category: Regional
October, 2017
Hilton Garden Inn

Annual Retiree Day Luncheon

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

I am delighted to be here this afternoon, to honor those people who have helped to make Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute the remarkable university it is today.

As you may have heard, last Friday night, we launched a billion-dollar capital campaign intended to ready Rensselaer for its third century of changing the world. The campaign is: “Transformative: The Campaign for Global Change.”  

We are confident about our future, because today Rensselaer is thriving. Demand for a Rensselaer education has never been higher. Applications for admission to our freshman class numbered nearly 20,000 this year. Many of our programs are now top-ranked, including our Information Technology and Web Science program, the very best of its kind in the nation, and our Physics and our Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences undergraduate programs, both ranked in the top ten nationwide.

We derive our strength from a strong vision for ourselves that inspires Rensselaer students, faculty, and staff alike. We operate within the paradigm of “The New Polytechnic,” in which we continue to educate our students for deep foundational knowledge in their chosen fields—while we also serve as a great crossroads for the exchange of ideas across disciplines, sectors, geographies, and generations—to address the greatest of global challenges, using the most advanced tools and technologies. A broad pool of great talent, depth of knowledge, strategic focus on critical challenges and opportunities, and world class platforms and innovative pedagogy define who we are, and what we are, as the “New Polytechnic.”

Our world-class platforms for research, education, and student life that now define our campus include the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, the East Campus Athletic Village, and the Center for Computational Innovations, which houses the most powerful supercomputer at an American private university.

Our faculty, too, is world-class, and includes members of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, members of the National Academy of Inventors, hundreds of fellows of technical and professional societies, dozens upon dozens of CAREER award recipients, several of whom serve on key national panels and committees; and numerous recipients of national and international awards. Together, they have helped Rensselaer to vastly expand its research enterprise to $100 million in research awards and expenditures, even in a difficult funding climate.

We focus new research around five “signature thrusts,” crucial areas of multidisciplinary research, in ….

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

Within these signature research thrusts, Rensselaer faculty have created the darkest nanomaterial yet devised, and used magnetic forces to control gene expression. They are unlocking the secrets of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis—and discovering new treatment modalities for them. They are pioneering sustainable building materials and systems, and using agricultural waste to create desiccant material for passive cooling; creating efficient thermoelectric nanomaterials; and shaping the smart power grids of the future.

We have attracted distinguished partners to amplify our efforts, affiliating with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in both research and education, and working alongside IBM in groundbreaking efforts. These include the Jefferson Project at Lake George, which is developing a new model for the conservation of fresh water resources driven in part by enormous amounts of streaming data; and the Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory, which is linking cognitive computing with human-scale immersive environments to create a smart boardroom or classroom, with the goal of radically enhancing group learning and decision-making, through interaction with communities and hierarchies of cognitive digital agents.

To stay on the leading edge in education as well as research, we have added 21 new academic degree programs in emerging fields, including a new technologically inflected Bachelor of Science in Music. We engage our students with a revolutionary pedagogy that includes the gamification of courses, immersive experiences, and interaction with artificially intelligent characters. We also are reorganizing the academic calendar with the launch in the summer of 2019 of The Arch, under which all Rensselaer undergraduates remain on campus for the summer after their sophomore year, engaged in junior-level classes, and then leave campus for a full semester (and beyond) of their junior year, for an intellectual adventure uniquely suited to their own passions and interests, and still graduate within the same time span. 

We have created CLASS, our Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, so we can, and do, offer one of the best student experiences in the nation. With CLASS, we nurture Rensselaer students in tight-knit residential groups, and offer, as well, time-based clustering that gives them increasing opportunities appropriate to their stage of academic and personal development, as they progress through our degree programs.

As a result of all these efforts, our retention and graduation rates have increased significantly, and the outcomes for our graduates are excellent, in terms of the graduate schools where they are accepted, the salaries they command, the leadership roles they assume, the service they provide to our nation, the enterprises they launch, and—most importantly—the meaningful and fulfilling lives they lead.

Rensselaer has been transformed. But our mission, from our very founding, is to be transformative in the world at large. Our philanthropic founder, Stephen Van Rensselaer, established our mission in 1824: “The diffusion of a very useful kind of knowledge, with its application to the business of living.”

By improving the business of living, of course, Rensselaer was intended to improve lives on as large a canvas as possible.

As you know, the world faces complex and interconnected global challenges—with concomitant opportunities arising from those challenges that beg to be seized. As we consider everything from climate change, or the rise of non-state disruptive actors, on the one hand, to remarkable advances in artificial intelligence and gene editing, on the other, the world needs Rensselaer people to find new solutions, to discover new possibilities, and to transform the business of living for a global population projected to reach nearly 8.6 billion in the next dozen years.

We have launched “Transformative: The Campaign for Global Change” with three supporting pillars that will ready Rensselaer for global leadership in the 21st century:

The first pillar is increasing student financial aid and enhancing the student experience. The cost of the education we offer at Rensselaer—world-class, immersive, and experiential—has outstripped the financial means of many of our students. Our ability to offer financial aid must bridge this gap—for our undergraduate and graduate students.

Because we understand that brilliance does not exclusively come in wealthy packages—because we intend to accept the very best students regardless of their socioeconomic background—and because we intend to honor the intensely democratic vision of our philanthropic founder Stephen Van Rensselaer, who underwrote the Rensselaer School in order to place knowledge “equally within the reach of all”—we must add to our endowment to better meet student financial need.

I was a scholarship student. It changed my life. Many of you were, too! We understand the difference such generosity can make in a young person’s life—and his or her ability to do great work in the world.

Our second pillar focuses on our faculty. We will use the resources unleashed by the campaign to create endowed professorships that will allow us to attract and retain the very best academic talent from within our country, and around the world. We will draw gifted teachers and researchers to The New Polytechnic to do world-changing work in their laboratories, other research spaces, and classrooms—and to ensure that our students, working beside them on their investigations, learn at the leading edge of their fields. 

Endowed chairs will allow us to expand our tenured and tenure-track faculty to 500, so that Rensselaer can achieve intellectual critical mass, and lead in all crucial areas of research and education that comport with our founding mission, “the application of science to the common purposes of life.”

Our third pillar focuses on our beautiful Troy campus, which we must continue to modernize, equip, and grow, for our continued leadership in pedagogy, research, and student life.

As we consider the world around us, the stakes are high. The opportunities are clear. The urgency is daunting.

We are ready to tackle the greatest of challenges, and the most sweeping of opportunities—and to continue educating young people ready to change the world.

I thank all of you for assisting us in this endeavor, by offering your support, your advice, and your wisdom.

We are thriving today, because of the energy, creativity, and commitment you gave to Rensselaer—and we never forget that.

Please enjoy the rest of your afternoon—and please, be well and keep in touch!

Thank you.