Welcome and Remarks at Memorial Service for Dr. Roland Schmitt '97H
Dr. Roland Schmitt '97H Memorial Service
Welcome, everyone, as we come together today to celebrate the life of an outstanding scientist, manager, educator, and policymaker in the realm of science and innovation: Dr. Roland W. Schmitt, President Emeritus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who served as our 16th President from 1988 to 1993. In 1997, a grateful Rensselaer awarded him an honorary doctoral degree, and in October of 1999, we inducted him into our Alumni Hall of Fame.
One truly can take the measure of a man from his friends, and today, we have a number of distinguished speakers with us, who will offer us their remembrances of Dr. Schmitt. They include his colleague both at GE and at Rensselaer, Institute Professor Emeritus Ivar Giaever of the Rensselaer Class of 1964, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1973, for work he did on electron tunneling and superconductivity while at General Electric Research and Development—where Roland Schmitt was his encouraging and courageous manager.
I welcome Dr. Schmitt’s children: Dr. Lorenz Schmitt, Mr. Bryan Schmitt, Ms. Alice Burnham, and Mr. Henry Schmitt—as well as their lovely families. Dr. Schmitt also is survived by his wife Mrs. Claire Schmitt, who could not be with us today.
I thank all of you for coming this afternoon to pay tribute to this wonderful man.
It is a great honor to offer a eulogy today for my forerunner in the Presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Dr. Roland W. Schmitt. Though I did not have the opportunity to work with Dr. Schmitt, the facts of his long and distinguished career allow me to say this with complete confidence: Dr. Schmitt was a visionary of the kind that has shaped Rensselaer throughout its history. He was a man, simply put, who saw connections where others saw boundaries. Because of his ability to bring people and ideas together, across disciplines, sectors, and generations, Rensselaer is the greater—and our nation is the greater.
Roland Schmitt was born in 1923 in Seguin, Texas. During World War II, he served as a cartographer in Iceland for the United States Army Air Forces. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mathematics from the University of Texas-Austin in 1947, and a Master's degree in Physics from the University of Texas-Austin in 1948. He proudly received a doctorate in Physics from Rice University in 1951, with a thesis titled, “Adiabatic thermal changes in dielectrics at low temperatures.”
That same year, he joined General Electric as a research associate—the beginning of a brilliant 37-year career with GE. In 1978, GE appointed him as head of its Research and Development Center, where he oversaw the work of over 2,000 scientists.
His leadership in research and development was crucial to GE at a moment when global competition was intensifying, and many corporate laboratories were cutting back on fundamental research, unable to justify its costs and uncertain relationship to salable products.
Dr. Schmitt, however, believed that fundamental science and the engineering of useful products were inherently interwoven—and that science and engineering in a corporate environment could thrive, when the laboratory and the businesses were connected and could inform each other.
Under his leadership, the great corporate laboratory at GE was an engine of innovation, publishing more than a thousand papers and generating hundreds of patents a year.
His ability to link the disparate realms of business and science did not go unnoticed by the top leadership at GE. In 1982, Dr. Schmitt was appointed Senior Vice President for Science and Technology, combining scientific and corporate roles. He also was a member of the GE Corporate Executive Council.
Indeed, his gifts as a manager of innovation did not escape notice at the highest realms in government. In 1982, he was appointed to the National Science Board by President Ronald Reagan. The National Science Board is the policy-making arm of the National Science Foundation, which makes the nation’s public investments in scientific research. Named to the Chairmanship of the National Science Board in 1984, Dr. Schmitt was one of the most influential thinkers in the nation on the subject of American competitiveness.
He argued persuasively for a much more strategic role for our government in spurring innovation—suggesting a sensible setting of national priorities in science, greater cooperation between industry and government, and federal policies to encourage industrial innovation.
Dr. Schmitt joined the Rensselaer Board of Trustees in 1981. He had barely begun contemplating his planned retirement from GE in 1988, when he was persuaded by the Board to accept the Presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at a moment of financial duress for the university. During his five-year tenure as President, this great manager instituted more businesslike practices and put the Rensselaer on a much sounder footing. Working with Trustee and Chairman Emeritus, the late Samuel F. Heffner, Jr. of the Class of 1956, he led a capital campaign that raised $7 million more than its $200 million goal, a year ahead of schedule.
He was a pioneer, as well, of virtual learning, allowing students working for corporations such as IBM and GE to take Rensselaer courses electronically. During his tenure, Rensselaer established the Lighting Research Center, a Center for Advanced Technology in Automation and Robotics, and a Manufacturing Technology Center.
He brought a national perspective to his Presidency of Rensselaer—and brought Rensselaer national attention.
But he also brought great warmth to his time at Rensselaer. Students camping out on mattresses and sleeping bags in front of the Union in order to be the first to buy season tickets for the Engineers—in that great Rensselaer tradition known as the Hockey Line—were somewhat startled to be served “breakfast in bed” by President Schmitt.
He also offered Rensselaer great generosity: Dr. and Mrs. Schmitt endowed the Claire and Roland Schmitt Scholarship, for students who demonstrate leadership, and the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professorship, which is held by Dr. Boleslaw Szymanski of our Department of Computer Science.
Every successive university president builds on what has come before. Dr. Schmitt made a firm foundation for that build.
With a bent, always, towards practical improvements—with a remarkable clarity of vision—and with a great imagination for what could be—Dr. Roland W. Schmitt helped to lead Rensselaer into the future.
He is an unforgettable part of the history of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. And we are very, very proud to call him one of our own.