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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at Fall Town Meeting

Category: Regional
October, 2018
Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Welcome, everyone—and welcome to everyone who is watching remotely.

I would like to begin today by acknowledging my team, the President’s Cabinet:

  • Professor Prabhat Hajela, our Provost;
  • Mr. Craig Cook, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel;
  • Mr. Graig Eastin, Vice President for Institute Advancement;
  • Ms. Barbara Hough, our new Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer;
  • Professor Robert Hull, Senior Associate Vice President for Research;
  • Ms. Richie Hunter, Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations;
  • Mr. John Kolb ’79, Vice President for Information Services and Technology, and Chief Information Officer;
  • Dr. Lee McElroy, Associate Vice President & Director of Athletics;
  • Mr. Curtis Powell, Vice President for Human Resources;
  • Mr. Claude Rounds, Vice President for Administration;
  • Mr. LeNorman Strong, Interim Vice President for Student Life; and
  • Mr. Jonathan Wexler, Vice President for Enrollment Management.

I am delighted, also, to introduce our academic leaders…

  • Professor Thomas Begley, Dean of the Lally School of Management;
  • Professor Curt Breneman, Dean of the School of Science;
  • Professor Evan Douglis, Dean of the School of Architecture;
  • Professor Shekhar Garde, Dean of the School of Engineering;
  • Professor Mary Simoni, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences;
  • Professor Stanley Dunn, Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education;
  • Professor Aric Krause, Dean of Rensselaer @ Hartford, and
  • Professor Peter Fox, Director of Information Technology and Web Science.

Please join me in thanking them for all that they do for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Today, I have the great pleasure of summing up for you the state of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

We are, indeed, thriving, as we continue to work the Rensselaer Plan, which was approved by the Board of Trustees in the year 2000, and refreshed twelve years later as the Rensselaer Plan 2024.

Emanating from the plan are the three ways that we are making Rensselaer transformative:

The first is in the global impact of our research.  For example, at our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, our faculty and students are making remarkable progress on neurodegenerative diseases and conditions. A group of researchers led by Professor Juergen Hahn has developed the first physiological rather than behavioral test for autism spectrum disorder. The test, which analyzes the metabolites in a blood sample, is able to predict with a high degree of accuracy whether a child will be diagnosed with autism. Most recently, Professor Hahn’s group devised a test for pregnant mothers that indicates the relative risk that the unborn child will be diagnosed with autism.

The second way we intend to be transformative is in our pedagogical innovation. Our world-class academic programs are widely recognized:

  • Forbes recently ranked Rensselaer 14th on its list of the nation’s best STEM colleges and universities.
  • Our undergraduate Information Technology and Web Science program has been ranked first in the nation by College Choice.
  • Our Master’s of Business Analytics has been ranked 3rd by TFE Times.
  • Our undergraduate Physics program is ranked 6th by College Factual.
  • Our School of Architecture is ranked 13th by DesignIntelligence.
  • In our School of Engineering, our graduate programs are highly ranked by U.S. News & World Report.  Nationwide, we are 13th in Nuclear Engineering; 17th in Industrial, Manufacturing, and Systems Engineering; 23rd in Aerospace Engineering; and 24th in Materials Engineering.
  • Our Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program is ranked 6th by TheBestSchools.org, 7th by GameDesigning.org and 12th by The Art Career Project.

We always are highly attuned to the opportunities offered by emerging disciplines, and have created 22 new academic degree programs. These include a new Bachelor of Science in Music program designed to prepare Rensselaer students for 21st century music careers in realms such as composition, production, or performance for gaming, or for music social networks.

We also have a new focus on Quantitative Health Economics in our Economics Department. We are developing an academic focus, in the Lally School, in Quantitative Finance and Analytics; and new academic foci in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning across the Institute.

And while we educate our students for deep knowledge in their chosen fields, we also ensure that they develop intellectual curiosity, and skills, that cut across disciplines. That is why Rensselaer is the first university in the nation to include a “data dexterity” requirement in its core curriculum. We believe that no matter what field of endeavor they choose, our graduates will need to use diverse datasets to define and address complex challenges. All students at Rensselaer must now complete a two course requirement—one focused on the foundations of data modeling and analysis, and a second course that applies modern data analytics within their academic disciplines. 

One of the fields that data analytics techniques are poised to revolutionize is health care. Recognizing Rensselaer’s great strength in fostering data-adroit students, the United Health Foundation recently awarded us a $1.1 million grant to create the Rensselaer Health Informatics Challenges in Technology Education, or INCITE Pipeline. This pipeline, encompassing both curricular and research elements, is designed to inspire the next generation of health care data scientists—as well as data-skilled biomedical professionals and researchers of all kinds.

The third and key way we work to be transformative is in the lives of our students. We continue to invest in Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS, which supports our students with both time-based and residentially based clustering; and which encourages them to develop intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global perspective.

One of the most important examples of time-based clustering is the change in the academic calendar effectuated by The Arch. After two pilots over the past two summers, we will have full implementation of The Arch next summer (2019), when all rising juniors will remain on campus for junior-level classes. This summer session offers us the opportunity to expand our curricular offerings with classes that now are not offered every semester or every year—and to give rising juniors the undivided attention of both our faculty and our Student Life staff.

Then, with the help of our Center for Career and Professional Development, and the Office of Undergraduate Education, these juniors choose an away semester experience that suits their interests, whether an internship or launching a business, or a volunteer or research experience, or an approved Individual Learning Experience. We will encourage all our students, who can, to go abroad, in order to gain insights relevant to the broader world.

So, as they pivot to more advanced coursework, The Arch will help our students to expand their intellectual agility and multicultural sophistication, and to develop a global view. The Arch is important because we approach the 200th anniversary of the founding of Rensselaer, we remain keenly aware of the context within which we are educating our students. Last January, I had the great privilege, once again, of representing Rensselaer at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. For two years, I was co-Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on International Security, and I was asked to lead a session titled “The Geopolitics of 2030.” With this session, I was given the fascinating challenge of considering the major factors likely to shape the global security landscape a dozen years from now.

Since all of us here at Rensselaer are focused on changing the world, I would like to offer you a brief overview of what I said about the vulnerabilities, consequences, and opportunities that will provide a context for all of our best efforts at Rensselaer in the next dozen years.

The era following the Cold War in which the United States led the international order clearly is changing, and we already are beginning to see broad economic shifts. Russia and China are exerting greater regional influence—and by 2030, there will be a new degree of economic might in emerging economies, including Nigeria, Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico, and Turkey. And the speed at which they are emerging is unprecedented. Globally, over 2 billion more people will enter the middle class by 2030.

However, GDP is far from the only determinant of the context in which our students today will build their lives and careers. The other key factors include…

  • First, access to, and control of, key strategic resources—especially energy-related resources;
  • Second, ability to adapt to climate change;
  • Third, human capital and changing demographics; and
  • Fourth, the influence of rapidly advancing technologies.

In 2030, we are likely to be moving to a lower carbon world, with a changing energy mix that will shift international alliances and alter the definition of strategic resources. Countries rich in oil and natural gas have used those resources to great geopolitical advantage in the past, through complex trading relationships, and dominance of supply chains. Fossil fuels still will be important in 2030. However, renewable energy has the advantage of being able to be produced locally, and is being pushed in many countries—while bringing electricity to rural populations in the developing world that never before had it.

Of course, there still will be critical strategic resources—the mix will just be different. For example, as the transportation sector electrifies, materials essential to lithium ion batteries will be key. The production and mining of the requisite lithium, cobalt, and graphite is currently dominated by a few nations. As much as 54 percent of the world’s lithium comes from the so-called Lithium Triangle of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia; 55 percent of cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and 66 percent of the world’s graphite is produced in China.

Unless the world identifies new sources, or substitutes, for these resources, they represent a security risk. The search for new materials is an important challenge for our Center for Materials, Devices, and Integrated Systems, here at Rensselaer, and its associated students and faculty.

The second factor shaping the geopolitics of 2030 is climate change—which is likely to cause droughts in Africa and to threaten rain-fed agriculture there—at the same time as sea level rises and storm surges threaten low-elevation coastal cities around the globe. As Hurricane Florence just proved, coastal regions of the U.S. are not immune to this threat. The larger world may see large migrations of climate refugees, and governments destabilized by natural disasters.

There are nonetheless new natural resource opportunities opened up by climate change. The shrinking ice cover in the Arctic Circle is allowing new resources and trade routes to be exploited—including, ironically, an estimated 30 percent of undiscovered conventional natural gas reserves and 13 percent of undiscovered conventional oil reserves. Control of these resources and routes is likely to be a source of tensions between the U.S., Russia, and other nations.

The third factor shaping the geopolitical landscape is the diverging demographics between the aging developed world, and the developing world, which is experiencing a youth boom. In 2030, the divides already are extreme—with much of Africa having a median population age under 20, while countries in Europe and China, Russia, and Japan have median ages more than twice that. 

There are challenges on both sides. Aging developed economies may struggle to maintain GDP growth with a scarcity of people of working age. Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics may be crucial to increasing productivity, and to keeping developed economies from stagnating. At the same time, artificial intelligence and machine learning may speed up the disappearance of middle-skilled jobs, and increase income inequality—a policy challenge, to be sure. 

Developing nations such as India, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya, in contrast, all will have growing working age populations between 15 and 64. This could be a great economic benefit to them. But will they have the education, opportunities, and infrastructure to take advantage of it? Here is a key challenge to raising living standards: Working age populations will grow the most in South Asian and African countries where average education levels are among the lowest.

The fourth factor shaping the geopolitics of 2030 is rooted in the technologies of what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution—in other words, technologies that are merging the digital realm, with the physical and biological worlds.

While many technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be weaponized in different ways, including…

  • commercial drones,
  • 3D printing, which has produced grenade launchers,
  • CRISPR gene editing, which may facilitate the production of biological weapons, and
  • cyberphysical systems that offer new angles of attack;

These same technologies offer so much hope for strengthening what we do in commerce, in human health and welfare, and in energy and industrial processes.

For a university such as Rensselaer, advances in artificial intelligence, immersive technologies, and computer vision allow for a new approach to teaching and learning.

These technologies can confer economic strength by virtue of building economies that simultaneously take advantage of the forward-thinking and risk-taking of the young, and the wisdom and experience of older populations.

This will require a new kind of intergenerational compact that Rensselaer represents, where we work together across the generations, and across cultures, genders, religions, ethnicities.

Most of the freshmen Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute welcomed this fall will be 30 years old in 2030—in other words, beginning to fully grasp their own powers. It will belong to our students to address the vulnerabilities, consequences, and opportunities I have just described. That is why we help our students develop—through CLASS (Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students)—with both residential and time-based clustering.

Our residential clustering through CLASS now includes both our Off-Campus Commons, which now has a physical space on campus for off-campus students to meet and to study—and our Greek Life Commons.  

Founded in 1853, ours is one of the oldest Greek systems in the United States—and an important part of many students’ experience of Rensselaer.  

When our Greek system works as it should, it supports academic achievement, community service, leadership development, and the development of deep lifelong friendships. Indeed, some of our Greek organizations are exemplary.

Others, however, have been suspended for various forms of misconduct. Nationally, the Greek system is under public, legal, and legislative scrutiny. Dozens of universities and colleges have suspended, and, in some cases, banned, Greek organizations because of incidents related to alcohol abuse, illegal drug use, hazing, sexual misconduct, sexual assault, and acts of racial discrimination and bigotry. Rensselaer has not been immune to comparable incidents and behaviors.

Some of our Greek houses need improvements in their financial stability, physical condition, and occupancy.

Therefore, we delayed the start of Rush, and established some new conditions under which it could occur. I have appointed a Greek Life Review Committee to formally assess the current state of Greek Life at Rensselaer, and to consider the best path forward.

The Committee comprises student leaders—both Greek and non-Greek; alumni and alumnae—Greek and non-Greek; parents; faculty; administrators; representatives from the national offices of Greek organizations; and a diverse group of Greek Life Discussion Panelists, who have agreed to help us, as a community, to think through the issues.

The Review Committee also includes an Executive Sponsor Group of my Cabinet Members, chaired by Interim Vice President for Student Life LeNorman Strong, and is comprised of the following individuals:

  • Mr. John Kolb ’79, Vice President and Chief Information Officer,
  • Mr. Craig Cook, General Counsel and Secretary of the Institute;
  • Mr. Graig Eastin, Vice President for Institute Advancement;
  • Mr. Curtis Powell, Vice President for Human Resources; and
  • Mr. Claude Rounds, Vice President for Administration.

The Committee includes the Greek Life Task Force, led by Vice President Kolb, which is charged with assessing the Greek system based on the input of all involved, and identifying what is necessary to enact a long-term, sustainable, and comprehensive culture change—so that the Greek system at Rensselaer can continue, can help its members to thrive on campus, and to find their places in the world. The Task Force will be submitting draft recommendations to me before Thanksgiving—with the goal of strengthening our tradition of Greek Life for the future.

Another important Rensselaer tradition is our 128 year-old Rensselaer Union. In August, I was pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Charlie Potts, an experienced educator, administrator, and community services leader, as Director of the Union. At Indiana State University, he oversaw a range of student life services, including its student union. His many career accomplishments include opening a new 100,000 square-foot student union facility, enabling a student referendum for the construction and operation of a $22 million campus recreation center, and the creation of a student leadership conference that brought alumni and alumnae to campus to connect with the students. We expect great things from him at Rensselaer!

As a result of all of our efforts, demand for a Rensselaer education has never been higher.  After receiving more than 20,400 applications for our freshman class, we yielded some of the best students in the country, and the world—the most academically accomplished and diverse class in our history.

Rensselaer truly is transformative; and the Institute, as a whole, is in sound financial condition. Because of our forward looking strategic plan, our tight fiscal management, and our excellent performance planning and budgeting process, Moody’s reaffirmed our A3 rating in May, citing our “large scale of operations, healthy student demand, strong fundraising prospects, and positive operations” (and S&P rated us a BBB+). Importantly, while we intend to further strengthen our financial underpinnings with our recently announced Capital Campaign, our financial position continues to strengthen—coming off of a particularly strong Fiscal Year 2018—reflecting our continued prudent financial management, strong student demand, and overall growth. We had an (18 percent) increase in net assets, with a Fiscal Year 2018 endowment return (of 8.8 percent), and long term debt reduction (of $14 million), including a prepayment of a portion of the debt ($5 million). As a result, the promised Crossover was achieved (a year early)—namely, the endowment and long-term debt were equalized as of June 30, 2018. Moreover, there was a ($35 million) reduction in defined benefit pension plan liability. We had an exceptional external operating result (of $23.5 million), based on strong revenue growth (of 8.1 percent), driven by strong student demand, and increases in gifts. Ongoing expense management efforts limited expense growth (to 2.0 percent). We had positive cash flow from operations (of $9.8 million), even as we had an increase in contributions to the defined benefit pension plan (of $11.3 million).

To continue this forward momentum, as you know, a little over a year ago, we launched a billion-dollar capital campaign, Transformative: The Campaign for Global Change

The campaign has three pillars designed to ready Rensselaer for its third century:

The first pillar focuses on our students, with the goals of increasing student scholarships (and enhancing the student experience)—through Bridging the Gap—between students full need, and the available financial aid. A week ago, we held a Scholarship Gala in New York City that celebrated the launch of our new Bachelor of Science degree program in Music, with a wonderful performance of the Rensselaer Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. 

Although the challenge for our students’ financial aid needs still remains, I am pleased to announce that the gap is narrowing. Since we last met in New York City for our inaugural gala in 2016, Rensselaer has received nearly $37,500,000 in new scholarship commitments.

In total, commitments to Bridging the Gap now exceed $100,000,000—due in no small part to the generosity of our alumni, friends, our Rensselaer community, and partner organizations.

Our second pillar is endowing more faculty chairs—through the Faculty 500—so we can attract and retain the very best academic talent in the world. In total, commitments in support of the Faculty 500 have reached $50,000,000

Our third pillar is building out the campus to accommodate our growth. The campaign will allow Rensselaer to expand our Jonsson Engineering Center, and ultimately, to build, a state-of-the-art Center for Science. To support the remarkable robustness of our athletic programs, and all of the leadership development that emanates from it, we look to complete, as the Campaign allows, the second phase of our East Campus Athletic Village. We will reconfigure our historic West Hall to accommodate practice rooms and teaching studios for our expanding music programs. We also will renovate, upgrade, and expand housing for our students—both undergraduate and graduate students.

I want to thank the people here who have contributed to our campaign, including my Cabinet, our faculty, and students.

Since the launch of the campaign, Institute leaders and I have been traveling across the U.S., and around the world, to engage with the larger Rensselaer community.

We have hosted events in New York City, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Boston, Florida, and in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area. Internationally, we have visited with our alumni and alumnae in Dubai, Zurich, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

It has been an exciting journey—and gratifying to see how much interest in and support for, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute exist around the world.

So many alumni and alumnae, parents, friends, faculty, and students are so invested in the future of Rensselaer, that I say this with full confidence: We are nearly 200 years old—but the best is yet to come.

Before I close, in the last week we have witnessed a spate of unfortunate and tragic incidents—most notably the slaughter of people at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the shooting and killing of two African Americans at a Kroger’s grocery store in Kentucky, and the mail bombs sent to a number of political figures and government officials—driven by hatred, difference, and disagreement. There are others—from a church shooting in South Carolina, to a nightclub shooting and a school shooting in Florida, to a shooting at a country music concert in Las Vegas, to a Congressional shooting on a baseball field in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.—and other incidents across the country. These obviously have been perpetrated by disturbed individuals, but many are driven by animus of various kinds. These things are very disturbing, and not reflective of how we view ourselves as a country, or as a university community, but they are occurring. Therefore, let us have a moment of silence in memory of all victims of such violence. It is important that we remember that we are One Rensselaer. We all are a part of this community, and therefore, we respect all members of this community. We value different perspectives; and that is important in a community like ours. Rensselaer, as the New Polytechnic, is the crossroads that brings together people from across disciplines, sectors, geographies, ethnicities, religions, cultures, genders, and gender identities—to address important challenges. Our being such a crossroads is what animates intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global perspective. As such, we are reflective of the world at large, the world into which our graduates will go to build their careers, live out their lives, and impact society. The values that we espouse, and how we live our lives, can have an effect in the world. Therefore, expressions of bigotry, hatred, harassment, harm to others—must not be tolerated, because that is not who we are.

Irrespective of specific university policies, or official statements, it is incumbent upon all of us to understand that Rensselaer is the home of all who live, learn, and work here. As such, it is critical that each of us treat each other with respect, civility, empathy, and kindness. This will ensure that the lived experience of each of us here, regardless of differences of opinion—reflect these attributes, and reflect how we each would wish to be treated.

If any member of our campus community feels that they have been subjected to mistreatment, there are many avenues of redress available. For students, some of these avenues are:  their Class Dean, Dean of Students, Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, Vice Provost of Graduate Education, Provost, Counseling Center, and the Office of the Vice President for Student Life.

For faculty and staff, who feel they may have been subjected to mistreatment, they can speak with their immediate supervisor, Portfolio owner, or the Division of Human Resources.

If anyone feels they need counseling, please reach out to the resources available on campus—the Counseling Center, the Employee Assistance Program, among them. We will ensure that access to these resources is readily apparent.

Again, we are One Rensselaer.

I intend to reach out and spend time with various individual students, and groups of students. To that end, I am hosting a student leaders luncheon and discussion at the Dutchman Shoes football game on Saturday, November 10, 2018—with all Cabinet members and Deans. I have other meetings and events planned, as well.