Fall Town Meeting - November 2, 2022

I thank all of you for joining for what is the first RPI Town Hall for Lyn and me!

I am very happy to have the chance to speak with you at this particular moment. After four intense months of getting to know the 21st century Rensselaer, I feel it is time to start working to address the hopes and challenges you’ve told me about—and to put our collective vision for RPI into action.

As you know, since assuming this role on July 1st, I have been on a “listening and learning” tour to get to know the Rensselaer of today. For the “learning” part, I have toured nearly every building on campus, and I have spent a day at each school, asking the Deans to introduce me to their particular challenges and opportunities. I still need to visit many more of the major organizational units on campus, and I will be doing that going forward.

For the “listening” part, I have had meetings with faculty, staff, and students in small groups, a total of more than 1000 people in more than 70 meetings—as well as alumni and parents through the Presidential Tour. Thus far, we’ve been to Washington DC, New York City, Boston, and, most recently, to cities in Northern and Southern California. We also were able to connect to many alumni, including those in the Capital Region, during this past Reunion weekend, and there are more cities yet to be scheduled here and abroad. 

Our advancement people tell me that both alumni and parents are coming to our events in unprecedented numbers—so it is good news that they are keenly interested in our future.

While the many different groups and different individuals I’ve spent time with have some very specific ideas about where RPI should be headed, there has also been a lot of agreement on the main points—which has reinforced my own sense of our opportunities. 

At my inauguration, I spoke at length about the four key areas of opportunity that I have identified, based on my conversations with you, so I will just summarize them now. 

They are…

  • Education;
  • Research;
  • Translation of our ideas; and
  • Regional engagement.

As a foundation for all these areas of endeavor, it is critical that we build a stronger and more inclusive community—and this has to be woven into each of these areas of opportunity. 

But let’s start with education: RPI has been a pioneer in educational innovation for nearly 200 years, with other universities regularly looking to us for ways to make a scientific education more student-driven, more experiential, and more hands-on. In the late 20th century, RPI pioneered interactive learning, which led to the studio and the flipped classroom.  And in the 21st century, initiatives such as “The Mandarin Project” have experimented with game-driven narratives, immersive technologies, and interactions with AI in formal coursework—and opened up a host of possibilities for us. 

I would like to see us embrace this rich history of educational innovation, which I believe is in our DNA—and to pursue exciting visions like personalized learning that adapts the delivery of knowledge to the preferred learning style of each individual. 

The second area of opportunity for all of us is in research. We need to make the most of our new centers, which target fields of research that truly are critical to the future—including the Center for Engineering and Precision Medicine in partnership with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; our Institute for Energy, the Built Environment, and Smart Systems, whose partners include the Brooklyn Law School; and our Future of Computing Institute. 

RPI’s Institute-wide centers are an important aspect of the multidisciplinary collaborations and highly original work that characterize this university. However, we must also support curiosity-driven projects that don’t quite fit into the boxes we have already created. And we need to make sure that our faculty have all the practical help they need to pursue those ideas.

I want to make sure that all our Schools are full participants in our research. Beyond Science and Engineering, Architecture brings a unique understanding of design that informs the work we do; Management brings a perspective on leadership and organizations; and the School of the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences brings an essential humanistic view to our research agenda. 

We also have a number of truly great partnerships in research with companies such as IBM and Boeing that should serve as a model for expanded industry engagement moving forward. Recently, we hosted the leadership of MasterCard, and while on tour in California, we visited with IBM Research and Qualcomm. I am excited to see the interest that these companies have in partnering with RPI. There is great opportunity here.

Next, we need to be as successful as we possibly can in translating our discoveries and innovations into the world. 
The paths for bringing ideas from a university campus to impact beyond our campus have evolved significantly over the decades. The traditional technology transfer to an industrial research lab is increasingly being replaced by translation through the creation of a new venture, be it a commercial start-up or a non-profit. 

RPI already excels at fostering entrepreneurs: in fact, Harvard economist Raj Chetty’s Opportunity Insights group ranks RPI third nationwide in terms of the percentage of our alumni who have become inventors, trailing only MIT and Carnegie Mellon.  And one of the great joys of returning to RPI after four decades at MIT is seeing how much Troy and the region have come to life, in part because of the companies founded by our alumni. 

As an institution, I believe we need to do everything possible to help our current students and our faculty carry their ideas into the marketplace. That means using our convening power vigorously, to bring together the financial and intellectual capital to help our entrepreneurs. We also need to think creatively and flexibly about partnerships that can launch our innovations into the world. 

By educating so many brilliant young people who start and staff local businesses, RPI already plays an important role in regional economic development. However, we also have the opportunity to do even more. Which brings me to my fourth area of opportunity: regional engagement.

When I met with our center directors and asked them about their aspirations for RPI, one answer was—leadership along the entire route of the Hudson River, from the Adirondacks to New York City. This is a role we’ve played since 1824, when the resources of the Mohawk and Hudson Valleys shaped New York City as a center of finance and trade—and when this region was a hotbed of innovation in transportation and civil engineering. 

Today, our opportunities still reach north to Lake George, and the amazing work being done at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute—as well as south to New York City, where our presence is expanding with our new centers.

I would like to see RPI deliberately amplify the strengthens of this region in a way that lifts all boats. As turnarounds in a number of cities have shown, university leadership in economic development is key—because, by definition, we are focused on the technologies and industries of the future.

There are tremendous opportunities, for example, for our entire region with the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 and its support for domestic semiconductor manufacturing and research. Last week, I spent a half-day touring the fabrication facilities in Albany at NY Creates and talking to IBM Research in Albany. This region has such an ‘unfair advantage’ in this area. I like to say that all roads from the CHIPS Act have to go through Albany, and it presents an enormous opportunity for us in many dimensions. 

I look forward to working closely with regional partners to realize these opportunities—including our neighboring schools, colleges and universities, medical centers, and government and industry leaders. Together, we can advance the Capital Region as an innovation hub.

I have one more major goal for RPI—I would like us to be the most accessible, welcoming, and inclusive community we can be. And I know this is a goal many of you share. So many people on my listening tour said they wanted to a much greater focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion at RPI.

That means being thoughtful about the challenges faced by anyone in the minority here—women, underrepresented minority, international, neurodiverse, disabled, and LGBTQ+ faculty, staff, and students—and making sure that RPI’s warm and supportive culture extends to everyone.

It is time to consider ways to… 

  • make navigating a hilly campus with limited accessible buildings much easier for our disabled students—
  • lift any sense of isolation felt by our international students—
  • make sure our underrepresented minority students and those first in their family to attend college feel fully included in every aspect of life at Rensselaer—
  • support women members on the community and even the playing field for them in their careers—and 
  • ensure a sense of community safety and belonging for LGBTQ+ members of our campus.

Beyond that, we need to be one Rensselaer in spirit. We may have vastly different backgrounds and experiences, but we cannot allow this to divide us when there is so much potential ahead. 

What I have learned from all of you is that RPI has some enormous strengths that will help us get where we want to go. The first question I posed on my listening tour was, “What do you love about Rensselaer?”

Overwhelmingly, the answer was, “I love the people here.” 

  • The faculty rave about working with each other, including across departments and schools. 
  • Our staff members deeply value and appreciate their colleagues and they derive pride and a sense of purpose in the way they care for and support students in achieving their goals. 
  • The students see working in teams and supporting each other as one of the best aspects of their time here.

A number of students have said to me, “RPI is hard, but we suffer together.” What I’ve observed is that RPI is hard, but they succeed together.

Beyond each group’s delight in their peers, there is tremendous mutual respect between the faculty, staff, and students—and the result is a culture of collaboration and innovation. I heard many times that RPI has uniquely low walls that bring people together—and an intellectually open ethos that allows for a lot of experimentation across departments and schools. 

I also learned how much this community loves RPI’s history, its campus resources and beauty, and its unique academic strengths. 

The second question I asked on my listening tour was, “What are your aspirations for Rensselaer?”

The answers to that question taught me a lot about where RPI could do better—and where this community wants to see the Institute go.

One theme that emerged is the need for more staff, better technologies, and streamlined processes that allow us to reach our goals. 

Without question, RPI has been resource constrained. In particular, the pandemic impacted RPI’s revenues, added significant costs, and required significant expense controls. Many of our faculty and staff were stretched thin as they continued to deliver on our missions, often in innovative ways with fewer people and resources.

I know that this community can’t carry on in this state as we emerge from the pandemic. So, we are working hard now to bring new faculty and staff to RPI. In fact, for FY23 we will have 51 faculty searches, and over the last 12 months, we have hired 555 new people.

I want to thank all of you for handling this challenging period with such grace. And on the point of the pandemic, I also thank you for a great start to the academic year, where we are realizing low levels of COVID cases. That said, we must and will stay diligent in keeping our community safe.

Specific points of concern shared by our faculty include graduate student tuition, research support, and the purchasing process. Our staff have talked about turnover, being expected to do more with fewer people, the need for paths to advancement, and the need for more appreciation. Some expressed frustration about having to use PTO when the campus is closed for winter break. 

Many suggestions for improvements have been offered to me, and it will take time for us to implement some of them, but in doing this, I think our North Star should be that Rensselaer is an employer of choice in the region. We need to be intensely focused on growing resources that give our faculty and staff what they need to soar.

Our actions can be informed by the faculty and staff campus-wide climate survey that was conducted last year. The group charged with analyzing the results hopes to give me a draft report before Thanksgiving, and I will release the report to the community for comments shortly thereafter.

Let me tell you about a few more topics that have come up regularly on my listening tour: I have been frequently asked by alumni about Fraternity and Sorority Life. Those who participated in the Fraternity and Sorority system saw it as an important part of their RPI experience and hope that it will continue to benefit future generations of RPI students. 

Clearly, for some students, fraternities and sororities are transformative. But interest in Fraternities and Sororities tends to ebb and flow with changing demographic cohorts—and some chapters find themselves facing existential challenges. 
It’s in everybody’s best interests to have a healthy system, and I believe there is no reason that we cannot align around ensuring a healthy and safe system—with strong engagement between our alumni and the administration. That is the intention of the administration, and where that alignment might not be as strong as it could be, we’ll work to improve it. Starting tonight and extending over five nights in the next few weeks, I’ll be visiting 22 houses to get to know the system better. 

I also heard some concerns about The Arch on my listening tour and the ways in which it has challenged many of you—whether you were a student who felt they needed an exemption but had difficulty getting one—or you found completing three or four semesters of coursework in a row, without a substantial break, simply exhausting. Some of our instructors have expressed concerns about teaching over the entire calendar year, and our staff have talked about having little downtime to maintain equipment or do other essential tasks. 

Based upon many conversations I’ve had with recent graduates, students, and parents, I believe that The Arch represents an important opportunity to differentiate and deepen a Rensselaer education—but we have some work to do to improve on the experience for all.

So, I have asked Dr. Peter Konwerski, our Vice President for Student Life, working with other members of the RPI leadership, to look into what the pain points are—to find ways to address all these issues. I believe there are some things we can do quickly, but some will require more time.

Another topic that has come up from alumni is the Union. This stems from concerns that some student leaders felt less influence in decision making in the Union. For our students and alumni, there is a great sense of pride in the long history of a student-led Union at RPI. I certainly agree that this is and should be a source of pride, but I think we need greater clarity about what has changed and to what extent that impact the student run nature of the Union. I have begun conversations with GM Cait Bennett and will work with her and PU Colleen Corrigan to discuss this more fully. 

Another topic that has come up frequently is our rankings, reputation, and recognition. They are important to everybody—including the California parents I met in the past two weeks, a number of whom said they had never heard of Rensselaer until their students decided to enter our freshman class in record numbers.

What do we need to do to help the whole world understand what a great institution this is—and beyond that, to amplify RPI’s greatness?

First, clearly, is the need for more resources. We need to be creative in increasing revenue—exploring possibilities such as new educational offerings and new research partnerships that will also expand our influence.

And we clearly need a much broader base of alumni support, which will raise our rankings as well. In fact, alumni giving, in terms of the percentage of living alumni who donate to their alma mater, is a factor U.S. News considers in its rankings—as well as other financial measures such as faculty compensation, per-student spending, and graduate indebtedness.

As an aside, I was so excited to track the “24 for 1824 Giving Day” web site last night. Lyn and I made a challenge pledge based upon whether we got to 500 gifts. Well, we hit that fairly early in the day, and ended the 24-hour period with 3,158 gifts, raising a total of $257,474. Last night it was exciting to watch as alumni, parents, and students competed to have their favorite sport win the most gifts. Congratulations to Men’s Lacrosse, Baseball, and Women’s Track and Field for winning their brackets!

In summary, there is much we can do to strengthen RPI for the future. I’ve taken careful note of all you have shared and will be working with the leadership to address your concerns. Some things will be “quick fixes;” others will take some time either to develop and implement solutions, or to secure the needed resources. My goal will be to communicate regularly as we work on this.

In addition to this, I believe we need to focus on developing our plan moving forward. RPI has operated within The Rensselaer Plan 2024 for the past decade, and with the 200th anniversary of our founding approaching, I believe it is time for us to work on a plan for the next decade, a plan that we should roll out as we celebrate our 200th birthday.
I would like to establish a process by which all members of our community can contribute to the creation of the plan. To achieve this, I see three steps that we should take:

First, as I’ve said, based upon what you have told me, I am proposing four areas of focus, and a fifth commitment to inclusivity. In the next few months, I would like to hear from all of you whether you believe this is an appropriate framework for our plan. Many of you have already commented that you like this, but I want to make sure we create opportunities for all voices to be heard. I am still working on how we’ll facilitate that but would like to see this done over the next few months.

Second, once we have settled on the areas, I would like to commission five working groups to further refine the ideas that I have proposed, with a goal of producing a set of reports that can be shared with the community by the end of the spring semester. These working groups should facilitate events in the spring which allow for community input to their deliberations.

Third, in the summer of 2023, and into the fall, we will work to integrate these reports into our plan for the next decade, to be released at the end of the calendar year. Beyond creating this plan, I would like us to define a process by which the plan is regularly reviewed and updated though community engagement.   

Finally, we need a party! And I’m not talking about a “Marty Party” on the ’86 Field (although I wouldn’t mind doing that again). We need to have a 200th Birthday Party.

We need to use our 200th anniversary celebration in 2024 to not only remind the world that we are the original polytechnic in the United States—how important we are to the history of science and technology—but also how important we are today, given the outsized contributions we make in research and education. I’ll need to assemble a group of “party planners” to help us think about what the 200th celebration should look like, but in my humble opinion, it should be a series of events that allow us to celebrate our achievements, tell the world who we are, and point us towards our future.

Let me close by repeating my final remarks at the Inauguration: RPI is a great institution—great in its history, its people, and its potential. I am so proud to have this opportunity to lead it.  And I am delighted to work with all of you—as one community—as we move Rensselaer forward.

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