Fall Town Meeting - October 10, 2023

Good afternoon, and welcome, everyone, to the Fall Town Meeting, my third Town meeting as President – but who is counting!

In preparing for today, I wasn’t sure exactly what to highlight since it seems like so much has happened since we last had a Town Meeting. What I’ve decided to do is to highlight a few areas in my remarks today, and of course I hope that in the Q&A we can discuss topics that are of particular interest to you.

However, I feel that I need to open by acknowledging that we are not in a bubble here in Troy, and the events taking place outside our campus can have profound impact on our community. The war in the Ukraine continues on and at times it feels that we have become anesthetized to the violence and loss of life. At home, I think we all worry about the erosion of our democratic system of government and have concerns about the impact of a government shutdown. And then, this weekend, we saw the horrific news from Israel. 

The terror attack in Israel this weekend comes after years of mounting conflict in the region. And frankly, our hearts ache for the people of that region and our community members who have ties to the area. We have community members who are deeply impacted by this tragedy, and we are reaching out to offer support. These recent events have been traumatizing and you should know we understand, and we care. And for anyone who needs support or just needs an ear, please take advantage of the support services we offer through The Student Health Center and through the Employee Assistance Program. The world outside of RPI may feel very uncertain right now but one thing remains steadfast – which is our commitment to each other. 

Let me now share with you my thoughts about RPI as we move into this Fall Semester. I’d like to first talk about some additions and changes we’ve made at the leadership level at RPI, as well as the additions to our faculty and staff. I then want to continue something I started in the Spring, which is to give you a sense of how we are doing financially. This is an area which I think is important for me to keep you informed about since our financial performance is really critical to our overall goal of returning RPI to a healthy size in terms of people.

I’ll next talk to you about our strategic planning process and highlight some recent good news in the areas of Chips and Quantum. Part of our strategic planning needs to be a plan to start the renewal of our physical campus and I’ll comment on that. I’ll end with an update on our Middle States accreditation planning, the community climate surveys, and a few highlights for the fall thus far.

Let me start by introducing the newest members of my leadership team:

  • Our new Provost, Dr. Rebecca Doerge, who comes to us from Carnegie Mellon University, where she was Glen de Vries Dean of the Mellon College of Science and a member of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Department of Statistics and Data Science and the Mellon College of Science’s Department of Biological Sciences.
  • Our new Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics, Dr. Kristie Bowers, who comes to us from Boston University, where she served as Senior Associate Athletic Director and Senior Woman Administrator.
  • And, our new Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer for Institutional Impact, R. May Lee, who comes into this newly created role after teaching entrepreneurship in our School of Architecture—and from NYU, where as Vice Chancellor, she spearheaded the development of NYU Shanghai, and Shanghai Tech University, where she was the inaugural Dean of the School of Entrepreneurship and Management.

Please welcome them to RPI. We have also made some additions and changes to the offices at RPI.

  • As we work to foster major partnerships and move the amazing ideas on this campus out to have impact in the world, we have created a new Office of Strategic Alliances and Translation that is led by Institute Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Jonathan Dordick. I was pleased to see this as one of the top recommendations that came out of the strategic planning by several groups.
  • We also announced very recently that we are moving Student Life and Enrollment Management into the Provost Office. This was a decision I made after considering the structure of our current portfolios and looking for opportunities to realign activities for better outcomes. I anticipate that we’ll continue to make some modest restructuring of portfolios, but this is certainly the major one. I am grateful for the support of Peter Konwerski and Jon Wexler, and I think we all believe and expect that this will drive greater integration of our academic and student life activities. I also shared with you that in the course of discussing these changes, Peter let me know that he had been contemplating a change after so many years in student life leadership, and he has decided that this will be his last academic year as VP Student Life, giving us the time to ensure a seamless integration of Student Life with the Provost Office, but also to explore other opportunities for Peter to continue to serve RPI.

In addition to these structural changes, we are forming ‘teams’ to organize ourselves and be more coordinated. I’ll talk about the work of the ‘CHIPs Team’ in a little bit. 

Now, let’s talk about faculty and staff. When we met in the Spring, I pointed out that when I arrived at RPI, we were effectively at about 80% of our historic size in terms of staff and tenured and tenure-track faculty. In my listening tour, it was very clear that this led to many feeling stretched to their limit. For that reason, as I shared in the Spring, our five-year financial plan is focused on restoring our faculty and staff numbers.

I am pleased to say that we have hired 33 new tenured and tenure-track faculty this fall. These faculty will add strength to our areas of research focus, but they also begin to fill critical vacancies in our departments.

We have also already hired three tenured or tenure-track faculty who will start next fall and are recruiting 27 additional faculty for next fall across all five schools. 

Our fiscal year 2024 budget also gives us the resources to raise our staff numbers to 1279, just short of our historic average—and 242 staff positions higher than in the Fall of 2021.

I know that hiring this many people has been a lot of work for the faculty and staff. I also had a chance to learn this summer from some of the department heads of the challenges in hiring faculty regarding start-up packages and space. MANE was the winner this year in terms of faculty hiring, having added four that started this fall, and more to come. But Antoinette Maniatty did also share with me the challenges of recruiting women faculty, and I’m sure those challenges (albeit different) existing in recruiting faculty that bring other forms of diversity to RPI. With respect to women faculty, I can say that I remain optimistic that we will address one of the pain points, namely childcare. Last academic year, I shared that we have plans to create a childcare facility on campus. Those plans continue, and we are currently in the process of securing the funding to begin the construction of the facility. Perhaps smaller, but also important, Ernie Katzwinkel assures me that we’ll have feminine hygiene products in the campus bathrooms very soon.

We are also prioritizing the well-being of our staff members. One of the things we have heard loud and clear from this community is the desire for a better flexible work policy. The Division of Human Resources has been soliciting input from each department and portfolio on a series of possible designs, and various groups have begun a trial implementation. The goal is for the university to provide a framework and principles for each portfolio to apply as appropriate to their staff—and we expect to learn from each other over time.

Let me now give you a few highlights from our Fiscal Year 2023 financial results:

  • The operating budget for last year was balanced. 
  • Total revenues were below budget by $4.2 million. To put that in context, bear in mind that total revenues are approximately $440M.
  • The most significant variance was in the net tuition revenues, which were $16.5 million below budget, with undergraduate net tuition experiencing the greatest variance at $9.7 million. 
  • This was due to lower-than-expected upper-class retention and transfer student enrollment, and we did not see additional net tuition revenue from the large freshmen class last year because we provided more aid than anticipated for this class. Moving forward, we need to continue to work on affordability as well as focus on improving retention and transfer student pathways. 
  • The tuition loss we experienced was partially offset by larger gift revenue.
  • And, we balanced the budget by; first - having lower expenses than budgeted, and second, increasing the use of cash reserves.
  • The endowment experienced a 10.7 percent return for the fiscal year and now sits at $924.3 million.
  • As I mentioned in the Spring, due to market volatility in the prior year, our defined benefit pension payment was larger than anticipated, at $17.4M. We made the decision to fund the $11.5M overage from cash reserves and not the operating budget. Fortunately, we do not anticipate a similar ‘market-induced’ change in the budgeted pension payment for this year.
  • The pension plan investments benefited from a 9.0% return and stands at $233.4 million for the fiscal year.
  • Our long-term debt is $629.8 million, which decreased by $24.5 million, reflecting the impact of continued principal repayments.
  • When you look year over year, revenues grew only 2%, while expenses grew 7%. This is a combination of our investment to grow planning as well as the impact of inflation.

Overall, with the exception of the pension increase, we largely had results that we would have expected. This current year presents some unique challenges, given the seeming disfunction in Washington, and the international conflicts that could have a ripple effect on our operations. In addition, we will see tuition revenues flattening as we invest, and we see cost escalations from inflation. For that reason, we continue to watch things carefully, and stay prepared to act should financial challenges materialize. I will say that I have begun to focus much more of my attention on opportunities on the outside that can bring new resources to the campus. I’ll talk about one, CHIPs, in a moment, but I will point out that I am finding many of our alumni who have the capacity to help us, are expressing great enthusiasm for where they see our ability to go, and I’ll be devoting much attention over the next several years to connecting these alumni to opportunities where they can help us, as Curtis Priem has in Quantum Computing.

Let me now talk about strategic planning. As you know, we are in the process of developing a new strategic plan to be released during our bicentennial next year, titled Rensselaer Forward. The plan will be organized around five key themes:

  • Education
  • Research
  • Translation
  • Regional engagement, and
  • A welcoming and inclusive community.

Our working groups for each area have provided their final reports, which we have posted to my website today. Please, add your comments to the Idea Bank, to help us formulate a consolidated plan. While we may not be able to respond to all the ideas posted, I can promise you that the working groups have reviewed all the ideas. As I said in my note to the community today, over the next several months, we will be integrating the reports of the working groups into one strategic plan document.

But, we haven’t been waiting for that report to be done to move on some key areas.

For example, our CHIPS Team of Vice President for Research Robert Hull, Dean of Engineering Shekar Garde, the Provost (first Mary Simoni and now Rebecca Doerge) and myself have been steering RPI towards regional and national leadership—as the United States seeks to restore domestic semiconductor manufacturing and innovation, in the wake of the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. 

Last month, in one of the first major CHIPS Act awards, the Department of Defense announced that the Northeast Regional Defense Technology Hub—NORDTech—will be one of the eight innovation hubs it is creating focused on the “lab to fab” transition—helping to prototype new innovations with potential military uses. RPI is one of the five core partners in NORDTech—alongside the State University of New York, Cornell, IBM, and NY-CREATES. Together, this group will receive $40 million in the first year to create the infrastructure and processes for NORDTech. Of the eight hubs funded, our proposal received the highest funding level, which I believe is a reflection of the hard work of the entire team. 

RPI is also a partner in a new Micron-TEL-National Science Foundation UPWARDS Program. The program is bringing together six universities in the U.S. and five universities in Japan—which is also trying to reestablish a domestic semiconductor manufacturing industry. Together, we will focus on memory-centric research, as well as curriculum development and finding ways to encouraging women to enter the semiconductor field.

The CHIPS Act also enabled the NSF’s Future of Semiconductors—or FuSe—program, which supports a holistic, co-design approach to both fundamental research—and education and workforce training. RPI Professor Daniel Gall is lead investigator on a project recently awarded one of these highly competitive grants. 

At RPI, we are in the process of establishing our first physical presence at Albany NanoTech, the premier microelectronics prototyping facility in the nation. If you want to interact daily with the most influential people in the semiconductor industry and to help shape the national microelectronics agenda, that is the place to be.

We are also leading in workforce development for the CHIPS Act—since talent is truly the limiting factor, as the U.S. tries to achieve its economic and national security goals surrounding semiconductors. As an example, we are launching a new Master of Science degree in Semiconductor Technology.

We are also addressing our own higher ed workforce challenges—the fact that as U.S. share of global semiconductor manufacturing declined in recent decades, so did the number of U.S. faculty focusing on mainstream semiconductor technology. Fortunately, we have enormous technical expertise in industry in the region, and we are taking full advantage of it. Last year, RPI offered a hugely popular elective course called Topics in Microelectronics that was co-taught by RPI faculty and a team of industry experts from GlobalFoundries. 

The class was so successful that this year, ten companies are participating. And we are hiring Professors of Practice, the most recent one from GlobalFoundries. 

RPI is also helping our regional partners with workforce development. For example, RPI and Hudson Valley Community College have launched a Semiconductor/Microelectronics Scholars Program together. This is a program for associate’s degree students at HVCC, designed to attract new students to the field—and to create pathways for them to industry or further education.

The first class of these Semiconductor Scholars are now being mentored by RPI faculty and industry partners and working on research at RPI. We think bringing people from community colleges onto this path will help to diversify the pipeline of talent in semiconductor research and manufacturing. And this is a model that could be scaled to other community colleges around the state and nation. 

Beyond semiconductors, we also made an important announcement in June regarding Quantum Computing. In a few days, we will hold a virtual groundbreaking for the IBM-RPI Quantum Computational Center. RPI will be the first university in the world to house an IBM Quantum System One. 

While IBM has made deep investments in research and manufacturing for quantum computing, RPI faculty and students will now explore its most promising potential applications. These areas might include drug discovery, modeling and predicting new materials, and financial risk modeling. This is an enormous opportunity for the region and its businesses. 

And, thanks to the support of Curtis Priem, Vice Chair of our Board of Trustees and co-founder of NVIDIA, whose GPU chips are accelerating artificial intelligence, we are also launching the Curtis Priem Quantum Constellation, with which we will hire faculty leaders in quantum computing.

The quantum computer will be housed in the beautiful chapel that is the Vorhees Computing Center, beneath four stained-glass windows honoring the first four “Doctors of the Latin Christian Church.”

John Kolb engaged our former campus chaplain Father Ed Kacerguis to understand more about these Doctors, and, in Father Ed’s words: “The light of the world will pass through their images to fall upon this magnificent new machine. And the wonders to be discovered and discerned in this space will, in turn, shine their own light out into the world around us, perhaps changing it for the better for centuries yet to come.’ Pretty inspiring stuff! 

But it is not all about Chips and Quantum. In September, Governor Hochul announced a $9 Million state investment that will promote the development of sustainable, New York-made textiles using locally-sourced materials. RPI was selected to lead this new $9M New York Fashion Innovation Center. So clearly, as we enter our third Century, RPI will be viewed as the fashion icon of stem-centric institutions. Although Mrs. Schmidt would likely point out that the President’s wardrobe needs work.

Let me now talk about our campus buildings. We have decided, with the Board’s support, to get started on an overall capital renewal plan to make the best possible use of our physical resources and prioritize our needs for the future. 

As a nearly 200-year-old institution, we have many iconic buildings that help to make this campus beautiful. Unfortunately, some of them are also the most significant examples of deferred maintenance on campus. We are currently exploring whether one (or several) of these buildings could be used as a new home for our computing activities. This will be paced by our ability to raise money for the renovation, but I think it is important that we get started in this planning process. Our focus is to look at buildings which are relatively underutilized, but in major need of renovations. Ricketts and the ’87 Gym are good examples. The challenge is to identify spaces for the current uses of the building so that we can do a comprehensive renovation. We’ll be sure to keep you updated on this, but I think it is important that we get this multi-decade renewal of the campus started.

Work continues on our reaccreditation efforts for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Accreditation is required for universities and their students to receive federal funding. It is a two-and-a-half-year process, and we are on schedule.

Currently, 80 faculty, staff, and students are working hard to gather, analyze, and report on evidence demonstrating that the Institute is in full compliance with the Commission’s Seven Standards and Requirements of Affiliation. My thanks to all of those working on this.

The Standards workgroups will submit their chapters to the Core Steering Committee by January 31, 2024.

Next winter and spring, the Core Steering Committee co-chairs Professor Emily Liu, head of our Industrial and Systems Engineering Department, and Dr. Keith Moo-Young, our Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education will integrate all the chapter reports into one cohesive document for circulation to the Rensselaer community for your input—with the goal of completing reaccreditation during 2025.

As you may remember, last fall we released the excellent analysis of a 2021 climate survey of our faculty and staff by the Climate Survey Task Force—co-led by Dr. Deepak Vashishth, director of our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, and Pamela Smith, Acting Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations. Their recommendations have helped to steer a lot of what we’ve done over the last year.

Last spring, we conducted a student climate survey. We will soon be releasing the results and recommendations arising from it. Moving forward, we intend to conduct climate surveys every other year and publish them for the community. These surveys have a lot of value, as a window into what the community is thinking—and into what the leadership team and I are doing well—and what we could do better.

Now for an update on Bicentennial – as you know next year we celebrate our 200th birthday. This weekend, we will unveil the bicentennial logo and also kickoff a poll to select our bicentennial tagline. Stay tuned to learn how to cast your vote. 

I can end on a few fun notes. We had several terrific student career fairs this fall. The annual NSBE/SHPE career fair brought record numbers of companies to RPI. I heard (unsolicited) feedback from employers who were VERY excited about the students they met. So, for our staff and faculty, you should feel proud of what you have done in helping these students, and for our students, thanks for representing RPI so well. Our athletes also had a very successful Student-Athlete Career Networking Fair.

And speaking of athletes, to name a few accomplishments, our Men’s Cross-Country team is ranked in the Top 10 in D3, and Women’s Soccer is off to it’s best start since 2002. And, while last season our women’s ice hockey team went 0-6 before winning their first game, this year, after six games, the last two on the road, they are un-defeated! 

And one more thing: as many of you know, last year I met with a number of students early in the year to hear how things were going. One of the top areas of frustration was the shuttle system. Now, I know that Gabriel Jacoby-Cooper was leading a team in RCOS to develop a better way for students to track the shuttles on campus. I was thrilled to see an article in the Poly posted on September 27th entitled ‘Shuttle tracker tracks shuttles better than ever’! Earlier in September, I met with a number of the undergraduate student leaders to hear what was top of mind for them this year. The first topic we covered was Parking! So, Gabriel, I’d like to ask if RCOS can create a Parking tracker, but if not, maybe with the current Shuttle Tracker, you can leave your car behind and take the shuttle!

Let me just close by saying that I do not mean to minimize the challenges we face, but I can say with all honesty that with every day, I am more optimistic for our future – together. There will be bad day, bad weeks, and maybe even bad semesters, but our future is bright, and Lyn and I look forward to continuing this journey with all of you. 

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