Wow! I am truly overwhelmed. But, let me begin with some thanks and acknowledgments.
Thanks to all of our speakers for your extraordinarily kind words. And welcome, to the delegates from other colleges and universities, and the Armed Forces.
I am very grateful to Chairman Golden, our trustees, and the search committee for giving me this amazing opportunity.
And, I am very appreciative of the advice Rensselaer’s 18th President, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, has offered me, and for the many ways that she transformed this university.
I thank my family for their enthusiasm and support. This really feels like a family affair. Lyn has been a great partner with me in this job, and on the road as we get to know RPI’s alumni. And every one of our four sons has taken a keen interest in RPI, so you can expect to see them here a lot—especially now that it’s hockey season.
Lastly, I want to thank the entire RPI community for being so warm and welcoming to Lyn and me and our family (including our dogs). It is a thrill to be back on this beautiful campus and to see how far it has progressed—and the city of Troy has progressed—since I left here in June of 1981 for graduate school at MIT.
Arriving at RPI in 1977 as a 17-year-old kid from northeastern Pennsylvania, I never expected to return as President. My RPI freshman roommate from Bray Hall, George Emery, is here today, and I am sure he will attest to that. But I did learn something very important at RPI that led me to this amazing day—the value of hard work and of sticking to it.
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—poking my head into classrooms, labs, offices and maybe even a few utility closets. I have also been spending a day at each school, asking the Deans to introduce me to their particular challenges and opportunities.
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 around the country through the Presidential Tour. Thus far we’ve been to Washington DC, New York City, and Boston, and have met with more than 700 alumni, parents and friends. And we’ll be going to many more cities at home and abroad in the future.
So, what have I learned from all these meetings? I certainly have learned that critical thinking and hard work still characterize the kind of education Rensselaer offers—and a willingness to work hard still characterizes its students. As one faculty member put it, “I have never met a student who expected RPI to be easy—but that’s not a deal-breaker for them.”
To my mind, greatness in a university takes three things: brilliant people, sufficient resources, and a shared sense of purpose—and my listening tour has helped me take stock of these things.
RPI is beyond strong on the people front. But let me elaborate on that, drawing from what I have heard over and over—which is how much people love their colleagues at RPI.
The faculty rave about working with each other, including across departments and schools, and find RPI’s low walls to collaboration unique in their experience.
Our staff members deeply value and appreciate their colleagues. Indeed, one staff member said their collaborations with colleagues were “magical.”
The students see working in teams and supporting each other as one of the best aspects of their time here. While the students will tell you, “RPI is hard, but we suffer together,” what I’ve observed is that RPI is hard, but they succeed together.
As an expression of student solidarity, I heard the phrase, “We are all nerds,” more than once. And the wonderful thing is, at the same time, RPI students are the opposite of homogenous—some are amazing athletes; others are musicians, gamers, artists, makers, and software developers. But underneath, there is that common bond of intellectual curiosity. As one student leader put it: “Every student has that thing that makes them so RPI—a fascination with something.”
All these separate fascinations add up to a genuinely fascinating community.
Beyond each group’s delight in their peers, there is tremendous mutual respect between the faculty, staff, and students—a culture of collaboration, support, and pride in each other. As one tenured faculty member put it, “RPI is full of very good people who never let you down.”
And so, I think we can consider the “brilliant people” box checked!
On the second front—resources—without question, RPI is resource constrained. In particular, the pandemic impacted RPI’s revenues and added significant costs.
Managing to balance a budget through COVID required expense reductions. And many of our faculty and staff were stretched thin as they continued to deliver on our missions with fewer people and resources. I know from my own experience just how demanding it has been to operate a university through a pandemic.
I want to express my sincere appreciation to all of our faculty, staff, and students for handling a truly challenging period with such grace. It is a tribute to your hard work and devotion to RPI. But I know that this community can’t carry on in this state as we emerge from the pandemic.
The question for everyone at RPI moving forward is how do we grow into an organization that allows really the talented people here to fly even higher? Can we be creative in increasing our resources, while expanding our influence with new educational offerings and new research partnerships?
I am sure we can, and I think we are going to find the process of identifying new opportunities truly enjoyable.
The third aspect of greatness is a shared sense of purpose. My listening tour has made it abundantly clear how much everyone at RPI is inspired by our missions to educate brilliant young people and to generate research that solves important problems. This is as true for our staff members, including those who might not be on the “front lines” of research or education, as it is for our faculty.
And it’s true for me, too. Every decision I make will be in support of those missions. To all the members of this community—I will strive to keep you informed and engaged in all we do. And I look forward to working with you collectively as we advance RPI into the future.
One aspect of that is understanding where this community wants to go. On my listening tour, I have been asking everyone I meet, “What are your aspirations for RPI moving forward?” I will say more about what I’ve heard from you on this front in a moment.
But first, I would like to share my own aspirations for RPI in four areas:
- Translation of our ideas; and
- Regional engagement.
Implicit in these four areas of endeavor is the need to be intentional in building a strong, inclusive community.
I’ll speak more about that in a moment, but let’s start with education: When I was named president of RPI, a faculty colleague at MIT in physics called me to congratulate me and told me about coming here a few decades ago to observe the studio-based teaching of physics RPI was pioneering—and then bringing that approach back to MIT. Indeed, MIT still uses this approach today.
Other universities have looked to RPI for ways to make a scientific education more student-driven, more experiential, and more hands-on for nearly 200 years.
Our founders, Amos Eaton and Stephen Van Rensselaer, turned upside down the more passive style of learning offered at the country’s existing liberal arts institutions.
RPI was certainly one of the first institutions of higher learning in the world—if not the first—to expect students to conduct their own experiments as part of their education. It probably was the first school in the world to teach scientific field work in a structured way.
Amos Eaton, one of the fathers of American geology, took his students along on his summer research tours, covering hundreds of miles over the course of weeks and requiring them to keep their own geological journals. Students were also taken on tours of local industrial sites—often seeing engineering concepts in practice before learning them in theory.
This history of innovation continued into the 20th century, as RPI pioneered the studio classroom and the flipped classroom—and into the 21st, during President Jackson’s tenure, as innovative projects such as “The Mandarin Project” experimented with game-driven narratives, immersive technologies, and interaction with A-I in formal coursework. In fact, just this week, in visiting with the School of Architecture, I was blown away by the CRAIVE Lab and its creative use of immersive environments.
As we approach our bicentennial in 2024, I would like to see us embrace this rich history of educational innovation, which I believe is in our DNA—and to organize ourselves Institute-wide to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts—and pursue exciting visions like personalized learning that adapts the delivery of knowledge to the preferred learning style of each individual. To members of the RPI community, you can expect to hear from me about this in the coming months.
The second area of aspiration for me is in research. We need to make the most of our new centers, which target areas 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 Institute for Data, Artificial Intelligence, and Computing.
RPI’s Institute-wide centers are an important aspect of the low walls that characterize this university. They allow for multi-disciplinary collaborations and for genuinely original work. However, we must also support curiosity-driven projects that don’t quite fit into the boxes we have already created—great ideas in research come from everywhere. 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 a humanistic view to our research agenda—this is so important when powerful technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and CRISPR raise a host of social and ethical issues and demand a responsible approach.
We also have a number of truly great industrial partnerships in research and education with companies like IBM and Boeing, to name just two. As an example, with IBM, we partner on many efforts, including the Global Fresh Water Institute—the IBM Research A-I Hardware Center and our AiMOS supercomputer. I believe our relationships should serve as a model for expanded industry engagement moving forward.
In addition to the focus on education and research, I want us to be as successful as we possibly can in translating our ideas into the world. The paths for translating ideas to impact from a university 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. In some instances, these new entities are created in partnership with established industries.
With resources such as the Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship, the MILL, the Forge, R-C-O-S, and the Burt Swersey Inventor’s Studio—and a strong culture of innovation—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.
Today, we heard from one of those inventors: Eben Bayer, CEO and co-founder—along with his fellow RPI alumnus Gavin McIntyre—of Ecovative. One of the great joys of returning to RPI after four decades at MIT is seeing how much the region has come to life, in part because of the companies founded by our alumni, including Velan Studios, 1st Playable Productions, and Levrx in Troy—as well as Ecovative in Green Island and VyV [VIVE] in Latham.
As an institution, I believe we need to do everything possible to help our current students and our faculty follow Eben’s path to success. 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 plays an important role in regional economic development. However, we also have the opportunity to do even more. Which brings me to my fourth point: the importance of 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.
When Rensselaer was founded, this particular region at the end of the navigable Hudson and the beginning of the Erie Canal was one of the most vibrant places in the world. It was the resources of the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys—first, beaver pelts and then, agricultural and industrial products—that drove New York City’s development as a capital of finance and trade.
By educating highly trained engineers ready to take on the civil works that allowed for trade, transportation, communication, and an expansion of opportunity, Rensselaer was key to the economic development of the region and the nation.
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.
During my four decades at MIT, I watched our neighboring Kendall Square transform from a place of abandoned candy factories, parking lots, and a diner into one of the world’s most exciting innovation districts, particularly in the life sciences. This did not happen in a vacuum.
The location of the Whitehead Institute in Kendall Square in 1984 helped to spawn an informal network of collaborating scientists and physicians from MIT and Harvard and its hospitals, who were pioneering new approaches to medicine based on molecular biology and genetics. In 2004, with the creation of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the two institutions formalized their cooperation—and created the critical mass that drew accelerating private investment.
In fact, research by Dr. Ben Armstrong, a political scientist and interim executive director of MIT’s Industrial Performance Center, has found that cooperation between universities and academic medical centers can be a powerful economic force.
For example, Dr. Armstrong found that the key to Pittsburgh’s transformation into an innovation hub was the fact that in the 1980s, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania brought together Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh as leaders of a coalition to spur Pittsburgh’s economic development. Together, they propelled what many considered a “rust belt” city in the ‘70s to a vibrant and economically diverse region today.
The message is simple: When organizations that are deeply committed to a region, and have the capacity to think long term, seek ways to work together, great things can happen.
We should see such economic leadership as a top priority at RPI. We have both an obligation and an opportunity to work with like-minded partners for the collective benefit of the Capital Region and the Hudson Valley.
With SUNY Polytechnic’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, the University at Albany, NY CREATES, the IBM Research A-I Hardware Center, and Global Foundries, just to name a few, right in our backyard—and the expertise and physical resources we have here—there are tremendous opportunities for our entire region with the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act and its support for domestic semiconductor manufacturing and research. Tuesday’s announcement of a new entrant, Micron Technology, to Upstate New York adds even more excitement, and I look forward to working closely and collectively with all of our regional partners on this amazing opportunity.
I hope to see us grow and expand these engagements. And I am heartened to see so many of the leaders of our neighboring schools, colleges and universities, medical centers, economic development partners, government, and industry that have taken time to join us today. I am excited to work with you to advance the Capital Region as an innovation hub.
Beyond the region, I think RPI should continue its focus on pursuing global partnerships to prepare our students to be successful in a globally connected workplace—but also to ensure that we have global reach and impact in all that we do.
And finally, I have one more major goal for RPI—a goal that transcends any one aspect of our mission and that is essential to all of them. I would like us to be the most accessible, welcoming, and inclusive community for all—one that allows us to attract and retain talented women, underrepresented minority, international, neurodiverse, disabled, and LGBTQ+ faculty, staff, and students—and to add their perspectives to everything we do here in research and education.
We have some history to be proud of on this front. Amos Eaton was already trying to recruit women to Rensselaer in 1834, when he taught a group of women students advanced mathematics to prove to the Board of Examiners that women should be admitted. Unfortunately, the Board at that time declined to follow the evidence, and it would not be until World War II that women began to matriculate at RPI.
RPI also has a long history of distinguished Latino and Black graduates—including many Latin American alumni who contributed to projects such as the Panama Canal, and our first Black graduate, Garnet Baltimore of the Class of 1881, who had a fantastic career in civil engineering, before becoming a landscape engineer and enriching Troy forever with his design for Prospect Park.
However, we clearly cannot rest: So many people on my listening tour said they wanted to see more focus on diversity and inclusion. This has to be a priority for both the administration and for our academic leaders.
At RPI, we need to put in place the right supports to create a more even playing field for our women graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty—especially for those with young children.
And we need to be thoughtful about the challenges faced by anyone in the minority here and make sure that our warm and supportive culture extends to them.
To consider the concrete steps we can take as an institute to become more diverse and inclusive, in the next few weeks, I intend to stand up a Task Force to address these issues and provide me with a series of recommendations.
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 opportunity ahead.
So, as we build a more inclusive community, let’s unite around our high hopes for Rensselaer, as it approaches its third century—and for each other.
When I asked the small groups I met with what their aspirations are for RPI, I got a lot of very specific wishes—ranging from interactive whiteboards, to a faculty-staff dining hall, to—and this is my favorite—a system of tunnels under the campus for slush avoidance in the winter.
Clearly, I have my work cut out for me!
But the aspiration I heard most often was a desire for everything this community does so well to receive more recognition both inside the Institute, and beyond—from employers, from the broader academic community, from award committees, and from the world at large.
I could not agree more.
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. I will do everything in my power to encourage, amplify, and broadcast its greatness.
The wind is at our backs. I so look forward to working with all of you—as one community—as we move forward into a truly exciting future. As we move Rensselaer Forward!