State of the Institute - October 15, 2023

Welcome, everyone, to the 2023 State of the Institute.

It’s been a little more than 15 months since I moved back to this campus with Lyn. Much has happened over that time, but perhaps the most important relative to this reunion has been my chance to meet so many alumni. We have amazing alumni, many of whom are deeply committed to supporting RPI. And, as I experienced in my time in leadership at MIT, as I come to know you better, I find myself excited to see you return to campus, and to share thoughts and hopes for our beloved alma mater.

So, this morning I wanted to share with you the ‘State of the Institute.’ I will try to be succinct so there is time to entertain some questions. I’ll start with introductions of some of the newest members of the leadership, and then talk about where we are in our strategic planning process. I’ll then take you ‘under the hood’ to discuss some things we are doing operationally at RPI, and I’ll include a few comments about our finances. I’ll then share with you some of the exciting new activities we’ve initiated, and we’ll end with an update on planning for the bicentennial.

But, before I do that, I think I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a comment regarding the crisis unfolding in Israel and Gaza as relates to RPI. Our principle goal has been to make sure we do as much as we can to support those members of our campus community who are deeply and personally impacted by this crisis, and our VP of Student Life’s staff has been intensely focused on that.

So let me now begin my remarks regarding the state of RPI. I’ll first start by introducing the newest members of my leadership team: 

  • Our new Provost, Dr. Rebecca Doerge, comes to us from Carnegie Mellon University, where she was Dean of the Mellon College of Science—and a faculty member in both the Department of Statistics and Data Science and the Department of Biological Sciences.
  • Our Vice President for Institute Advancement, Mr. Matthew Ter Molen, who comes to us from Syracuse University, where he was Chief Advancement Officer and Senior Vice President.
  • Our new Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics, Dr. Kristie Bowers, who comes to us from Boston University, where she served as where she has served as Senior Associate Athletic Director and Senior Woman Administrator.
  • Our new Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer for Institutional Impact, Ms. R. May Lee, who comes into this 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.

RPI has been operating with a 10-year strategic plan entitled The Rensselaer Plan 2024, and we are in the process of developing a new strategic plan as we enter 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.

We created a working group for each of the five areas, and they have provided their final reports, which we have just posted to the campus community for their input. Our intention is to take on all the feedback, and the five reports to formulate a final strategic plan document, with the goal of sharing that early in our bicentennial year.

Let me now talk about some of the internal, operational issues. First, let me comment on our financials. Our overall financial strategy is two-fold: i) to manage the Institution’s resources carefully so that we don’t get too far out over our skis, and ii) to allocate resources in areas where we see ‘invest to grow’ opportunities. I can provide several examples of the latter. The first is to grow our tenured and tenure-track faculty and our staff.

I mentioned in my Spring Town Meeting six months ago, that when I arrived at RPI, we were at about 80% of our historic size in terms of faculty and staff. This was due to adjustments made in the ‘cross-over’ period (where RPI worked to get a better balance of debt to endowment) and due to COVID. In both cases, RPI implemented necessary staff and faculty reductions, largely through attrition. It was painful but was needed from a financial perspective. As we recover from the pandemic, we have put together a five-year financial plan with ambitious revenue growth goals. 

These are principally in professional education, research, and philanthropy. 

Our investment to grow strategy involves restoring faculty and staff ranks, focusing hiring in Institute advancement, pursuing major research opportunities such as CHIPs, and leaning in on Rensselaer @ Work – to name a few examples.

One other area of focus is addressing our deferred maintenance issues. It’s an area that is familiar with me based on my experience tackling MIT’s $2B issue in 2008. It takes a long time, and substantial resources, but you have to start. We are now exploring a gut renovation of one of our iconic original buildings as a home for our computing activities. Ricketts and 87 Gym are examples.

This will be paced by our capacity to raise funds.

Lastly, we are re-booting core administrative services – streamlining processes, implementing flex work policies, and others – all focused on making RPI a better place to live and work. 

We are also doing some re-structuring: We are moving Student Life and Enrollment Management into the Provost Office, and we created an Office of Strategic Alliances and Translation that is led by Institute Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Jonathan Dordick. 

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

  • I’m happy to say that the operating budget was balanced.
  • Total revenues were below budget by $4.2 million. To put that in perspective, the total revenues for the institute are roughly $440M. The most significant variance to budget
  • The budget was balanced by lower than budgeted expense growth and drawing from reserves. 
  • They experienced a 10.7% return and now stands at $924.3 million.
  • Due to market volatility in the prior year, our defined benefit pension payment was larger than anticipated (approximately $17M). We funded the overage from cash reserves and not the operating budget.
  • Our debt outstanding of $629.8 million is all long-term debt, which decreased by $24.5 million, reflecting the impact of continued principal repayments.
  • The pension plan investments stood at $233.4 million, with a 9.0 percent return for the fiscal year.
  • Year over year, revenues grew only 2%, while expenses grew 7%.

RPI has pivoted from reducing expenses in the uncertain environment of the pandemic—to investing to grow. But we are doing it within an economic and geopolitical environment that remains challenging and uncertain. So, we will continue to monitor our revenue growth and pace our investments accordingly.      

Let me now talk about some progress on strategic initiatives. We continue to focus on strengthening some of our newer activities such as the Fresh Water Institute in Lake George as well as CEPM in New York City.

One area of focus for us since I started is regional engagement. When my wife Lyn and I came to visit Troy as I was considering taking on the RPI presidency, we were astonished at the progress in the city and the region. I’m sure that some of you are experiencing the same astonishment this weekend. 

During my 41 years at MIT, I witnessed the transformation of Kendall Square into one of the world’s most important hubs in the life sciences—thanks to the leadership of MIT and Harvard and the hospitals. The Capital Region of New York State is ripe for a similar transformation, and at RPI, we are driving coalitions to make that happen.

The federal government’s new commitment of $52.7 billion to domestic semiconductor manufacturing, R&D, and workforce development under the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 is an important opportunity for the region. We already have one of the world’s most important contract chipmakers in our backyard, GlobalFoundries. In Albany Nanotech, we have the premier microelectronics prototyping facility in the nation. In IBM, we have a leader in semiconductor innovation. We have the research universities, RPI, SUNY, Cornell. 

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, we will receive $40 million in the first year to create the infrastructure and processes for NORDTech, the greatest amount of any hub. 

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, with Cornell and Notre Dame.

We are also in the process of establishing our first physical presence at Albany NanoTech. 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.

Workforce development is a key element of the CHIPS Act—since talent will be a limiting factor, as the U.S. tries to achieve its economic and national security goals surrounding semiconductors. We are working hard to address this. We are launching a new Master of Science degree in Semiconductor Technology.

But the big challenge for us, and for other higher ed institutions, is the fact that as U.S. semiconductor manufacturing declined in recent decades, so did the number of U.S. faculty focusing on mainstream semiconductor technology, and so did the number of courses. 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 course called Topics in Microelectronics t 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 new Professors of Practice, the most recent 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 degree students at HVCC, designed to attract new students to the field—and to create pathways for them to industry or further education. They are mentored by RPI faculty and industry partners. We believe this program can improve diversity and can be scaled. 

Further establishing both our regional leadership and our global leadership in all aspects of computing, yesterday we held 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. We believe they will 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, the Vice Chair of our Board of Trustees and co-founder of NVIDIA, whose GPU chips are accelerating advancements in artificial intelligence, we are also launching the Curtis Priem Quantum Constellation, which will hire faculty leaders in quantum computing.

The quantum computing system 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.”

One other thing I want to share with you is some of what I heard from you, on my 18 Presidential Tours. I encouraged you to share your hopes and concerns. Some were worried about the student union, some wanted to know my views on Greek life, some expressed concerns about rankings, some expressed concerns about free speech, and some felt that RPI only contacted then when we wanted money. On the Union, I did dig into this, and asked several decades of former GMs and PUs, and the former Director of the Union: Rick Hart to join a meeting with the current and former GM/PU. I think those on the Webex concluded that the state of student management of the Union is healthy. I’m happy to engage you on the other topics if you wish during the Q&A. But let me shift to the future.

All in all, this is shaping up to be a great 200th year for RPI—and I know all of us are looking forward to RPI’s milestone birthday party in 2024.

Please allow me to introduce some of what we are planning.

First of all, we have developed this wonderful logo based on a mobius strip. As you know, if you trace the surface of a mobius strip, it has no ending—or boundaries between inside and outside. So, the mobius strip is not only a wonderful symbol of RPI’s longevity, but also of our ethos in both research and education— which is multi-disciplinary, collaborative, and flexible. 

mobius strip

And now that we have a beautiful Rensselaer logo with a mobius strip you can wear it, too. 

All of our Homecoming and Reunion registrants will receive a free limited edition Bicentennial T-shirt, available at the festival, or in the bookstore all weekend. After that, we will release limited edition T-shirts that are event- or milestone-specific. So, keep an eye out for those, too.

As we gear up to mark 200 incredible years, we want YOU to be part of the celebration. Help us choose our bicentennial tagline by voting on your favorite: Memories to Milestones: A 200-Year Celebration; or Foundations to Future: A 200-Year Reflection. 

Voting is open now until Oct. 19, on our webpage and social media channels. 

We are launching a microsite highlighting 200 “firsts” across RPI’s 200-year history—foundational RPI discoveries and innovations that have changed the world—including creating the first civil engineering curriculum and offering the first engineering degrees in the U.S. 

As we tell the world about RPI’s amazing history, we hope all of you will contribute to that effort by sharing your own memories of RPI. We intend to create an RPI StoryCorps that will collect recordings of RPI stories from alumni, as well as current students, parents, faculty, and staff. Keep an eye out for the launch of this effort in January of 2024.

Parties are of course, also in order! Our Bicentennial Committees have been hard at work planning events and incorporating the bicentennial theme into cherished traditions such as the Mayor’s Cup, the Winter Carnival, and GM Week. 

Our individual schools are also creating their own events. Look out for a Bicentennial lecture series, a Garnet D. Baltimore lecture series, and an event honoring Eddie Knowles—our long-time Vice President for Student Life, as well as a professional musician who spread music and joy at RPI for many years—whom we lost during COVID. EMPAC will have a special Bicentennial exhibit in the Panorama Room.

And finally, there will be a whole series of alumni events throughout the year celebrating our 200th birthday. I hope to see you there!

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