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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Family Weekend Welcoming Remarks

Category: Regional
October, 2017

Family Weekend

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Good morning and welcome to Family Weekend at Rensselaer. I extend a special welcome to the families of our freshmen, who make up the remarkable Class of 2021.

I also would like to welcome the members of the Parents Council with us this morning, and ask them to stand. The governing body of the Parents at Rensselaer Association, the Parents Council assists us in making lives for our students extraordinary in all ways.

Please join me in thanking them.

Please allow me to introduce the other members of my leadership team—the President’s Cabinet:

  • Dr. Prabhat Hajela, our Provost;
  • Dr. Jonathan Dordick, Vice President for Research and the Howard P. Isermann Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering;
  • Ms. Virginia Gregg, Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer;
  • Mr. Craig Cook, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel;
  • Mr. Graig Eastin, Vice President for Institute Advancement;
  • 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, whom you have already met; and
  • Mr. Jonathan Wexler, Vice President for Enrollment Management.


Please allow me, 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 Linda Schadler, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education;
  • Dr. Aric Krause, Dean for Academic and Administrative Affairs, Rensselaer at Hartford; and
  • Professor Peter Fox, Director of Information Technology and Web Science.


Together, they help to make Rensselaer one of the most exciting places on earth to live, to work, and to learn, so let us acknowledge and thank them.

I am hoping that Family Weekend has been delightful thus far for all of our visitors. I hope, also, that you had the opportunity yesterday to visit some classes, and to collect firsthand evidence regarding what a wonderful place this is to be educated.

Did any of you take the “Spirits of Rensselaer” ghost tour? When you have been in business for nearly 200 years, as we have, you do tend to collect some lore and legends!

However, I believe the real spirit of Rensselaer is captured in our informal motto, “Why not change the world?”

That is what Rensselaer people always have done. Allow me to name just a few of the designs, discoveries, and innovations that are credited to our graduates:

  • The Brooklyn Bridge,
  • The Ferris Wheel,
  • Fenway Park,
  • Baking powder, a landmark in practical chemistry that enabled the muffins you may have had for breakfast this morning,
  • The first long-lasting cathode ray tube that enabled the rise of television,
  • The first supersonic bomber,
  • The microprocessor,
  • The digital camera,
  • Networked email and the @ sign in our digital addresses,
  • The first mapping and sequencing of the genomes of disease pathogens,
  • The graphical processing chips that make interactive gaming such a compelling experience and that are enabling autonomous vehicles and deep learning, and
  • The IBM Watson system that became a sensation for beating the very best human champions at Jeopardy! in 2011.

More recent alumni and alumnae are growing sustainable packing and building materials using mushrooms—and addressing the problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria with lighting that can be used both to illuminate, and to kill germs.

Changing the world is precisely what we are educating your students for—and the sense of purpose and possibility arising from that challenge makes coming to college at Rensselaer a truly thrilling experience.

That is why demand for a Rensselaer education has never been higher. Applications for admission numbered nearly 20,000 this year—an all-time record—for the just under 1,700 places in our freshman class. This number included a record number of applications from women, underrepresented minorities, and international students—allowing us to assemble one of the most academically adept and most diverse classes in our nearly 200-year history.

We derive our strength from a strong vision for ourselves that inspires Rensselaer students, faculty, and staff alike. The “polytechnic” in our name comes from the Greek for “skilled in many arts.” We operate within the paradigm of “The New Polytechnic,” in which we continue to educate our students for deep foundational knowledge in their chosen fields—while we also serve as a great collaborative crossroads for the exchange of ideas across disciplines, sectors, geographies, and generations. At Rensselaer, we bring together talented people from everywhere to address the greatest of challenges, using the most advanced data-driven, computational tools, and the most advanced technologies available anywhere.

We support these collaborations with the world-class platforms for research, education, and student life that now define our campus, including the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center that surrounds us, the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, the East Campus Athletic Village, and the Center for Computational Innovations, which houses the most powerful supercomputer at an American private university.

Our faculty, too, is world-class, and includes members of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Inventors, several professors who serve on key national panels and committees, hundreds of fellows of technical and professional societies, dozens and dozens of CAREER award recipients, and numerous winners of national and international awards.

Remarkable professors are an important reason why so many of our programs are now top-ranked, including our Information Technology and Web Science program, the very best of its kind in the nation. Our undergraduate Physics and our Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences programs are both ranked in the top ten nationwide, and our School of Architecture is ranked 13th. USA Today ranks us sixth on its list of best places to earn an engineering degree.

We also have attracted distinguished partners to amplify our efforts, including our affiliate, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and IBM, a partner in a number of groundbreaking projects. Your students benefit by learning from their experts as well.

From our very founding, a Rensselaer education always has been vigorously experiential, extending far beyond the classroom, and making students active participants in classroom learning by asking them to demonstrate their knowledge and findings to their fellow students and professors.

Today, we encourage our students to participate in research, even as undergraduates. As one among many examples, we have a new Alzheimer’s Disease Clinical and Translational Research Training Program, supported by the National Institutes of Health. The program is designed to allow Rensselaer students to contribute to research on a terribly painful disease for which we have, thus far, no effective treatment, by exposing them to the full range of investigations related to Alzheimer’s. This includes work being done at the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, as well as at our Lighting Research Center, which has found that lighting can improve the quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s—and a summer rotation in clinical research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Because of our affiliation with the Icahn School, Rensselaer students have the opportunity to apply and to be admitted to medical school as sophomores, through the Mount Sinai FlexMed program.

At our Center for Architecture Science and Ecology, our students learn to make the built environment more sustainable by using radically new materials in radically new ways. In fact, this summer two projects created by students in our School of Architecture were named among “The Best Student Design-Build Projects Worldwide 2017” by the architectural news website ArchDaily. Both projects used sustainable building panels, in one case, made from recycled cellulose, and in the other made from an agricultural waste common in the developing world—coconut husks.

The important multidisciplinary research projects we are engaged in with IBM include The Jefferson Project at Lake George, which is developing a new model for the conservation of fresh water resources driven in part by enormous amounts of streaming data; and the Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory, which is linking cognitive computing—and a hierarchy of cognitive agents—with human-scale immersive environments to create a smart boardroom or classroom, with the goal of radically enhancing group learning and decision-making.

In fact, many of the most remarkable teaching tools we use here at Rensselaer arise directly out of the research taking place on our campus. One example is “The Mandarin Project,” which is the first test of a smart classroom within the Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory.

The Mandarin Project uses a multiplayer, mixed reality group game with a semester-long narrative, which we have found helps students to learn the Mandarin Chinese language and Chinese culture more quickly. Within this class, students are immersed in virtual scenarios, such as in a Beijing tea house or at the Beijing Airport, that offer them cultural experiences without having to get on an airplane. They also interact with virtual characters arising from Rensselaer research in artificial intelligence and natural language processing, who help them master the hardest aspects of the language, such as its tones.

I am sure that those of you who took part in the program at our Teaching and Learning Collaboratory yesterday discovered that we use cyber-enabled learning, gamification, and immersive technologies throughout our curriculum. Innovative teaching is an indelible part of the culture at Rensselaer.

Even as students master their own fields, at Rensselaer, we help them to see the connections among fields that, at first glance, appear unrelated—because perceiving such connections is the essence of creativity.

A fluency with data sets, for example, is becoming so essential to work in every field, that we are incorporating data science throughout our curriculum, beginning with foundational mathematics classes, in a program called Data INCITE Lab.

And we have an initiative we call Art_X @ Rensselaer, which extends throughout our curriculum, as well, and into campus life, and which is designed to help our students to see the science in art, and the art in science. Indeed, art and science are utterly enmeshed, as the laws of nature are often beautiful, and concepts such as symmetry matter as much in physics and biology, as in architecture and painting.

We intend, also, that an understanding of such ideas serves as a spur to creativity in every field. In the senior capstone design courses, for example, taken by all of our engineering majors, aesthetic considerations are being woven into much of the program, as well as, of course, function, budget, safety, and performance. As we all know, the most successful designs incorporate all of the above.

We also are expanding on our longstanding leadership in the electronic arts and music, and are about to launch a Bachelor of Science degree program in Music with—as you might expect from Rensselaer—a strong technological focus.

Supporting the entire student experience at Rensselaer is our comprehensive approach to living and learning, our Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS. Since the reality is that our students live here at Rensselaer, and they grow here, this clustering of CLASS is both residential, and time- or developmentally-based.

All first- and second-year students live in tight-knit communities centered in their residence halls, with live-in Assistant Deans supporting them. As sophomores, they also have the option of joining our Greek Life Commons. For those students who chose to move off-campus later in their college careers, we have created an important vehicle for connection in our Off-Campus Commons, which we recently established on 15th Street as a physical gathering and programming place. It also will be the locus of a new safe ride service that we will be launching by, or before, next academic year.

Time-based clustering allows us to offer programming and experiences designed for each stage of a college career. When our students are freshmen, our CLASS programming largely focuses on awareness of an issue. As they grow here, we increasingly expect them to lead, and offer them opportunities to do so. As one among many examples, we invite upperclassmen to join a very successful and popular mentoring program for younger students in our foundational classes in Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics—because there is much to be learned by teaching others!

One of the most important aspects of the student experience here is The Arch, a restructuring of the academic calendar that offers our students even more freedom to explore. With The Arch, our students will take the full complement of junior-level classes on campus the summer after their sophomore years—receiving the undivided attention of their professors and our Student Life staff as they pivot to more advanced work, while exploring the unique summer cultural and recreational aspects of the Capital Region.

Then, they will leave campus for either the fall or spring semester (and beyond) of the traditional junior year for an off-site growth experience—possibly to do an intensive internship, or to engage in an extended research project, or to launch a company, or to initiate a volunteer project—here or abroad. We will offer them all the support they need on this adventure, and ensure that they still graduate within the usual time span. We began piloting the Arch with engineering and management students, this past summer, with a second pilot open to all schools in the summer of 2018. Beginning in the summer of 2019, the Arch will fully become part of our academic programs and calendar.

Rensselaer graduates are in high demand, from the best employers and graduate schools in the nation, and around the globe, and they command extremely high salaries. Even more important are the meaningful and fulfilling lives they lead. With The Arch, Rensselaer students are only becoming more distinctive, and even more ready to change the world.

At Rensselaer, remarkable young men and women have emanated from our school since 1824. Because we intend to continue this leadership into our third century, we launched a billion-dollar capital campaign just two weeks ago.

The campaign has three pillars:

The first is increasing student financial aid and enhancing the already excellent student experience at Rensselaer. The cost of the education we offer—world-class, immersive, and experiential—has outstripped the financial means of many of our students, and our ability to offer as much financial aid as they need. We intend to bridge this gap.

We will use the resources we raise, as well, to keep the teaching and learning here on the leading edge.

The second pillar focuses on our faculty. We will create endowed professorships that allow us to attract and retain the very best academic talent from around the world, and to expand our tenured and tenure-track faculty to 500, so that Rensselaer can achieve intellectual critical mass, and lead in crucial areas of research and education.

Our third pillar focuses on this beautiful campus, which we must grow, and continue to modernize and equip for sustained leadership in pedagogy, research, and student life.

Now, we have a video for you, which will tell you a little more about our campaign—and our vision for the future.

Thank you all for coming, and please enjoy the rest of the weekend!