Presidential All-Alumni Evening
It is a delight to join our students, faculty, academic deans, Cabinet members, friends of the Institute, and—most especially—our returning alumni and alumnae here this evening. I hope that reuniting with your classmates, and with Rensselaer today, has been an inspiring experience.
Nearly two hundred years ago, Rensselaer was founded, in the words of Stephen Van Rensselaer, for the “diffusion of a very useful kind of knowledge, with its application to the business of living.”
Our philanthropic founder expressed himself rather humbly—but his ambitions for Rensselaer were soaring: to transform the very business of living—to change the world.
Indeed, because of the very special nature of the education Rensselaer always has offered—experiential, encouraging experimentation and independent-mindedness—Rensselaer people have changed the world, for nearly two hundred years.
They invented, designed, and built the infrastructure of our nation, and around the globe—starting with canals, bridges, and railroads; moving on to aircraft, television, and nuclear power; and then to foundational technologies in the digital realm, including the microprocessor, the digital camera, networked email and the @ sign; and now the technologies that are allowing the merging of the digital with the physical, and the biological, and machine intelligence with our own insights and abilities—as well as the merging of the digital and the biological worlds, including launching the field of microbial genomics—which is offering profound insights into the nature of health and disease.
The people in this room this evening have honored that tradition and changed the world as well. And it is impossible not to feel a great sense of pride in your accomplishments—and what will be accomplished by the brilliant young people we are educating currently to lead in fields whose outlines are only now becoming apparent, to discover new fields of endeavor, and to build upon your legacy.
With the capital campaign we launch tonight, we are preparing Rensselaer to continue educating the most inventive young people on Earth, well into its third century.
We are confident about our future, because today Rensselaer is thriving. Demand for a Rensselaer education has never been higher. Applications for admission to our freshman class numbered nearly 20,000 this year. Many of our programs are now top-ranked, including our Information Technology and Web Sciences program, the very best of its kind in the nation, and our undergraduate Physics and our Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences programs, both ranked in the top ten nationwide.
We derive our strength from a strong vision for ourselves that inspires Rensselaer students, faculty, and staff alike. 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 global 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 and the National Academy of Sciences, members of the National Academy of Inventors, hundreds of fellows of technical and professional societies, 63 CAREER award recipients, including several who serve on key national panels and committees, and numerous recipients of national and international awards. Together, they have helped Rensselaer to vastly expand its research enterprise to $100 million in research awards and expenditures, even in difficult funding climate.
We focus support for new research around five “signature thrusts”—crucial areas of multidisciplinary research, in ….
- Biotechnology and the Life Sciences:
- Computational Science and Engineering;
- Media, the Arts, Science, and Technology;
- Energy, the Environment, and Smart Systems; and
- Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials.
Within these signature thrusts, Rensselaer faculty have created the darkest nanomaterial yet devised, and used magnetic forces to control gene expression. They are unlocking the secrets of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and osteoporosis—and discovering new treatment modalities for them. They are pioneering sustainable building materials and systems, and using agricultural waste for creating building materials that are desiccants which remove moisture and waste from the air in built structures; they are creating efficient thermoelectric nanomaterials; and shaping the smart power grids of the future.
We have attracted distinguished partners to amplify our efforts, affiliating with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in both research and education, and working alongside IBM in groundbreaking efforts. These 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 with human-scale immersive environments to create a smart boardroom or classroom, with the goal of radically enhancing group learning and decision-making, through interaction with societies and hierarchies of cognitive digital agents.
To stay on the leading edge in education as well as research, we have added 21 new academic degree programs in emerging fields, including a new technologically inflected Bachelor of Science in Music. We engage our students with a revolutionary pedagogy that includes the gamification of courses, and, as you have heard, immersive experiences, and interaction with artificially intelligent characters. We also are reorganizing the academic calendar with the launch in the summer of 2019 of The Arch, under which all Rensselaer undergraduates will remain on campus for the summer after their sophomore year, engaged in junior-level classes, and then leave campus for a full semester (and beyond) of their junior year, for an intellectual adventure uniquely suited to their own passions and interests, and still graduate within the same time span. This will include, for many students, going abroad.
We have created CLASS, our Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, so we can, and do, offer one of the best student experiences in the nation. With CLASS, we nurture Rensselaer students in tight-knit residential groups, and offer, as well, time-based clustering that gives them increasing opportunities appropriate to their stage of academic and personal development.
As a result of all these efforts, our retention and graduation rates have increased significantly, and the outcomes for our graduates are excellent, in terms of the graduate schools where they are accepted, the salaries they command, the leadership roles they assume, the service they provide to our country, the enterprises they launch, and—most importantly—the meaningful and fulfilling lives they lead.
Rensselaer has been transformed. But our mission, from our very founding, is to be transformative in the world at large.
As you know, the world faces complex and interconnected global challenges—with concomitant opportunities—arising from those challenges that beg to be seized. As we consider everything from climate change, or the rise of disruptive non-state actors, on the one hand, to remarkable advances in artificial intelligence and gene editing, on the other, the world needs Rensselaer people to find new solutions, to discover new possibilities, and to transform the business of living for a global population projected to reach 8.6 billion by the time the students in our audience are in their early thirties.
To ready Rensselaer, the oldest technological research university in the nation, for global leadership for in the 21st century, tonight, we launch a capital campaign with three supporting pillars:
The first is increasing student financial aid and enhancing the student experience. The cost of the education we offer at Rensselaer—world-class, immersive, and experiential—has outstripped the financial means of many of our students. Our ability to offer financial aid must bridge this gap.
Because we understand that brilliance does not exclusively come in wealthy packages—because we intend to accept the very best students regardless of their socioeconomic background—and because we intend to honor the intensely democratic vision of Stephen Van Rensselaer, who founded his school to place knowledge “equally within the reach of all”—we must add to our endowment to better meet student financial need.
I was a scholarship student. It changed my life. Many of you were, too! We understand the difference such generosity can make in a young person’s life—and his/her ability to do great work in the world.
Our second pillar focuses on our faculty. We will use the resources unleashed by the campaign to create new endowed professorships that will allow us to attract and retain the very best academic talent from around the world. We will draw gifted teachers and researchers to The New Polytechnic to do world-changing work in their laboratories and classrooms—and to ensure that our students, working beside them on their investigations, learn at the leading edge of their fields.
Endowed chairs will allow us to expand our tenured and tenure-track faculty to 500, so that Rensselaer can achieve intellectual critical mass, and lead in all crucial areas of research and education that comport with our founding mission, “the application of science to the common purposes of life.”
Our third pillar focuses on our beautiful Troy campus, which we must grow, modernize, and equip for continued leadership in pedagogy, research, and student life.
As we consider the world around us, the stakes are high. The opportunities are clear. The urgency is daunting.
It is within your power to set in motion transformative change—not merely in your own careers and lives—but on a larger scale, by joining with Rensselaer to ensure that the most inventive, ingenious, and dedicated young men and women on Earth emanate from our classrooms, laboratories, and makerspaces for generations to come.
Together, we amplify our efforts to improve the world. Together, we set off a cascade of virtuous effects and positive change that will have impacts around the globe. Together, we are transformative.