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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at General Faculty Meeting

Category: Regional
November, 2017
CBIS Isermann Auditorium

General Faculty Meeting

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

I thank the Faculty Senate for inviting me today, and all of you for coming.

It is a pleasure to sum up where we are, currently, at Rensselaer—and the promising places we are going.

By many measures, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is more successful, more respected, and more essential in the world than it ever has been before, in its nearly 200-year history.

Demand for Rensselaer education has never been higher.  Our applications for admission numbered nearly 20,000 this year, for just under 1,700 places in our freshman class—with a record number of applications from women, underrepresented minorities, and international students. With such a large applicant pool, we were able to assemble one of the strongest and most diverse classes in our history—with average SAT scores of 1400. Fifteen percent of the Class of 2021 are underrepresented minorities, 30 percent are women, and 17 percent are international students.

This demand is not surprising, given the top-ranked programs you have helped to build. Among them is our Information Technology and Web Sciences program, the very best of its kind in the nation. We are ranked 6th among top engineering colleges nationwide by USA Today, and our undergraduate engineering ranking went up in U.S. News. Our Physics and Games and Simulation Arts and Science programs are both ranked in the top ten nationwide. Our School of Architecture is ranked 13th in the nation by DesignIntelligence.

Outcomes for our students are excellent, in terms of graduation and retention rates, the high salaries they command, the outstanding graduate schools they attend, the companies they start, the military leadership they provide, the innovative work they do in the world—and, importantly, the fulfilling and meaningful lives they lead.

Of course, it takes a world-class faculty to create great programs, and to educate such outstanding young people. Among you are 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 of early CAREER award recipients, and numerous winners of national and international awards.

Together, you have helped Rensselaer vastly to expand its research enterprise to $100 million in research awards and expenditures, even in a difficult funding climate.

Your work has helped us to attract distinguished partners in both research and education to amplify our efforts. This year alone, we have partnered with IBM to create our new Center for Health Empowerment by Analytics, Learning, and Semantics, or HEALS, which intends to take a radically new approach to managing chronic medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, which are so costly, both in terms of health care dollars and human suffering. HEALS is bringing together faculty from the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, as well as faculty in the life sciences, engineering, social sciences, and management—who are applying advanced cognitive computing capabilities to enabling individuals better to understand and to improve their own health.

In addition, at the gala launching our new capital campaign, about which I will tell you more in a moment, Trustee Dr. John E. Kelly III of the Rensselaer Classes of 1978 and 1980—and IBM Senior Vice President of Cognitive Solutions and IBM Research—announced a ten-year investment in Rensselaer on the part of IBM.  This investment is intended to move artificial intelligence and machine learning into a future, in which intelligence will be distributed in almost every piece of technology we encounter in our daily lives.

This agreement truly represents The New Polytechnic in action, as explorations in artificial intelligence will be conducted across sectors, across disciplines, across generations, and across the curriculum—transforming both the research and the education that takes place at Rensselaer—with the potential to improve lives around the globe.  It will support the hiring of new faculty, and support research projects proposed by existing faculty—in areas important to IBM and to Rensselaer.  The work supported can and will play across essentially all of our schools, but especially Engineering and Science. 

This year, as well, our affiliation with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai has yielded a new opportunity for our students, with 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 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. As you know, thus far, physicians have no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s, and The Alzheimer’s Association projects that if we do not discover one, Alzheimer’s will cost the American health care system over a trillion dollars a year in 2050—and afflict 13.5 million people—so the research and education taking place at Rensselaer on this disease is of enormous societal importance.

We are very proud, as well, that the City of Cohoes is now turning to students in our School of Architecture to envision a waterfront gateway to the city, with cultural and recreational elements.

To keep Rensselaer on the leading edge in education, we have added 21 new academic degree programs in emerging fields. We now are recruiting the first students for our technologically inflected Bachelor of Science in Music degree, and we expect many students to take music on as a dual major. This degree is designed to ready Rensselaer students for 21st century music careers, which may include composition for gaming and other digital and electronic media, or leading music social networks.

At Rensselaer, we continue to lead in our innovative pedagogy. I thank our entire Teaching and Learning Collaboratory Board for their fine work in engaging the broader base of our faculty with new technologies for teaching, and new ideas. At our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory, we are moving forward in using the “Mandarin Project” as a test of our cognitive classroom—and adding interaction with artificially intelligent agents to speed learning of the most difficult aspects of the Mandarin Chinese language, including its use of tones.

Our first pilot this past summer of the “Summer Here” semester of The Arch, which included 58 rising juniors from the School of Engineering and the Lally School of Management, was a great success. Seventy percent of the rising juniors achieved a GPA of 3.0 or higher for the semester, and 10 percent achieved a perfect 4.0.

The first participants told us they were grateful for the opportunities offered by the more compact and more intense summer session to get to know each other, and their professors, better. They also enjoyed the many co-curricular opportunities offered by the summer, including field trips to local companies, pop-up courses with intriguing premises such as the “Inventor’s Nightmare,” and “Space in the Movies,” cultural and recreational outings, and, for the Lally Arch students, a trip to Shanghai and Beijing, where they visited companies and experienced the culture.

With the advent of The Arch, our Center for Career and Professional Development clearly has an important role in helping rising juniors to identify and to select opportunities for their away semester, and we have hired an innovative new director to lead that office, Mr. Matthew Cardin, who has over 15 years of experience in the field. Overall, we are enhancing student advising, including creating academic advising hubs in each of our schools. We think our students will benefit greatly from the additional direction we are providing, given the additional responsibilities that The Arch will place on them—and the additional opportunities it will open up.

I thank everyone who participated in the first pilot of The Arch. We will continue to improve the program, as we gain more experience with it. Next summer, qualified students in the Class of 2020 from all five schools will be able to join the second pilot, and with the Class of 2021, The Arch becomes universal, beginning in the Summer of 2019. In addition to its many benefits for our students, The Arch will provide all of you with additional flexibility in your research and teaching schedules, by you offering the option of teaching during a summer session and using the fall or spring semester to conduct research, either at Rensselaer or elsewhere.

To ensure that your teaching and research is not compromised by the larger classes we are able to admit because of The Arch, we also have hired additional lecturers and professors of practice.  We will be adding Teaching Fellows to our hiring.  We are adding tenured and tenure-track faculty, also, where the start-up costs are in hand.

As many of you are aware, Rensselaer has a legacy defined benefit pension plan that has put a strain on university finances and limited our ability to expand our faculty. We are honoring our obligations under this plan, because it is the right thing to do. A number of people who served Rensselaer very faithfully over the years rely on that pension.

Before I introduce the campaign to you, please allow me to say a word about the Rensselaer Union. We are very proud of our student-run Union, which is highly unusual, but very Rensselaer! However, it was obvious that we needed to clarify the process for hiring a Director of the Union, who is an employee of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, to ensure that all federal and state employment laws are complied with.

We now have worked with student leaders on this hiring process—including inviting them to interview candidates and seeking their direct input in the hiring decision.  And we are working with them to clarify those places where the Union Constitution is in conflict with the Bylaws of the Institute, which supersede all governing documents of Rensselaer-affiliated organizations of any kind. We hope that this degree of transparency will eliminate any lingering misconceptions of the part of students and alumni and alumnae as to our goals. Our students—their development, their enjoyment, and their well-being—are at the forefront of every decision we make.

Again, the Student Union, with its 230 clubs, sports, volunteer groups, and student government bodies—is a remarkable testament to the vitality of the Rensselaer student experience, which we believe is among the best in the world—and which, with our campaign, will become even greater.

As Rensselaer approaches its third century, we intend not to tread water—but to be utterly transformative in the world at large. Towards that end, earlier this month, we launched our new capital campaign, “Transformative: Campaign for Global Change.”

       The campaign has three essential 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.

       Many of us were scholarship students. We understand how important such support is, in allowing talented young people to achieve their full potential—and to make a difference in the world.

       Our second pillar focuses on 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. Endowed chairs, and other resources raised in the Campaign, will allow us 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 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. We must grow, modernize, and equip the campus for continued leadership in pedagogy, research, and student life.

       Our goal for the campaign is to raise $1 billion in new resources. And I am pleased to report that we are well on our way, with over $400 million already committed or raised from our most generous individual and institutional donors.

       This is a very exciting moment for the Institute.  We stand here at a moment of strength for Rensselaer—and anticipate an even stronger future. It is a very important journey that we are on together.