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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at Northern New Jersey Alumni/nae Event 

Category: Regional
February, 2018
Connell Foley LLP Headquarters 

Northern New Jersey Alumni/nae Event 

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

I am delighted to join you here in my adopted home of New Jersey. I spent much of my research career at the great Bell Labs in Murray Hill, and then joined Rutgers University as a tenured professor of theoretical physics. Though I have not worked in New Jersey since I was appointed the Chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1995, I still love the Garden State. 

Please allow me to begin by thanking our host this evening, Mr. Steve Barnett, who graduated from Rensselaer in 1986 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering. Mr. Barnett is a partner here at Connell Foley, and an expert in environmental law—and one of a number of Rensselaer graduates who have used a background in science and engineering to build distinguished legal careers. 

At the end of last month, I had the privilege, once again, of representing Rensselaer at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The theme of the meeting this year was “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” I led a session that considered what the geopolitical map of the world might look like in 2030—as four factors create new vulnerabilities, and opportunities, with potentially cascading consequences. 

Those factors are… 

  • An evolving definition of the most critical strategic resources—essential to many key technologies and systems—such as lithium and cobalt, which are found in areas that influence loyal geopolitical alliances; 

  • climate change, which is opening up new resources in the Arctic Circle, and causing new vulnerabilities, including the storm surges and sea level rises that threaten coastal cities around the world; 

  • a clash of demographics between the aging developed world and the youthful developing world, which can result from massive migration from one region of the world to another; and 

  • advancing technologies, including those that hold great promise for medicine, energy, the built environment, transportation systems, and the nature of work; but include technologies that are altering the nature of conflict and making it harder for nation-states to govern—as well as potentially displacing aging workers in developed economies.  

Indeed, at Rensselaer, our vision for our third century aims directly at creating a shared future in a fractured world. We have established a paradigm that we call The New Polytechnic. “Polytechnic,” as you know, comes from the Greek for “skilled in many arts.” As The New Polytechnic, we educate our students for deep knowledge in their chosen fields—but also for intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global view—in other words, for the kind of perspective that crosses borders, and that fosters creativity, innovation, empathy, and leadership. 

At the same time, as The New Polytechnic, we view Rensselaer itself as a great crossroads for collaborations across disciplines, sectors, geographies, and generations—collaborations animated by the most advanced tools and technologies—and focused on addressing the greatest of global challenges and opportunities.  

Undergirded by this vision—which inspires our faculty, staff, and students alike—Rensselaer is thriving. Demand for a Rensselaer education has never been higher. Applications for admission to our 2017 freshman class (Class of 2021) numbered over 19,500, a new record. As a result, we have an extremely strong freshman class, in terms of academics, with an SAT average of 1400—as well as one of the most diverse classes in our history. This trend shows no sign of deceleration. Applications for freshman admission for the Fall of 2018 now stand at approximately 20,300, and include the greatest number of female, underrepresented minority, and international applicants in Rensselaer history.  

This demand is not surprising, given that many of our programs are now top ranked, by publications and entities that rank such programs, including our Information Technology and Web Sciences program, ranked number 1 among 35 undergraduate programs at national colleges and universities by College Choice; and our undergraduate Physics program, ranked 6th by College Factual. Our superb undergraduate Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program, already ranked 6th nationwide by and 10th by Animation Career Review, was just ranked 7th by GameDesigning and 12th by The Art Career Project. We are developing M.S. and Ph.D. programs in this field as well. Our Master’s of Business Analytics is ranked third in the nation by TFE Times, and our School of Architecture is ranked 13th by DesignIntelligence. In each instance, applications for these programs are continuously and strongly growing.  

Supporting the highly ranked programs, and all of our educational offerings, are 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, 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. 

Key to our success is our world-class faculty, which includes members of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Inventors; several professors who serve on high-level 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, they have helped Rensselaer to expand our research enterprise to over $100 million in research awards and expenditures, even in a 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 perhaps the darkest nanomaterial yet devised, used magnetic forces to control gene expression, and created a safe, bioengineered version of the blood thinner heparin. They are unlocking the secrets of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and osteoporosis—and discovering new treatment modalities for them. They are discovering new data-driven ways to determine which children will be on the autism spectrum, and where on the spectrum they will be. They are pioneering sustainable building materials and systems, shaping the smart power grids of the future, and exploring hybrids of high-performance, cognitive, and neuromorphic computing that are leading us into a new future in which machine intelligence and human intelligence, combined, will allow us to understand our world in ways never before possible. 

We have attracted distinguished partners to amplify our efforts—for example, affiliating with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in both research and education, and working alongside IBM in groundbreaking efforts, such as the Jefferson Project at Lake George (at the Darrin Freshwater Institute), which is developing a new model for the conservation of fresh water resources. 

Our science-based, data-driven model at Lake George is driven in part by the enormous amounts of streaming data delivered by 41 smart sensor platforms we have placed in and around the lake, an hour north of our Troy campus. These smart platforms are able to perceive the changing environment around them, and to make adjustments, such as taking more measurements when something interesting, such as a storm, is brewing. They are helping us to truly understand the lake, as a system of systems, so that we can protect its water—and gain new insights into managing fresh water resources around the globe. Recent news stories about a water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa, which may result in residences and businesses losing access to fresh water, underscore how crucial such research truly is. States and cities in the U.S. have suffered droughts as well.  

Our partnerships with IBM also include our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory at EMPAC, or CISL, which is linking cognitive computing with human-scale interactive immersive environments to create an interactive smart boardroom or classroom, with the goal of radically enhancing group learning and decision-making. This is enabled in immersive spaces with embedded smart sensors and actuators, and through interaction with societies and hierarchies of cognitive digital agents that can interpret speech, gestures, or facial expressions; can bring forward information to facilitate a discussion; and can create a narrative from the flow of the discussion.  

Both The Jefferson Project and CISL employ cyber-physical systems. But this is well beyond Internet of Things technology. At Rensselaer, we believe that as the Fourth Industrial Revolution gathers steam—with the merging of the digital, physical, and biological realms—one of its linchpins will be an Intelligent Internet of Intelligent Things, so that intelligence is distributed throughout linked systems. In other words, the network is smart, and recognizes opportunities and vulnerabilities in data streams—and the devices it connects also are smart, and able to adapt to changing conditions. This Intelligent Internet of Intelligent Things is crucial to addressing many challenges and opportunities, from cybersecurity, to advancing robotics, to enabling personalized medicine, to making use of the tsunami of digital data humanity is generating daily.  

To stay on the leading edge in education as well as research, we have added 21 new academic programs in emerging fields, including a neuroscience concentration in the Biological Sciences department, and a new technologically inflected Bachelor of Science in Music. The B.S. in Music program focuses on preparing graduates for careers in creative professions that combine depth in music with breadth in the sciences, media, and engineering—21st century careers, in fields such as composition and sound design for virtual environments; streaming technologies, interactive media design, and interactive music over networks; audio engineering; and music retrieval. 

Other programs are being developed and/or strengthened, such as a new focus in Quantitative Health Economics in our Economics Department. Under development are a new B.S. in the Lally School in Quantitative Finance and Analytics—building from our M.S. in Quantitative Finance and Risk Analytics; and a minor or a B.S. degree in Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning. We will be piloting learning clusters for working professionals in key areas such as Supply Chain Analytics, Analytics of Cybersecurity, Machine Learning, and Emerging Web Technologies.  

In all that we do, we work to engage our students with a revolutionary pedagogy that includes the gamification of courses, immersive experiences in virtual and augmented reality spaces, and interaction with artificially intelligent characters.  

And we educate them outside the classroom, as well, for the skills to lead multidisciplinary collaborations in a global context. For example, our venerable Center for Communication Practices now has a broader vision as well as a new name: The Center for Global Communication and Design, known informally as Comm+D. For decades, the center has offered one-on-one consultation to students, faculty, and staff on preparing written and oral communication projects. Now it is expanding beyond writing and public speaking to include various types of visual communication—including illustrations, interface design, video and animation storyboards, and multisensory data representation.  

The center also will support a reorganization of the academic calendar we refer to as The Arch. Beginning in the summer of 2019, 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 usual time span.  

This is experiential learning at its finest, and we will encourage all of our students to pursue an opportunity with an international aspect, so that they benefit from the ineffable broadening resulting from living, working, and studying in another culture. 

Encompassing the entire student experience—and making it one of the very best such experiences in the nation—is CLASS, our Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students. With CLASS, we nurture Rensselaer students in tight-knit residential groups, and offer, as well, time-based clustering and programming 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. 

In fact, Rensselaer recently was ranked 19th in the nation for career placement in the 2018 edition of The Princeton Review Colleges That Pay You Back guide. Only 7 percent of all four-year colleges in the United States were included in the guide as offering an exceptional return on investment. The editors note that among the many factors that set Rensselaer apart are its stellar academics, great reputation with science and technology employers, comprehensive career services, vigorous alumni network that benefits our graduates, and, perhaps most inspiring—the fact that Rensselaer graduates report that their jobs have a meaningful impact on the world. 

Rensselaer has been transformed. But our mission, from our very founding, is to be transformative in the world at large. In the words of our founder Stephen Van Rensselaer, Rensselaer was created to forward the “diffusion of a very useful kind of knowledge, with its application to the business of living.”  

As I alluded to at the beginning of my remarks, you know, as I do, that the world faces complex and interconnected global challenges—with concomitant opportunities arising from those challenges, which 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 2030. 

To ready Rensselaer, the first and oldest technological research university in the nation, for global leadership in the 21st century, we have begun a billion-dollar capital campaign—Transformative: Campaign for Global Change. 

After being launched in October at a wonderful gala evening that included 800 friends of Rensselaer, the campaign is off to a very exciting start, with more than $400 million of our billion-dollar goal already raised from alumni and alumnae, parents, corporations, foundations, and friends. 

Our campaign has three pillars: 

The first is increasing endowed student financial aid, while continuing to enhance the remarkable student experience at Rensselaer. The cost of the education we offer—world-class, technological, immersive, and experiential—outstrips 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 backgrounds—and because we intend to honor the intensely democratic vision of Stephen Van Rensselaer, who established 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 continue to draw gifted teachers and researchers to The New Polytechnic to do world-changing work in our laboratories and classrooms—and to ensure that our students, working beside them on their investigations, continue to 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. Our campaign will allow Rensselaer to expand the Jonsson Engineering Center, to repurpose the ’87 Gym, to build a state-of-the-art Center for Science, to complete the second phase of our East Campus Athletic Village, and to provide the physical space for a faculty of 500. 

As we consider the world around us, the stakes are high. The opportunities are clear. The urgency is real. The world truly needs that particular combination of qualities that characterizes the men and women of Rensselaer—that combination of audacity, creativity, pragmatism, tenacity, and refusal to be daunted by the scale of a problem.  

Most of you, too, have had the benefit of a Rensselaer education, and, as a consequence, have been transformative in your lives and careers. We hope that you will join with Rensselaer now to ensure that the most inventive, ingenious, and dedicated young men and women on Earth continue to emanate from our classrooms, laboratories, and makerspaces for generations to come. 

Supporting them is a magnificent way of shaping the future, because we are educating them to uplift lives everywhere, and truly, to change the world.