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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at 2018 Annual Retiree Day Luncheon

Category: Regional
October, 2018
Hilton Garden Inn
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Good afternoon. Welcome to our annual Retiree Day Luncheon.

I am delighted to have this occasion every year to catch up with old friends—to meet with the people who helped to make Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute the thriving university it is today—and to keep you up to date on our visions and plans moving forwards.

As you know, because it is a world-class technological research university, we always consider Rensselaer within a global context, and in anticipation of the future.

Last January, I had the great privilege, once again, of representing Rensselaer at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland—where I was presented with the fascinating challenge of prognosticating twelve years hence. As co-Chair, for two years, of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on International Security, I was asked to lead a session titled “The Geopolitics of 2030.” This session considered the major factors likely to shape the global security landscape a dozen years from now.

Since these same factors clearly are going to influence our thinking at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, please allow me to summarize them today.

We are moving out of the era following the Cold War in which the United States was effectually the world’s sole superpower. Russia and China are exerting greater regional influence—and by 2030, there will be a new degree of economic might in emerging economies, including Nigeria, Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico, and Turkey. And the speed at which they are emerging is unprecedented. Globally, over 2 billion more people will enter the middle class by 2030.

However, GDP is far from the only determinant of the context in which our students today will build their lives and careers. The other key factors include…

  • First, access to, and control of, crucial strategic resources—especially energy-related resources;
  • Second, ability to adapt to climate change;
  • Third, human capital and changing demographics; and
  • Fourth, the influence of rapidly advancing technologies.

In 2030, we are likely to be moving to a lower carbon world, with a changing energy mix that will alter the definition of strategic resources. Countries rich in oil and natural gas have used those resources to great geopolitical advantage in the past. While fossil fuels still will be important in 2030, an increase in renewable energy will spur power shifts because such energy can be produced locally—and because it is bringing electricity to rural populations in the developing world that never before had it.

Of course, there still will be critical strategic resources—the mix will just be different. For example, as the transportation sector electrifies, materials essential to lithium ion batteries will be key. The production and mining of the requisite lithium, cobalt, and graphite are currently dominated by a few nations—with, for example, 55 percent of the world’s cobalt mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unless the world identifies new sources or substitutes for these materials, they represent a security risk.

The second factor shaping the geopolitics of 2030 is climate change—which is likely to continue causing droughts, wildfires, and crop failures—at the same time as sea level rises and storm surges threaten low-elevation coastal cities around the globe. As Hurricane Florence just proved, coastal regions of the U.S. are not immune to this threat. The world may see large migrations of climate refugees, and governments destabilized by natural disasters.

There are nonetheless new natural resource opportunities opened up by climate change. The shrinking ice cover in the Arctic Circle, ironically, may open to exploitation enormous conventional natural gas and oil reserves. Control of these resources and Arctic trade routes is likely to be a source of tensions between the U.S., Russia, and other nations.

The third factor shaping the geopolitical landscape is the diverging demographics between the developed world, and the developing world, which is experiencing a youth boom. In 2030, the divides already are extreme—with much of Africa having a median population age under 20, while countries in Europe and China, Russia, and Japan have median ages more than twice that. 

Developing economies will struggle to provide the education and opportunities that could turn their relative youth into a source of economic strength. Developed economies, on the other hand, may struggle to maintain GDP growth because of a scarcity of people of working age. Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics may be crucial to increasing productivity, and to keeping developed economies from stagnating. At the same time, artificial intelligence and machine learning may speed up the disappearance of middle-skilled jobs, and increase income inequality—a policy challenge, to be sure. 

The fourth factor shaping the geopolitics of 2030 is rooted in the technologies of what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution—in other words, technologies that are merging the digital realm, with the physical and biological worlds.

These technologies, and the interconnectivity they enable, are creating new security risks and making governing more difficult. Some of them can be easily weaponized by non-state actors, including…  

  • commercial drones, which have been used in the Syria conflict;
  • 3-D printing, which has produced grenade launchers;
  • CRISPR gene editing, which may facilitate the production of biological weapons; and
  • cyberphysical systems that offer new angles of attack.

Yet, these same technologies offer so much hope for strengthening commerce, human health and welfare, and energy and industrial processes.

At Rensselaer, we know that technologies can heal divides, as well as create them. A key question is: Can we use technological advances to enable intergenerational linkages between nations, in ways that create greater productivity and innovation?

Such linkages would confer economic strength by taking advantage of the forward-thinking and risk-taking of the young, and the wisdom and experience of older populations.

In other words, could the world come to resemble Rensselaer more closely, where we work together across the generations, but also across cultures, genders, religions, ethnicities? 

Most of the freshmen Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute welcomed this fall will be 30 years old in 2030—in other words, beginning to fully grasp their own powers. It will belong to our students to address the vulnerabilities, consequences, and opportunities I have just described.

This year, we had the greatest number of undergraduate applications in Rensselaer history—over 20,400. So we were able to select an extremely strong and diverse group of students.

How do we prepare these talented young people for 2030? 

First, within the vision we term The New Polytechnic, we work hard to foster three essential qualities in them:

  • The intellectual agility to see across disciplines, and to create entirely new tools and technologies that will change the world;
  • The multicultural sophistication that allows them to reach across generations, geographies, and sectors to address great challenges; and
  • A global view that recognizes the degree to which the most important risks and opportunities are broadly shared by all of humanity.

We begin by offering our students superb academic programs, whose quality is widely recognized:

  • Forbes recently ranked Rensselaer 14th on its list of the nation’s best STEM colleges and universities.
  • Our Information Technology and Web Sciences program has been ranked first in the nation by College Choice, among undergraduate programs at national colleges and universities.
  • Our Master’s of Business Analytics has been ranked 3rd by TFE Times.
  • Our undergraduate Physics program is ranked 6th by College Factual.
  • Our School of Architecture is ranked 13th by DesignIntelligence.
  • Our Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program is ranked 6th by, 7th by and 12th by The Art Career Project.

We are also highly attuned to the opportunities created by emerging disciplines, and are expanding our academic offerings to include them. Over the course of the Rensselaer Plan and the Rensselaer Plan 2024, we have created 21 new academic degree programs, including a new Bachelor of Science in Music program designed to prepare Rensselaer students for 21st century music careers in realms such as composition for gaming or digital music networks.

And while we educate our students for deep knowledge in their own fields, we also ensure that they develop skills that cut across disciplines. That is why Rensselaer is the first university in the nation to include a “data dexterity” requirement in its core curriculum. We believe that no matter what field of endeavor they choose, our graduates will need to use diverse datasets to define and address complex challenges. So all students at Rensselaer must complete two “data-intensive” courses; one to establish the foundations of data modeling and analysis, and a second course that applies modern data analytics within their academic disciplines. 

We also offer our students significant opportunities to test their acquired knowledge out in the world, through approaches such as The Arch, which we have been piloting for the past two summers, and which will be fully realized next summer. Under The Arch, all rising Rensselaer juniors remain on-campus the summer after their sophomore year, taking junior-level classes and benefitting from the undivided attention of their professors and our Student Life staff. This allows them to spend a semester or more away from campus during the traditional junior year, and still to graduate on time.

With the help of our Center for Career and Professional Development, they will choose an away semester experience that suits their interests and passions, whether an internship or launching a business, or a volunteer or research experience, or an approved Individual Learning Experience. We will encourage all our students to go abroad, in order to gain insights relevant to the broader world.

We continue to invest in our Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS—designed to provide one of the best student experiences in the United States. One area of concern for us—and for many other universities—has been Greek Life. Nationally, dozens of universities and colleges have suspended Greek life because of incidents related to alcohol abuse, illegal drug use, hazing, sexual misconduct, sexual assault, and acts of racial discrimination and bigotry.

Rensselaer has not been immune to these problems. In addition, a number of our Greek houses are not in the best physical condition, a safety risk.

At the same time, we recognize that our Greek system at Rensselaer is 165 years old and has quite a legacy and that Greek Life is an important part of many students’ experience of Rensselaer.

So, to preserve and strengthen our Greek system, we have appointed a Greek Life Review Committee to formally assess the current state of Greek Life at Rensselaer.

The Review Committee includes the Greek Life Task Force, led by Vice President and Chief Information Officer John Kolb ’79, which is charged with identifying what is necessary to enact a long-term, sustainable, and comprehensive culture change—so that the Greek system can continue to help our students to thrive on campus, and to find their place in the world. We expect the Task Force to deliver recommendations for the best path forward by Thanksgiving.

As we approach the 200th anniversary of our founding in 2024, we have launched a billion-dollar capital campaign to ready Rensselaer for its third century. Titled Transformative: Campaign for Global Change, it has three important goals:

  • First, eliminating the gap between student financial need and the scholarships and fellowships we are able to give, while enhancing the student experience;
  • Second, endowing many more professorships to attract and retain the best academic talent, and to expand our tenured and tenure-track faculty to 500 in critical areas of research and teaching; and
  • Third, upgrading and expanding our campuses, technologically and physically, including building a new Center for Science and expanding the Jonsson Engineering Center and the East Campus Athletic Village. 

We began the campaign a little over a year ago with $400 million already committed by Rensselaer alumni, alumnae, parents, friends, and partners—and have continued to benefit from the generosity of the members of the Rensselaer family.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute truly is poised to lead in 2030 and beyond.

Of course, we stand on your shoulders as we anticipate the future.

None of our current successes—and bright prospects looking forward—would be possible, without the wonderful work that all of you did to realize the Rensselaer Plan and the Rensselaer Plan 2024.

We are so grateful to you for your ongoing interest and support. I truly count on your wise advice, so please continue to keep in touch.

And, please, enjoy the rest of the day.