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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at the 2018 Spring Town Meeting

Category: University Events
March, 2018
Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center

2018 Spring Town Meeting

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

Welcome, everyone. Thank you for coming.

Greetings to those who are watching us online, in Troy, in Hartford, and around the globe.

Please allow me to begin by introducing my 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 and 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; 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 make Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute a transformative force in research, in pedagogical innovation, and in the lives of our wonderful students. Please join me in thanking them.


In late January, I had the great privilege, once again, of representing Rensselaer at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. I am Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on International Security, and I was asked to lead a session titled “The Geopolitics of 2030.” With this session, I was given the fascinating challenge of considering the major factors likely to shape the global security landscape a dozen years from now.

Since all of us here at Rensselaer are focused on changing the world, I would like to begin today by offering you an overview of my presentation—and of the risks, vulnerabilities, and opportunities that will provide a context for all of our best efforts at Rensselaer in the next dozen years.

First, in 2030, we are likely to be living in a lower carbon world, with a changing energy mix that will shift international alliances and alter the definition of strategic resources. Countries rich in oil and natural gas have used those resources to great geopolitical advantage in the past. Fossil fuels will continue to be used. However, renewable energy has the advantage of being able to be produced locally, potentially allowing the EU, for example, to become less dependent on Russia—and bringing electricity to rural populations in the developing world that never before had it.

Of course, there will still be critical strategic resources—they 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 some of those materials is currently limited to a few geographies.

  • As much as 54 percent of identified lithium resources globally are in the Lithium Triangle of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia;

  • 55 percent of cobalt is mined in the conflict-ridden Democratic Republic of the Congo; and

  • 66 percent of the world’s graphite is produced in China.

Unless the world identifies new sources or substitutes for these resources, they represent a security risk—as well as an extremely interesting challenge for our Materials, Devices, and Integrated Systems Center here are Rensselaer, and its associated students and faculty.

The second factor shaping the geopolitics of 2030 is climate change—which is likely to cause droughts in Africa and to threaten rain-fed agriculture there—at the same time as sea level rises and storm surges threaten low-elevation coastal cities around the globe, with South Asia being particularly vulnerable. Coastal regions of the U.S. are not immune either. The world may see large migrations of climate refugees, and governments destabilized by natural disasters.

There are nonetheless new geopolitical opportunities opened up by climate change. The shrinking ice cover in the Arctic Circle is allowing new resources and trade routes to be exploited—including, ironically, an estimated 30 percent of undiscovered conventional natural gas reserves and 13 percent of undiscovered conventional oil reserves. Control of these resources and 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 aging 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, as well as China, Russia, and Japan have median ages more than twice that.

There are challenges on both sides. Aging developed economies may struggle to maintain GDP growth with 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.

Developing nations such as India, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya, in contrast, all will have growing working-age populations between 15 and 64. This could be a great economic benefit to them. But do they have the education, opportunities, and infrastructure to take advantage of it? Here is a key challenge to raising living standards: Working age populations will grow the most in South Asian and African countries where average education levels are among the lowest.

Recent history suggests that states with youthful populations—and insufficient opportunities—are the most prone to intra-state political violence. The migrations that have been provoked by such instability—in combination with the sense that globalization has not benefitted the middle classes in the developed world—have helped to shape recent politics in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Yet migrations can offer a long-term benefit to nations with aging and shrinking populations. Because of immigration, the United States is not projected to grow as old, by 2030, as nations such as Russia, Italy, Germany, Spain, and Japan: The United Nations predicts a median age of 40 in the United States in 2030. But will current policy changes alter that trajectory?

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.

The diffusion of such technologies—and communications connectivity—make it more difficult for central states to govern. They allow for the growth of transnational alliances such as alliances of multinational corporations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), or other multilateral organizations, at one end of the spectrum—or transnational terrorist or criminal groups at the other end.

New technologies allow, as well, internal groups, including cities and states, to challenge central governments and to create instability without large militaries, economies, or populations.

Of course, the shifts due to connectivity can be exacerbated by the fact many technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be easily weaponized by non-state actors, including…

  • commercial drones,

  • 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, as we well know at Rensselaer, advanced technologies can heal divides, as well as create them. A key question is: Can technologies address the widening demographic gulf between developed and developing nations, by enabling intergenerational linkages in ways that create greater productivity and innovation? If so, these technologies would confer economic strength by virtue of building economies that simultaneously take 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? Where each year, the most distinguished of our faculty members welcome incoming freshmen in anticipation of learning from them, as well as teaching them?

This will require a new kind of intergenerational compact that has yet to evolve.

Most of the freshmen we will welcome 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 risks, vulnerabilities, and opportunities I have just described. Here at Rensselaer: The New Polytechnic, we work to ready all of our students for these challenges, by fostering three essential qualities:

  • 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, sectors, and disciplines to address great challenges; and

  • A global view that recognizes the degree to which the most important risks, vulnerabilities, and opportunities are broadly shared by all of humanity.

Our superb academic programs prepare Rensselaer students to lead—and I congratulate our faculty, students, and administrators and staff, for the degree to which those programs are now being lauded by many different sources:

  • For example, 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.

  • College Choice also ranked Rensselaer eighth among the best colleges in New York State.

  • 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.

  • In addition, the 2018 edition of The Princeton Review’s annual guide, Colleges That Pay You Back, ranked Rensselaer 19th for “best career placement.”

In other words, we offer our students a superb education—and a superb entry to their careers—which is growing even more superb with the opportunities for experiential learning afforded by the away semester of The Arch.

We also are adding to our academic offerings in emerging fields, with a new Bachelor of Science in Music program that will begin this fall, as well as a new focus on Quantitative Health Economics in our Economics Department. We are developing a new Bachelor of Science program in the Lally School in Quantitative Finance and Analytics, and a new degree or minor in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

Our ability to anticipate which emerging disciplines are likely to prove most important is one reason why demand for a Rensselaer education has never been higher.

Overall applications for undergraduate admissions for the Fall of 2018 now number 20,375. This is a 5 percent increase from last year’s record-breaking number.

Even more telling is the fact that, for an enormous number of students, Rensselaer is the very first choice, so they decide to apply for Early Decision, which is binding if we accept them. We received the most Early Decision applications and confirmations in our history—and 30 percent of the incoming class of freshmen will have been admitted through Early Decision.

This also will be the strongest incoming freshman class we ever have enrolled in terms of academics, with the average SAT score up 9 points over last year.

We expect to achieve a very diverse freshman class. A particularly strong group of young women and underrepresented minorities applied this year, and we admitted 14 percent more women than last year, and 11 percent more underrepresented minorities. The geographic diversity of the class is sure to be strong as well, with 42 perent of the students offered admissions stemming from outside the Northeast.

To allow us to achieve all of our missions in research, teaching, and student life, on March 3rd, the Rensselaer Board of Trustees approved an overall operational budget for Fiscal Year 2019 of $439.5 million.

Tuition for full-time undergraduate and full-time graduate students will be $52,550, an increase of 3 percent, which is in line with other colleges and universities. On average, room and board rates will increase 2 percent. The financial aid budget, on the other hand, will increase 5.3 percent from the current-year level, to $148 million. Included in this figure are resources to assist those students who encounter unexpected financial hardships during their time at Rensselaer.

The minimum academic year stipend for graduate students will increase to $23,000, so we are competitive with peer institutions.

We will continue adding to our world-class faculty, filling the remaining tenured and tenure-track faculty positions planned in the Fiscal Year 2018 budget, including four constellations. In addition, we will hire teaching fellows and other contingent faculty to maintain instructional quality, and we will add new staff—as we move towards the full implementation of The Arch in the summer of 2019.

We also will 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. Our new Off-Campus Commons on 15th Street—the physical instantiation of one of the pillars of CLASS—is proving to be extremely popular, particularly as a location where students can gather to study. We recently launched a new Safe Ride program there, which arose out of conversations with some of our female students, who told me that after late nights of studying or socializing, they truly needed a door-to-door transport service to feel safe on the way home. So, in addition to the expanded Shuttle Bus Service, we now have a fleet of two electric vehicles donated by American Honda Motors to offer rides until three in the morning, seven days a week. Demand for this service already has been quite intense.

Of course, to achieve all we would like to, the success of our billion-dollar capital campaign is essential. Transformative: Campaign for Global Change was launched in October with $400 million already committed, thanks to the generosity of our alumni, alumnae, parents, friends, and partners.

Since our campaign launch, we have raised an additional $21.6 million towards the billion-dollar mark, with the ultimate goals of…

  • eliminating the gap between student financial need and the scholarships and fellowships we are able to give;

  • endowing many more professorships to attract and retain the best academic talent, and expanding our faculty to 500 in critical areas of research and teaching; and

  • upgrading and expanding our campuses physically to accommodate this growth, including building a new Center for Science and expanding the Jonsson Engineering Center.

As we move towards the two-hundredth anniversary of our founding in 2024—and towards the “geopolitics of 2030,” the future of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is bright indeed.

In the more immediate future, of course, we will welcome a group of extremely accomplished men and women here in May for our 212th Commencement—to award them honorary degrees, and to allow our students to learn from them. I am pleased today to announce our honorands:

First, we will welcome Mr. Herbie Hancock, the legendary jazz pianist and composer, who over a nearly 60-year career has received an Academy Award for his Round Midnight film score, and 14 Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year for River: The Joni Letters, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

We also will welcome Ms. Mary Jo White, who is a litigation partner and Senior Chair at the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton. She served as Chair of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission from 2013 to 2017, strengthening enforcement and protections for investors in the wake of the financial crisis. As U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for nine years, she oversaw major prosecutions for terrorism and white-collar and organized crime—including a successful prosecution of the people responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

We also will welcome Dr. Eric Lander, President of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Professor of Biology at MIT, and Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. A mathematician, molecular biologist, and geneticist, he was a principal leader of the Human Genome Project. He has done pioneering work in the molecular basis of diseases, human genetic variation, human population history, genome evolution, and many other fields.

And we welcome Ms. Alicia Bohler Davis of the Rensselaer Class of 1998. In June of 2016, she was named Executive Vice President of General Motors Global Manufacturing—which makes her not only one of the most powerful women in the automotive industry, but also one of the most powerful people in American manufacturing. She was named Black Engineer of the Year in December.

We anticipate a lively and thought-provoking conversation with these four guests at the President’s Commencement Colloquy, which will be held on Friday, May 18th, at 3:30 p.m. in the EMPAC Concert Hall. Our theme will be “Breaking Paradigms and Transcending Borders: Transformative Leadership in the 21st Century.” I hope all of you will join us!