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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at Family Weekend

Category: Regional
October, 2018
EMPAC Theater
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Good morning and welcome to Family Weekend at Rensselaer. I extend a special welcome to the families of our freshmen, who make up the remarkable Class of 2022.

I also would like to welcome the members of the Parents Council with us this morning, and ask them to stand. The governing body of the Parents of Rensselaer Association, the Parents Council assists us in making our students’ experience at Rensselaer extraordinary in all ways.

Please allow me to introduce the other members of my leadership team—the President’s Cabinet.

Will each Cabinet Member stand as your name is called, and remain standing until all the names are read?

  • Professor Prabhat Hajela, our Provost;
  • Mr. Craig Cook, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel;
  • Mr. Graig Eastin, Vice President for Institute Advancement;
  • Ms. Barbara Hough, Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer;
  • Professor Robert Hull, Senior Associate Vice President for Research;
  • 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 & 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, whom you have already met; and
  • Mr. Jonathan Wexler, Vice President for Enrollment Management.

I am delighted, 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; and
  • Professor Peter Fox, Director of Information Technology and Web Science.

Together, they help to make Rensselaer transformative—in the impact of our research, in the innovative teaching and learning that take place here, and most importantly, in the lives of our students.

I am hoping that Family Weekend has been delightful thus far for all of our visitors. We are so pleased to have you here at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. We consider our ability to bring people here, for significant interactions, to be one of the most important parts of our mission.

For example, Rensselaer recently hosted a distinguished panel—including Dr. Ellen Ochoa, a veteran astronaut and the 11th Director of the NASA Johnson Space Center—that considered the fascinating question of whether humans are going to Mars.

Many of our students and faculty are laying the groundwork for an affirmative answer to that question, including Professor Karyn Rogers of our Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, who led one of the research dinners last night that some of you may have attended. Professor Rogers studies extremophiles, microbes that have evolved to survive and to thrive in most extreme conditions on Earth, in terms of temperature, pressure, chemistry, radiation, or lack of water—some of which are analogous to the conditions found on Mars. If life is indeed present on Mars, any human mission will have to be designed to avoid contaminating Martian ecosystems, as well as to avoid infection by Martian pathogens.

Just this week, we also hosted a lecture by a 2018 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Dr. Frances Arnold, who views evolution from another angle: She has devised a method of mimicking evolution to create enzymes that can be used in manufacturing processes that are less environmentally costly. Enzymes are the chemical catalysts that cause reactions within living things.

By creating random mutations in the genetic code that yields a particular enzyme, and introducing those mutations into bacteria, Dr. Arnold is able to produce variants of the enzyme she wants. Screening for and choosing the few variants that work best, she introduces a new round of random mutations that help her to screen for and choose the few variants that work even better, and so on. After a few such cycles, an enzyme might become thousands of times more effective.

Akin to a farmer breeding better crops, Dr. Arnold is breeding better molecules. The enzymes created by her method of directed evolution have been used for everything from pharmaceuticals to biofuels to laundry detergents.

We also recently brought many artists here to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the opening of this remarkable platform, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC—one of the most advanced performing arts centers in the world, as well as a laboratory for research into human interaction with the digital world at human scale. One of the works commissioned by EMPAC for the anniversary festival was co-created by artist-in-residence Wu Tsang, who just was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship “genius grant.”

As you can see, Rensselaer draws truly remarkable people in many different fields to this campus regularly, and we consider exposure to, and interaction with, such outstanding individuals—across many domains, an important part of the education we offer our students. The “polytechnic” in our name comes from the Greek for “skilled in many arts.” Within a vision we term The New Polytechnic, we see Rensselaer as a great crossroads for talented people from across disciplines, sectors, geographies, and generations—who come together to address great challenges, using the most advanced tools and technologies, many of them invented here.

So welcome to the crossroads! We are glad to have you with us.

I hope your experience this weekend will help you to understand why demand for a Rensselaer education has never been higher. We had over 20,400 applications for a place in this year’s freshman class—another record. We were able to select, and enroll, an extremely academically strong and diverse group of students. The Class of 2022 includes more women and underrepresented minorities than any class in our history. Its average SAT score is 1410—with a middle 50 percent range of 1330-1500; and it includes 95 high school valedictorians and salutatorians. Equally important, our newest students include celebrated musicians, athletic champions, outstanding community volunteers, an author of two (yes, two!) books, inventors, entrepreneurs and at least one volunteer fireman.

How do we prepare these talented young people for the future?

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 also are highly attuned to the opportunities created by emerging disciplines, and are expanding our academic offerings to include them. The 22 new academic degree programs we have created include 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. On Wednesday, October 24th, we will celebrate the launch of this degree program with a performance by The Rensselaer Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York City, as part of our Scholarship Gala evening and our billion-dollar capital campaign titled Transformative: Campaign for Global Change, designed to ready Rensselaer for its third century. We hope to see some of you there!

We also have 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 academic program in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

And while we educate our students for deep knowledge in their chosen fields, we also ensure that they develop intellectual curiosity, and 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. All students at Rensselaer must now 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.

One of the fields that data analytics techniques are poised to revolutionize is health care. We still understand so little about the human body as a system, and so little about the variations among us that cause such different outcomes from common treatments for the same diseases. However, we can use the unexpected correlations revealed by data science to expand our knowledge base, and to suggest new paths for investigation.

Recognizing Rensselaer’s great strength in fostering data-adroit students, the United Health Foundation recently awarded us a $1.1 million grant to create the Rensselaer Health Informatics Challenges in Technology Education, or INCITE Pipeline. This pipeline, encompassing both curricular and research elements, is designed to inspire the next generation of health care data scientists—as well as data-skilled biomedical professionals and researchers of all kinds.

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 launched next summer. I am hoping that some of you were able to attend The Arch reception yesterday evening.

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 intend to provide one of the best student experiences in the United States, so we continue to invest in our Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS—which supports and develops students in both residentially-based and time-cased clusters.

With CLASS, we have ensured that even upperclassmen who move off campus remain part of a strong residential community. Our Off-Campus Commons now has a physical home base on the campus, a place where off-campus students can gather for activities and programs, or to study. And we recently instituted a new program called Safe Ride, a service that offers free rides between campus and home in the later hours. Safe Ride operates from the Off-Campus Commons. Protecting our students is always a paramount consideration here.

One area of concern for us is our Greek Life System, and Rensselaer is far from alone in this. 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 under suspension, and some 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 long-term, sustainable, comprehensive culture change, and financial stability—so that the Greek system can continue to help our students to thrive on campus, and to find their places in the world. We expect the Task Force to deliver recommendations for the best path forward by Thanksgiving.

Ultimately, in all that we do, we work hard to foster three essential qualities in our students:

  • 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, cultures, 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 around the world.

This, together with superb academic programs, is our approach to preparing our students to change the world.

What we do is very exciting for all of us who live, learn, and work here. And this weekend, we have worked very hard to ensure that you, too, experience that excitement.

So I thank you for visiting, and I urge you, please, to sample as much of Rensselaer as you can, and to thoroughly enjoy the rest of the weekend!