Skip to main content

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at Rensselaer Scholarship Reception and Gala

Category: National
June, 2018
Ritz Carlton

Rensselaer Scholarship Reception and Gala

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

Welcome, everyone. I too would like to thank our generous corporate sponsors, our Trustees, and stakeholders for making this remarkable evening possible. I would like to begin by acknowledging our Trustees, members of my Cabinet, and other leaders from across the Institute. These are the people who ensure that our students have one of the best college experiences in the world. Among our Trustees, tonight we have with us:

  • Former Trustee and parent of an alumnus from the Class of 1977, Mr. Harlan Anderson
  • Mr. Thomas Baruch of the Class of 1960 and Mrs. Johanna Baruch
  • Mrs. Wanda Denson-Low of the Class of 1978 and Mr. Ron Low, who also are the parents of a Rensselaer alumnus from the Class of 2012
  • Mr. Frank Fischer of the Classes of 1964 and 1965 and Mrs. Jeanne Fischer
  • Mr. Arthur Golden of the Class of 1966
  • Mrs. Linda Jojo of the Class of 1987 and Mr. Robert Jojo, also of the Class of 1987
  • Mr. Curtis Priem of the Class of 1982 and Mrs. Cindi Priem and;
  • Mr. Edward Zander of the Class of 1968 and Mrs. Mona Zander

I would also like to introduce the members of my Cabinet:

  • Mr. Craig Cook, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel
  • Dr. Jonathan Dordick, Special Adviser on Strategic Initiatives
  • Mr. Graig Eastin, Vice President for Institute Advancement
  • Dr. Prabhat Hajela, Provost
  • Ms. Richie Hunter, Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations
  • Mr. John Kolb, Vice President for Information Services and Technology and Chief Information Officer
  • Mr. Curtis Powell, Vice President for Human Resources
  • Mr. LeNorman Strong, Interim Vice President for Student Life
  • Mr. Claude Rounds, Vice President for Administration; and;
  • Mr. Jonathan Wexler, Vice President for Enrollment Management

Please also welcome:

  • Mr. Johannes Gobel, Director of the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, and;
  • Mr. James Spencer, Executive Director of the Rensselaer Technology Park

Also with us tonight are our Deans, including:

  • Dr. Thomas Begley, Dean of the Lally School of Management
  • Dr. Curt Breneman, Dean of the School of Science
  • Mr. Evan Douglis, Dean of the School of Architecture
  • Dr. Shekhar Garde, Dean of the School of Engineering, and;
  • Dr. Mary Simoni, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

I would also like to recognize the President of the RAA Board who his with us tonight, Mr. Kareem Muhammad of the Class of 2001.

Since the launch of our capital campaign, Transformative: Campaign for Global Change, I, along with leaders from across the Institute, have been traveling across the country and around the world to engage with the Rensselaer community.

We have hosted events in New York City, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Boston, Sarasota, Fort Meyers, West Palm Beach, and Miami, Florida. Internationally, we have visited with our alumni and alumnae in Dubai and Zurich, and next month we will be heading to China on a three-city tour that will include major events in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

This weekend, we are so glad to join you here in California, where so many of our alumni and alumnae are changing the world.

Rensselaer graduates have always been at the frontiers of science, technology, and culture, and they have long come to the West Coast to reimagine what is possible, and to transform industries. So, we do feel a great "coast to coast" connection at Rensselaer and, as Arthur Golden spoke to, one we have invigorated with the Rensselaer Silicon Valley Network of business leaders, led by Executive Council Chair, Dr. John Capek, Executive Vice President for Ventures at the global healthcare company Abbott— and a member of the Rensselaer Classes of 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, and 1988, and Co-chaired by our Provost, Dr. Prabhat Hajela.

Dr. Capek is part of the grand tradition of Rensselaer alumni and alumnae uniting New York and California. The first was Theodore Judah, the visionary civil engineer who made the transcontinental railroad a reality—by surveying a route for it through the Sierra Nevada, by finding investors for it, and by inspiring support for it in Washington, DC. Mr. Judah turned what had been a six-month journey from New York to California into one that could be completed in four or five days. Let us not forget George Low, of the Class of 1948, and the 14th President of Rensselaer, who as NASA operations director, was truly instrumental in placing man on the moon.

Rensselaer graduates were not only instrumental in inventing the physical infrastructure that connected the coasts, and other parts of the world, and in getting us into space and beyond—but also the digital infrastructure that connects our world—including the invention of the microprocessor by Dr. Marcian E. "Ted" Hoff of the Class of 1958; pioneers in artificial intelligence, Dr. Bert Raphael of the Class of 1957 and Dr. Peter Hart of the Class of 1962, who created Shakey, the first intelligent mobile robot; Mr. Steve Sasson of the Class of 1972, who invented the digital camera; Mr. Ray Tomlinson of the Class of 1963, who invented networked email and the @ sign in our digital addresses; Mr. Tom Baruch of the Class of 1960, whose company Baruch Future Ventures, LLC has funded numerous entrepreneurial firms; and Dr. Charles Taylor of the Classes of 1987, 1991, and 1992, whose company HeartFlow has pioneered combining sophisticated computer simulations with medical imaging data to model a cardiac patient’s blood flow non-invasively. More recently, Rensselaer graduates have developed key aspects of the Mars Rovers, that have been exploring the Red Planet.

In this audience are men and women who continue to advance foundational technologies. They include Mr. Curtis R. Priem of the Class of 1982, Secretary of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees. A pioneer in visual computing, he designed the first graphics processor for the PC, cofounded the company NVIDIA based on his graphics chip designs, and helped to set in motion revolutionary progress in perceptual artificial intelligence that is poised to bring us autonomous vehicles and many other technologies.

Tonight, I have the great pleasure of telling you how we are educating the next generation of technological leaders, as well as changing the world through our research and pedagogy.

First of all, the signs of success are everywhere at Rensselaer. We had the greatest number of applicants for our freshman class in history—20,377—a 5% increase over the record-breaking number of applications we received last year.

We have admitted the strongest (SAT: 1410) and the most diverse class in our history. We have had the privilege of enrolling increasing numbers of students from the West Coast, and California in particular.

We are very proud that several members of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees call "The Golden State" of California home, and we appreciate their willingness to act as loyal ambassadors on the West Coast.

We are grateful to Wanda Denson-Low '78 and Ronald Low, parents of a 2012 Rensselaer graduate, and Nancy Mueller, whose shared vision, devotion, and generosity have fostered a sense of community on the West Coast. The events they host for accepted and incoming students have become treasured Rensselaer traditions, vital to our enrollment objectives.

Thanks to their efforts, as well as those by the Rensselaer Alumni Association, led by President Kareem Muhammad of the Class of 2001—applications from California students for our freshman class were up 10% over just a year ago. We have 95 confirmed California members of the Class of 2022.

Of course, the rising reputation of our programs helps to explain this demand.

  • Our undergraduate Information Technology and Web Sciences program has been ranked first in the nation by College Choice.
  • College Choice also has ranked the Lally School of Management second among undergraduate business schools in New York State, and Rensselaer as a whole eighth among the best colleges in the state.
  • Our Master’s of Business Analytics has been ranked 3rd in the nation by TFE Times.
  • Our undergraduate Physics program is ranked 6th by College Factual.
  • Proving once again that Rensselaer leads at the nexus of art and technology, our Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program is ranked 6th by, 7th by, and 12th by The Art Career Project.
  • Our School of Architecture is ranked 13th by DesignIntelligence.

We derive this strength from a strong vision for ourselves that inspires Rensselaer students, faculty, and staff alike. We operate within the paradigm of "The New Polytechnic," in which we continue to educate our students for deep foundational knowledge in their chosen fields—while we also serve as a great crossroads for the exchange of ideas across disciplines, sectors, geographies, and generations. At Rensselaer, we bring together talented people from everywhere to address the greatest of challenges, using the most advanced tools and technologies.

We support these collaborations with 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, as well as a physical instantiation of Watson, the transformative IBM cognitive computing system—largely developed at IBM by Rensselaer graduates, under the aegis of Dr. John E. Kelly, III, of the Classes of 1978 and 1980, Senior Vice President of Cognitive Solutions and IBM Research, and Rensselaer Trustee.

Another key factor 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 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, they have helped Rensselaer to vastly expand its research enterprise, 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 are doing astonishing work. Allow me to offer a recent example: Professor Juergen Hahn has developed the very first physiological, rather than behavioral, test for autism by applying Big Data analytics to numerous metabolites in a blood sample, together with social/psychological data—and creating an algorithm to determine whether someone is on the autism scale—and indeed, to suggest where on the spectrum they might land. This breakthrough will not only allow earlier interventions for children—it may point the way to potential treatments.

We have attracted distinguished partners to amplify our efforts, affiliating, for example, with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in both research and education.

We are working alongside IBM in a number of groundbreaking efforts. These include the Jefferson Project at Lake George, which is developing a new model for the conservation of fresh water resources.

Our science-based model is driven in part by the enormous amounts of streaming data delivered by 41 smart sensor platforms we have placed in and around Lake George, an hour north of our Troy campus. The Jefferson Project combines Internet-of-Things technology, predictive analytics, and basic science to create a comprehensive model for environmental monitoring and prediction. The Helen-Jo and John E. Kelly III '78 Data Visualization Lab—a state-of-the-art research center which meshes cutting-edge graphics processing with modern data collection and analytics—is integral to this research, and is located within the Margaret A. and David M. Darrin '40 Fresh Water Institute. The smart sensor platforms, in and around the lake, 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 truly to 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, including in California—which, like many places in the world, has struggled with protracted droughts.

Our partnerships with IBM also include our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory, or CISL, which is linking cognitive computing with human-scale immersive environments to create a smart boardroom or classroom, with the goal of radically enhancing group learning and decision-making, through interaction with societies and hierarchies of cognitive digital agents.

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 our 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. Building on all of these ideas and efforts, and to flesh them out, we recently announced a multi-year partnership with IBM focused on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

To stay on the leading edge in education as well as research, we are adding to our academic offerings in emerging fields. Through the efforts of Dr. Mary Simoni, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences we have 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 in the School of Science, a new program of study in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

Overall, we engage our students with a revolutionary pedagogy that includes the gamification of courses, immersive experiences, and interaction with artificially intelligent characters.

As we do all of this, we encourage new ways of seeing and thinking that cross fields. Recently, we launched an initiative that received a great deal of attention around the nation—a "data dexterity" requirement to ensure that all undergraduates learn how to use diverse datasets to define and solve complex problems. Rensselaer students will complete two "data-intensive" courses, one to establish the foundations of data modeling and analysis, and a second course specific to their major.

In addition, an initiative we have created, titled Art_X, which focuses on the art in and of science, and the science in and of art—also encourages creativity across disciplines, and domains.

We also are heightening the experiential learning we offer—and encouraging intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global view in our students—by reorganizing the academic calendar with the launch in the summer of 2019 of The Arch. Under The Arch, all Rensselaer undergraduates will remain on campus for the summer after their sophomore year, engaged in junior-level classes, and then leave the 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. We hope that all of you will consider opportunities within your organizations, for talented Rensselaer juniors on their "away" semesters.

Encompassing the entire student experience 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 that gives them increasing opportunities appropriate to their stage of academic and personal development. Those of you who attended the CLASS Alive! luncheon today had the opportunity to hear firsthand about one of the best student experiences in the United States.

As a result of all these efforts, Rensselaer 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.

Rensselaer has been transformed. But our mission, hearkening back to our very founding, is to be transformative in the world at large. In the words of our philanthropic 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 you know, 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, and 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 oldest technological research university in the nation, for global leadership for in the 21st century, we have begun a billion-dollar capital campaign—Transformative: Campaign for Global Change. Chairing our campaign are Kathleen M. Severino, and Trustee Paul J. Severino of the Class of 1969.

As you may recall, our last campaign, Renaissance at Rensselaer, was so successful that we increased our target, and reached it nine months early. After launching in October of last year, at a wonderful gala evening that included 800 friends of Rensselaer, our current campaign is off to a very exciting start.

The Transformative campaign has three pillars:

The first is increasing student financial aid and enhancing the remarkable student experience at Rensselaer. The cost of the education we offer—world-class, immersive, and experiential—means that our ability to offer financial aid must bridge the cost gap for many students.

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 background—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 or 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 draw gifted teachers and researchers to The New Polytechnic to do world-changing work in their laboratories and classrooms—and to ensure that our students, working with our faculty on their investigations, 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 increase student housing; to upgrade and expand undergraduate laboratories, classrooms, and experiential spaces; to build a state-of-the-art Center for Science; to complete the second phase of our East Campus Athletic Village; and to create practice rooms and teaching studios for the increasing numbers of students pursing music at Rensselaer.

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, and refusal to daunted by the scale of a challenge.

Most of you, too, have had the benefit of a Rensselaer education, and have been transformative in your lives and careers. We hope that you will join with Rensselaer now to help the next generation change the world.

Thank you. We will continue with our program after dinner.


I would like to begin by recognizing those in attendance this evening who have recently made transformative commitments to support student scholarships at Rensselaer. I would ask that you please stand when I read your names.

  • Mrs. Linda Pitzi Jojo and Mr. Robert R. Jojo, both from the Class of 1987 and
  • Mr. and Mrs. Edward J. Zander of the Class of 1968

You will find a complete list of the other donors who have made transformative commitments on page 6 of the gala program.

Next, I would like to recognize those who recently have invested in our faculty and research:

  • Judith and Thomas Iovino of the Class of 1973
  • Betty and Howard P. Isermann of the Class of 1942
  • Jennifer and Dan Pickett III of the Class of 1990 and;
  • The Warren Alpert Foundation

And now, I would ask our Chairman Arthur Golden of the Class of 1966 to join me onstage, as we have the great privilege to present a special award to Cindi and Curtis R. Priem of the Class of 1982.

I told you about Curtis Priem earlier, in the context of his transformational career as an engineer. However, he has been just as transformational as a philanthropist.

It was his historic gift that allowed us to construct the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC, which is not only one of the most technologically advanced performing arts centers in the world, but also a research laboratory for combined digital and human interactions and experimentation—at human scale.

I am so pleased that Curtis and Cindi now have offered sweeping support to the greatest research project in the history of EMPAC, by endowing the Cognitive and Immersive Systems Constellation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Constellations at Rensselaer encompass star faculty, junior faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates, all joining forces to perform research with broad implications for the greatest of problems. They are the very embodiment of our vision of The New Polytechnic.

By endowing this constellation, Cindi and Curtis have created support for faculty at all levels, research opportunities for undergraduates, and support for graduate students. They have ensured that Rensselaer is poised for greatness in an emerging critical field. We are so grateful to them.

Ladies and gentlemen, Cindi and Curtis Priem.

Now, I would like to invite all of our Trustees and their spouses, and my husband, Dr. Morris A. Washington, to the stage…

I am delighted to report that we launched our campaign in October with $400 million of our billion-dollar goal reached. Since then, we have raised an additional $25 million for student scholarships and the student experience, for endowed faculty chairs, and for building out our beautiful Troy campus.

And much of the credit goes to our alumni and alumnae leaders in California. So I ask all of you to raise your glasses—in a toast to the West Coast, and to Rensselaer.

To California and Rensselaer—changing the word together.