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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at the State of the Institute

Category: University Events
September, 2018

State of the Institute

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

Welcome, everyone. I am hoping that all of you are enjoying Reunion and Homecoming Weekend. To our visiting alumni and alumnae—we hope that you are finding and reconnecting with old friends, and with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

I offer special congratulations to the Class of 1968, celebrating its 50th year reunion.

I would urge all of our alumni and alumnae, while you are here, to strike up a conversation with a current student or two. Although I am about to offer you a brief State of the Institute that will summarize the ways that we are making a remarkable student experience even more remarkable—our students will be able to tell you first-hand what an exciting place Rensselaer is to live and to learn in this early part of the 21st century.

As you know, Rensselaer was founded in 1824 by Stephen Van Rensselaer and Amos Eaton, both of whom had an usually keen sense of the context in which they lived, and of the demands of a resource-rich young country embarking on its first Industrial Revolution. They understood that to become an industrial power, the nation would require the infrastructure for trade and transport, so each, in his own realm, worked to make the Erie Canal a reality. They understood, also, that the world needed young people ready to apply science to the “common purposes of life.”

They founded the Rensselaer School as a radical alternative to institutions offering a classical or religious education. The education offered at Rensselaer was not about looking toward the past, but about understanding the present state of knowledge in order to shape the future.

Almost 200 years later, we remain keenly aware of the context within which we are educating our students. Last January, I had the great privilege, once again, of representing Rensselaer at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. For two years, I was 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 offer you a brief overview of what I said about the vulnerabilities, consequences, and opportunities that will provide a context for all of our best efforts at Rensselaer in the next dozen years.

The era following the Cold War in which the United States led the international order clearly is changing, and we already are beginning to see broad economic shifts. 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, key 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 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, through complex trading relationships, and dominance of supply chains. Fossil fuels still will be important in 2030. However, renewable energy has the advantage of being able to be produced locally, and is being pushed in many countries—while 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 is currently dominated by a few nations. As much as 54 percent of the world’s lithium comes from the so-called Lithium Triangle of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia; 55 percent of cobalt is mined in the 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. The search for new materials is an important challenge for our Center for Materials, Devices, and Integrated Systems, here at 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. As Hurricane Florence just proved, coastal regions of the U.S. are not immune to this threat. The larger 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 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 and 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—a policy challenge, to be sure.

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 will 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.

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.

While many technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be weaponized in different ways, including…

  • commercial drones,
  • 3D 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;

these same technologies offer so much hope for strengthening what we do in commerce, in human health and welfare, and in energy and industrial processes.

At the same time, advances in artificial intelligence, immersive technologies, and computer vision allow for a new approach to teaching and learning.

These technologies can 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.

This will require a new kind of intergenerational compact that Rensselaer represents, where we work together across the generations, and across cultures, genders, religions, ethnicities.

There are challenges to the United States’ scientific and technological leadership. China now publishes more articles in peer-reviewed scientific and engineering journals than the United States, and is likely to surpass the United States this year in its investment in research and development. Such leadership is not merely important for China’s military power, but also for its claim to international political and economic leadership.

Consider this: under its 13th Five-Year Plan, China’s stated priorities in science include quantum communications and computing, brain research, cybersecurity, robotics, gene science, and big data applications. Interestingly enough, these are all strategic thrusts for us as well, both in research and education. Equally interesting is China’s investment in human capital. We are in the business of human capital development at Rensselaer.

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.

Fortunately, demand for a Rensselaer education has never been higher. We had over 20,400 applications for a place in this year’s freshman class—a record, and 5 percent higher than last year’s record number. We were able to select an extremely strong and diverse group of students. The Class of 2022 average SAT score is 1410—with a middle 50 percent range of 1330-1500; and it includes more women and underrepresented minorities than any class in our history. The class 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 2030?

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

  • The intellectual agility to see, and work, 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.

Our superb academic programs prepare Rensselaer students to lead and are recognized as such by various entities:

  • For example, 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 org, 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. Over the course of The Rensselaer Plan and The Rensselaer Plan 2024, we have created 21 new academic degree programs. We have 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. We 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 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 years, taking junior-level classes and benefiting 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 in the usual timeframe.

With the help of our Center for Career and Professional Development, they will choose an away semester experience that suits their interests and passions, and enhances their professional development, 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.

Our Greek Life system at Rensselaer is 165 years old, and has quite a legacy—a legacy we intend to continue.

When our Greek system supports academic achievement, community service, and leadership development—it fosters young men and women with great strength of character, who go out to change the world.

When Greek organizations fulfill their intended purposes, they create deep friendships, provide members a support network, and aid in the personal development of students. We know that for many of our students, Greek Life is an essential part of their experience at Rensselaer.

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. Just recently, within our Greek system, we have experienced drug-related incidents, alcohol abuse, sexual misconduct, and instances of hazing. These are not just isolated incidents—and we have documented that they are increasing in number. In addition, a number of our Greek houses are not in the best physical and safety condition. (We currently have five fraternities suspended).

That is why it is important to have an open conversation about how to keep Greek life strong and vital at RPI. Our goal, and intent, is to preserve the Greek system—with a focus on three tenets: Sustainability, Community, and Citizenship.

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 and to consider the best path forward.

The Committee comprises student leaders—both Greek and non-Greek; alumni and alumnae—Greek and non-Greek; parents; faculty; administrators; and representatives from the national offices of Greek organizations of which Rensselaer chapters are members.

The Review Committee includes the Greek Life Task Force, led by Vice President and Chief Information Officer John Kolb ’79, which is charged with assessing the Greek system, and 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, and we will keep all of you informed of its progress.

 At our Reunion and Homecoming Weekend last year, we launched a billion-dollar capital campaign, Transformative: Campaign for Global Change. Our goals for the campaign are…

  • Eliminating the gap between student financial need and the scholarships and fellowships we are able to give; while enhancing the student experience;
  • 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
  • Upgrading and expanding our campuses, technologically and physically; physically to accommodate our growth, including building a new Center for Science, expanding the Jonsson Engineering Center, and the East Campus Athletic Village.

Realizing these goals is essential, to prepare Rensselaer for its third century.

We began the campaign last fall with $400 million already committed by Rensselaer alumni, alumnae, parents, friends, and partners.

Rensselaer truly cannot fulfill its mission without the generosity of its philanthropic partners.

Please allow me to tell you about one of these partners. In early 2017, the United Health Foundation indicated interest in working with Rensselaer to develop a cadre of talented graduates ready to apply data science to some of humanity’s most difficult health care challenges.

The United Health Foundation is the philanthropic arm of UnitedHealth Group, a leading health-care company that provides benefits and services to 139 million people in 130 countries around the world.

With a generous $1.1 million grant from the United Health Foundation, Rensselaer now is expanding opportunities for our students to learn health informatics and to apply their knowledge in health data science research projects, preparing them to reveal new connections and new answers in biomedicine.

I would like to invite the architects of this partnership to join me on stage:

  • Paul Bleicher of the Rensselaer Class of 1976 and CEO of Optum Labs, part of UnitedHealth Group;
  • Anne Yau, Vice President of Grants and Programs for the United Health Foundation; and
  • Principal Investigator Professor Kristin Bennett of our Departments of Mathematical Sciences and Computer Science, and Associate Director of the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, or The Rensselaer IDEA.

Dr. Bleicher, can you tell us why you have made this investment in our students?

Professor Bennett, will you tell us what the grant from United Health Foundation will mean to education at Rensselaer?

On October 24, 2018, we will hold a scholarship gala in New York City, and I will announce a number of new transformative gifts that will bring us closer to our goal of $500 million by the end of our fiscal year. The gala will be followed by a performance by the Rensselaer Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, in celebration of our new Bachelor of Science in Music degree program. It should be an exciting evening, and we hope that you will join us!

Now I will be happy to answer a few questions before we proceed with the second part of our program this morning.