Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

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Fall 2019 Town Hall

Category: University Events
October, 2019
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

October 23, 2019

Fall Town Meeting
EMPAC Theater
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Welcome to our 2019 Fall Town Meeting. And a special welcome to everyone watching remotely.

I have much good news to report. However, before I do, please allow me to introduce the Institute leadership, who help to realize all of our plans. First, members of the President’s Cabinet:

  • 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;
  • Dr. Robert Hull, Senior Associate Vice President for Research;
  • Mr. John Kolb ’79, Vice President for Information Services and Technology, and Chief Information Officer;
  • Dr. Peter Konwerski, Vice President for Student Life;
  • Dr. Lee McElroy, Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics;
  • Mr. Claude Rounds, Vice President for Administration; and
  • Mr. Jonathan Wexler, Vice President for Enrollment Management.

I am delighted, also, to introduce our academic leaders…

  • 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;
  • Dr. Mary Simoni, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences;
  • Dr. Chanaka Edirisinghe, Acting Dean of the Lally School of Management; and
  • Dr. Keith Moo-Young ’92, ’95, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education;

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.

This fall, I have had the great pleasure of celebrating 20 years in office as President of Rensselaer, with many members of the Rensselaer community, who are now old friends.

Currently, the median tenure of sitting college presidents is just five years, so I have had an extraordinary opportunity — with my leadership team, and all of our faculty and staff — to accomplish a great deal at Rensselaer, and for Rensselaer.

We have been celebrating another anniversary, as well: 50 years since the astronauts of Apollo 11 landed on the moon. A great deal of the credit for this remarkable scientific and engineering accomplishment belongs to one of our own, George Low ’48 ’50. After a tragic fire in the Apollo 1 command module cost the lives of three astronauts, Low was asked, in a shake-up, to oversee the spacecraft design and to serve, in effect, as operations manager of the Apollo program. He brought to the endeavor both a remarkable mastery of detail and an ability to inspire the very best from his team.

George Low left NASA in 1976 to assume the presidency of Rensselaer, and proved to be a strong leader here as well. After he died in office in 1984, the Institute was somewhat adrift, running through five leaders in 14 years.

By the time I was invited to assume the presidency, Rensselaer was not functioning as a full research university, but instead, was an institution largely focused on undergraduate education, with select research strengths. In the long run, however, one cannot educate talented students at the leading edge of their fields, without a research enterprise that is pushing outwards the boundaries of knowledge. The Troy campus was in decline physically, with a great deal of deferred maintenance, and a dearth of new platforms for research and education. The student experience was not what it should have been — for graduate students, as well as undergraduates.

The Rensselaer Board of Trustees was seeking a change agent, and I was privileged to be their choice, and the first thing I did was to steer the development of a Rensselaer Plan to guide us.

Together, we have come a very long way — in research, in education, and in student life. The transformation of Rensselaer truly deserves to be recognized and celebrated. So, I thank all of you.

At the very beginning of my tenure, we put a stake in the ground in a new field for Rensselaer — biotechnology — and created a magnificent platform in our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. Our Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center capitalized on an existing Rensselaer strength in the electronic arts, but pushed us way beyond that to make Rensselaer utterly unique. Our Center for Computational Innovations gives us the most powerful of tools for research in an array of fields, while exploring the frontiers of high-performance computing itself.

We have attracted a world-class faculty, in part by creating constellations that would allow star faculty to work with their peers, junior faculty, and students across disciplines — but with a singular focus. In all, we have hired 397 new tenured and tenure-track faculty across all five schools, including 13 new tenured and tenure-track faculty who started this fall. Today, the full-time faculty at Rensselaer numbers nearly 500, including tenured and tenure-track faculty, and lecturers and senior lecturers. 

As a result, we have tripled our research funding, even in a difficult climate for federal sponsored research funding. We have developed important new partnerships in research, as well, including with IBM, and with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Today, our faculty are addressing crucial global challenges, such as antibiotic resistance; diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer; our food, water, and energy supplies and climate change; national, global, and cyber security; and the need for a sustainable built environment and sustainable materials — and they are changing the world.

We also have substantially increased our academic offerings, with an eye to new fields emerging at the intersections of disciplines. Over the past 20 years, we have established 24 new degree programs in all, including Bachelor of Science degrees in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences, in Information Technology and Web Science, and in Music. There are a number of new Master’s and Ph.D. programs, as well.

We also have radically improved Student Life, offering both new supports and new opportunities, creating our award-winning Office of the First-Year Experience, and then expanding that with Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS.

We have improved the physical conditions in which Rensselaer students live and learn, undertaking many overdue renovations, beginning with the freshman residences, and created new residences for both undergraduates and graduate students, including the Howard N. Blitman, P.E. ’50 Residence Commons, the Polytechnic Apartments, and City Station.

We also have created new facilities to encourage the development of the whole student — mind, body, and spirit. With the opening of the Mueller Center in 2000, we added 32,000 square feet of space for fitness, wellness, and recreation. In 2007, we began construction on the $92 million East Campus Athletic Village, and added to the campus a new stadium for football, lacrosse, and soccer, and a new arena for basketball and other indoor events. We recently dedicated the Karl Steffen baseball stadium, as well. In all, we have invested over $800 million in our campus.

As a result of these and other changes, demand for a Rensselaer education has soared. The number of applications we received for our freshman Class of 2023 was three and a half times the number we received in 2000. Academically, this is the highest achieving class we ever have enrolled, with average SAT scores a record 1411 — that is up from 1282 in 2000.

This also is one of the most diverse classes we have welcomed, with record numbers of underrepresented minorities, and with great geographic diversity, encompassing first-year students from 42 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, and from 23 countries outside the United States. Nearly one third of the class are women.

These students come to Rensselaer to enjoy top-ranked programs. U.S. News continues to rank Rensselaer among the top 50 national universities, and 41st among graduate schools in engineering, and 29th among undergraduate engineering programs (Rensselaer is tied at 29 with 5 other schools). We also have many individual programs that lead in the nation, something we are communicating to potential students, parents, and employers in multiple media. College Choice ranks our Information Technology and Web Science program the best undergraduate IT program in the United States. The TFE Times ranks our Master’s of Business Analytics 3rd in the nation, and our Master’s of Management Program 4th in the nation. College Factual ranks our undergraduate Physics program 6th in the nation.

Best Schools ranks our Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program 6th in the nation, and GameDesigning ranks our program 7th in the world. Indeed, the talent emanating from Rensselaer has seeded a thriving cluster of gaming studios in the region — which are helping to transform downtown Troy. New York State has designated Rensselaer a Center of Excellence in Digital Game Development.

Design Intelligence ranks our School of Architecture 14th on its list of outstanding schools, and Dean Evan Douglis and Professor David Bell, among the most admired educators in the field of architecture.

We continue to innovate in our pedagogy, with our first in the nation “data dexterity” requirement and a new minor in Data Science and Engineering.

In research, we have begun a very exciting partnership with IBM, the Artificial Intelligence Research Collaboration, or AIRC. The AIRC is intended to forward the science of artificial intelligence itself, as well as its applications across all fields of research and education at Rensselaer, in all five of our schools.

Together with our Institutewide research and academic programs in data science and data analytics, the AIRC will form the foundation of a major Institute Thrust in data, artificial intelligence, and high-performance computation, or DAIC, which will be structured and launched in this academic year. It will lead to a major new research division at Rensselaer, as well as new academic programs, and a significant enhancement of our already magnificent computational ecosystem that will constitute the most advanced university-based testbed for artificial intelligence and deep learning in the world. We recently were awarded a $30 million grant from the SUNY Research Foundation, to purchase a new supercomputer system in support of a larger New York State AI Hardware Center. Consequently, we shortly will have a data-centric, AI-enabled, high-performance computation system — with on the order of 10 petaflops of high-performance computing capability. This will be one of the top high-performance computing systems in the U.S. and in the world — to support research in AI, and in fields across a broad intellectual front.

This summer, our first full class of rising juniors remained on campus for the first full summer semester of The Arch, enabling them to leave campus for a pre-professional experience, or intellectual adventure, of a semester’s length or more, during this academic year. 

The Arch has six essential intentional elements:

  • An acceleration of immersion in both the academic and professional worlds;
  • Structured academic advising, career counseling, and leadership development — beginning in the freshman year;
  • Unique academic and co-curricular summer experiences;
  • Re-clustering of the junior-year cohort across disciplines;
  • More focused and meaningful engagement with the faculty, and
  • An opportunity for students to engage in self-discovery, leading to increased intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global perspective.

Rensselaer graduates already are in high demand with leading employers, the military, governmental and non-governmental organizations, and the best graduate schools. The Arch experience is only going to increase that demand.

We continue to invest in Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS. One area of concern for us — and for many other universities — has been Greek Life.  

The problems demanding action include behavioral issues, such as sexual misconduct, substance abuse, and hazing, as well as health and safety issues at some Greek houses — ranging from cleanliness to fire prevention and building code compliance. There also are financial issues for some houses, resulting from falling membership, which has threatened to make some Greek chapters unsustainable.

At the same time, there are Rensselaer Greek chapters that are performing well, and are exemplars for those that are not. When our 166 year-old Greek system works as it should, and supports academic achievement, community service, and leadership development — it imbues young men and women with great strength of character.

Therefore, last year, I 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 Review Committee included the Greek Life Task Force, led by Vice President and Chief Information Officer John Kolb ’79, which, after considerable community input, delivered excellent recommendations, which we have begun to implement.

To actualize the recommendations, a Greek Life Initiatives Implementation Steering Committee was established July 1, 2019 — with membership consisting of staff, faculty, and students. The Committee met throughout the summer, and already has accomplished a great deal — including more strongly incorporating the Greek Life Commons within our CLASS system, establishing a single student judicial system with respect to violations of Institute rules, and shifting fraternity and sorority recruitment to the spring semester, so that freshmen have time to get their sea legs before making a decision about membership in a Greek chapter.

This fall, the Committee’s priorities include a focus on financial sustainability, and on the occupancy of Greek houses — which is, of course, connected to financial stability. The Committee is examining improving chapter financial viability through house residency requirements and through non-resident fees, so that those members who do not live in a house, nonetheless, contribute to house upkeep and operation.

Our fraternity and sorority leaders also have expressed the desire to join forces as a community. Toward that end, we are establishing a Fraternity and Sorority (Greek) Commons Fund, into which all fraternity and sorority members will contribute. Any fraternity or sorority will be able to request a grant from the Fund in support of a project to improve the living environment it offers its members.

Additional priorities for the Implementation Committee include the need to reexamine leadership progression for our Greek chapters, as well as for other student organizations. The traditional practice of selecting a slate of officers to serve in their junior year for a full calendar year no longer works, now that juniors are engaged in Arch “away” experiences. One possibility is a multiyear progression to leadership, in which students can shift into, and out of, acting and advising roles, or in which the “away” semester becomes a developmental step on the road to full-time leadership for students upon their return.

As I am sure that everyone in this theater is aware, on August 21st, we had a storm of such intensity that it overwhelmed the drainage infrastructure of both the city of Troy and the campus. Sage Avenue and Federal Street experienced significant damage. The landscaping here at EMPAC was washed out. Twenty buildings on campus experienced flooding or minor roof leaks. There was significant flooding at the lower levels of the Union, in the Mueller Fitness Center, and in the basement of the Alumni Sports and Recreation Center, as well as in two student residences, the Colonie Apartments and the Rousseau Residence Hall at the Stacwyck Apartments — from which over 100 students had to be relocated. The new Tech Terrace near Congress Street was selected for the relocation of the Rousseau students, keeping that residential cluster together, and the Colonie students were moved to the Polytechnic Apartments on Congress Street.  

Fortunately, the city of Troy responded quickly, and Sage Avenue repairs started at 7 a.m. the morning after the storm. Unfortunately, the repairs required are extensive and still ongoing.

In our housing, some restoration and repairs are completed. Others are still in progress. To minimize disruption to the relocated students, they will not be required to return to their residence halls until the beginning of next semester. Naturally, we are engaged in a comprehensive assessment of ways to mitigate and address future flooding.

Turning to broader Institute matters, recent financial returns reflect our continued prudent financial management, strong student demand, and overall growth. We had a 3% increase in net assets, with a Fiscal Year 2019 endowment return of 3%, and long-term debt reduction of $15 million, including a principal repayment in conjunction with the refinancing of a portion of our debt of $5 million. As a result, the endowment now substantially exceeds long-term debt, continuing the successful “crossover” I committed the Institute to in 2017, and achieved in 2018, two years ahead of schedule.

We also had the strongest external operating result in over 20 years, of $32.7 million, based on strong revenue growth of nearly 6%. Ongoing expense management efforts limited expense growth to under 4%, so we had positive cash flow from operations of over $37 million.

To put us on an even stronger foundation for the future, we are in the midst of our billion-dollar capital campaign, Transformative: Campaign for Global Change. As you know, our pillars for the campaign are:

  • 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 to expand our tenured and tenure-track faculty in critical areas of research and teaching; and
  • Upgrading and expanding our campuses, technologically and physically, to accommodate our growth, including expanding the Jonsson Engineering Center, and with targeted fundraising, building a new Center for Science, and completing Phase II of the East Campus Athletic Village.  

As we approach the 200th anniversary of the founding of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2024, we are positioning ourselves for an even brighter future — with the goal of enabling even more Rensselaer people to change the world.