Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Skip to main content

Fall Faculty General Meeting

Category: Regional
November, 2019
EMPAC Studio Beta
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Thank you, Chair Partha Dutta. I thank President Yaron Danon, Vice President Koushik Kar, and the Faculty Senate, as a whole, for inviting me today.

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. I thank all who participated in the celebratory events.

Currently, the median tenure of sitting college presidents is just five years, so I have had an extraordinary opportunity — alongside all of you — 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. Moreover, our graduate programs were not functioning in a way commensurate with our status as a research university, and the funding and support of graduate students were not adequate.

In addition, 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 for your contribution to it — and for your help as we continue to reach for excellence.

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 allow star faculty to work with their peers, junior faculty, and students in a multidisciplinary fashion — but with a singular research 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 expenditures, 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.

During my tenure, 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 Biological Neurosciences, in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences, in Information Technology and Web Science, and in Music; a master’s degree Business Analytics, and a doctoral degree in Cognitive Science; and additional doctoral degrees in fields that include Biochemistry and Biophysics, Architectural Sciences; and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Critical Game Design.

We also have improved Student Life, offering both new supports and new opportunities to our students, 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. This work continues.

We also have created new facilities for fitness and athletics for our varsity athletics, and for the enjoyment of our entire community, including the Mueller Center and the East Campus Athletic Village, which 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 Ballpark, our baseball facility, as well. In all, we have invested over $800 million in our campus, and nearly $1.3 billion in Rensselaer Plan-driven investments overall.

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 the average SAT score 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, 29th among undergraduate engineering programs, and 41st among graduate engineering programs. 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.

Indeed, among our most recent faculty hires are three members of this collaboration:

  • Professor Tianyi Chen of our Department of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering focuses on machine learning for the Internet of Things — or as we envision the future, for an Intelligent Internet of Intelligent Things.
  • Professor Lydia Manikonda of our Lally School of Management uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to study patterns in the data posted in online platforms to better understand user motivation and behavior.
  • Professor Tomek Strzalkowski of our Department of Cognitive Science applies artificial intelligence and natural language processing to the problems of socio-behavioral modeling — helping intelligent machines to function more effectively alongside humans.

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.

Speaking of which, 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 now have a data-centric, AI-enabled, high-performance computation system with on the order of 8 petaflops of 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.

I know that some of you have asked about more quotidian computational tools, as well, including email and support for the creation of websites. We are considering how best to upgrade and expand the Exchange email service, including enabling much more storage per user. Whether this is a cloud, on-premise, or hybrid solution, we have not yet decided.

I urge you also, in developing new websites, to take advantage of the Web Services unit overseen by our Director of Library Information Services, Andrew White. This group strengthens all of our communications by ensuring consistent Rensselaer branding, accessibility, and compliance with secure web practices. They just created a very handsome new website for the Faculty Senate, by the way.

This summer, our first full class of rising juniors remained on campus for the 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 their professors; and
  • More opportunities for students to engage in self-discovery, leading to increased intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global perspective.

Flexibility and imagination are essential as we continue to refine and strengthen The Arch.

After two pilots, and our first full-class summer session, we have come to the conclusion that six-week long summer courses do not do justice to our students, and that a mixture of six-week and 12-week courses also does not work well, since our students are hard-pressed to answer the demands of two paces of learning at once. So, our summer semesters will consist of twelve-week-long courses.

We are aware that some of you have expressed a reluctance to teach for twelve weeks during the summer, because of professional or personal obligations. It is important that as many tenured and tenure-track faculty as possible teach across all three semesters now. But, to enhance our teaching, we have hired additional excellent lecturers and senior lecturers into our faculty ranks. I will remind you that those of you who do teach in summer are able to take a semester off during the traditional academic year, with no more service requirements than those you would have during an ordinary summer.

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 violations. There also are financial issues for some Greek chapters, resulting from falling membership.

At the same time, there are Rensselaer Greek chapters that are performing well, and are exemplars for those that are not. Therefore, last year, I appointed a Greek Life Review Committee to formally assess the current state of our 166-year-old Greek system 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.

To help us implement them, a Greek Life Initiatives Implementation Steering Committee was established this past summer, with membership consisting of staff, faculty, and students. The committee already has helped us to incorporate the Greek Life Commons within our CLASS system, to establish a single student judicial system with respect to violations of Institute rules, and to shift 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 is examining improving chapter financial viability through house residency requirements and through non-resident fees.

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. I am pleased to say that a number of members of the broader Rensselaer community, including myself, have made commitments to this fund.

Our primary responsibility in improving Greek Life, as in everything else we do, is ensuring the safety of our students, and of the wider Rensselaer community. Some of you have asked about the number of alerts that have been issued recently by our Office of Public Safety. As you may know, compliance with the federal Clery Act requires that we give timely warning of crimes that represent an ongoing threat to the safety of students or employees. There is crime around campus, and in Troy more broadly, but there has been no substantive increase in crime on the Troy campus. However, as student enrollment has risen in recent years, and we have spread out more into the surrounding communities, there are simply more students “out there,” and more reported incidents. We will continue to look for better ways to alert our community of dangers as promptly as we can, while working to better educate our students (especially those who live or travel off-campus) about how to strengthen their own awareness of their surroundings, and to take greater advantage of the shuttle service and the Safe Ride service we offer, especially after dark.

As you know, on August 21, 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. Some of 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.

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 student housing, some restoration and repairs are completed. Others are still in progress. To minimize disruption to the students who had to be relocated, 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, and have already begun work to do so.

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 we 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.

Some of you have asked about hiring. Even during the process of the crossover, we hired 38 new tenured and tenure-track faculty, and we are currently engaged in 19 searches for tenured and tenure-track faculty. And we will continue this hiring as the budget permits.

We also are hiring key supports for you, with the addition of Director of Research Administration Javeria Kazi, who oversees the proposal and awards teams within our Research Administration and Finance, or RAF. We know that some of you have experienced lengthened contract execution times, for a number of reasons. Over the past several years, RAF has been working to enhance compliance, while at the same time dealing with a turnover of staff. Fortunately, the awards team is now fully staffed, and RAF has new procedures in place to keep you updated about the status of your pending contracts. And we are working hard to fill vacancies on the proposal team.

The Office of Research, our schools, and RAF recognize the need for coordinated support for center-level proposals. They are developing an integrated plan to develop realistic timelines for large center proposals, as well as support for budget development; internal and external review; data management; Institute facilities and “broader impact” formulations; and professional graphics and writing.

They are also, at the same time, working on building external funding success rates for our junior and mid-career faculty, such as coordinated support for NSF CAREER proposals between the Office of Research and our schools.

As a general goal, we strive, as much as possible, to reduce the administrative burdens on you, so you can excel in research and teaching. The Office of Research has sponsored a Faculty Advisory Council that meets at least once a semester, to convey concerns regarding proposal preparation and processing with RAF. I will add that, to date, Rensselaer has been able to meet all of the required cost-sharing for proposals.

We are considering a similar mechanism to bring faculty together with Procurement. And we have re-invigorated the IP Appeals Committee to more efficiently address IP issues.

As far as the ratio of tenured and tenure-track faculty to contingent faculty, our goal is between 70 to 75% tenured and tenure-track. We are now close to 70% and, indeed, are equal to or ahead of many of our peer institutions.

We do, however, greatly value our lecturers and professors of practice. Some years ago, led by the Human Resources Division, we better defined and regularized their appointments, renormalized and increased their compensation, and extended to them the full benefits that all Institute employees enjoy. With the exception only of the Class of 1951 awards, our lecturers and professors of practice are eligible for all of our Institutewide honors, as well as school awards. So, I urge all of you to nominate your outstanding non-tenured and non-tenure-track colleagues for these honors. Some of you have asked about guidelines for the performance of lecturers and professors of practice beyond teaching. Given their teaching loads, compared to tenured and tenure-track faculty, we cannot have the same expectations of them for research performance, and we will not create a “de facto” second tenure track. While we have existing guidelines created by our Division of Human Resources, in partnership with the Provost, we also are reviewing those guidelines for any needed revisions.

We are about at the halfway point of our billion-dollar capital campaign, Transformative: Campaign for Global Change. One of its pillars is 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. Another pillar is 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.

A third, and key, pillar is increasing our endowment to bridge the gap between financial need and financial aid for our students, so that talented students from all socioeconomic backgrounds are able to attend Rensselaer.

We also are seeking donors to endow individual departments. Institute Advancement is working with the deans and faculty heads on naming opportunities, as well as opportunities to endow chairs, excellence funds, fellowships, and scholarships. And IA is creating proposal templates for individual departments that can then be presented to potential donors.

Our fundraising efforts will not only support all of you in education and research — they will put Rensselaer in a good place for higher rankings as well. I know that a number of you have asked how you can contribute to a higher overall U.S. News & World Report ranking. 

While the formula used by U.S. News is complicated, it does include the student-to-faculty ratio in its calculations. This is a mere headcount ratio which does not distinguish between tenured and tenure-track faculty and contingent faculty, so all of our hiring will help here. U.S. News also weighs resources per faculty member, so increasing the endowment through the campaign will assist us.

The greatest things that you can do to raise our rankings, and to assist the Campaign, are to continue to be excellent in all that you do, and to tell your colleagues, students, alumni, and friends the “good news” about all that is happening here.

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 our faculty and students to change the world.

I thank you for all that you do to help Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute move into its third century, stronger than ever — for the remarkable research you conduct, for the collaborations you originate, and for the many ways you teach and inspire our students.