Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Skip to main content

State of the Institute

Category: Regional
September, 2019

EMPAC Theater

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

Good morning, everyone. Clearly, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is blessed with extremely dedicated alumni and alumnae — given your willingness to rise early on a Saturday to hear about the current state of the Institute.

I offer a special welcome to the Class of 1969, enjoying your 50-year Reunion. Congratulations! I know that you are plumbing, fully, the mysteries of time — and the fact that 50 years ago feels like yesterday, when one is with old friends.

This year, I am celebrating a different anniversary. Twenty years ago this week, on September 24, 1999, I was inaugurated as the 18th President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. With the median tenure of sitting college presidents currently being just five years, I am grateful to have had the opportunity — with my leadership team, and the broader Rensselaer community — to accomplish so much at Rensselaer, and for Rensselaer. The Rensselaer Plan, approved by the Board of Trustees in 2000, had an extremely clear goal: “To achieve greater prominence in the 21st century as a top-tier, world-class technological research university with global reach and global impact.”

Indeed, we have elevated Rensselaer, and have pushed strongly toward, and beyond, that goal, to make Rensselaer transformative in the world at large in its groundbreaking research, innovative pedagogy, and in the lives of our students.

As a result, demand for a Rensselaer education has soared. The 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 academic 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 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, with nearly one-third of them being women.  

The Class of 2023 also is ferociously accomplished outside of the classroom. One of its members has won two gold medals at the U.S. Figure Skating National Championships, and another is a nationally competitive speed climber.

The class includes a number of artists and entrepreneurs, including social entrepreneurs already answering the informal Rensselaer motto, “Why not change the world?”

So we are quite confident that we will be as proud of their achievements in the future, as we are today of yours.

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. As articulated through multiple publications and media of importance to students, parents, and employers, we have many individual programs that lead in the nation. 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. And 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.

Clearly, one does not create top-ranked programs without brilliant and dynamic faculty. During the course of my tenure, 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. Twenty-seven percent of full-time faculty are women, and eight percent are underrepresented minorities.

Our most recent faculty hires include three new faculty members for a very exciting partnership with IBM, the Artificial Intelligence Research Collaboration, or AIRC:

  • 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.

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. The AIRC, together with our Institutewide research and academic programs in data science and data analytics, will form the foundation of a major Institute Thrust in data, artificial intelligence, and high-performance computation (DAIC). DAIC will be a major institutional long-term initiative that will be structured and launched in this academic year. It will lead to a new major research division at Rensselaer, as well as new academic programs.

As well, our already magnificent computational ecosystem will be significantly enhanced — this fall — to support continued ground-breaking research across multiple intellectual fronts.

Indeed, the research conducted at Rensselaer contributes to a truly innovative pedagogy. This summer, we introduced “AI-Assisted Immersive Chinese,” a six-week course arising out of the Mandarin Project, which has developed a group game narrative to teach the Mandarin Chinese language and culture. This course represented the academic debut of a groundbreaking AI-enabled, interactive, immersive classroom, which was originated as a new way to teach foreign languages. The Mandarin Project was further enhanced, in our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory — another partnership with IBM — through the introduction of cognitive agents (digital, AI-driven avatars) to enhance interactivity with students. The cognitive classroom combines artificial intelligence, gamification, and immersion, and other cutting-edge technologies, to offer students cultural experiences as they learn, and to help them with the most difficult aspects of the language, such as its tones. This approach will be extended to teach other languages and cultures, and expanded to create new pedagogical methods for other subjects, as well.

The inaugural class of “AI-Assisted Immersive Chinese” took place under the auspices of The Arch. With The Arch, all rising juniors remain on-campus for the summer after their sophomore year, for a full semester of classes, so that they then can spend one semester (and more) of the traditional junior year away in a pre-professional or personal growth experience, and still graduate in the usual timeframe. The Arch gives our students the benefit of a summer of undivided attention from our faculty and Student Life staff, as the only full class on campus — and the opportunity to gain an extended period of experiential learning off-campus, just as they pivot to more advanced work. In sum, 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;
  • 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.

We continue to invest in 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.  

The problems demanding action include behavioral issues, such as utterly unacceptable sexual misconduct, substance abuse, and hazing. There also are health and safety issues at some Greek houses, ranging from cleanliness to fire prevention and building code compliance; and financial issues 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. Importantly, we recognize that our Greek system at Rensselaer is 166 years old, and that Greek Life has been an important part of many students’ experience of Rensselaer, over many generations.

When our 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.

Last year, we 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 and associated advisory groups comprised 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 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, 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 chapter financial viability through house residency requirements and non-resident fees. A residency requirement would, of course, provide our Greek chapters with ample revenue. Asking members who do not live in a house to contribute a fee, for house upkeep and use, can mean the difference between deferred maintenance and safety violations, or a welcoming space.

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 would contribute. Any fraternity or sorority would be able to request a grant from the Fund in support of a project to improve the living environment it offers our students who are their members.

Additional priorities for the Implementation Committee include the need to reexamine chapter leadership progression for Greek Life, 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 multi-year 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.

Those of you who live in the region may know that 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. 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 the 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.

In our housing, restoration and repairs are in progress. To minimize disruption to the relocated students, they will not be required to return to their residence halls until after mid-terms, and football players will not be moved until the beginning of next semester, so they will not be distracted during the season. 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 an increase in net assets, with a Fiscal Year 2019 endowment return in line with expectations, and long-term debt reduction of $15 million, including a principal repayment in conjunction with the refinancing of a portion of our debt. Our endowment now substantially exceeds our long-term debt, continuing the successful “Crossover” we committed to in 2017, and achieved in fiscal year 2018.

We had another exceptional external operating result in fiscal year 2019, the strongest in over 20 years, based on strong revenue growth — driven by student demand, and ongoing expense management, which provided strong positive cash flow from operations.

We also are in the midst of our capital campaign, Transformative: Campaign for Global Change. 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 to 500 in critical areas of research and teaching; and
  • Upgrading and expanding our campuses, technologically and physically, to accommodate our growth, including building a new Center for Science, expanding the Jonsson Engineering Center, and completing Phase II of the East Campus Athletic Village.  

As we approach the 200th anniversary 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.