Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

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Tribute Gala

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

Chairman and CEO of PSEG, for participating in the program this evening.

I also must thank the business and nonprofit leaders of the greater Capital Region, including Mr. James Barba, Dr. John Bennett, Mr. Norman Dascher, and Mr. David Howson; as well as my fellow university presidents.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to the great scientists and engineers who were my mentors:

  • Dr. Millie Dresselhaus, “the queen of carbon science,” who inspired me when I was a student at MIT;
  • Dr. Paul Gray, one of my dear friends — the Associate Provost and later President of MIT, with whom I had my first experience of leadership, as we worked together to bring more underrepresented minorities to MIT; and who strongly supported my becoming Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC);
  • Dr. Mary K. Gaillard, the great theoretical elementary particle physicist, who, among many achievements, predicted the mass of the charm quark, and offered guidance to experimentalists searching for charm and for the Higgs boson. She became my great friend at Fermilab (my first job), and took me to CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research).
  • And, radio astronomer and Nobel Laureate, Dr. Arno Penzias, who was Vice President of Research when I was at Bell Labs, who discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation that verified the Big Bang theory of the origin of our universe, and who took the time to give me important career advice at a critical juncture in my career.
  • There are many others — at MIT, Bell Labs, Rutgers, the NRC, Rensselaer, corporate boards, professional organizations, and, of course, U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

My father’s advice to me, always, was to “Aim for the stars. That way, you will, at least, reach the treetops,” he said, “and you will be sure to get off the ground.” Our parents aimed me and my siblings for the stars. All of my mentors aimed for the stars, and gave me the guidance and the courage to do the same.

If one aims for the stars, one always wants to take the good and make it great, and take the great and make it even greater. That was the opportunity offered to me, when I was asked to assume the presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  

It was the vision of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees, and of my very great friend and then-Chair of the Board of Trustees, Samuel Heffner, that brought me to Rensselaer in 1999. I always will be grateful to Sam for supporting my leadership, and for allowing me to be the agent of change that he, and the Board, knew that Rensselaer needed. Never wavering once, he backed The Rensselaer Plan, which embodied the vision I had for Rensselaer, and which laid out the strategic blueprint we developed, as a community, for a Renaissance at Rensselaer — even though change on the scale proposed never was going to be easy, and it was not, and has not been, easy. To me, Sam Heffner was more than just a Board Chair, or a trusted adviser. He was one of my very best friends. His courage and his confidence were inspiring.

I also wish to thank Secretary of the Board of Trustees Curtis R. Priem, of the Rensselaer Class of 1982. Curtis has always backed me, and the Rensselaer Plan. He is our greatest benefactor in support of Plan initiatives. I am grateful to him, and his wife, Cindi, for their continued commitment to Rensselaer.

I also have been blessed with other past and present leadership of the Board (Chair, Arthur Golden; Vice-Chair, Wanda Denson-Low; Secretary, Curtis Priem), and the entire Board of Trustees, in its guidance and support of me — in challenging times, and of the Institute as a whole.  

Everyone who knows me knows that I am a change agent and tough taskmaster. No one knows this better than my leadership team, and the staff in the Office of the President. I thank all of you. But those who work with me also know that I always try to understand the root of an issue, or of a place, before taking action. At its root, Rensselaer has the most extraordinary mission: “the application of science to the common purposes of life.”

The founders of this essential institution believed that innovation fundamentally is about service — that scientific and technological progress is about understanding our world and beyond, and about protecting and enhancing human life.

The people who have been educated at Rensselaer have dedicated themselves to that particular form of service for nearly 200 years, whether their innovations protected us, or enhanced our lives economically, or opened up new frontiers for us — as did George Low ’48, the 14th President of Rensselaer, who led the Apollo program that first brought astronauts to the moon 50 years ago this year.

From the very beginning of my tenure at Rensselaer, we honored that extraordinary Rensselaer legacy by establishing, as markers: excellence, leadership, and community. Every decision we made under the Rensselaer Plan was held up to those markers. In fact, in my inaugural address, I said that excellence would be the mantra and metric in all that we do, that leadership must be claimed in pedagogy and research, and that community is what we are — because there is just “One Rensselaer.” I have tried to live up to these ideals, as have you — as you have come along with me.

And look at what we have accomplished, together!  

We have transformed Rensselaer from a university with select research strengths to a full research university, with global reach and global impact. We have recruited world-class faculty. We put a stake in the ground in new fields with new research thrusts, and astonishing new platforms — including our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, our Center for Computational Innovations, and the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, where we are tonight.  

We have expanded existing critical partnerships, and we have forged important new partnerships — in research and education, including our affiliation with Corning, Incorporated; the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; and our groundbreaking research efforts with IBM, such as The Jefferson Project and our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory, all enabled by our magnificent computational ecosystem — also enabled by IBM, and facilitated by its Executive Vice President, Trustee Dr. John E. Kelly, III.

We have innovated pedagogically — adding 24 new degree programs in emerging disciplines, such as our technologically inflected Bachelor of Science in Music, our top-ranked bachelor’s degree programs in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences, and in Information Technology and Web Science; our new Institutewide focus on Data Dexterity and required undergraduate courses in data science and data analytics; our Ph.D. program in Biochemistry and Biophysics; and many more. We have launched Art_X at Rensselaer — focusing on the art in and of science, and the science in and of art. There is so much more.   

With The Arch, we have taken on a bold and transformative approach to undergraduate technological education, by restructuring the academic calendar — offering our students remarkable new opportunities to engage in self-discovery and professional growth — both during their junior summer on campus, and during an away semester in the traditional junior year.

Importantly, we have created a more engaging, enjoyable, and fulfilling student experience, by initiating the Office of the First-Year Experience and Navigating Rensselaer and Beyond, and expanding them to Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS. We have vastly improved our students’ living and learning environment — with new and renovated residences, and upgraded classrooms, laboratories, and infrastructure, including the East Campus Athletic Village.

In all of these efforts, we have worked, fundamentally, to create Rensselaer as a place where our students embrace their unique and inherent talents and qualities, expand their perspectives as they learn from one another, and discover, understand, and nurture each other’s dreams and aspirations — to know that they can change the world.

In sum, we have stayed the course towards excellence, leadership, and community — for two decades.

And while I have lasted far longer than most college presidents these days, we still have a few laps left to go, together!

There is more for us to do, as we look to mitigate and address climate change, and its influence on our food, water, and energy supplies; to make full use of remarkable new tools in data, artificial intelligence, and computation; to invent new ways to secure cyberspace; to discover how to treat poorly understood diseases such as Alzheimer’s; and to empower people everywhere to take charge of their own health and well-being.

As many of you have heard previously, the paradigm of The New Polytechnic invites and supports such exploration and bold action. It does so by Rensselaer serving as a crossroads, where people from around the world — with a multiplicity of experiences and perspectives — can come together to challenge themselves and each other, and to find and hone a sense of purpose that is undisputedly their own, yet also greater than themselves — by addressing humanity’s grand challenges and opportunities.

Here at Rensselaer, we appreciate the past, but we do not live in it. We understand that we cannot hold back the future by clinging to the past. So, we create the future — and we understand our responsibility to leave this world better than we found it.

It has been a privilege and an honor to serve as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for the past 20 years, as we all serve the “common purposes of life.” I thank you all, and I anticipate great things to come.

Now, let us go do a few more laps!

Thank you so much!