Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

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Virtual Town Hall Meeting

Category: University Events
October, 2020
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Welcome, everyone. I am pleased to be able to join you virtually for our Fall Town Meeting.

Clearly, we are living in a very unusual time — a time of sorrow and fear, stress, uncertainty, and loneliness; driving a recognition that, on many fronts, we must reinvent how we relate to one another, how we live — and we must reimagine the infrastructure and technologies that support us.

However, this difficult moment also is opening our apertures in profound ways. But Rensselaer people are rising to meet the challenge, and as Rensselaer people always do, we are vigorously addressing the myriad challenges humanity is facing, and making the world a better place.

Please allow me to tell you a bit about our response to one of the greatest challenges most of us will face in our lifetimes, the COVID-19 pandemic — in light of its impact on Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and our missions in education and research.

As you know, back in the spring, in March, when it became clear how serious the pandemic could become, we moved to remote learning, had students vacate the campus, and moved to a mode where only critical operations were maintained.

As we considered how to return safely to campus-based operations for this fall semester, after our shutdown and pivot to remote learning in the spring, we called on a great Rensselaer strength — risk-informed planning.

Incorporating New York State guidelines, we devised a startup plan, accepted by New York State, designed to contain any potential outbreaks, with our T3SQ(I) protocol: Testing, tracing, tracking, surveillance, and quarantine and isolation. We developed a risk-informed approach to the frequency of testing required for our students, faculty, and staff — based on their frequency of access to campus — for students, based on their class schedules, and for everyone else, based on specific job requirements. To enable the frequent testing required, Rensselaer is extremely fortunate in having a laboratory equipped to perform highly sensitive PCR testing, which returns results for thousands of samples within a day. This allows us to do testing of pooled samples, with confirmatory testing through antigen tests, or diagnostic PCR tests at the Broad Institute at MIT. It is unusual for a university without a medical school to have such a capability, and it reflects our investments, over the past two decades, in the life sciences and bioengineering.

Rensselaer expertise in data science also informed the T3 SQ(I) protocol, which has required every member of the Rensselaer community with campus access to keep a daily log on an Institute-provided app of their health, movements, and interactions. This information enables human contact tracing when needed. Combined with epidemiological modeling, it also allows a data-based approach to the tracking of community spread, so we can eliminate factors that seem to be contributing to it, as well as the calculation of the virus basic reproduction number to determine surges. And, of course, our protocol includes ensuring that any student, in quarantine because of exposure to COVID-19, or in isolation because of a positive COVID-19 test, is well monitored and well cared for by Student Health Services and our Division of Student Life.

To further limit the risk of infections, we decreased the density of the Troy campus by bringing only freshmen, seniors, and graduate students back for a full academic year of in-person instruction, and alternating between the fall and spring semesters, the juniors and sophomores. We also decreased the density of our student housing by 55%, in part by asking juniors and seniors to live off campus, unless they had special needs, which we have accommodated. Given the difficulty of maintaining our density standards our Greek houses, we have not allowed occupancy in them for the fall.

We have, of course, required masks in all campus spaces outside of personal living or workspace. We require social distancing on the campus, at all times, of all faculty, staff, students, and anyone else granted access to the campus. We further enable that social distancing, in part, by scheduling staggered shifts in our laboratories, and by breaking the students, in large courses, into groups for alternating in-class and out-of-class instruction. We also have accommodated those unable to be in a classroom for any reason, by ensuring that each course, even if offered in an in-person format, also is available remotely.

Further, we have taken every possible step to ensure that all campus buildings are as sanitary as possible, improving ventilation and filtration where necessary, and arranging for the continuous cleaning and disinfecting of personal and common spaces.

To protect both athletes and spectators, we decided that the Institute would not participate in intercollegiate athletics this fall.

In addition, we have limited gatherings, other than classes, to fewer than 10 people, with strict social distancing and use of masks.

As result of this painstaking plan, our laboratory resources, and the goodwill of members of the Rensselaer community, thus far, we have succeeded in minimizing the risks of our coming together to live, to learn, and to change the world. Since August 1, we have conducted nearly 40,000 tests for COVID-19, and have had just six positive test results.[1]

However, two of those positive results occurred within the past week, so I count on all of you to keep up your guard. We must remain vigilant.

Dr. Leslie Lawrence, Executive Director of our Student Health Services — who leads our testing effort in conjunction with Dr. Jon Dordick, the Howard Isermann Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Senior Advisor to the President for Strategic Initiatives — will give you further details about our testing program and results in a few minutes.

I thank every member of the Rensselaer community for your care and cooperation since our reopening.

I especially thank the Class of 2024, and the architects of 2025: our freshman class. You have begun your college careers under very atypical circumstances, but you have more than risen to the occasion.   

Although this year is exceptional in all other ways, it is not exceptional in the outstanding students who have joined us as freshmen, and who make up one of the most accomplished and diverse classes we ever have welcomed to Rensselaer.

If I attempted to name all of their individual accomplishments, we would have to extend this Town Hall into tomorrow or beyond, but please allow me to tell you about the accomplishments of a few — that are illustrative of the Class of 2024. One of our freshmen already has two provisional patents on a patch she developed to treat paronychial infections. Another student has a patent pending for a solar-powered water desalinization backpack for refugees. A third is a master beekeeper who instructs farmers in using bees to optimize their crops.

We are proud of all the members of this class, and cannot wait to see what you will do when armed with a world-class Rensselaer education.

I also must congratulate our students in co-terminal programs, who are completing both their Bachelor of Science and master’s degrees in just five years. We have a record number of you this year. Given the current turmoil in our national labor market, adding an advanced degree to your Rensselaer education during this period is a very wise use of your time.

In addition, I commend, for their patience, those students who would like to be on campus, but who — whether because of our de-densification program, international travel restrictions, or health restrictions — cannot be here with us. I look forward to the day when conditions allow us to welcome all of our students back to the campus — together.

Until the day when the pandemic ends, while we can mitigate the risks of COVID-19, we cannot fully eliminate them. History suggests that there may be further pandemics, or other natural disasters, in the United States and around the world.

Because we cannot fully eliminate pandemic risks, let me tell you about two new protocols we have devised lest things do not go our way in the short term. They are based on two trigger levels.

We have designated a Trigger Level 1 that would launch the first protocol if there are more than 30 confirmed COVID-19 cases — faculty, staff, or students — within a rolling two-week period, among those with campus access, or, per New York State guidance, 100 cases on campus within a specified two-week period. Under such circumstances, we then would immediately pivot to remote instruction for at least two weeks, and require all on-campus students to quarantine in place, with continued mandatory testing for them, and required for our faculty and staff with allowed campus access. No off-campus students would be allowed access to the campus during this time.

We would reach Trigger Level 2 if the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases exceeds our ability to isolate and quarantine students, or if there are indications of a significant community spread. In such a case, I would declare an Institute State of Emergency. The campus would be shut down, except for critical operations.

Students in university-operated housing would be asked to leave within 72 hours. They would, of course, be tested and cleared before departing the campus, to minimize the possibility of spreading COVID-19 to their loved ones, or to others with whom they might interact. Those students in our isolation and quarantine housing would remain there until they were cleared for travel home. And those students who could not return home would be relocated to designated university-operated housing.

With Trigger Level 2, we would pivot to remote instruction for the balance of the semester; and we would extend the academic calendar for a week to accommodate student travel.

More information about these protocols is available on our COVID-19 website. I urge you to read what is posted on that site, and to read it very carefully. Let us hope that we do not have to pull either trigger! That depends on all of you. I am counting on all of you to remain vigilant.

Of course, the challenges that COVID-19 poses to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are not only in the public health domain. They also are financial. Currently, we are estimating that the total of pandemic-related revenue losses and unplanned expenses in Fiscal Year 2020 and Fiscal Year 2021 total nearly $65 million.

Beginning in the spring, we took a phased approach to cost reductions, as the financial consequences of the pandemic came into clearer view:

First, we enacted our contingency budget and eliminated discretionary expenses as much as possible. Since almost 70% of our overall expenditures are for employee salaries, we had to look there for savings as well. In April, my leadership team and I voluntarily took 5% salary cuts. We instituted a faculty and staff hiring freeze, reduced the number of fixed-term employees, and eliminated salary increases.

Our second phase included six-month staff furloughs. Beginning with the new fiscal year in July, we implemented 2% faculty and staff salary reductions for those earning between $60,000 and $200,000, and 4% for those earning over $200,000. We also reduced our defined contribution plan match to 6%.

Combined with other direct expense reductions, our estimated savings for Fiscal Year 2020, beginning in March, and for Fiscal Year 2021, total nearly $58 million.

Despite the pandemic, we can report strong results for Fiscal 2020. While our net assets declined by 4%, as a steep drop in interest rates increased our defined benefit pension plan liability, our outstanding long-term debt declined by $42 million, driven by debt refinancing and continued principal repayments.

In the end, we had strong cash flow from operations of $35.4 million, with an external operating result of $32.2 million, among the highest in the past 20 years. Our revenues grew 5% and expenses 6%, some of it driven by a New York State award for AiMOS, our new supercomputer, the most powerful at an American private university, and one of the most powerful testbeds in the world for advances in artificial intelligence.

AiMOS — short for Artificial Intelligence Multiprocessing Optimized System — not only has contributed to our financial results, it has been key to national efforts to fight the pandemic. 

This spring, with our partner IBM, we joined forces with MIT, the U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratories, NASA and the NSF, and others, to create the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, which volunteers free compute time on world-class machines, including AiMOS, to researchers addressing the pandemic. 

Currently, AiMOS and Rensselaer experts in high performance computing are supporting…

  • Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic investigating a drug repurposing methodology;
  • Researchers at the Weill Cornell Medical College working on molecular simulations of SARS-CoV-2; and
  • Researchers at Northwestern University modeling the use of artificial intelligence and smartphone data for contact tracing. Rensselaer Computer Science Professor Jianxi Gao is the co-principal investigator on this project.
  • AiMOS also is supporting a very interesting project led by researchers at Harvard University and IBM that hopes to devise triage rules for scarce resources during a pandemic.

In the United States, our early efforts to contain the SARS-COV-2 virus this spring were hampered by a severe shortage of Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, for health care workers. I am so proud of the way Rensselaer people leapt into action. More than 200 Chinese families of Rensselaer students generously arranged a shipment of surgical masks to Rensselaer, allowing us to donate 10,000 masks to New York State hospitals.

The members of our student maker club, The Forge, also immediately began recruiting volunteers among our students, and alumni and alumnae, with 3-D printers at home, to produce face shields and ear guards for hospitals along the East Coast.

After a request for help from our partner in education Albany Medical Center, a collaboration among our manufacturing staff on-campus, led by Director of Manufacturing Innovation, Sam Chiappone, also began making face shields. Beginning first with 3-D printing, and then employing plastic injection molding and laser-cutting machines, they reduced the time required to make a single face shield from one and a half hours to around two minutes, while developing a new design that offers more protection.

They have supplied thousands of these shields to hospitals to protect health care workers, including to Albany Medical Center, to St. Peter’s Health Partners, and to Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, New York — a public hospital that was overwhelmed by COVID patients early in the crisis. Thousands more Rensselaer-designed shields are being used on the Troy campus this fall in our research labs, in our undergraduate labs, and by our faculty in the classroom.

Another request for help came from our affiliate, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, whose medical center also was at the epicenter of the outbreak in New York City, and desperate for alternatives, if supplies of disposable face masks could not be increased. A multidisciplinary group led by Professor Robert Karlicek, Director of our Center for Lighting Enabled Systems and Applications, rapidly invented a machine that can use ultraviolet light to sterilize thousands of protective masks each day. We shipped the system to Mount Sinai in April.

In a few minutes, you will hear more about the work of our students and faculty on PPE — and on other promising research efforts to combat COVID-19 — from Dr. Dordick and our Acting Vice President for Research Dr. Robert Hull.

Because Rensselaer pedagogy is designed to spur our students to confront great global challenges, COVID-19 is, of course, a focus this fall in many courses in all five of our schools. With this focus, our students are applying their learning and their skills to this profound pandemic experience while being immersed in it, and are contributing to the world’s increasing knowledge about this deadly disease.

Without question, this academic year is requiring sacrifices of all our students, both those on-campus and those studying remotely.

However, I am very sure that because they are learning through a global pandemic — and from it — our students will have a unique advantage as they develop into the next generation of technological leaders. For nearly 200 years, times of adversity always have spurred Rensselaer people to rethink, reinvent, reimagine, and change the world. This year will be no different.

Before I turn over the virtual podium to our other speakers, please allow me to welcome our newest faculty members. Given the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, they are fewer than usual this year, but we are very happy to have them among us:

We welcome Dr. Kevin Housley, who received dual Bachelor of Science degrees from Rensselaer in Aeronautical and Mechanical Engineering in 2014 and his doctorate in Mechanical Engineering from Rensselaer in 2020. He has joined us as a Lecturer in our Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering.

We also welcome Dr. Sarah Felix, who joins us as Professor of Practice in this same department, and whose extensive industrial engineering experience includes serving as member of the technical staff of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and as a Lead Research Engineer for the Controls and Optimization Group of GE R&D.

We welcome Dr. Santiago Paternain, who has joined our Department of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering as Assistant Professor, and whose research focuses on a constrained reinforcement learning approach to machine learning, including for navigation in unknown environments. He comes to us from a postdoctoral position at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received an M.S. in Statistics and a doctorate in Electrical and Systems Engineering.

I congratulate Dr. Maurice Suckling, who has been with Rensselaer since 2016, on joining the ranks of our tenure-track faculty as Assistant Professor of Games and Simulations Arts and Sciences and Cognitive Science. Dr. Suckling’s gaming industry experience is vast, and he has worked on over 50 published video game titles in a number of different capacities.

Finally, we welcome Dr. Dennis Shelden as Associate Professor of Architecture. Dr. Shelden, who spent 17 years as an associate of legendary architect Frank Gehry, is a pioneer at the nexus of computation and the design and engineering of complex buildings — and has helped to advance building information data modeling, parametric and generative building modeling automation, and integrated building system design and engineering. 

Dr. Shelden will be serving as Director of CASE, our Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology, which is now located in Industry City in Brooklyn. CASE, and the new Institute for Energy, the Built Environment, and Smart Systems it anchors, are re-envisioning the ways that cities use energy, water, and other resources in light of new technologies, including smart autonomous systems, and from the perspective of truly integrated planning. This is crucial work, indeed: In the next 30 years alone, the world’s urban infrastructure will have to expand to accommodate an estimated 2.5 billion more people. And clearly, one of the challenges that COVID-19 has underlined is that of urban living during a pandemic, when extended contact in close quarters aids transmission of the pathogen. We are so pleased to have a thinker, technologist, teacher, and professional of the caliber of Dr. Shelden leading our efforts to shape the cities of the future for environmental resilience and human well-being.

I will end by offering my deepest thanks to all of our faculty and staff for their adaptability, ingenuity, tenacity, patience, and willingness to find a path through uncertainty this year — as together, we do the most important work in the world: that of educating talented young people, while generating new knowledge and innovating technological solutions to meet the challenges of our time.