Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

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Fall Town Meeting

Category: University Events
October, 2021

Fall Town Meeting

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

Welcome, everyone, to our Fall Town Meeting — and thank you for joining us online. 

Before I begin, please allow me to introduce my Cabinet and our academic leaders: 

  • Dr. Prabhat Hajela, our Provost, whom you already have met;
  • Mr. Craig Cook, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel;
  • Ms. Eileen McLoughlin, our incoming Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer;
  • Dr. Robert Hull, Acting 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. Curtis Powell, Vice President for Human Resources;
  • Mr. Jon Wexler, Vice President for Enrollment Management; 
  • Mr. Graig Eastin, Vice President for Institute Advancement;
  • Dr. Jonathan Dordick, Institute Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Special Adviser to the President for Strategic Initiatives; 
  • Dr. Leslie Lawrence, Executive Director for Health and Wellness;
  • Dr. Curt Breneman, Dean of the School of Science;
  • Mr. Evan Douglis, Dean of the School of Architecture;
  • Dr. Chanaka Edirisinghe, Acting Dean of the Lally School of Management;
  • Dr. Shekhar Garde, Dean of the School of Engineering;
  • Dr. Mary Simoni, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; 
  • Dr. Keith Moo-Young ’92, ‘95, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education;
  • Dr. Stanley Dunn, Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education; and
  • Dr. Aric Krause, Dean of Academic and Administrative Affairs for the Rensselaer Hartford campus.

 

This team has led us through a uniquely challenging period, and I know that everyone in the Rensselaer community is grateful to them for their blood, toil, tears, and sweat — as well as for their ingenuity in helping us fulfill all of our missions in a world turned upside down.

The same can be said for so many of you — volunteering at the test collection site(s); producing face shields and a system to sterilize face masks; epidemiological modeling; COVID-19 research; and especially complying with our health and safety protocols; and adjusting to financial stringencies. 

As you know, and as the current pandemic has reinforced, my first obligation as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is keeping our students, faculty, and staff safe. 

Thanks to our risk-informed planning, and our comprehensive Testing, Tracing, Tracking, Surveillance, Quarantine, and Isolation (T3SQI) health and safety protocols, we have managed to keep the COVID-19 case rate on our Troy campus extremely low. With over 280,000 tests conducted since we reopened our de-densified campus last fall, we have had a positive case rate of just over 0.1%. This past summer and this fall, our positivity rate is even lower, since we instituted our vaccine mandate, while continuing our other stringent health and safety protocols.

Throughout the pandemic, we have been very fortunate to have a laboratory, led by Dr. Jonathan Dordick, and licensed with the intervention of Mr. Curtis Powell, which is capable of conducting “gold-standard” PCR testing for COVID-19 at a large scale — an unusual resource at a university without a medical school — which reflects the many investments we have made in the life sciences and biotechnology over the past two decades.

Currently, it is a joy that our faculty, staff, and students are able to be here together in person, and our low case rate has allowed that.

As I just intimated, I am very proud of the way the entire Rensselaer community has risen to the occasion — including our students, who have been almost uniformly wonderful about following our protocols. We clearly educate young people highly attuned to scientific and medical developments, who not only understand the gravity of this public health emergency, but who also see themselves as active participants in the great experiment of learning to control SARS-CoV-2. 

Of course, the challenges of the pandemic were not merely confined to public health — they were financial as well. In total, COVID-19 has cost us approximately $53 million in lost revenue and $15 million in additional expenses ($68 million overall — to this point). 

However, through prudent management and expenditure controls, we have successfully handled the disruptions and costs of the pandemic.  Over the past two years, the Institute was able to build its endowment to over $1 billion — while successfully refinancing nearly 50% of its outstanding debt.  We also have seen some of the strongest operating results and cash flow in recent decades.

Nonetheless, financial challenges remain; but our performance planning and budgeting, coupled with the support of the Board of Trustees, and our alumni and alumnae, will allow us to manage through the headwinds. 

We also have developed a roadmap for financial stability moving forward.

First, we will continue to focus on and optimize our resources — financial, physical, and human capital. 

Second, we are developing a long-term restructuring plan focused on the sustainability of our undergraduate and graduate enrollment — even as changing demographics point to a period, after 2025, when the number of students graduating high school is projected to decline nationwide. This means aggressively broadening our national geographic draw, and broader international geographic diversity. The plan will focus on revenue generation opportunities, including a new three-year B.S. degree, expanded co-term programs, and the expansion of online or low-residency master’s programs.

Third, we will closely review our cost structure, including evaluating our physical footprint, our technology deployment, and our organizational structure.

Please allow me to describe a few aspects of this roadmap in more detail. I mentioned human capital. The pandemic curtailed our faculty recruitment efforts, which retirements are making a priority. So, we will be investing intelligently in faculty in key fields that are likely to have the greatest impact on Rensselaer.

We are looking at hiring (up to 22) new faculty in this fiscal year, and are deploying all available resources to cover their startup expenses. We have a few vacant endowed chairs for junior, mid-career, and senior faculty, which we will use to recruit the best people to build strength in our strategic thrusts. 

A number of open positions are in the realm of computation broadly writ, which will support a new Institute for Data, AI, and Computation, or DAIC — one of five new institutes or centers focused on the intersecting vulnerabilities with potentially cascading consequences revealed by recent triggering events that include the spread of SARS-CoV-2, climate events, and massive cyber-attacks that threaten critical infrastructure.

Clearly, humanity as a whole needs to make the highest possible use of its digital tools in order to predict and prepare for risks that potentiate other risks. DAIC will help to advance new computational paradigms, including those that are a hybrid of conventional, neuromorphic, and quantum computing — combining bits, neurons, and qubits — allowing us to address our challenges at a new level of complexity. It will allow us to advance and use quantum computing, edge computing for networks and cyber-physical systems, and hacker-proof quantum communications. And, with new programs for graduate students, DAIC will help to educate the next generation of leaders for these new paradigms. 

Our new Constellation Chair in our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory, or CISL, also will support DAIC. 

Another open Constellation Chair in Future Chips will help to support a research initiative in advanced semiconductor design and manufacturing. As you know, a shortage of semiconductors amidst surging demand and pandemic-related supply chain issues have strained a number of industries. Automobile manufacturers have been particularly hard hit, and some of them have been forced to shut some of their plants. Today, most of the world’s advanced chips are manufactured in Asia. Our declining capacity in semiconductor manufacturing in the United States is both an economic and a national security risk, which is why the United States Senate passed a bill in June that would provide $52 billion to support domestic semiconductor manufacturing. 

At Rensselaer, given our strength in materials, devices, and integrated systems and our longstanding partnership with IBM — which is a world leader in developing radically new approaches to chip design and manufacturing — we envision adding value to this area of national focus in four key areas: 

  • First, advanced packaging, which is the last stage in semiconductor manufacturing, and which protects and connects the device to the circuit board;
  • Second, heterogeneous integration, in which other materials are integrated onto a silicon substrate — such as the wide band-gap semiconductor gallium nitride, used for more efficient devices that can operate at higher voltages, powers, and frequencies.
  • Third, interconnects. With potentially billions of transistors now packed into a thumbnail-sized chip, the interconnects — or “wires” that move signals — are key. In Professor Daniel Gall of our Department of Materials Science and Engineering, we have one of the world’s leading experts in new materials solutions for ever-tinier metal wires;
  • Fourth, given our strength in devising computational tools of all kinds, we expect to forward electronic design automation and artificial intelligence-driven design and testing in the semiconductor realm, using platforms such at AiMOS.

 

Another Constellation — in Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine — will support another exciting new research initiative: our Center for Engineering and Precision Medicine, or CEPM, which will be based in New York City. A partnership in both research and education with our affiliate The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, CEPM will drive advances in… 

  • point-of-care and point-of-use devices and diagnostics, 
  • micro-physiological platforms for discovery and diagnosis, 
  • robotic surgery, 
  • biomedical imaging, and 
  • artificial intelligence and machine learning applied to biomedical data. 

 

It will focus on neuro-engineering for the minimally invasive control and regulation of neural circuitry, immuno-engineering to help our bodies fight cancer and infectious diseases, and regenerative and reparative medicine for personalized tissue repair and regeneration. 

With this center, we will create a doctoral program in Engineering and Precision Medicine that will enable students to earn joint, dual, or individual doctorates from Mount Sinai and Rensselaer.

Our fourth new institute is one I had the pleasure of announcing last spring at the White House international Leaders Climate Summit: the Rensselaer Institute for Energy, the Built Environment and Smart Systems, or EBESS.  

EBESS, which is based in Industry City in Brooklyn and in Troy, is bringing together our Schools of Architecture and Engineering with distinguished partners that include industry leaders Siemens and Lutron Electronics; the building engineering consulting firm Thornton Tomasetti; the international architecture firms HKS, OBMI, and Perkins & Will; and the Brooklyn Law School. 

Together, Rensselaer and its partners are addressing the great challenge at the nexus of energy security, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and urban growth. Much of the population growth expected worldwide over the next three decades will take place in cities. By 2050, the world’s cities will need to grow to accommodate 2.5 billion additional people. 

Yet our built environment already is responsible for nearly 40% of annual global carbon emissions — in building materials and construction, and in building operations, especially heating and cooling. So, as we expand our cities, we also must move with great urgency towards energy efficiency. 

In addition, we must anticipate the effects of climate change on our cities and engineer greater resilience into them. Hurricane Ida recently offered us tragic demonstrations of the ways that our existing urban infrastructure can prove inadequate to the extreme weather we now experience: In New Orleans, people died of oppressive heat after a power outage. In New York City, people drowned in basement apartments. 

Today, our cities are not optimized, in a holistic and integrated way, for energy use, for climate resilience, or for the health and well-being of all their citizens. Our built environment does not interact intelligently with the electrical grid, with transportation infrastructure, with supply chains. 

New approaches and new technologies offer the possibility of seamlessness. The opportunity here is to view each city as a system of systems, and to allow sophisticated interactions and exchanges of information among them — in order to achieve a collective, multi-scale intelligence — to the benefit of all. 

EBESS will be focusing on deep decarbonization and climate resilience — bringing together architects, engineers, and policymakers, to devise responsive new materials and building platforms for net-zero structures; and to model and design cities with integrated emissions-free transportation, communications, and supply chain networks. With our partner the Brooklyn Law School, EBESS also will model the appropriate regulatory and legal considerations — balancing information flow for the seamless operation of a system of systems, with cybersecurity and privacy to protect city-dwellers as they move about — and ensuring that renewable energy resources are equitably shared.

Finally, as we assess the intersection of humanity’s greatest vulnerabilities with Rensselaer expertise, we will focus on fresh water. Climate change, pollution, and overuse are stressing lakes, rivers, aquifers, and wetlands around the world, with potentially cascading consequences.

At Rensselaer, we intend to build upon the knowledge we already have acquired about freshwater ecosystems, at our Margaret A. and David M. Darrin '40 Fresh Water Institute and through The Jefferson Project, which uses novel sensor platforms and massive amounts of streaming data to guide experimentation and to help us understand threats to New York State lakes, including harmful algae blooms, which have been increasing rapidly, and some of which are toxic. Now, we envision a Global Fresh Water Institute to better understand the stressors on fresh water resources at all scales — from the molecular to the macro scales — and to develop strategies to conserve fresh water around the globe.

Without question, the pandemic has demanded flexibility on the part of our students — some of whom were on our de-densified Troy campus last year, and some of whom had to learn remotely. And it has demanded flexibility of our faculty, many of whom were teaching in multiple modes at once, and yet managed a number of pedagogical innovations that have kept our students engaged and moving forward in their studies.

As an Institute, we have been inspired by this work, and now are offering more flexible learning options for all our undergraduates, including E-terms, during our semester breaks, or week-long enrichment focused programs across all five schools, some of which will offer course credits.

We also are giving high-achieving students an accelerated path to their degrees. With ACCEL, students who enter Rensselaer as freshmen with at least 12 advanced placement or transfer credits in STEM fields have the option of a plan of study that allows them to achieve their Bachelor of Science degree in just three years. With ACCEL+, they can complete B.S. and M.S. degrees in four years, while maintaining their financial aid for the fourth year graduate degree program.

Finally, as we consider the road ahead, our Transformative: Campaign for Global Change is on track to help us accomplish three significant objectives:

  • First, to bridge the gap between student need and the financial aid we are able to offer, and enhance the student experience;
  • Second, to expand our faculty to 500 and create more endowed chairs to draw the most talented people in key areas of education and research, and
  • Third, to build out our campus and infrastructure, to accommodate our ambitions and growth.

 

I am pleased to say that we are nearly 60% toward the $1 billion campaign goal, with approximately $583 million raised to date — including $150 million for student scholarships.

Support for our campaign has been both wide and deep: 34,450 donors have made more than 174,000 commitments overall. And more than 120 individuals, corporations, foundations, and organizations have pledged transformative gifts of $1 million or more.

We especially thank Jeanne and Frank Fischer ’64, ’65G for establishing the Jeanne and Frank Fischer ’64 Scholarship 16 years ago, and for continuing to help undergraduates with financial needs today — more than 100 students in all.
And we thank Trustee Dr. John Kelly ’78G, ’80 Ph.D. and IBM for their tremendous support of research, faculty innovation, and education through groundbreaking initiatives such as the CISL, the Jefferson Project, AiMOS (our world class computational ecosystem), and the AIRC (Artificial Intelligence Research Collaboration).

I am very optimistic about the future of the Institute, and its ability to convert some of the greatest vulnerabilities of humanity into opportunities for a brighter world. That optimism, of course, stems from the wonderful, talented people in our midst — and from the grand Rensselaer tradition, nearly 200 years old, of pioneering new ways to teach and learn, new tools for research, and new fields to explore.

It is, indeed, a thrilling moment to be part of the Rensselaer community! 

Now, before we move to our question and answer period, please allow me to acknowledge someone who has been key to the successful fulfillment of our missions in education and research during the past year and a half.

In 1993, Carl Westerdahl — a Rensselaer administrator as well as a passionate historian of Rensselaer — established the Pillar of Rensselaer Award, which acknowledges a long-time staff member for extraordinary contributions to our community, particularly to the well-being of our students.

It is difficult to think of anyone who has more directly impacted the well-being of our students than Dr. Leslie Lawrence, our Executive Director for Health and Wellness. Dr. Lawrence has served in this role since 2004 and has been a consistently important presence in our students’ lives for 17 years—helping them to take care of themselves and to make thoughtful choices, while encouraging his Student Health Services staff to be innovative in addressing student concerns of all kinds.

Then COVID-19 hit, and as one of his nominators expressed it, someone usually “behind the scenes” moved “front and center.” 

As an expert in public health, Dr. Lawrence made enormous contributions to the development of our health and safety protocols. While supporting the vigorous broad-based campus response to COVID-19, he also spent a great deal of time reassuring concerned students, faculty, and staff one-on-one.  

In the case of one student distraught to discover during move-in in the fall of 2020 that she was positive for COVID-19, he helped her to understand how the disease spreads, kept in touch with her while she was in isolation, and then connected her afterwards with a Rensselaer laboratory where she could help to fight COVID-19. He also has strengthened mental health support for our students. 

He has done likewise for so many students, and the broader Rensselaer community, throughout our grappling with the pandemic — while adjusting continually as we move to a more “normalized” campus experience.

Dr. Lawrence, we are so grateful to you for your knowledge, for your contributions to our students, for your guidance to our leadership, for your calm under extreme pressure, and for your kindness. 

I am delighted that we are able to honor you with the Pillar of Rensselaer Award.