Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

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Virtual Spring Town Meeting

March, 2021

Virtual Spring Town Meeting

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

Welcome, everyone, to the Spring Town Meeting at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

I was hoping to begin my remarks today by celebrating a spring re-awakening, as highly effective COVID-19 vaccines are deployed more widely, and we cautiously anticipate the end of the pandemic.

Unfortunately, the two senseless mass shootings that took place in our nation over the past week remind us of the pain suffered by the victims of such attacks. And in the case of Atlanta, Georgia, they remind us of the particular pain and fear experienced by members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. As with any group that has been targeted, it is important that they know that there are those who do care about them, at a time when the AAPI community has been targeted in a number of violent attacks in recent times. We want them to feel safe at Rensselaer. And we are doing everything in our power to ensure that they are safe at Rensselaer. 

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is committed to maintaining a safe and healthy learning, living, academic, research, and working environment for every single member of our community. We do not exclude anyone. We do not deny the benefits of our community to anyone. We do not discriminate against anyone, on any basis, real or perceived. And, we do not tolerate any form of harassment, threat, violence, or sexual misconduct whatsoever.

Any member of the AAPI community, or a member of any marginalized group, who has been threatened or harassed in any way, and especially if they have been subject to any violence, should feel free to come forward to Public Safety, to the Dean of Students, to the Provost, to Human Resources, or directly to me. We will be vigorous in responding to that, and in supporting the victims of such acts, and we will investigate them thoroughly. Any member of our community who engages in such acts will be subject to our disciplinary processes. 

We are a community of scientists, engineers, scholars, and students. Collaboration is at the heart of our work here. It is something that we cannot do without tolerance and respect for each other. And we certainly cannot do it well, without caring for each other deeply. Caring means that we stand with anyone who has been the target of unwarranted attacks. It also means that we pull together in times of challenge and danger. 

I am so proud of the way that all of you have met the considerable challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic with energy, with creativity, and with kindness, and in that way helped Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute through the past year. 

The weight is heavy, but I would urge all of you not to feel powerless in the face of terrible and irrational acts of violence, or in the face of a deadly pandemic — but instead to continue to offer the world an example of the ways that people of goodwill can work together to solve even the most intractable problems. 

Let me share with you a few of the many ways that our faculty, staff, and students have contributed to our ongoing missions in education, research, and student life — while working vigorously to combat COVID-19.

For example, Professor Pingkun Yan of our Department of Biomedical Engineering, and a team of faculty and students that includes Dr. Ge Wang, Clark and Crossan Endowed Chair Professor and Director of our Biomedical Imaging Center, developed an algorithm that uses artificial intelligence to predict successfully whether a COVID patient will require ICU interventions — by combining chest computed tomography (CT) images that assess the severity of a patient’s lung infection, with non-imaging data including demographic information, vital signs, and laboratory blood test results. The team is collaborating with physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital on this project and hope it will soon help clinicians there. And they are working to expand the concept to other health conditions.

Our vision for Rensselaer as The New Polytechnic stems from the fact that to address great challenges, we must unite differing perspectives. Professor Yufeng Shi of our Department of Materials Science and Engineering offers another wonderful example. He led the creation of a COVID-19 transmission model inspired by gas-phase chemistry, which is able to predict disease spread based on how much a population is moving within its community. The team also has been able to demonstrate that these forecasts change as communities lock down or masks are mandated and have shared their approach with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which includes their work among its forecasting resources.

Rensselaer people are not merely working to illuminate the course of COVID-19, in both individual patients and communities, they are using their expertise generously to help all of us adjust to the disruptions the pandemic has imposed — and to consider what changes are likely to outlast the pandemic. In the Lally School of Management, Professor Timothy Golden, who has studied telecommuting for more than 20 years, is working to help employers to understand the lessons of the past year, as they weigh establishing remote work or a hybrid as the norm for their companies.  

Rensselaer experts in many different fields contributed to the wonderfully civic-minded brochure produced by our Strategic Communications and External Relations team, “The Rensselaer Guide to Living and Working Well While Social Distancing,” in which research-based recommendations for well-being are offered to anyone hoping to maintain equanimity during the pandemic.

In terms of our educational mission, our faculty have helped us to accommodate all of our students — undergraduate and graduate — those on our thinned-out campus and those learning at a distance — often by teaching the same course in multiple modes: in person, remotely, and/or a hybrid of the other two. I thank our faculty for their extraordinary efforts — and for their ingenuity in maintaining the active style of learning that characterizes Rensselaer, in a virtual environment. 

For example, Professor Rhett Russo of our School of Architecture has used a whiteboard application to duplicate the studio experience Rensselaer offers, where architecture students post their drawings, so that their fellow students and teachers can offer feedback, or take inspiration from them. The digital whiteboard even has enhanced the studio experience in some ways, allowing comments to be preserved, and prominent architects from around the world to participate in reviews of student work.

Here is one more among many such examples of pedagogical creativity: Downloadable software designed by Professor of Practice Ronald Hedden of our Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering immerses students inside a virtual chemical plant, allowing them to develop and tune a control system for it — and to gain experience with chemical process equipment that is too large, too costly, or too dangerous to bring into a classroom.

Clearly, some of the pandemic-born teaching tools our faculty have piloted this year are going to inspire us to new ways of thinking about teaching and learning in future.

Now, please allow me to give you an update on our management of COVID-19 on the Troy campus. During our first semester, we had a remarkably low incidence of infection — just 22 positive results, out of over 86,000 tests conducted.

This semester, unfortunately, we reached Trigger Level One status on March 2, with more than 30 confirmed COVID-19 cases among our faculty, staff, and students with campus access, within a rolling two-week period. 

Reaching the Trigger Level One mark meant suspending all in-person instruction, pivoting to online instruction, and suspending access to campus facilities, except for student housing and the Alumni Sports and Recreation Center for COVID-19 testing. All undergraduate students residing on campus were required to quarantine in place, and those residing off campus were expected to do so as well. 
As a result of our collective diligence, testing results improved, and all conditions were met for a return to in-person instruction this past Monday, March 22.

To immediately identify and limit any future cases, we are requiring all registered and Arch students who live within a 25-mile radius of the Troy campus to be tested for COVID on a twice-per-week basis until the end of the semester, even if they are remote learners and do not have campus access.

We are phasing in access to campus facilities, and have developed a plan that will allow our athletic teams to participate in training and conditioning, and possibly, to make a delayed entry into Liberty League competition. Our first obligation, of course, is keeping our students, faculty, and staff safe. So, everything depends upon an improving public health situation, and our diligence in adhering to all Institute health and safety protocols.

There will continue to be no university-sponsored travel, except in very limited and authorized circumstances. We encourage all community members only to travel in exigent circumstances.
In controlling COVID-19 on the Troy campus amid our reopening last fall, we benefited from a number of Rensselaer strengths. That includes our reopening plan, which included our Testing, Tracing, Tracking, Surveillance, Quarantine, and Isolation (T3SQI) protocol that helped us to minimize the presence of the virus on our campus. 

We are so fortunate, as well, to have a laboratory capable of performing extremely sensitive reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests, at the rate of thousands of samples a day, at our Heparin Applied Research Center, in the Rensselaer Technology Park. 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 biotechnology. 

Our testing lab there now has become a new CLIA-approved (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988) laboratory for COVID-19 testing, designated as an overflow lab for St. Peter’s Health Partners.

The laboratory’s current testing capacity is 3,200 samples per day, with a 24-hour turnaround for results. In addition to processing tests for our own students, faculty, and staff, we currently have client contracts for testing with CDPHP and Emma Willard, and pending contracts with the University at Albany and General Electric.

Of course, potential COVID infections were not all that was needed to be managed during this period. There were financial disruptions as well. We estimate that in terms of lost revenue and unplanned expenses, COVID-19 will have cost Rensselaer $74 million by the end of Fiscal Year 2021. However, with very careful management, we have managed to implement projected cost savings of over $72 million. In Fiscal Year 2020, we had strong cash flow from operations of $35.4 million, and at $32.2 million, our external operating result was among the strongest in the past 20 years. 

So, we are on a very sound footing, as we look to the future. 

In addition, our $1 billion capital campaign, Transformative: Campaign for Global Change, will help us to realize three important ambitions: 

The first, as you know, is increasing student financial aid and enhancing the student experience. Many families are experiencing economic hardship because of COVID-19, which makes our efforts to bridge the gap between the financial aid we can offer and student need doubly important. And, as we look to the future, changing demographics mean that colleges nationwide will be serving more young people from underrepresented groups, who may have less family wealth to pay for higher education.

Because we understand that brilliance does not exclusively come in wealthy packages — because we intend to accept the very best students regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds — we are working hard to add to our endowment to meet student financial need. 

Our second pillar focuses on our faculty. The resources unleashed by the campaign will allow us to create endowed professorships that will attract and retain the very best academic talent from around the world. With campaign success, we also will expand our tenured and tenure-track faculty to 500, so that Rensselaer can achieve intellectual critical mass, and lead in crucial areas of research and education that address humanity’s greatest challenges — whether future pandemics or the increasing volatility brought on by a changing climate.

Our third pillar focuses on our Troy campus, which we will continue to modernize and equip for growth, and for continued leadership in research, pedagogy, and student life. 

Since 2017, our campaign has drawn nearly 171,000 commitments from 34,000 unique donors, and we reached the halfway point to our goal last year. So, we are well on our way to building an even stronger Rensselaer, as we approach our third century.

As we anticipate a brighter future on the public health front, we are planning for an in-person summer Arch semester, and look forward to being fully in-person in the fall, assuming the public health situation allows it. In both instances, our fundamental health and safety protocols, and testing, will remain in place.  

Applications for our next freshman class are up 5% overall and 10% for domestic students. Some of these students took a “gap” year, but the majority are coming directly from high school. In all, applications number 17,500 this year. That is quite a leap upward from the 5,264 applications we received in 1999 — a testament to the many ways our reputation has grown. We also had record numbers of applications this year from students in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Again, this suggests that our reputation is strong beyond the Capital Region and New York State. 

I also am pleased to say that we are working toward a streamlined in-person Commencement on Saturday, May 22, when, public health permitting, we will gather to celebrate the accomplishments of the great Class of 2021. 

Details are still being finalized with our honorary degree recipients, and we will announce them next week.

We also hope to revive our grand tradition of the President’s Commencement Colloquy this year, which would occur on Friday, May 21, 2021, on the eve of Commencement. I hope all of you will join us, whether virtually or in person.

And now, I would be happy to answer any questions.