Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

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Spring Town Meeting

March, 2022
EMPAC

Spring Town Meeting

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

Welcome to everyone here on campus and those watching via live stream. I thank each of you for joining me for this year’s Spring Town Meeting.

I would like to begin my remarks by having us think about what is happening globally. As we witness what is happening in Ukraine, our hearts and support go out to the Ukrainians, and anyone whose families and loved ones are affected by the conflict. We are reminded of the suffering that any people can face who are caught up in a conflict, or, are targeted because of where they live, national origin, religion, race, or ethnicity.

It is important, therefore, that we reaffirm that we all are part of one human race, and that we commit to the sanctity and dignity of the lives of all people, and that we, here, do not tolerate harassment, intimidation, or physical attack of any kind on, or by, members of our community. 

Everything we do is with the spirit of partnership and collaboration. However, this commitment rings hollow if we do not show genuine care and respect for others. For we are one Rensselaer.

Before I continue, allow me to introduce my senior leadership team:

  • Dr. Prabhat Hajela, our Provost;
  • Mr. Craig Cook, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel;
  • Dr. Jonathan Dordick, Institute Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Special Advisor to the President for Strategic Initiatives; 
  • Mr. Graig Eastin, Vice President for Institute Advancement;
  • Dr. Robert Hull, Acting Vice President for Research;
  • Dr. Ernie Katzwinkel, Acting Vice President, Administration
  • Mr. John Kolb, 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;
  • Ms. Eileen McLoughlin, Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer;
  • Mr. Curtis Powell, Vice President for Human Resources;
  • Dr. Jonathan Wexler, Vice President for Enrollment Management; 
  • Mr. Gary Zarr, Interim Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations;
  • Dr. Leslie Lawrence, Executive Director for Health and Wellness;
  • Mr. Vadim Thomas, Director of Public Safety and Emergency Management
  • 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. Aric Krause, Dean for the Rensselaer Hartford campus.
  • Dr. Mary Simoni, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; 
  • Dr. Stanley Dunn, Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education; 
  • Dr. Keith Moo-Young, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education; and
  • Mr. Johannes Goebel, Director of EMPAC and Professor, Arts.

 

As I look to step down, and retire, as President of Rensselaer, it is natural for me to look back to the beginning. It has been a long, rewarding journey with all of you, and I am proud of our shared accomplishments.

My husband, Dr. Morris A. Washington, Professor of Practice in Physics, and Associate Director of the Center for Materials, Devices, and Integrated Systems (cMDIS) and I came to Rensselaer 23 years ago. Morris is now retired. 

I came to Rensselaer to be its President because it is a great institution created (by Stephen van Rensselaer) to educate men and women who would apply science to “the common purposes of life,” and because it has a great legacy of impactful discoveries and innovations by its people, that have, indeed, changed the world.

The Board of the Trustees brought me here to be a change agent. They wanted me to build on its historical great legacy to elevate Rensselaer after 15 years of much turnover in university leadership – the university had five Presidents or Acting Presidents over the 15 years before I came. 

There had been a fall off in applications, enrollment, SAT scores, and retention of students. The campus, especially student residences and facilities, needed uplifting, updating, and/or complete renovation. The teaching facilities and research labs, with a few exceptions, needed serious updating. The student experience historically was driven by fraternities. And although there remained an important role for the Greek system, its membership had fallen off substantially. Through the Rensselaer Union, a large number of student-run clubs and activities were spawned, but overall attention to the student experience was lacking. 

So, I set an ambitious goal: to move Rensselaer to the top-tier of world-class technological universities with global reach and impact. Nearly twenty-three years ago, during my inauguration address, I shared my fundamentals with you.

I said that reaching our goals would require comprehensive and holistic planning, predicated by the answers to five important questions.

     1. What defines the intellectual core of key disciplines at Rensselaer? Is it important, and why? True          excellence requires such definition and examination.

     2. In these disciplines, are we in a leadership position? Do we set the standard and the agenda? These areas would serve as our foundation.

     3. If we are not in a leadership position, do we have the underlying strengths and capabilities necessary to move rapidly into a position of primacy with proper focus and investment? We would build on these strengths.

     4. Are these areas so vital we must create a presence in them, in order to stand in the realm of world-class universities? We would stake out an identity in these critical disciplines.

     5. What areas of current endeavor must we be willing to transform – or to give up – in order to focus our resources and our energies to create the impact we envision? We would make the difficult decisions that are required by a fundamental commitment to our highest ideals.

At that time, I explained why we needed to strengthen our resident undergraduate programs, revitalize graduate-level academics, and invest more in research. I said that teaching and research are the clasped hands of the university. I envisioned ways where we could better embrace our role in supporting working professionals, and to foster the entrepreneurial actualization of technology-centered advancements. It was also important to be a strong partner and member of our local, regional, national, and global communities, and to have the best enabling activities and staff.

So, we created The Rensselaer Plan and The Rensselaer Plan 2024, which have served as roadmaps for our transformative work, and as critical tools for assessing our progress.

Our commitments were captured in 144 “we will” statements in The Rensselaer Plan, and 110 “we will” statements in The Rensselaer Plan 2024.

The focus of The Rensselaer Plan was to transform the Institute in important ways. Our goal was accomplished by working through the commitments in the Plan—through our Performance Planning and Budgeting process.

This work has been challenging and demanding, but as I stand before you today, I am proud to say we have transformed the Institute, and accomplished the goals laid out in The Rensselaer Plan

Among our accomplishments are a more than tripling of freshman applications from students--with ever-stronger academic credentials, substantial growth in enrollment and retention, and the strengthening of the student experience through the award-winning First Year Experience and Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students (CLASS), with the residential commons, the off-campus commons, and the Greek Commons defined—with live-in deans and Greek advisors, as well as Class Deans to provide advocacy and support for students.

We have elevated the importance of athletics in the development of mind, body, and spirit by, among numerous accomplishments, moving women’s ice hockey to Division I, hiring full-time coaches for our NCAA teams, by building the East Campus Athletic Village (ECAV), by the renovation of the Houston Field House – all consistent with Title IX, and the equal treatment of men’s and women’s sports.

As part of the transformation, we have reinvigorated research. Our initial focus was on Biotechnology and IT, which has fanned out into five signature research thrusts: 

  • Biotechnology and the Life Sciences;
  • Computational Science and Engineering;
  • Energy, the Environment, and Smart Systems;
  • Media, the Arts, Science, and Technology; and
  • Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials

 

We have built new research platforms, among them the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS), the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center or (EMPAC), and the Center for Computational Innovations (CCI). We have funded constellations in Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering; the Tetherless World; Future Chips; Cognitive and Immersive Systems; and Physics, IT, and Entrepreneurship; and we have created a number of new research centers and activities, including CBIS, because it is both an intellectual platform and research center, the Institute for Data Exploration and Applications (IDEA), the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE), and the Center for Materials, Devices, and Integrated Systems (CMDIS).

Our investments in research have led to a tripling in research expenditures and major research breakthroughs and programs — among them, bioengineered heparin, stem cell-based tissue and repair, the Center for Mobility with Vertical Lift (MOVE) in the School of Engineering, and programs in quantum, neuromorphic, and Von Neumann-based computing, modeling, and simulation. 

Our supercomputer remains the most powerful at a private university in the United States. The Tetherless World constellation has led to our number one IT and Web Science degree program, a new master’s degree in business analytics in the Lally School, our top-ranked Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences (GSAS) program in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS), a new focus in data, artificial intelligence, and high-performance computation (DAIC), the School of Architecture B.S. degree being ranked #14 in the country, while preserving the high rankings in programs in engineering, such as nuclear engineering, aerospace engineering, biomedical engineering; chemical and biological engineering; and materials science and engineering.

The Rensselaer Plan 2024, while continuing to transform the Institute, is moving us ever more strongly to being transformative in globally impactful research, in innovative pedagogy, and in direct impact in the lives of our students. 

We have identified umbrellas for pedagogy – the Multiplayer and Mixed Reality Classroom and Cyber-enabled Discovery and Learning; and in research – Beyond the Internet: Digital Meets Reality and Infrastructural Resilience, Sustainability and Stewardship. 

Rensselaer has become the embodiment of what we refer to as The New Polytechnic, wherein we address—in a multidisciplinary and collaborative fashion—across sectors, geographies, and generations, globally important challenges, using the most advanced tools and technologies. 
Pedagogically we have changed:

  • How we teach — using AI, gamification, and immersive environments;
  • What we teach – Core requirements now include biological science, communications, and data dexterity requirements; and with 26 new academic degree programs, 17 in undergraduate education; and
  • New student pathways through the university, such as Co-term degrees, the Arch, ACCEL, ACCEL+, E-Term.

 

We also have carried out rolling renovations of classrooms and undergraduate laboratories. 
We have significantly strengthened our support for students through Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students (CLASS), the creation of an integrated student life services center in Academy Hall, the off-campus commons, upgraded and expanded dining halls, renovated and expanded student housing, and a comprehensive health and wellness approach that includes physical and mental health, and counseling.

And, now, on the research side, we are launching five new initiatives, fully endorsed by the Board of Trustees, who want us to accelerate what we do in these areas. They are:

     1. The Center for Engineering and Precision Medicine (CEPM), 
     2. The Data, AI, and Computation Institute (DAIC), 
     3. The Global Freshwater Institute, 
     4. The Institute for Energy, the Built Environment, and Smart Systems (EBESS), and 
     5. Advanced Chip Design and Manufacturing 

You can see how these initiatives have grown out of our five signature research thrusts, and out of our overall focus on research in The Rensselaer Plan.

Change on the scale of what has occurred at Rensselaer requires focus, commitment, collaboration, goodwill, and major investment.

We have spent $872 million on physical and technological infrastructure, both new and upgraded, which is part of $1.3 billion invested, overall, in The Rensselaer Plan and The Rensselaer Plan 2024.

Part of that investment necessarily came from borrowing, including borrowing to fund a legacy defined benefit pension plan, which had not been funded for ten years before my arrival. To better establish our leadership position to enhance the student experience, to hire new faculty, to make necessary infrastructure improvements, and to fund the defined benefit pension plan, we took on $750 million of debt by 2015. That meant, in the face of financial and security challenges, that by 2016, long-term debt exceeded the endowment by over $100 million.

No doubt, this was an enormous challenge, but it was also an opportunity to tighten our belts, become more efficient, and improve our fiscal foundation.

Out of this, “The Crossover” financial plan was born, a commitment to equalize the debt and endowment in three fiscal years. Our focus and successes under the Rensselaer Plans allowed us to achieve the Crossover in two fiscal years. 

For the Institute, investment also comes in the form of fundraising. Because of the implementation of The Rensselaer Plans, we have raised over $2 billion over the course of our two capital campaigns — $1.4 billion in the first capital campaign, and over $650 million to date in the current capital campaign.

Today, the endowment has climbed to over $1 billion for the first time in Rensselaer history. And the endowment exceeds the debt by $484 million, which represents a nearly $600 million crossover.

It also is important to note that our balance sheet has remained strong as we have navigated the global COVID-19 pandemic, and have worked tirelessly to keep the campus, especially our students, faculty, and staff, safe. 

Coming out of the recent Board meeting, the Rensselaer Board of Trustees approved an overall budget for Fiscal Year 2023, which amounts to $442 million. As always, this represents a balanced budget. The budget incorporates stabilization of enrollment and ongoing investment in faculty and research, among other key items.

We anticipate providing financial aid of nearly $173 million in Fiscal Year 2023. Included in this are resources to assist those students who encounter unexpected financial hardships during their time at Rensselaer. The minimum academic year stipend for graduate students will increase to $24,450. 

To summarize, over the past 23 years, we:

  • Hired more than 450 tenure and tenure-track faculty, retaining 70 percent of them;
  • Strengthened every school, including the Lally School, the School of Architecture, and the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS) 
  • Transformed how students live and learn through top-to-bottom renovations of residential complexes;
  • Created and implemented Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students (CLASS); and created the positions of live-in cluster deans, live-in Greek advisors, and Class Deans;
  • We have improved the graduate student experience by offering more programming and more professional development and socialization opportunities.
  • We created the Graduate Tuition and Student Support Policy to more fairly compensate graduate students and have more of them supported on research grants.
  • We have created more graduate student and undergraduate housing and dining options.
  • We have replaced the roofs on 25 buildings.
  • We have built a parking garage, boiler plant, underground electrical substation, and done innumerable physical plant and technological upgrades. 

 

All of these changes have been nothing short of transformational, and have positioned Rensselaer to be ever more transformative in the world.

I am sure that, if our antecedent graduates and faculty look at us today, they would be pleased to know that the best and brightest minds, from around the country and around the world, continue to flock to Rensselaer. They will see that we are engendering in our students multicultural sophistication, intellectual agility, and a global view. 

They will see that our students are sought after by industry and the academy, and that they intend to, and will, become the leaders we envision them to be. And they will see that we treat every member of the Rensselaer community with personal and professional dignity and respect.

There is no doubt that Rensselaer has come a long way in the last 23 years, and on that journey we have weathered numerous storms, such as the dot.com bust, 9/11, the Great Recession, and now the global COVID-19 pandemic. But that has strengthened us to address fundamental questions and challenges that will affect the future of the human condition.

There are no easy answers to our challenges. There rarely are. The stakes are high. But I have no doubt that the Rensselaer community is more prepared than ever to meet the challenges, and to take advantage of, and create, opportunities for all.

t is customary for me to tell you who our Commencement Honorands will be.

I am especially delighted to announce the people who will be receiving honorary degrees at the 216th Rensselaer Commencement

  • We will honor Dr. Francis S. Collins, Acting Science Advisor to President Joe Biden. In that role he helps steer the Administration’s plans and programs to advance scientific solutions to humanity’s needs, especially for health issues. Dr. Collins also is a Senior Investigator in the intramural program of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Dr. Collins previously served as the 16th Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Collins is a physician-geneticist noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes, and his leadership of the international Human Genome Project.
  • We will also honor Dr. Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to being a resource to help people better understand the world, and foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. He has served in this role for the past nineteen years. Prior to his current position, he was director of policy and planning for the U.S. Department of State, and was principal advisor to Secretary of State Colin Powell. He has served the U.S. government in a number of other capacities including with the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. In 2013, he served as the chair of the multiparty negotiations in Northern Ireland that provided the foundation for the 2014 Stormont House Agreement. For his efforts to promote peace and conflict resolution, he received the 2013 Tipperary International Peace Award. Dr. Haass is a veteran diplomat, and a prominent voice on American foreign policy. 

 

As I close, I leave you with these thoughts that I have shared on other occasions: If on the journey forward you become tired or fearful, or just worn down, consider the rivers you already have crossed, the mountains you already have climbed, and look up, not down; look forward, not back; and know that you can meet any challenge.

I wish you all the best.