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“This Very Special Place”

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

Accepted Student Celebration
ECAV Gymnasium
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Good morning, and welcome to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute!

This is always one of the happiest events on the academic calendar. We all look forward to meeting, as a group, the remarkable young men and women who navigated our application process and shone out brilliantly from it—as well as their equally remarkable families.

Congratulations to all of you.

You—the students here today—have been accepted at Rensselaer for your academic and personal strengths, and the competition for admission has never been tougher.  

We had over 15,200 applications for 1,300 places in the Class of 2016, a new record. So, Rensselaer clearly is able to be selective, and we choose people with tremendous aptitude. For the second consecutive year, the average SAT scores of our admitted group in critical reading and mathematics is 1400.

This year, we also have accepted record numbers of women, underrepresented minority students, and international students. Not only will the Rensselaer Class of 2016 be enriched by people of many different backgrounds, we also hope to bring new vigor to scientific and technological fields that, today, fail to attract sufficient women and minorities.

We have chosen you, and now we very much hope you will choose us. Just as your SAT scores, grade point averages, and extra-curricular activities helped to make a strong case for your admission here, there also is a strong case to be made for a Rensselaer education: In a recent study by Payscale, Rensselaer ranks within the top 20 universities in the nation in terms of return on investment (ROI) for the cost of a college education.

But, just as SATs and GPAs fail to capture fully the intelligence, personality, beauty, grace, and talents of all sorts that you would bring to this campus, so does the financial measure of ROI fail to capture what makes Rensselaer such a very special place. So, I will try, in a mere 12 minutes, to explain why it is a pleasure and a privilege to be here.

Rensselaer is America’s oldest private technological university, but it always has been strikingly modern in its approach to education, even at its founding in 1824. While students in other universities were expected to listen passively as their professors lectured, an early brochure about Rensselaer described the school’s more active philosophy this way: as “giving the pupil the place of the teacher,” since “the teacher always improves himself more than he does his pupils.” From the beginning, students were expected to do observational studies in labs and outside the university, to prepare lectures, and to demonstrate experiments in class.

In other words, the undergraduate education here always has been superb, and it was superb when I became President of this great university in 1999. Yet, it was clear that Rensselaer had yet more untapped potential.

So, twelve years ago, we developed the Rensselaer Plan, a roadmap to move us into the first tier of the country’s technological universities. The plan’s most significant goals were to transform the student experience, strengthen community engagement, foster entrepreneurial ideas and initiatives, develop campus community, develop a greater global outlook institutionally—and especially, in our students—and create a research portfolio of substantially greater size, quality, prominence, and impact—with our students, both undergraduate and graduate, as full partners in these endeavors.

Our motto here is, “Why not change the world?” And when we say that to our undergraduates, we are paying them the ultimate compliment. We believe they all are capable of changing the world. We do our best to set the stage for them.

We work hard to give our students a sense of community and support as they embark on every possible intellectual adventure. Our award-winning First Year Experience is designed not only to help students succeed, but also to forge bonds with each other -- bonds meaningful enough to last a lifetime.

Our Clustered Learning Advocacy and Support for Students (CLASS) program – anchored in the First Year Experience -- and engaging our sophomores, juniors, and seniors as they progress through the Institute—offers a new model of residential life at Rensselaer, with residential clusters (or Commons) that include live-in support from assistant deans, graduate students, and upperclassmen—with faculty Deans of the Commons, who live nearby in university housing, who are responsible for stimulating and conjoining the intellectual, cultural, and social lives of our students in our residential clusters.

CLASS also includes time-based clustering. We assign individual class-year deans to each group of rising sophomores—with the responsibility for guiding and nurturing their class as it progresses throughout the undergraduate years. Within the CLASS initiative, we also have a dean for off-campus students, and a Greek Commons dean for students who reside in fraternities and sororities. CLASS helps students to grow in all dimensions—broadening their experiences, while keeping students connected to each other and to the larger Rensselaer community.

Speaking of growth in all dimensions, we endeavor to make certain that, as Rensselaer students are developing their minds, their health and fitness are supported by our programs and staff. Beautiful new facilities -- such as the East Campus Athletic Village we are in today -- encourage our students to explore the world of motion and physical competition. Some 70 percent of our student population participates in athletics, whether at the recreational, varsity, club, or intramural level.

We have additional approaches to helping our students develop skills and enhance talents -- in ways that cannot be learned in a classroom or laboratory. As we all are well aware, our ever more interconnected world requires an increase in multi-cultural sophistication, intellectual agility, and a global view from the young. So we encourage—indeed, expect—every undergraduate to gain some international experience during his or her college years.

To that end, we have built, and continue to build, partnerships with universities in Europe, Asia, and Africa as part of our Rensselaer Education Across Cultural Horizons (REACH) program, which encompasses international academic exchanges of many kinds.

We also have opportunities for students to go abroad to do research, do internships, do engineering or architectural design projects, learn new languages, or join faculty-led study trips.

I mentioned our goal of creating a research portfolio of substantially greater size, quality, prominence, and impact.

We understand that if we are not pushing the boundaries of human knowledge outward—and not engaging our undergraduates in this heroic endeavor—we simply are not doing justice to their capabilities and their courage.

Further, if we are going to offer as fine an education as we intend—and prepare our students to take their places at the leading edge of science, engineering, architecture, business, and the arts -- Rensselaer has to be a place for cutting-edge research. So we have given renewed interest to research in impactful areas.

By every measure, we have succeeded in reaching our goals. Federal, state, and other support for our research has increased substantially (from $37 million in fiscal year 1999 to $90 million today). And the innovations now emerging from Rensselaer are so astonishing that simply naming them is a delight: a cellulosic (or paper) battery, self-splicing proteins, the darkest (most light-absorbing) material ever made by a human, the Semantic Web, biochips that mimic the human liver for drug testing, tools to mimic photosynthesis for energy generation, a new nanoglue, and understanding cultural nuance in social/cognitive networks —to touch on but a very few.

In the process of revitalizing Rensselaer’s research mission, we have transformed our Troy campus physically and intellectually—and made this one of the most exciting places on the planet to pursue an education. And that is why the number of applicants for our freshman class nearly has tripled in just the last seven years.

Some of the physical fruits of the Rensselaer Plan are now landmarks on the Troy campus, including our state-of-the-art Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, whose next-generation infrastructure will enable you to study bioprocesses that include tissue engineering and regenerative medicine; biocatalysis and metabolic engineering; and cell biology and DNA sequencing.

With the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, or CCNI, we have one of the most powerful university-based supercomputing centers in the world. The CCNI—developed in collaboration with IBM and the State of New York—enables complex computations at blazing speeds, makes the design and manufacture of nanoscale materials more efficient, and supports sophisticated modeling in fields such as nanophysics, cellular dynamics, fluid flow, finance, and interacting proteins.

Next, we have built the magnificent 220,000-square-foot Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC, on a steep hill with breath-taking views over Troy and the Hudson River. With world-class acoustics and visualization, animation, and simulation capabilities, EMPAC supports instruction and performance in music and the visual and performing arts. At the same time, it offers research opportunities at the intersection of media, the arts, science, and technology—and underpins our unique electronic arts offerings, including one of the country’s finest video game design programs.

But facilities alone do not a great research institution make. It also takes brilliant minds. As a key part of the Rensselaer Plan, in order to move in new directions, we have recruited “star” faculty in key focal areas in computation and information technology and in biotechnology and the life sciences. These stars anchor what we call “constellations”— multidisciplinary teams of senior faculty, early career faculty, and students. Currently, we are developing new constellations in fields such as media, arts, science, and technology.

But we have not just hired Constellation faculty. Over the past 12 years, we have hired nearly 300 outstanding new faculty over all disciplines and all our schools here at Rensselaer.

Moreover, our extensive undergraduate research program will allow you, too, to join the firmament. This represents an extraordinary opportunity for you to work with many of the finest minds in science, engineering, architecture, business, and the arts—and perhaps to discover your rightful place among them.

One of just many examples of our senior faculty who have welcomed undergraduates into their labs is Dr. Robert Linhardt, a senior Constellation professor who is known internationally for his research on the study of bioactive carbohydrates, particularly heparin.

Heparin is a blood thinner with important clinical uses. Several years ago, a contaminated batch of heparin—which is derived naturally from pig intestines—killed at least 81 people. Working toward a safer source of this essential drug, Dr. Linhardt has created the first artificial heparin in his laboratory.

Dr. Linhardt has had many undergraduates participate in this groundbreaking work. In fact, several years ago, an undergraduate in Dr. Linhardt’s laboratory invented an artificial version of a cellular organelle called the Golgi apparatus that could accelerate the discovery process for sugar-based pharmaceuticals.

As the mere mention of an engineered organelle suggests, much of the most exciting work in science, technology, media, architecture, and business is occurring at the intersection of existing disciplines—with new fields constantly emerging from a creative clash of ideas.

In order to prepare you to work at this cutting edge, we work at the cutting edge, too, and regularly offer new undergraduate degree programs in nascent disciplines, such as Electronic Media Arts and Communication; Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences; Sustainability Studies; and Information Technology and Web Science.

We have new concentrations in our business school—the Lally School—in accounting, in business analytics, and in global supply chain management.

We also are embarking on two unique endeavors that will make full use of the unique capabilities of EMPAC – a new center for Cognition, Communication, and Culture, and the Mandarin Project—designed to take a new approach to language and culture acquisition in immersive virtual environments. It will use art, cognitive science, computer science – including artificial intelligence and machine learning—and linguistics to create virtual sentient beings, and game engines for interactivity. Ask our faculty in Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences about this.

However, before I send our admitted students off to the virtual world, to another country—or on to your explorations here today—I want to emphasize how much we hope that, come fall, you will join us on this beautiful campus.

Rensselaer is a place of excitement, exploration, discovery, creativity, intellectual stimulation across a broad front, bold ideas, bold expression, entrepreneurship, action on the athletic field, leadership in every arena, and over 200 student clubs.

We have chosen you for admission because we believe that your joining us will help you to grow into the leaders you are meant to be, and that, in turn, you will contribute great things to this very special place, and carry its legacy into the future.

I look forward to welcoming you as members of the Class of 2016 in August, and I hope you enjoy your visit with us today.

Thank you.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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