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Breaking Barriers / Exceeding Standards

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

College Bound Presidents' Forum
Los Angeles, California

Saturday, April 17, 2004


Good morning.

It is my very great pleasure to participate in this year's College Bound Presidents' Forum. I salute all participants in this remarkable program — the students, the parents, the teachers, mentors and friends — and, especially, the 2004 graduates.

Today, your academic preparation, your work ethic, your dedication to excellence, and your determination to surmount obstacles, make you highly desirable to the nation's finest colleges and universities.

That is why I would like to tell you a little about Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), the nation's oldest, private degree-granting technological university — who we are and what we do.

Why Rensselaer?

Rensselaer was founded with an interesting premise: to educate those who would apply "science to the common purposes of life." Founder Stephen Van Rensselaer went on to say that he intended to instruct ". . . the sons and daughters of farmers and mechanics . . ." This was revolutionary, because higher education, at the time, was intended, primarily, for the elite, not for ordinary people. Van Rensselaer took his revolutionary concept a step further by employing a teaching method which emphasized hands-on learning.

We take our history seriously, and continue the legacy:

• that the application of science is for the purpose of affecting the lives of people, and for enabling lives
• that Rensselaer education is important for women, as well as for men
• and, that learning be enabled by hands-on experience and research

Over the last 180 years, this approach to learning has led to Rensselaer alumni who pioneered innovations and events which have changed our world, including — but, far from limited to — television, the pocket calculator, the microprocessor, and the Apollo Project which put people on the moon.

But, you may say, that is ancient history. Well, let me tell you about something that is making news right now.

Last month, four young men involved in the Mars Exploration Rover Mission returned to Rensselaer. All are recent graduates of RPI who live in and around Los Angeles, and work right up the street in Pasadena at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

One of them described his involvement with development and deployment of solar arrays on the rovers. You may have read about him — Kobie Boykins — in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times. Another worked on the rovers' landing and maneuvering mechanisms. Still a third works on the mechanics and the art that create the vivid panoramic images of Mars. And, a fourth focuses on the rovers' mobility system including the wheels, drivetrains, and steering. All together, about 15 Rensselaer graduates are involved in the Mars mission.

But Rensselaer is more than just rocket science.

• I could tell you about Claire Fraser, a pioneer in comparative genomics which analyzes and compares genomes of different species. Dr. Fraser heads the Institute for Genomic Research, and with her team of researchers, she sequenced the DNA of the 'Florida' strain of anthrax taken from the first 2001 victim.

• I could tell you about "Bobby" Farrelly, who majored in geology, and went on to become the director and producer of popular movies such as "There's Something About Mary," "Dumb and Dumber," and "Shallow Hal."

• I could tell you about Adam Oates who earned a Rensselaer degree in management, and retired this month after a stunning NHL hockey career.

• I could tell you about Ray Tomlinson who invented the Internet protocol which allows us to use the "at" sign to connect the user name with the destination address, and, thereby, developed the "killer application" known as e-mail.

• I could tell you about the father of the microprocessor and thousands of other Rensselaer graduates who are involved in exciting careers in research, entrepreneurship, invention and discovery, and as leaders in business, government, and academia.

But, it is important to go back to the early history of Rensselaer to understand the welcome awaiting you in Troy, N.Y. From its earliest origins, African Americans have been a part of the fabric of the City of Troy and the surrounding area. As you probably know, upstate New York was actively engaged in the abolitionist movement, and Troy was a known safe haven and stop on the Underground Railroad. Many of the houses in this part of the country have secret closets and basement hideaways.

The Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, pastor of Troy Presbyterian Church, called for the violent overthrow of slavery at a Free Black Convention attended by Frederick Douglass. Harriet Tubman entered the Troy courthouse to free a slave, and a riot ensued, as Troy residents poured out of their houses and into the streets to protest the slave's recapture.

A man named for Garnet and Douglass — Garnet Douglass Baltimore — was the first African American to graduate from Rensselaer, in 1881. Mr. Baltimore held an impressive series of civil engineering jobs on New York's canals, bridges, and railroads. He became the City of Troy engineer, and is remembered as the inspired designer of Troy's Prospect Park. At Rensselaer, we honor his memory and accomplishments, annually, with a named lecture. That lecture series has featured such outstanding speakers as Dr. Johnetta Cole, former president of Spelman College, now President of Bennett College in North Carolina; H. Carl McCall, former New York state comptroller; and Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium. I, also, was a Garnet Baltimore lecturer, in 1997, as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

But, what you really must know is what it is like to attend Rensselaer, today.

Rensselaer was created by and for people who are interested and curious, who ask questions, and to learn how to do impossible things. Rensselaer was founded by and for people who want to take risks and face tough choices. In short, Rensselaer was founded for people — just like you — who ask themselves: why not change the world?

Our students learn to communicate, to collaborate, and to work effectively in teams in facilities such as the O.T. Swanson Multidisciplinary Design Laboratory. This facility supports myriad undergraduate research projects and courses — from Inventor's Studio to Introduction to Engineering Design — and simulates the work environment that graduates can expect to encounter in their careers. Real-world projects are generated by industry sponsors, community service agencies, and entrepreneurial ventures seeking creative solutions from bright, eager young minds like yours.

We are creating new courses of study and lines of research at the interface of disciplines such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, terahertz imaging, electronic art and design, and video game studies.

We attract distinguished new faculty, and some of the brightest — and most diverse — students in the nation.

Two ambitious projects are now under way. The Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, opening in September, will rank among the world's most advanced research facilities. In this building, faculty and students — both graduate students and undergraduates — will conduct research with constellations of distinguished faculty, who are world leaders in their fields.

Across campus, on a grassy slope overlooking the Hudson River, another transformative building — the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (eMPAC) — is rising. Here, information technology and the performing and experimental (including digital and electronic) arts will unite and combine in new ways, opening our eyes and stretching our minds in new directions. This facility, too, will be like few others in the world, and will include unique artistic and research opportunities for our undergraduates. It will open in 2007.

Rensselaer is a rigorous school. Our students study hard and work hard.

They also play hard — in 23 intercollegiate sports, in intramural programs in more than 20 sports, in 30 different club sports, and in countless other recreational opportunities. They participate in student government, in Greek organizations, and in more than 140 student-union supported clubs and service activities.

We have invested in programs that promote a balanced, nurturing environment with a wide variety of academic, career, and social support systems to ensure our students' happiness and success. As a result, our students thrive and excel.

Rensselaer offers degrees in five schools — engineering, science, architecture, management, and humanities, arts, and social sciences, and in an interdisciplinary program in information technology.

Our entering students have taken a great deal of math and science, they have excellent communications skills, SAT scores averaging 1310; 68 percent are in the top 10 percent of their graduating class, and come with a broad spectrum of extracurricular activities.

The cost of attending Rensselaer is not inexpensive, but a wide variety of sources of financial aid are available to fully meet the financial needs of our students.

I probably do not need to reiterate the return on investment in education, but for the Class of 2003, these statistics apply.

This slide shows our undergraduate demographics. Ladies, obviously, have no trouble getting dates. Neither do the men, with a wide range of colleges and universities in the area. We are aggressively recruiting students of color, and women.

Our persistence and graduation statistics for women and underrepresented groups are well above national averages, demonstrating that Rensselaer focuses not merely on bringing these diverse young people to campus, but also on supporting and nurturing them, and doing all that we can to assure that they succeed here.

We have many distinguished African American graduates.

• John Carr graduated in 1977, with a BS in building sciences and an MS in urban-environmental studies. He went on to Harvard where he received a JD/MBA, and is currently a partner with one of the nation's top law firms, and a member of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees.

• Tahira Reid graduated from Rensselaer in 2000 with a BS in mechanical engineering. As an undergraduate, she received a patent for an invention — the double dutch machine. She will enter the Ph.D. program in nanoscience at the University of Michigan this fall.

• Wanda Denson-Low, who is currently on the board of College Bound, graduated from Rensselaer in 1978 with a BS in chemistry. After obtaining a law degree, she become chief patent counsel at Hughes Aircraft Company, the first minority, in the nation, to hold such a position. She currently is Vice President for Human Resources in Integrated Defense Systems at Boeing.

All of these Rensselaer graduates are leaders — each in his or her own way, in his or her own field.

I have a particular — and a personal — interest in leadership. In school, I always achieved good grades (I was a cube — a square with depth), and when I was accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), I decided to attend, despite warnings that I might not be comfortable there as a woman, and as an African American in the mid-1960s. It was hard. It was different. It changed my life. I majored in physics, becoming the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from M.I.T. — in any subject, and one of the first two African-American women to receive a doctorate in physics in the United States. Later, employed by the former AT&T Bell Laboratories, I found that my abilities in science and my abilities to communicate, developed in school and over my career, enabled me to translate between and among the worlds of science, government, industry, and higher education. This put me in line for a number of leadership positions, including the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) where I was first a Commissioner, and then Chairman; and now, President of a major research university — one curiously like my alma mater.

Closely related to leadership, is our emphasis on diversity. We work to assure that students from a wide variety of backgrounds, intellectual and social interests, cultures, and nations feel comfortable at Rensselaer. We teach, and demonstrate in our daily lives, how essential diversity is in the 21st century. We believe, that to be a global player, one must have a global vision, and that the best place to instill that vision is during the very important undergraduate years.

But, I am the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. You would expect to hear all of this from me. Perhaps it would be better for me to share with you excerpts from an e-mail which Michael Anthony Green wrote this week, when he learned I was coming to this event. Michael is a graduate of Claremont High School, and a member of the College Bound class of 2003.

E-mail from Michael Anthony Green:

"When I sat down to make my [college] decision, I tried to focus on the type of person that I wanted to become, and the direction that I wanted my life to [take]. When I did that, I found that Rensselaer, with its distinguished academics and its relatively small community of students, would be the best setting for me to mature.

"For what seems to be the first time in my life I have actually been challenged by the school work. But, although the academics may seem overwhelming at times, there is always somebody who can help you and give you support.

"One of the biggest [adjustments] I had to make was to the weather. This year I learned the true meaning of the word "seasons." In California, winter, spring, fall, and summer are just words to describe times of the year. Here, those same words tell you if it will be 80 degrees and humid or minus 20 and knee-deep in snow. [But] it was nothing that eight layers [of clothing] and a winter coat could not fix.

"As my first year at RPI comes to an end, I am still certain that this was the best decision that I could have made. I have learned more about myself and what I need to do to achieve my goals in life in the two semesters here than I would have ever, if I [had] remained at home. [This] is, "The School of Choice" for me.

"Good luck to all of you in your decisions. To those [College Bound graduates] that have been accepted to Rensselaer, welcome to the family."

Michael Green
College Bound Class of 2003

Now that you have heard about Rensselaer, from me and from Michael, I would like to share a very brief video to let you see a bit of Rensselaer for yourselves.

But first, let me again salute the College Bound Class of 2004.

Congratulations and God speed.

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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