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Continuing our Renaissance

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

Presidential Fall Town Meeting
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Friday, October 27, 2006


I look forward to this town meeting, each fall and each spring, as an opportunity to share with you the news about Rensselaer, and to hear from you your ideas, and your concerns.

I also am pleased that members of the President's Cabinet and the Dean's Council are here this morning. As always, I will ask for their contributions during the Question & Answer session, which follows this presentation, as appropriate.

This morning, I would like to present an overview of recent, major accomplishments and news, but I would like to do so in the context of where we are going as an institution, and to highlight your important roles in this process of transformation.

When The Rensselaer Plan was launched six years ago, the plan took the Institute into a new—and transformative—direction, with new priorities, strategic investments, and a vision of a university with global reach, and global impact. We have come far since then. Today:

  • We are recognized as a "New Ivy" by Kaplan/Newsweek, chosen as one of 25 institutions whose first-rate academic programs have fueled their rise in stature and favor among the nation's top students, administrators, and faculty.
  • Rensselaer is ranked 42nd among the nation's top universities by US News & World Report, up one place from last year, and eight places up from seven years ago.
  • The number of applications has reached an all-time high—up 23 percent from the previous year.
  • We continue to garner significant research support from major government and corporate sponsors; and
  • We have attracted major initiatives and gifts.

With all these successes—and more to come—Rensselaer, also, is in uncharted waters. It is not easy to transform an institution—especially a 182-year-old institution. There are growing pains; there are the realities of the world beyond our campuses to consider. Yet, this transformation—this Renaissance—is moving ahead. We continue to invest in it, and we are beginning to reap its rewards.

Consider, for example, two major announcements since we last met in the spring. The first is the $100 million Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, or CCNI, a partnership among Rensselaer, IBM, and New York state to create one of the most powerful university-based supercomputing centers in the world. Located on the Troy campus and in the Rensselaer Technology Park, CCNI will continue the push from traditional semiconductors to the next generation of nanoscale materials and systems. As CCNI focuses on more efficiently reducing the size of devices, the center will extend this model to industries which could benefit from nanotechnology. Companies will be able to perform research at the center, giving a boost to Rensselaer's research in biocomputation. CCNI already has attracted the participation of Cadence Design Systems Inc., and Advanced Micro Devices. The center certainly will attract faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students for advanced study in computational nanotechnology, molecular bio-computation and simulation, computational cognitive science, computer science, and more. The center is expected to begin operation by March 2007.

The second major announcement, last month, was the largest in-kind gift in Institute history from the Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering Education, or PACE. The gift has a commercial value of almost $514 million. PACE is a joint philanthropic initiative of General Motors, EDS, Sun Microsystems, and UGS Corp., which supports key academic institutions worldwide with computer-based design tools. PACE is providing us with the latest computer-assisted design and prototyping software used in industry and at leading R&D centers like the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Our freshmen have this software provided on their new laptops this fall, and faculty are incorporating it today into the core engineering curriculum.

The software is not only for engineering students, however. There is an entire suite of products that, in the coming years, can be used in research in the life sciences, in architecture, in the arts, and in management curricula as well. One of the products, called Teamcenter, enables cross-platform collaboration among PACE partner universities worldwide. This opens up possibilities for real-world interactions for our students with student teams around the world.

The contribution to Rensselaer was the largest initial contribution by PACE in its history—so, the investments we are making in our transformation are attracting very significant investments from major players in business and industry—and revitalizing our connections with them.

With the PACE gift we essentially achieved our $1 billion capital campaign goal, the Board of Trustees subsequently voted last month to increase the Renaissance at Rensselaer: The Campaign for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute goal from $1 billion to $1.4 billion, with the campaign to close June 30, 2009.

The additional campaign support we seek is essential to realizing the full potential of The Rensselaer Plan. The campaign is focusing on increasing the endowment to support faculty chairs and research; scholarships and fellowships; facilities upgrades and construction; and creating a world-class undergraduate experience.

We also are attracting innovative gifts in support of the plan. Last week we announced a gift of $2 million from Sean O'Sullivan, of the Class of 1985, for seed funding for the creation of the Rensselaer Center for Open Software, an initiative which will support the development of open software solutions to promote civil societies in the United States and across the globe. Many of you already are familiar with Mr. O'Sullivan as a founder and the first president of MapInfo, and as the donor of a $1 million gift last year to fund the "Change the World Challenge," an initiative to support entrepreneurship education and to stimulate ideas to improve the human condition by providing a $1,000 cash award for up to 10 students each semester for ideas which will make the world a better place.

Our campus is especially entrepreneurial, as you know. Our new Vice Provost for Entrepreneurship, Robert Chernow, is working across the campus to provide opportunities for students to participate in competitions and team projects where they need to think "out of the box." We are the first of only two universities invited by the Lemelson Foundation to join MIT in awarding the new $30,000 Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize, an annual award to a student who has demonstrated remarkable inventiveness.

The campaign also supports the physical transformation of the Troy campus. For example, we have ambitious plans for the East Campus Athletic Village. We plan to break ground next spring for this complex, which will include a football field with a 7,500-seat stadium, a basketball gymnasium which seats 2,000, a natatorium, and a field house for indoor track and field, and other indoor sports. Also, we plan to expand the Houston Field House to accommodate offices for women's and men's ice hockey and other programmable space.

You may have noticed that the construction of the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center has made significant progress this year. We expect that the structure will be completely enclosed by this winter. When EMPAC is completed in 2008, and opens with a celebration, it will house a concert hall, a theater, two black-box studios, a rehearsal and dance studio, four artists-in-residence studios, and several post-production studio spaces.

Meanwhile, EMPAC programming continues to enliven—and enlighten—the Troy campus. Some of you may have had the opportunity to take part in the recent program entre-deux|kondition pluriel, an intriguing performance installation where one viewer at a time is invited into a seemingly empty office trailer for 10 minutes—an example of how EMPAC programming upends our expectations and takes us into new dimensions of imagination and creativity. This evening's EMPAC offering is Drift: a special collaborative performance between visual artist Leah Singer and musician Lee Ranaldo, a co-founder of the extremely influential (or, at least I am told) rock band, Sonic Youth.

Let me turn now to the people of Rensselaer. First, I would like to recognize several new campus leaders, some of whom are with us this morning.

  • Mr. Donald Fry has joined us as Vice President for Institute Advancement. He is responsible for the oversight of advancement strategy, services, and infrastructure; alumni relations; and development, including the Rensselaer Annual Fund, and individual, corporate, foundation, and international advancement. Mr. Fry most recently served as vice president for development and advancement at Colorado State University. Prior to that, he spent several years at Purdue University, where he served in a variety of positions, including as director of leadership gifts and campaign operations, and director of advancement for the College of Engineering.
  • Mr. James Nondorf joined us this summer as Vice President for Enrollment and Dean, Undergraduate and Graduate Admissions. Mr. Nondorf comes to us from Yale University, where he served as the director of student outreach and associate director of admissions. In those roles, he oversaw the development and implementation of recruitment and yield activities. Mr. Nondorf also spent part of his career with the Cambridge Technology Group (CTG), where he eventually became president.

We also have made two acting appointments:

  • Dr. Robert Palazzo is serving as acting provost. This summer, Dr. Palazzo took over the duties of former Provost Bud Peterson, who now is chancellor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Dr. Palazzo will serve as acting provost until a national search is completed. His duties as director of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies have been taken on (in an acting capacity) by Dr. Robert Lindhardt, the Ann and John H. Broadbent Jr. '59 Senior Constellation Professor in Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering.
  • Dr. Wolf von Maltzahn is serving as acting vice president for research, taking on the duties from Dr. Omkaram "Om" Nalamasu, who has joined the executive team of Applied Materials Inc. Dr. von Maltzahn had been serving as associate vice president for research.

We also are close to making an appointment to the position of Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations. This new portfolio brought together the Offices of Communications and Government & Community Relations to make external and internal communications more robust, more pervasive across the Institute, and more seamless across our various platforms. This division will work to advance public understanding and advocacy for Rensselaer, its educational opportunities and research discoveries, and its growing position of importance in science, technology, and public policy. Creating this division is important to sustaining and expanding our growth in stature, our ability to attract the best students and faculty, and our national—and international—presence and impact. When the appointment is made, I will be asking that individual to form an internal communications advisory committee to work especially with the faculty (and students).

We all are here to support our students. Let me tell you about the newest class to arrive at Rensselaer. This fall, we have 1,270 first-year students. Among the first-year students, 22 percent are Rensselaer Medalists and 62 percent were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. Another positive trend is the increasing percentage of women—they compose 29 percent of the Class of 2010, while the Class of 2009 is 23 percent women. This is a number we are working to grow even more.

We welcomed this class with the popular Navigating Rensselaer & Beyond program, which introduces new students, from their very first days, to Rensselaer, to the Capital Region, and to one another, through wilderness experiences, community service, the arts, and an introduction to the history and culture of the greater Hudson/Mohawk region. The Office of the First-Year Experience continues its programs to support our newest students as they find their ways at Rensselaer. For example, new students find support through the FYE Tuesday Night Toolbox (TNT) Student Success Series, which is designed to help students during the first few weeks of classes to address issues and topics which are critical to student success. The Office of Residence Life sponsors the annual "Opening Doors" program in early September, which brought more than 70 faculty and staff members to more than 10 undergraduate residence halls to simply knock on doors, introduce themselves to students, and offer the opportunity to interact in an informal setting.

Such programs are helping us to keep students here—and succeeding—at Rensselaer. The first-year retention rate for the class of 2009 is 94 percent—the highest percentage since we have tracked this number. The retention rate for women was even higher—at 98 percent. This is evidence that we not only are attracting talented students, we are keeping them—through an improved undergraduate experience, student life enhancements, and expanded academic support programs, such as the early warning system and the Early Intervention Team, which helps students whose performance is faltering.

Now, we are seeking to raise the level of the undergraduate experience even higher through the implementation of The Undergraduate Plan. The goal of The Undergraduate Plan is to create a world-class educational experience for our undergraduate students. That is, a living and learning environment—a university community—which will rival the best in the nation. Our students deserve no less. Now, we have worked toward this goal, under the auspices of The Rensselaer Plan, for the last six years. The Undergraduate Plan formalizes, focuses, and expands our efforts—and propels the initiative forward.

So, let me summarize for you what this initiative entails.

The plan calls for challenging, engaging, and highly relevant academic programs, which combine theory with experiential learning. For example:

  • Having research participation increase to 80 percent of undergraduates over the next five years. Currently, about 30 percent of our undergraduates participate directly in research activities.
  • Providing the opportunity for every undergraduate to study abroad, thereby preparing our students to be good global citizens. The opportunities would include international co-op and internship experiences, and summer overseas semesters led by Rensselaer faculty.

Student life, also, benefits in terms of expanded support, as I mentioned earlier, and in terms of creating a welcoming atmosphere which helps to make every student feel part of this community. Examples include strengthening student support and counseling well beyond the orientation period by building upon the framework of FYE, developing more comprehensive academic and personal support and counseling programs, and the "class dean," who leads a team which helps students to stay on track throughout their undergraduate years.

Some of these programs, already, are in place. Others are in the early stages of implementation. The next steps focus on building the Troy campus community. For example, theme houses for small groups of students who share common interests are among special housing options being developed under the plan. Currently, students gather in housing in the arts, entrepreneurship, community service, and science fiction, to name a few.

The Undergraduate Plan, also, looks ahead to the Rensselaer student body of the future. Clearly, our nation faces an imperative for the future of science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Unless we begin, now, to attract new groups of students, including women, underrepresented groups, and students with disabilities, into science and engineering, we will not have enough scientists and engineers to maintain our national capacity for discovery and innovation, which undergirds our economy, national security, and global leadership. As you may know, this is part of a convergence of factors I call the "Quiet Crisis."

The Student Life Division has established a plan to increase our pool of applicants, diversify the student body, and enhance our national visibility, by building special relationships with an assortment of national pipeline programs. We also are extending our reach through expanded and focused recruiting, and through communicating the Rensselaer experience more broadly and comprehensively.

Graduate education is being strengthened and expanded as well. This fall, we have a total of 1,131 full-time graduate students and 97 part-time graduate students. We are offering new graduate programs to attract the best students in diverse fields. For example, we have introduced a new Ph.D. program in Biochemistry/Biophysics. And pending New York state approval, we plan to offer a Ph.D. program in Electronic Arts.

We have repositioned the Education for Working Professionals program, which is based at our Hartford campus, to provide high-end, leading-edge signature programs to professionals preparing to lead in an increasingly technological world. The competitive climate for EWP programs in Connecticut has changed dramatically in the last five years, especially with the University of Connecticut entering this market. Hartford is responding to this increased competition with our high-end programs, and enrollment is on the rise.

Rensselaer at Hartford, also, marked its 50th anniversary in June with a gala celebration and the dedication of the Hartford exhibit of the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame; and the opening of an exhibit honoring three space explorers who received graduate degrees from Hartford: John ("Jack") Swigert Jr., Class of 1965, who was a member of the heroic Apollo 13 crew; Dennis Tito, Class of 1964, who was the first "space tourist" as a passenger on a Russian Soyuz rocket in 2001; and Rick Mastraccio, Class of 1987, an astronaut who was a mission specialist on the successful space shuttle Atlantis during an 11-day mission in 2000. It was a wonderful celebration of achievement at this campus.

Critical to continuing our Renaissance is sustaining our people—the talented and dedicated faculty and staff—you—who are making this transformation a reality, every day, through your teaching and research, through your support of students, and through the many ways you advance this institution. We cannot move forward to realize our ambitious goals without your hard work, your commitment to excellence, and your perseverance. I know that these have been challenging times for many institutions of higher learning—and Rensselaer is no exception. For example, our utility budget doubled last year to its highest total ever. Now, I know you have experienced these higher costs in your own homes, so you can imagine the significant weight this places on an institution like Rensselaer, which operates with a modest financial resource base. Conservation efforts have yielded significant savings—the Institute's Energy Initiatives will reduce our projected Fiscal Year `07 energy costs by $1.4 million. I thank you for your efforts, and encourage you to continue them, as we face another winter season. And, as with many institutions these days, the cost of providing employee benefits has grown substantially, as well. This includes not only the ever-rising cost of health insurance, but also our obligation to fund a legacy defined benefit retirement plan.

However, even with these economic realities, and as our portfolios, with some exceptions, operate with fiscally stringent budgets, we remain committed to preserving jobs at Rensselaer, to providing for merit salary increases for faculty and staff, and to continuing Employer of Choice initiatives. I want you to know that this commitment to you remains strong—and it is a priority, as we move forward—together—to continue this transformation.

As you know, one of the engines of the Renaissance at Rensselaer has been an ambitious faculty hiring initiative. Since 1999, we have hired more than 170 new faculty—73 in new positions. This, also, occurred in a challenging economic climate, when other major universities were scaling back faculty hiring. But, we knew that investing in—and growing—our faculty would move us toward becoming a world-class university. Along with creating a more robust research environment, faculty growth, also, has resulted in new educational thrusts, and in improved student-to-faculty ratios.

Our faculty members are leading a research Renaissance in leading-edge areas such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, earthquake engineering, and computational cognitive science, and many, many more. Another exciting research area of growing strength for Rensselaer is in the area of energy security. This is one of the most pressing challenges facing this country, and the world, today. In fact, the quest for energy security is the "space race" of this century. We, now, have research related to energy security ongoing in a number of our centers, including:

  • Center for Future Energy Systems;
  • Center for Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Research;
  • Center for Power Electronics Systems;
  • New York State Center for Polymer Synthesis; and
  • Lighting Research Center.

In addition, our Future Chips Constellation is conducting groundbreaking work in "smart lighting"—by controlling the basic properties of solid-state light sources, such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs). There is potential in all of this work to reduce by half the 22 percent of electricity consumption of lighting.

We, also, are preparing the next generation of researchers in the field of energy security, with a novel interdisciplinary program to educate doctoral students in fuel cell science and engineering. The program is supported by a $3.2 million, first-of-its-kind fuel cell research education grant from the National Science Foundation, combined with a $1.6 million investment by Rensselaer.

So, you can see how faculty growth, and our investment in research, is leading to new frontiers of discovery at the Institute. We are doing nothing short of investing in the future—and, in a better world. This is what Rensselaer is all about. We, already, are seeing our investments pay off—in CCNI and PACE, for example. We see it in the growing number of students who are interested in attending Rensselaer, in the talented faculty who are achieving excellence in their fields, in the dedicated leaders, administrators, and staff who keep the Institute running and humming year-round.

Yes, this is a challenging time for Rensselaer. Our strategic investments mean that we must set priorities and make sometimes difficult decisions. As we move forward, we must all work harder to communicate better, to listen and to give the rationale for decisions that are made. But, I want you to know that we are headed in the right direction. Our shared sacrifice is for the greater good of the institution. We can take pride in what we have accomplished, in a very short period of time, and we can look to our future with confidence, and with excitement.

As many of you know, I am an optimist. I agree with Winston Churchill's statement that: "The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." In my inaugural address seven years ago last month, I told this community that "The realization of The Rensselaer Plan—the Rensselaer dream—requires greatness from all of us, places demands on all of us, and will elevate all of us." This is as true, today, as it was on that occasion. This transformation has elevated Rensselaer—and its people. It is my hope that, as we go forward, each us sees the opportunity in every difficulty, and in every challenge. Indeed, we have been given a unique, historic opportunity to create a fully realized university—a world-changing university—here at Rensselaer. Let us all rise to the occasion.

Thank you again for coming this morning. I would be happy to entertain questions.


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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