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The Mathematics of Change

Reflections on a lifetime at Rensselaer

by David Haviland ’64

Art graphic
As my 45 years at RPI comes to an end, it is fitting that I recall my first days on campus.

I arrived from a small town but with vivid images of universities and the academic life: musty buildings, clever professors, and studies of wondrous things. My very first class filled the bill: Prof. Dis Maly was slight of build, covered with chalk dust, and wreathed in pipe smoke. Pleasant but somewhat distracted, he delivered lectures that were droll but laced with wit. His eyes sparkled and danced when he spoke of Calculus: The Mathematics of Change.

Calculus was exciting and bold, something new and different for a confident freshman who had prided himself on All Things Mathematical in high school. This math course required a new alphabet — Greek — adding to its mystique. And, it was not that difficult. My first bi-weekly quiz proved it: A. I was rolling.

The Greek alphabet gave way to more complicated stuff: functions, and then limits. My next two quiz grades: B and C. Then came differentiation and Quiz #4: F.

It was clear that I was going to have to come to terms with The Mathematics of Change, or my college career was going to be seriously foreshortened. I had two choices: dig deep and figure it out, or go home in shame. In retrospect, there was no choice. I pulled it out.

Fast forward 45 years. I am still heavily involved with The Mathematics of Change.

Consider the Rensselaer of 2005. In the past six years, it has hired 150 new faculty, and in areas unheard of when I sat in Carnegie 02, Prof. Maly’s dusty classroom. The faculty received $80 million in research awards — more than doubled in six years — and they are taking on many of the key challenges of our times. Average scores of entering students have increased dramatically in six years. The Institute has initiated nearly $500 million in new construction and renovation, and has raised more than $660 million.

Among colleges and universities, this represents extraordinary — no, titanic — change. Within the rubric of The Rensselaer Plan, every part of the Institute has placed bets and is achieving startling results.

My own school, Architecture, has undergone dramatic growth in the past six years. Undergraduate enrollment has grown to nearly 300, and there are 65 graduate students. The Lighting Research Center is the world’s best. The school has opened graduate programs in lighting, acoustics, and building conservation, and is offering a newly approved Ph.D. in architectural sciences.

The undergraduate student experience has changed dramatically as well. Academic programs, while rigorous as ever, place a premium on student initiative, teamwork, and innovation. Mobile computing allows students to work anywhere and everywhere. Clubs, organizations, sports, and community service provide ubiquitous opportunities for initiative and accomplishment. We see the results in the math: Freshman to sophomore persistence rates are in the 91-93 percent range, and the six-year graduation rate is at 81 percent (compared to 68 percent 10 years ago).

Rensselaer has moved boldly into the life sciences and biotechnology. If I had known that, I would have listened more attentively to Prof. Faigenbaum in Chemistry I, or tried harder to get those Saturday morning chemistry lab experiments to work!

We’ve moved, too, into the arts. Here we architects had opportunity — and also Prof. George Rickey, an outstanding teacher who was becoming America’s leading kinetic sculptor. His sculpture, Six Random Lines Excentric, stands in front of the Greene Building today.

Life sciences and the arts are big bets for RPI in the 21st century, and big changes are already under way. Faculty members are both changing lives and saving lives with their research and teaching. The digital platform is hosting an extraordinary convergence of science, technology, visualization, art, and performance.

For my part, I am proud to have served my alma mater as professor, dean, and vice president during the formative years of some of these initiatives, and especially during the past six years when so many wonderful changes have come to full blossom in the fertile environment provided by The Rensselaer Plan.

Those many years ago, The Mathematics of Change brought me to a fork in the road at RPI. Following Yogi Berra’s advice, I took it! For the past four-and-a-half decades, I have lived The Mathematics of Change, as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has grown from a small, lean and mean engineering school in upstate New York into a top national technological research university. I feel I have thrived in this environment, and I owe it all to an extraordinary professor named Dis Maly.

Related Link:
Vice President David Haviland ’64 Celebrated as He Retires

David Haviland ’64
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