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Enabling Talent

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

Spring 2011 Town Meeting
EMPAC Concert Hall
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Good afternoon. Thank you for coming. And, greetings to our colleagues in Hartford, who are watching via simulcast, and to those who are watching the Web cast.

A few weeks ago, we had viewing parties for “Jeopardy! The IBM Challenge.”  Over a three-day period, we hosted Rensselaer graduates and faculty from this stage. The concert hall was filled with students, staff, teachers, and guests, all brought together by the prospect of participating in something new and exciting.

We had fun, but we also learned, built relationships, and put our imaginations to work. That event was a fine example of why we are here at Rensselaer, and what makes this university great — we strive for nothing less than changing the world.

Rensselaer attracts people who are capable, industrious, focused, and talented. Look around. Whether they are students, staff, or faculty, you are surrounded by accomplished people. What we do here — and what our alumni/ae do after they graduate — allows us to make a difference in the world.

Our people are not hothouse flowers. They can achieve anywhere, under any circumstances, but that makes it all the more important that we, as a community, nurture, develop, challenge, and support each other. The full promise of our people can only be achieved if we deliberately and thoughtfully enable them — wherever they are in their lives, careers, and education.

To be clear, enablement does not mean giving people an easy ride, with every whim satisfied. What it does mean is working together to create opportunities, remove unnecessary barriers, provide preparation, and find resources.

We know the people who come to Rensselaer, who work and study here, have talent and drive. Every one of you is focused on success. Therefore, a key goal for Rensselaer must be to facilitate success.

Today, I will provide an update on achievements and challenges, but I will also talk about greater support for students in the form of our Center for Career and Professional Development and the launch of the Sophomore-Year Experience.

I will brief you on the Emerging Ventures Ecosystem, which will take our efforts at innovation and entrepreneurship to a new level. I will give you a peek at what happens when the President of Rensselaer goes to Disneyland. And I will announce an early lead-in to a major capital campaign, a focused fundraising effort aimed at dealing with our most immediate and pressing needs.

I begin with this last priority, which has two objectives: growing our faculty and providing a world-class platform for science at Rensselaer.

Faculty — excellent faculty — are at the heart of what we do at Rensselaer. Growing our faculty is an explicit goal of The Rensselaer Plan, but it has been a challenging one to achieve. Retirements, the return of talent to developing nations — such as China and India, and the enticements of industry — each of these make the environment more difficult, enhancing competition for quality faculty, especially in technical fields, such as engineering. And frankly, as our reputation has grown, external efforts to lure away our outstanding faculty members have intensified.

Once accomplished candidates are identified and attracted to Rensselaer, there is one more obstacle — the start-up costs for a new professor in a technical field can be on the order of one half to two million dollars.

With a near-term goal of expanding our tenured and tenure track positions to about 400, and a long-term goal of 500, it is clear that we will require significant funding.

Many of the triumphs we take pride in, such as the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, would be unimaginable without the integration of new scientific discoveries into engineering. Yet, the hub of our scientific endeavor, the Jonsson-Rowland Science Center, is half a century old, dating back to 1961.

It is time to renew our commitment to the highest caliber scientific facilities so that we can bring together the scientists who are spread across the campus, and to create conditions where their programs can grow and prosper. With proper support, we can raise research productivity, and it is the only way that we can attract the faculty and students we need to honor the character and tradition of our university, and to continue to impact the world.

Therefore, the second objective of the focused fundraising effort is creating a world-class Center for Science. This new center will help us to attract a number of those professors we need. However, something more fundamental is in play. At the heart of Rensselaer is “applying science to the common purposes of life.”  In the 1850s, Benjamin Franklin Greene expanded the Rensselaer mission by bringing science to industrial problems, by breaking the artificial barriers between science, empiricist thinking, experimentation and hands-on know-how.  This was an important insight, and we must continue to honor it by properly supporting our science endeavors.

To accomplish these two objectives — expanding faculty and building a new Center for Science, the Rensselaer Board of Trustees has approved a lead-in to our next major campaign, a focused fundraising effort designed to bring in between 150 and 170 million dollars over the next two years. Our friends and benefactors stand ready to help us, and I am confident that we will be successful.


Turning to enrollment, we see that the strong interest in Rensselaer continues. Once again, we had over 100,000 inquiries, and a record-setting 14,559 applications — an 8.1 percent increase over last year. As recently as 2005, we had only 5,572 applications — about as many applications as we have undergraduate students across Rensselaer. Each year, we have become more selective, admitting only 38.5% of applicants this year (vs. 39.9% last year).

I am also happy to tell you that, compared to last year, we have more women, more underrepresented students, more Rensselaer medalists and more international students in the applicant pool. The Class of 2015 also will improve the balance of disciplines at Rensselaer, with more admitted to the Schools of Architecture, Management, Science, and Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences


At its meeting on March 5, the Rensselaer Board of Trustees approved an Institute budget for Fiscal Year 2012 that will enable us to focus our energy and resources on the core activities that are central to our mission and purpose, with continued investment in faculty hiring, research initiatives, and in selected student life programs.

The overall operational budget for Fiscal Year 2012 amounts to $387.8 million, a 4.0 percent increase over the current-year forecast. As always, it represents a balanced budget.

We will be implementing new purchasing and travel management systems this spring, and we will announce further details soon.

Employee Raises

In our efforts to continue stable pay growth during these difficult economic times, both a merit pool and Employer of Choice fund have been included in the budget for Fiscal Year 2012. Guidelines for the allocation of the merit pool currently are being developed.

Tuition Increase

The Board of Trustees has approved undergraduate and full-time graduate tuition for the 2011-2012 academic year. Tuition for full-time undergraduate and full-time graduate students will be $41,600, an increase of 5.0 percent. Early indications are that average tuition increases at other universities will be in the 4 to 5 percent range.

On average, room and board rates will increase 4.5 percent. Graduate tuition rates for the Education for Working Professionals program also have been approved by the Board of Trustees.

Financial Aid Increase                                         

We have continued the steps taken, begun in 2005, to enhance our financial aid resources. The financial aid budget will be increased 5 percent from the current-year level, to $86 million.  In the past decade, the Rensselaer budget for financial aid has risen 91 percent, by over $41 million.

Included in the aid budget are resources to assist financially needy students who encounter unexpected financial hardships during their time at Rensselaer.

I am pleased to announce that the minimum academic year stipend for graduate students will increase from $17,500 to $18,000.

Overall, our goal is to build an endowed scholarship pool and become “need blind” in admissions. We intend to continue to provide financial resources to those who need them most, using our resources to maximize the educational experience of students receiving the aid, and of all students.

We must anticipate that the next several years will continue to prove economically challenging for our country and the world. Rensselaer, like other universities, has not been immune to these pressures. Strategic direction and focus, therefore, have never been more critical. As we navigate our way through the economic recovery, The Rensselaer Plan remains our compass.

Student Experience     

The Division of Student Life continues to move forward with the development of the "Clustered Learning Advocacy and Support for Students" (CLASS) initiative, designed to elevate the undergraduate experience. Two new class deans have been approved, as well as a dean to provide oversight and support to students living off campus.

The Sophomore-Year Experience, launched in the fall, further augments the support, recognition, and encouragement we provide to our students.                                                     

Academic, artistic, athletic, research, leadership and entrepreneurial accomplishments have been acknowledged and highlighted. Individual sophomores have been engaged in conversations about academic challenges, extra-curricular pursuits and future plans and encouraged to stretch themselves ever further. Students have been connected to a variety of resources and programs through partnerships with the Office of International Programs, the Archer Center, the Center for Career and Professional Development, Residence Life, Graduate Education, and the Athletic Department.

Some of the activities designed to facilitate building relationships have included:

  • Small faculty-student gatherings over dessert or at classical music concerts;
  • Peace Corps sessions and other programs included in International Education Week;
  • Fellowship and graduate school application workshops;
  • Cooking classes;
  • Interactions with guest speakers;
  • And sophomore hockey night. 

Center for Career and Professional Development

The Career development Center (CDC) recently changed its name to the Center for Career and Professional Development (CCPD). The new name better reflects the support the Center currently provides to our students, and it serves a number of purposes.

The CCPD is better positioned to provide more attention to graduates across all our Schools and to assist those who are coming out of our new degree programs, such as Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences, Financial Engineering and Risk Analytics, and Web Science.

In addition, the key adjustment in focus is to encourage our undergraduate students to begin much earlier — as underclassmen — to pursue activities and opportunities that will enhance their eventual hiring potential and career success. This emphasizes the developmental nature of what the Center does and acknowledges the time-based aspects of our career and professional development strategy.

It also supports the overall objective of the CLASS model and acknowledges the expanded role of the Center in student satisfaction, retention, and career success.

The Center for Career and Professional Development provides students with:

  • Resources for self-assessment, personal and leadership development.
  • Career counseling, exploration, and career management education.
  • Access to quality experiential opportunities through cooperative education, summer employment, and internship opportunities.
  • Educational programming through which students can develop techniques and skills for implementing a successful job search campaign.
  • Access to post-graduation opportunities, including graduate school.
  • The application of technological tools to carry out a successful job search campaign.

Academic Enterprise

The academic enterprise lies at the heart of our ability to provide the best educational experience for our students. Recently, the Engineering, Architecture and Lally Schools all have been re-accredited.

In Fiscal Year 2012, we will recruit to fill 33 tenured and tenure-track faculty positions — including 6 constellation hires — spread across the academic schools.

Leadership is key to our success in both education and research.

Over the last few months, power electronics expert Jian Sun, Associate Professor Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering, has been named Director of the Center for Future Energy Systems (CFES) at Rensselaer. As director, Dr. Sun is responsible for overseeing and developing the center’s research programs, as well as facilitating strategic growth and securing new industrial partnerships.

Transportation engineering expert Jose Holguín-Veras has been named the William Howard Hart Professor at Rensselaer. A Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Holguín-Veras is known as a global leader in the areas of freight demand modeling, transportation economics, and humanitarian logistics. He also studies behavior relating to sustainability policies and the impact of transportation on the environment.

Wind engineering expert Chris Letchford will join Rensselaer next month as Professor and Head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Letchford comes to Rensselaer from the University of Tasmania, Australia (UTAS), where he has served since 2007 as professor and head of the School of Engineering. A global leader in wind engineering and aerodynamics, Letchford‘s research projects range from wind-power generation and modeling, to studying how wind and ocean waves interact, to investigating the long-term impacts of climate change on infrastructure, transportation, and energy production.

Alexandre da Silva has joined us as director of auxiliary services, parking, and transportation. He is a veteran of nearly 18 years of experience in auxiliary services for higher education institutions. Alexandre manages Rensselaer’s residence life business office, and parking and transportation services. He also is responsible for developing, monitoring, and maintaining the campus food service contract, the vending and washer/dryer programs, and the campus card office.

Additional support costs have been included in our budget for the Center for Cognition, Communication and Culture, as well as research seed funding.

A new center, the Cognitive Robotics Lab was recently launched. It will enable our students to explore how human thought outwits brute force computing in the real world. The lab’s 20 programmable robots allow students to test the real-world performance of computer models that mimic human thought. Cognitive Robotics marries the study of cognitive science — how the brain represents and transforms information — with the challenges of a physical environment. Advances in cognitive robotics transfer to artificial intelligence, which seeks to develop more efficient computer systems patterned on the versatility of human thought.

In the same vein, I will note an accomplishment by one of our sophomores. A human-like robot, Robonaut 2, is now on board the Space Station, and it will do its job, in part, because of Nathaniel Quillin. Nathaniel wrote the computer code used to help debug Robonaut 2’s hardware. Additionally, Quillin helped write code for the graphical user interface that NASA researchers use to control the robot.

Last week, a Rensselaer team, led by Civil Engineering Senior Andrew Yeskoo and advised by Iovino Professor Tarek Abdoun, received the "Atterberg Cup" from the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Geo-Institute. The team won the GeoChallenge National, which attracted over 2000 participants and is the largest national geotechnical competition.

On February 10th three Rensselaer finalists for the 2011 Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Collegiate Student Prize made public presentations to a panel of alumni/ae judges. This year's finalists are Benjamin Clough, a graduate student in ECSE, whose work is in “Terahertz Enhanced Acoustics,” Sevan Goenezen, a graduate student in MANE, whose research involved “Breast Cancer Diagnosis with Nonlinear Elasticity Imaging”; and Tristan Lawry, a graduate student in ECSE, who developed a  “High-Performance System for Wireless Transmission of Power and Data Through Solid Metallic Enclosures.”

Benjamin Clough emerged as this year’s winner. Looking at each of the projects, I was impressed by the ambition, thought, and analyses these students displayed. In truth, they all are winners.

The Lighting Research Center (LRC) recently was awarded a World Bank Group contract to perform laboratory testing of LED-based, off-grid lighting products for “Lighting Africa,” a joint program of the World Bank and the IFC, the International Finance Corporation. Lighting Africa seeks to accelerate the development of commercial off-grid lighting markets in Sub-Saharan Africa to improve access to modern, clean lighting and related energy services for people at the base of the economic pyramid.

Michael “Miki” Amitay, Associate Professor, Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, received a $250,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to continue his work on smarter blades for wind turbines.


Before I conclude, I would like to share with you several highlights of things recent or soon to come.

The Institute will close for the 2011 Winter Break (8 days) from Monday, December 26, 2011 through Monday, January 2, 2012, and will reopen on Tuesday, January 3, 2012.

This winter and early spring, we have experienced extreme weather. We have faced record snowfalls in the capital. Our Environmental and Site Services staff performed exceptionably, removing snow and ice from our parking lots, sidewalks, roadways, and steps. I have already sent a message of appreciation.  Please join me in thanking them here today.


We have with us today Tim Landis, whom we have hired as the new Rensselaer head football coach. Tim, could you please stand?

Tim brings us significant coaching experience at the Division 1AA and 1A levels. A former head coach at Davidson College, St. Mary’s College of California, and Bucknell University, all Division 1AA institutions, Landis most recently served as the offensive coordinator at San Jose State University (1A level).  He takes over the Engineers from Joe King, who retired in late January, after 22 years at Rensselaer.

Also in sports — for those of you who may not know — our men’s ice hockey team has earned an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament that will choose the national champion. The Engineers will make their first appearance since 1995 in the 16-team event, when they face North Dakota on Saturday at 1:30 pm (ET) at the Resch Center in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

I congratulate Coach Seth Appert, his assistant, the staff, and, of course, his team of outstanding young men. They are true student/scholar athletes — outstanding in the classroom and on the ice, and we wish them the best.

We will the opportunity to view the game on campus.  The ECAV arena will allow us to get together on Saturday and cheer on our team. I will be there. I understand the pep band is going by bus to Green Bay and a few seats are available. The Cabinet also will have two representatives at the game, Ginny Gregg, CFO, and John Kolb, CIO.  Go Engineers!

I must add that Coach Appert has just signed a new seven-year contract with us. Coach, we are delighted to continue to have you with us.


On February 7, we inaugurated the Emerging Ventures Ecosystem (EVE), our newly re-engineered business incubation program — a program that depends on deep and far-reaching partnerships. EVE creates a next generation model for technology transfer in this country, better fostering the movement of ideas, inventions, and research results from the nurturing environment of the classroom and laboratory into the real world.

This is not a new role for Rensselaer. Our establishment of the Rensselaer Incubator in 1980 put us at the vanguard of university involvement in technology transfer. We also established the Rensselaer Technology Park, which had its first tenant in 1984. These ventures provided critical new pathways to innovation that have been emulated by many others.

Since that time, we have created multiple entities within Rensselaer to support innovation and technology transfer, including:

  • Our Vice Provost for Entrepreneurship,
  • Our Office of Technology Transfer, and
  • The Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship.

Each of these has made outstanding contributions, as evidenced by successful start-ups associated with Rensselaer. However, we came to realize that we had the potential for bringing technology transfer to a higher level by making the pieces work together more effectively. Coordination across offices and departments engaged in innovation and entrepreneurial endeavors is already enhancing our efforts. This work, across Rensselaer organizations, is now being extended to the wider community.

What differentiates EVE from previous models?

  • It draws upon our extraordinary pool of alumni and alumnae — many of whom have had remarkable success as entrepreneurs themselves, and many of whom have specialized abilities and expertise directly relevant to the practical hurdles facing new business start-ups.
  • It uses an innovative “distributed incubation” model, working with each company to find an ideal matchup of space-to-enterprise in downtown Troy and surrounding environs.
  • As such, it extends the innovation ecosystem of the university into the community around us, to take symbiotic advantage of the considerable strengths that exist in Troy and the Capital Region.

In addition, EVE provides support that redoubles our focus on the “pre-seed” aspect of technology transfer — that is, on how we extract the discoveries and innovations that occur in our research centers, so that a much higher volume of these innovations become mature products and impact the marketplace.

I can tell you that, so far, the response to the EVE launch, both from within Rensselaer and from the surrounding community, has been immensely supportive and positive. Professor Richard Frederick, an experienced entrepreneur and an adjunct faculty member in the Rensselaer Lally School of Management and Technology, is the first director of EVE.

We got the sad news recently of the death of one of our students, Cole Rocque. This was upsetting for all of us, and I am proud of the way students, faculty, and staff came together to honor Cole and to support each other. I want to remind you all, especially those most acutely suffering the loss, that we offer help through student services. Please take care of yourselves and continue to look out for each other.

On April 22, we will have the “Ground Making” for the Class of 2010’s gift to Rensselaer, the Green Roof on the Student Union. We have been making great strides toward becoming a sustainable university — with efforts toward energy conservation in our buildings, recycling, and reducing waste. The Green Roof, in addition to its intrinsic value, will be a visible example of our commitment and a reminder of our dedication to responding to the global challenges of energy security and climate change.


Cyberinfrastructure pioneer Dr. Francine Berman, our Vice President for Research, has been named a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). In elevating her to a fellow, the IEEE cited her leadership in the areas of high-performance and grid computing.

Professor James Jian-Qiang Lu also was named a Fellow of the IEEE. In elevating him, they cited Dr. Lu’s contributions to three-dimensional integrated circuit technology. An associate professor in the Department of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering (ECSE) at Rensselaer, Dr. Lu is known as a pioneer and technical leader in 3-D computer chip integration, and has been working to design the processes and architecture that one day could be the platform for 3-D chips.

Advanced manufacturing expert Daniel Walczyk, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Class of 1991 and Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, has been named a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). The ASME applauded Professor Walczyk for his “significant contributions to the fields of rapid tooling, manufacturing processes, and biomedical device design.”

Professor Georges Belfort has been recognized for his fundamental and applied research of separations processes in biochemical engineering. Belfort, the Russell Sage Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, in recent weeks received the 2011 Alan S. Michaels Award in the Recovery of Biological Products from the American Chemical Society (ACS) Biotechnology Division. Dr. Belfort was recently elevated to Institute Professor by the Board of Trustees.

I am proud to note that two Rensselaer Alumni received National Medals for Technology and Innovation becoming the ninth and 10th graduates to earn national medals. Steven Sasson ’72 earned his distinction for the invention of the digital camera, which has revolutionized the way images are captured, stored, and shared, thereby creating new opportunities for commerce, education, and improved worldwide communication. In 2008, 73 percent of Americans owned a digital camera and 34 million digital cameras were sold in the United States, generating $7 billion in revenue.

Dr. Marcian E. “Ted” Hoff, Jr. ’58 is part of a team honored for the conception, design, development, and application of the first microprocessor. The subsequent commercial acceptance of this universal building block has enabled a multitude of novel digital electronic systems.

Now, I teased you at the beginning with a mention of Disneyland. I did not go there because I won a hockey championship. I did not go there to ride on Space Mountain. Instead, I was there with Fran Berman, Brenda Wilson-Hale and John Kolb at the request of the legendary Imagineers.

These are the people who design the parks, from the rides, displays, and attractions, to the control of park visitor queuing to the music of the shows to the housekeeping in the hotels.

They are in charge of every aspect of the guest experience, and that involves working at the leading edge of technology, using the latest information systems and materials, pushing the boundaries of sustainability, and finding new opportunities where science, technology, and the arts come together.

It seems that our interests overlap. And the chance to spend a day with these creative people allowed us to share what we do here at Rensselaer and to begin to build a relationship. Among many other things, I told them about what we are doing in virtual worlds, robotics, simulation, animation, acoustics, haptics, and even controlling movement through brain commands.

As a result of our meeting, a team of Imagineers and Disney executives has decided to pay us a visit here in Troy in May, to look at some of our exciting platforms and leading research in gaming, simulation, visualization and robotics.  They also will get to meet, of course, our brilliant faculty and students — so stay tuned.

We do not yet know what might grow out of this exchange, but I believe it is an example — like our “Watson” event with IBM — of what supporting our people makes possible. When talent, drive, and enablement come together, great things — one might say magical things — can happen.

Announcement of the Commencement Speaker and Honorands

I know that you are waiting with some anticipation for the announcement of which distinguished individuals will be honored at the 2011 Commencement ceremony on May 28. You will have to wait a bit longer.  Expect an announcement within the next two weeks.

Of course, we will once again have a Presidential Colloquy. This will provide an opportunity for the campus community to benefit from the thoughts and wisdom of these outstanding leaders.  This event always includes a lively discussion of the compelling issues and ideas of our time, and I hope all of you will attend.


Our world faces unprecedented challenges and opportunities. We face scarcities, catastrophes, and economic upheaval. Our best chance to help our environment comes from what we do ourselves. We have the chance to explore the universe, connect cultures, and understand the human brain in new ways. All of these require people of drive, imagination, and perspective.

The people of Rensselaer — students, faculty, staff, and alumni/ae — have these qualities. We are the ones who can bring the benefits of knowledge, skill, and innovation to this world.

We will enable our people by working with them to find the resources they need, and our new fund-raising effort is part of that. We will help our students develop as whole people through programs like the Sophomore-Year Experience. We will provide support for their development as professionals through the Center for Career and Professional Development. We will identify and develop opportunities by building centers, like the Center for Cognition, Communication and Culture, that are creating and driving the future. We will support entrepreneurship by building across our communities — and EVE is an excellent example of that commitment.

The only way to change the world is through people. The only way those people can succeed is if they are enabled properly. We are committed to this. It is what we are all about.

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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