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Beyond the Challenge: Education to Change the World

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

Stellenbosch University
Matieland, South Africa

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Thank you, Mohamed Shaikh, for your gracious words of welcome and introduction. I also thank our hosts — the Rector of Stellenbosch University and his colleagues – for the kindness and warmth my Rensselaer colleagues and I have been shown throughout our visit here.

It is with great pleasure that I thank you for inviting me to share some thoughts with you today at one of the leading research universities of Africa. It is, also, with great appreciation and expectation.

If we begin with the research at Stellenbosch University in distinctive areas such as the knowledge economy, sustainable biodiversity, food production, disease mitigation — and, if we, then, add the strength of the Stellenbosch educational and international study programs that reach across Africa, to Europe, Asia, and the United States, we appreciate and applaud the great achievements of Stellenbosch, and its critical impact on national, continental, and global challenges.

With global financial markets foundering, national economies faltering, and international trade shrinking, mitigation of global challenges will demand the most robust innovation to address them.

For context, I thought it would be interesting to share with you some predictions from a report of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, titled “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World.” The report examines key global trends likely to shape future events, beyond the context of the current global economic decline.

Among the report’s predictions:

  • Developing nations will continue to rise in relative wealth, and in economic power, despite the current economic calamity.
  • This overall global economic growth will continue in the long run. And, that growth will apply pressure to critical resources, especially energy, food and the water supply.
  • Climate change is likely to exacerbate the scarcity of resources, particularly the scarcity of water.
  • Scarcities increase potential for increased conflict, stemming from rapid political and social changes, and the spread of lethal weapons.
  • Contending with the consequences of the global economic downturn will mandate the revival of many regional economies, and the leveling of the global playing field in energy, technology, trade, and security.

Tackling and resolving multiple challenges, the report concludes, will depend on our ability to bring scientific, engineering, and technological knowledge and ability to bear on their mitigation. It will require abundant and robust discovery and innovation — to mitigate the challenges, to create thriving new enterprises, to rejuvenate existing ones, and to seek new approaches as other issues inevitably arise.

Mitigation of the plethora of pressing issues which the global community currently faces — energy security, climate change, water security, talent capture, disease prevention and mitigation, food sufficiency — requires the abilities of our young people. Nations everywhere — developed and developing — understand that their futures are inextricably interlinked to the talent inherent in their young people, and that this talent must be unleashed, and enabled, by the very best education. As “enablers” — if you will — of vital human talent, educators seek the optimum means of fostering the development of human intellectual capital.

Many of these vital required abilities to address global and “glocal” challenges derive squarely from those educated in the demanding STEM disciplines.

Research universities have inherent value in this regard, in that they hold creativity and discovery — and the application of discovery and innovation to advance the human condition — a priority, and they naturally, in their missions, incorporate opportunity and encouragement for advanced study in the sciences, engineering, medicine, and business.

Not unlike a number of nations, the United States faces its own challenges in having a highly educated, talented workforce, especially in STEM fields.

President Barack Obama, recently, cited three particularly disturbing facts:

  • The U.S. has one of highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation;
  • The dropout rate has tripled in the last three decades;
  • Half our students who begin college, never finish.

These trends are disturbing for any nation. But signs from Washington, D.C.  are encouraging. President Obama holds that the way forward is to invest in education — especially in science and mathematics — as an investment in a revitalized economy. The economic stimulus package — officially titled the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” — offers substantial funding support for education and research:

  • In a key provision for access to higher education, the stimulus package includes $17 billion for funding our Pell Grants, which have offered financial aid primarily to disadvantaged students since 1965. 
  • In research, the stimulus package includes $21 billion in funding for the U.S. Department of Energy and its Office of Science; for the National Institutes of Health; and for the National Science Foundation — agencies that invest the funds, primarily, in university-based research, and researchers. 
  • In addition, President Obama has declared a goal of tripling the number of fellowships for U.S. graduate students in the sciences. 

These provisions come after several decades of declining U.S. government support for basic research.

The new emphasis on science and research is no less important in the Congress. Recently I participated in a roundtable discussion on innovation at Princeton University, where national leaders in government, business, research, and education discussed innovation. It featured Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who, repeatedly, stated that the new Congressional agenda may be summed up in four words: science, science, science, and science. All present concurred that investing in science is the most important investment we can make for progress in health, education, energy security, national security, and for job creation.

Scientists and science educators long have argued the case for the long-term economic payback of basic research. Several of the new President’s leadership appointments understand this correction, and they may be taken as symbols of the paramount importance to this new Administration of the sciences, engineering, and innovation.

The U.S. Department of Energy, the largest single supporter of basic research in physical sciences in the U.S. offers funding for 40 percent of all work in the areas of high energy physics, nuclear physics, and the fusion sciences. The new Secretary of Energy is the Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr. Steven Chu, the former director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in California.

In a recent newspaper commentary, Dr. Chu pointed to a $15 billion investment in next generation energy technology: “As history has shown repeatedly with science funding, this investment will pay for itself many times over. Americans will save far more on their energy bills than we spend on research. At a time of economic crisis, this bold action is absolutely necessary.”

It is reassuring and encouraging to see this understanding, among our leaders, of the value of basic scientific research to economic development.

In the United States, as the global environment alters, as market downturn shrinks university endowments, as the economic crisis strains the budgets of public universities, and creates ever-higher economic hurdles for students, and their families, universities are confronting how best to adapt to the emergent exigencies of this new century. Universities are working to adapt  to an ill-defined economic future, and to account for the economic challenges faced by our students and their families, now, and into the foreseeable future. Some are re-examining their missions, seeking what their foci should be, while adapting to current realities. They are reevaluating their expectations, their resources, and their relevance.

In terms of relevance, while economic mitigation assumes immediacy, the global challenges remain to be addressed. Universities are seeking to identify, to protect, and to fortify their core institutional strengths, and to identify opportunity embedded within the challenges, and to shift their missions toward them.


I hold the view that education must prepare our young people, not only in the fundamentals of a discipline, but to lead — and to lead globally — because 21st century challenges are seldom borne of a single issue. They are complex, interlinked, multilateral. They may involve a science or engineering problem, but they may have a medical component, an aspect of international law, a diplomatic or geopolitical factor, an ethical challenge.

Today’s students are faced with the flattening world — with the globally interlinked marketplace of ideas and forces. They must be prepared, to thrive, to contribute, and to lead within this context — and to think about how they approach challenges, how they bring others together, and how they motivate others to thrive, contribute, and lead.

In order to do this effectively, today’s students must be educated to become culturally sophisticated individuals, who can understand and solve complex problems. They need to acquire multicultural understanding, and have the ability to operate within a global context. Their education must prepare them with intellectual agility to see connections between disciplines and among sectors, across a broad intellectual milieu.

And so, 21st century education must, of necessity, prepare our young people to operate in a world which will require them to reason, question, analyze, evaluate, and assess — by bringing together ideas, institutions, and people, as situations demand.

We are focused on offering our students the excellence in education and the multiplicity of living/learning experiences that will allow them to become these new global leaders. International experience — going beyond one’s home base — is a key aspect of this endeavor.

International experience long has been a part of a Rensselaer education. We now are expanding it. One program has, for many years, sent third-year architecture students abroad for a semester in Rome, or Shanghai, or India. A few selected Rensselaer science students spend the summer at CERN — the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Last year, nine Rensselaer undergraduate students spent an intensive week in Pune, India, participating in the first Indo-U.S. Research Academy. The program brought the students together with three experts from each of three universities – from Rensselaer, from the Pune College of Engineering, and from the Indian Institute of Technology — Kanpur.

The group worked together on issues of energy and environment, electronics and devices, modeling and simulation, and their related business and entrepreneurial environments. The students and their advisors formed an intercultural collaboration around pressing multidisciplinary challenges facing engineers and researchers of every nation. Immersed in Indian culture, the students came away with a new outlook.

One student characterized her experience this way:  “Through this experience, cultural barriers were demolished, new friendships were formed, and lives were changed forever... [India] became more than just an outline on a map — it grew to be a part of me.”

These steps have paved the way for a larger, more extensive Rensselaer program, as we seek to offer our graduates the global experiences that will enhance their goals. The Rensselaer Engineering Education Across Cultural Horizons (or REACH), is among the first programs of its kind in the U.S. This year, 60 engineering students are spending the spring semester at partner universities in Denmark and Singapore, with equal numbers of Danish and Singaporean students currently at Rensselaer. When REACH is fully implemented in 2015, all engineering juniors will be expected to participate in an international experience, and ultimately, we anticipate that all of our undergraduates will expand their global experiences through similar programs, as part of his or her undergraduate education.

International exchange, we believe, provides a two-way benefit. We intend that it enhances the international and multicultural outlook of students and faculty at our partner institutions.

International exchange, likewise, enhances the experiences of Rensselaer students and faculty on our campuses, as we develop student and faculty exchange with universities around the globe to provide our students and faculty with the breadth of experience and depth of understanding that can only be achieved when challenged. Such exchanges also potentiate respective research agendas and capabilities.

We also believe that partnerships with leading universities around the globe allow us to leverage our national capacities to enhance capacity-building and human capital development in countries without enabling capacities.

Stellenbosch and Rensselaer share some fascinating resonances, in spite of being located in diametric hemispheres. Both universities were initiated by Dutch settlers in what were, at the time, far-flung colonial outposts. Both are among their nation’s oldest universities.

The Dutch Reformed Church understood the need to educate young people in Stellenbosch, South Africa’s second oldest town, from their settlement in the late 17th and 18th centuries, and established a school. In the 19th century, the school was reorganized as the Stellenbosch Gymnasium. With growing demand for higher education, Stellenbosch soon added a professional division, and responded to local agriculture — amid a striking landscape — Stellenbosch incorporated a variety of degree programs including agriculture and agricultural chemistry. All of this you know.

Meanwhile, on the far side of the world, in the northern and western hemispheres, the Dutch established another colony — later British-ruled and called New York — which eventually became part of the United States. There, in the early 19th century, the Dutch Patroon Stephen Van Rensselaer, who owned and managed the enormous Rensselaerwyck estate, was responsible for thousands of tenant farmers and their families. Termed the “Good Patroon” because of his humane management practices, Van Rensselaer — like the Dutch Reformed Church — saw the need to educate local youth. Collaborating with educator Amos Eaton, he founded The Rensselaer School, to educate young people [and here I quote from our founding document]  “...in the application of science to the common purposes of life...” At the time, the area, at the convergence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, had grown to be the well-spring of the industrial revolution in the United States. Consequently, Rensselaer became known for its engineering and science prowess.

In addition, both Stellenbosch and Rensselaer actively are engaged in vital transformation.

At Rensselaer, we set ambitious goals to broaden our academic and research scope. We captured our goals and our strategies in The Rensselaer Plan — our strategic blueprint. We created “umbrella” structures that cultivate multi-, inter-, and cross-disciplinarity. We have done this by creating “constellations” of star faculty hired around key focal areas in biotechnology and the life sciences, computation and IT, nanotechnology, media and the arts, and energy and the environment. We also have created, and built, physical platforms to support multi-disciplinary research, education, and cultural programs, including the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, and the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC). We are taking steps to enhance cultural, gender, ethnic, and geographic diversity among the student body and the faculty. We are challenging our students to encompass the richness of diversity and multiplicity in their thinking, and, as I have discussed, to develop more global awareness. The United States, too, is on a new road. With the election of our first African American president, our nation is taking steps to move beyond our painful, racially divisive past.

Stellenbosch has been on its own transformational road. Having been a cradle of white domination and Afrikaner nationalism, Stellenbosch, now, is led by its first black rector, a theologian in the Reformed Church tradition, who is pledged to making the university “more visible among the previously disadvantaged.” The university continues to play an important role in preserving the Afrikaans culture and language — as history and future converge.

Clearly, both universities have roots deep in the past, and draw from them strength, vigor, and pride. Both universities responded to, and incorporated within their academic offerings, the immediate needs of their surroundings. Both have been witness to, and changed by, the decades of intervening history, as their nations’ stories unfolded, and as both universities grew in scope and in stature. Both value their unique histories for what they teach about the future before us. Both have adapted to become broadly-based international research universities with global reach and global impact.

In the United States, we are learning — relearning, perhaps — new ways to reach out to the world. Our new leadership is working to reposition our nation’s role in global affairs, toward the more respectful and collaborative. In his first official speech, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg made similar reference in an address, last month, to the National Council of International Visitors, on “Citizen Diplomacy: Sharing America, Experiencing the World.”

In his comments, he said: “This Administration is listening very carefully to the voices of people all around the world. We want to hear you, we want to know what you think, and what your ideas are for how we can move ahead together ...We know that we in the United States don’t have all the answers...”

At Rensselaer, we also know we do not know everything. That is why partnerships with other leading globally-focused universities are important.

At Rensselaer, we challenge our students with this phrase: “Why not change the world?” We intend that it be not merely an ‘academic’ question, but a goal which we work actively to achieve. We know that you do that, as well.

This is the true challenge — and responsibility — of education.

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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