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The 2010 Presidential Spring Town Meeting: “Moving Forward in Challenging Times”

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

Spring 2010 Town Meeting
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Good afternoon. Thank you for joining me today.

In December of last year, the Rensselaer community convened to celebrate a decade of progress. Guided by our strategic roadmap, The Rensselaer Plan; propelled by excellence, leadership, and community; and not least, sustained by the unwavering support of our Board of Trustees; we navigated the economic and geopolitical turbulence of the past 10 years. The results are astounding. We have successfully re-forged Rensselaer, in the spirit of its founders, for the 21st Century. Now a fully-realized technological university, our storied Institute is positioned for a remarkable future.

This is where we stand, 10 years into our journey. The global landscape, today, is markedly different than in 1999 when I first envisioned, and we set to paper, The Rensselaer Plan. Yet, Rensselaer continues to excel, and to exceed expectations. Our trajectory continues to sharpen.

Even in the midst of this Great Recession and its far-reaching repercussions, interest in Rensselaer, reflected in the number of applications, is at an historic high. We continue to find great success in attracting the most talented and promising students, faculty, and staff. We continue to make prudent investments in our campus facilities and capabilities. With the implementation of the CLASS initiative, we are redefining what it means to be a unique residential undergraduate college embedded in a world-class technological research university. All the while, our faculty and students continue to set the bar for excellence in research, scholarship, and academics.

These successes have been well-earned and hard-fought, over the decade. And, what we have accomplished over the past year, entrenched in an unforgiving global economic crisis, has not been easy. Last year, I asked that we tighten our belts; optimize our gains; and leverage what we have in hand, to shape it into what we want to become. In true Rensselaer spirit, you rose to the challenge and performed admirably, and effectively. And for that, the Trustees, I, and my cabinet and leadership team, thank you.

We must never forget that, at the end of the day, the effort we exert drives something bigger than ourselves. All of us — students, faculty, and staff — are agents of innovation, and ambassadors of progress. Our work helps to accelerate the rise and reputation of Rensselaer; to increase the value of a Rensselaer education to our students and a Rensselaer degree to our graduates; and to better position our Institute to continue changing the world. These are shared victories, of which we all should be proud.

This afternoon, there is ample good news to share. I will begin by highlighting a few key achievements, updates, and milestones. Then, I will give you an overview of the year ahead, and convey key highlights of the Fiscal Year 2011 budget recently approved by the Rensselaer Board of Trustees.

Seniors, take note: I would also like to share some very exciting developments concerning Commencement.

Before we part, I will be happy to respond to your questions, comments, and thoughts.


I would like to convey hearty congratulations to the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and its Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences (GSAS) program. In an assessment of 500 programs in the U.S. and Canada, the Princeton Review ranked Rensselaer fifth in a recent list of the best undergraduate institutions in the United States and Canada in which to study game design. Our program earned the title of “best of the best,” and ranked higher than Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a certain other school north of Boston, my alma mater, MIT. To everyone in the Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program, we are very proud of you.

Over the past semester, three of our young faculty researchers have won Faculty Early Career Development Awards, or CAREER Awards, from the National Science Foundation. Now, this is a big deal. CAREER Awards are reserved for outstanding faculty members, with high-quality research programs, at the beginning of their academic careers — and are among the most competitive awards granted by the NSF. Please join me in congratulating:

  • Sanmay Das, assistant professor of computer science.
  • Agung Julius, assistant professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering.
  • Peter Tessier, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering.

We are very proud of you, and look forward to many more great accomplishments from you in the not-too-distant future.

Last week, the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) — the largest conference in the nation with 312 member schools — named Rensselaer Senior Laura Gersten the 2009-10 Woman Student-Athlete of the Year. Winning over fellow finalists from Harvard and Dartmouth, Laura was selected for this honor for academic achievement, and for her accomplishments on and off of the ice. A management major, Gersten is Captain of our Women’s Ice Hockey Team, and was selected as an ECAC Ice Hockey All-Star that faced Team USA in preparation for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. She is president of the International Management Honor Society, an avid community volunteer, and next year will enter the Master's of Science in Management program in the Lally School. We are very proud of Laura.

In January, The Rensselaer community presented a contribution of $88,235 to support the work of three charities – Oxfam America, AmeriCares, and Save the Children — as the organizations aid victims of the tragic earthquake in Haiti. A substantial portion of that amount — nearly $30,000 — was raised by members of the campus community. Let us thank each other for this noble effort.


And now, let us take a step back, and look at the progress of Rensselaer since we last spoke.

We continue our work to manage, and to minimize, the institutional impacts of the Great Recession, employing careful vacancy management, and budgeting strategies. Recent headlines concerning layoffs at Dartmouth College, and layoffs and other budget-shrinking measures at Yale University, continue to prove that our precautionary measures in 2008, while painful, were prescient, tactical moves that have successfully helped to buffer the Institute against more fundamental shocks to the system. We continue to weather the storm, and we anticipate no broad reductions in force or layoffs in the foreseeable future.

We have filled several leadership positions, which are key to setting the stage for the next decade of success for the Institute.

We hired Robert Karlicek as director of the National Science Foundation Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center, and as Professor, with tenure, of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering (ECSE).  Dr. Karlicek joins Rensselaer with more than 25 years of research, development, and innovation management experience, with a strong focus on LEDs and solid-state lighting.  Please join me in welcoming Dr. Karlicek.

Also joining recently is our new Director of News and Editorial Services. Mark Marchand is a veteran media relations and communications professional, who most recently served as Director of Communications at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, after a 25-year career in corporate communications at Verizon. Mr. Marchand has joined the leadership team within the Division of Strategic Communications and External Relations to help guide internal and external communications. Let us give a warm welcome to Mr. Marchand.

On March 1st, Amy Pettengill joined the Institute to serve as the inaugural Class Dean for the Rensselaer Class of 2013. In her new role, Ms. Pettengill will work with the Faculty Deans of the residential commons, live-in residential deans, class councils, and upperclass and graduate student resident assistants to provide programming opportunities for students under the “Clustered Learning, Advocacy and Support for Students,” or CLASS, initiative.  Ms. Pettengill has worked in the field of education for more than 25 years, most recently as internship and career services coordinator for the University at Albany School of Public Health.        

Other key academic changes also have occurred since we last met.

In the School of Engineering:

  • Kurt Anderson, Professor of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, has been appointed the School of Engineering Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies. 
  • Linda Schadler, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, has been appointed the School of Engineering Associate Dean for Academic Affairs.
  • Jose Holguin-Veras, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has been named Director of the Rensselaer Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment.

In the School of Science:

  • Professor Curt Breneman was recently named Acting Head of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

Please help me congratulate these individuals on their accomplishments.


Rensselaer continues to see applications for admission reach to new heights. The Great Recession has amplified interest in the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics as a foundation for future career success. Concurrently, we continue to see evidence of “the flight to quality,” demonstrated by increased national demand for enrollment at the highest caliber colleges and universities. Both trends are serving us well.

Highlights include:

  • Vastly increased interest among high school seniors, with senior inquiries increasing from 22,000 in 2003 to the current total of 107,588.
  • The freshman applicant pool has more than doubled since 2005 — from 5,572 to more than 13,429 so far in the current cycle.
  • This total of 13,429 freshman applications is an all-time high at Rensselaer, and up 9 percent from last year.
  • Last week we admitted 5,211 new freshmen into the Class of 2014, representing a very competitive admit rate of 38.8 percent.
  • Diversity continues to increase, with 306 percent growth in applications from underrepresented students, 188 percent increase in applications from women, and 306 percent increase in applications from outside the Northeast since 2004.
  • These statistics derive from the size, strength, and depth of our applicant pool, where the mean SAT (Verbal & Math) of admitted students reached 1400 this year, up from 1335 in 2001.
  • Looking to graduate enrollment, applications are up 27 percent from last year, to 3,726. This includes a 26 percent increase in applications from women, and a 123-percent increase in applications from underrepresented minorities.

It is important to note that the Lally School of Management and Technology is having a banner year for applications.  With more than 300 applications completed or in process, MBA applications are up more than 300 percent ahead of last year. Furthermore, the school has nearly doubled its number of doctoral program applications. This is great news, indeed, and congratulations are in order for the Lally School.        


Next, I will speak to you about the key points of the budget for next year. As an institution, we continue to navigate our way through challenging financial times, while focusing our energy and resources on the core activities that are central to our mission and purpose. The global situation is not as grim as it was this time last year, but uncertainty and instability are economic realities with which we must continue to live.

Times are tough, to be sure, and we must anticipate that the next several years will continue to prove economically challenging for our country and the world, and we at Rensselaer must manage through these stringencies. But, as I mentioned earlier, we are well-positioned to weather the storm, using The Rensselaer Plan as our compass, while continuing our upward trajectory.

  • For the next fiscal year, FY2011, the Board approved an Institute budget of $387.9 million. This is a 2.5 percent increase over the current-year approved budget, and as always, represents a balanced budget.
  • The points of emphasis in the details of the budget reflect the priorities we set as an Institute in these challenging times – as well as the priorities faced by our students and their families.  As a case in point, we are increasing our financial aid budget for the 2010-11 academic year at a significantly higher rate than the tuition increase.
  • The Board approved a tuition increase of 3.9 percent, bringing undergraduate and full-time graduate tuition for the 2010-2011 academic year to $39,600. We believe this is a modest and reasonable increase, considering the rate increases we are beginning to see enacted by other universities, which are in the 4.0-5.0 percent range. 
  • On average, room and board rates will increase 2.9 percent. 
  • Importantly, the financial aid budget will be increased more than 7 percent from the current-year level, to $89 million.  Included in this are significant resources to assist students who encounter unexpected financial hardships during their time at Rensselaer. This special aid pool, established several years ago, has been increased.

In 2005, we added significant resources to our financial aid programs in order to boost the amount of assistance we could give to students who need additional help. About 90 percent of our undergraduates receive some form of financial aid. Financial aid is critical to ensuring that a Rensselaer education remains accessible to academically talented and motivated students from the full range of family financial circumstances.


The academic enterprise lies at the heart of our ability to provide the best educational experience for our students, and to perform world-class research that makes a difference in people’s lives, and to the world. All of our instructional staff members make important contributions to Rensselaer, but the tenured and tenure-track faculty anchor the intellectual vitality of our scholarship and teaching at Rensselaer.  They provide the permanence and stability on which we continue to build our academic stature.

In Fiscal Year 2011, we will recruit to fill 37 tenured and tenure-track faculty positions, across the five academic schools and including eight constellation hires, the latter of which will complete four constellations.

Also, I am very pleased to announce that the minimum academic year stipend for graduate students will increase from $16,500 to $17,500.


In our efforts to continue stable pay growth during these difficult economic times, we have dedicated a pool of funds in the FY2011 budget for employee merit raises.

The final size of the merit pool and guidelines for the allocation of these funds currently are being developed.


The Division of Student Life will continue to move forward with the development of the CLASS Initiative, designed to elevate the undergraduate experience through enhanced residence life and class-year-based programming. Faculty members serving as Faculty Deans of the Commons, assisted by live-in Commons Deans, and our upper class and graduate student resident assistants, will enrich greatly the experience of students living in the new residential commons.

We have started hiring Commons and Class-Year Deans; two new residence facilities were opened this year; and infrastructure to support more participation in an international student experience is under development.  Programming and support costs for the East Campus Athletic Village, a resounding success in its first year of operation, have been incorporated.


The status of the global, and our national, economy points to a very clear conclusion. Rensselaer, like other universities, has not been, and will not be, immune to global financial forces. Strategic direction, focus, and careful budget management have never been more critical. Even in these challenging times, we are moving forward and setting the stage for another decade of great success.


In other news, the School of Engineering also has successfully launched the rebranding and evolution of the Department of Decision Sciences and Engineering Systems (DSES) into the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE).

The School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences has launched a new undergraduate degree program in Cognitive Science. The major, approved in December by the New York State Education Department, equips students with a solid grounding in computer science, philosophy of mind, and cognitive psychology.

The Department of Mathematical Sciences recently completed a study which suggests that a program to help students improve their pre-calculus abilities would have a positive overall impact on student graduation rates and retention. This resulted in the formation of a Math Mentors program as part of the CLASS initiative. Math Mentors are select undergraduates trained to lead learning enrichment groups of students in the residence halls. These groups will help students with insufficient mathematics preparation improve their pre-calculus and related math skills, and hence their likelihood of success and graduation from Rensselaer. Faculty and graduate students in the Mathematical Sciences Department will train and advise the Math Mentors.


We announced recently the re-imagining of our Incubation program, with a strategic focus on start-ups and fledgling companies within the energy and green technology spaces. This recalibration will place more young businesses in downtown Troy, enhancing local/regional economic development, strengthening our ties with the community, broadening our capacity to nurture companies that could not be accommodated in the old J-Building Incubator, and enhancing our reach in applying for other sources of funding. Some, but not all, of the existing Incubator members were asked to continue on in this new program. Other companies were prepared to stand on their own, and will be graduated from the Incubator, with help in finding new space solutions.

Last year, Rensselaer launched a new communications campaign and Web site, green@rensselaer. Last month, we unveiled a new Sustainability Clearinghouse site, http://www.rpi.edu/about/sustainability, to showcase all of the different sustainability initiatives taking place on campus. From promoting sustainability-themed courses and student groups, to publicizing faculty research and administrative programs, the site is a dynamic, one-stop-shop for all things green at Rensselaer.


Shifting gears, I would like to raise the specter of our Fall adversary that, thankfully, has not reared its face in this new year: swine flu. With diligence and excellence, the Rensselaer Health Center successfully managed the campus H1N1 influenza outbreak, which included 240 cases by the end of December. All afflicted individuals have successfully recovered and no new cases have been reported to date. From November through last month, the Health Center administered 1,106 H1N1 vaccines to students, and 466 vaccines to faculty and staff.

Now, let me be clear. This is, in no way, an encouragement to recommence any sort of festivities, or ping-pong-esque games, which Dr. Lawrence asked you to abandon during the height of H1N1 season. Keep the doors on the hinges. And use ping-pong tables solely for table tennis. But I do thank you for your vigilance and for taking precautions, which no doubt helped to curb the spread of the illness across campus. Thanks, too, are owed to Dr. Lawrence and his staff for a job well done during trying times.


I am sure you will be interested to hear that a growing number of faculty researchers have projects that tap into the vast potential of the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center (EMPAC). I would like to tell you, briefly, about two:

  • Richard Radke, Associate Professor of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering, has outfitted Studio 2 in EMPAC with a test-bed for researching intelligent, next-generation camera network systems. This involves “stitching together” video feeds from different cameras to create a dynamic snapshot of an area that would be impossible to obtain from a single camera. With this new system, Dr. Radke is working to develop new methods for tracking objects or people as they move from one camera vantage point to another, and plotting that movement on the “stitched together” camera feed. Such a system has applications ranging from targeted evaluation of suspicious surveillance video, to gestural analysis of dancers moving through the space.
  • Barbara Cutler, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, is also conducting research in EMPAC. Dr. Cutler has developed what may be one of the closest approximations currently possible to the ‘Holodeck’ from ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ television series. Her data visualization and projection system transforms the EMPAC studio into an immersive, interactive, three-dimensional digital display. Dr. Cutler and her students peeked into the middle of a huge, three-dimensional human brain; they played a physical, life-size version of the classic video game Pong with a puck made out of light; and they simulated sunlight patterns. This technology could lead to new methods of 3-D data visualization, interactive architecture design, and gaming.

We are beginning to see the true power and promise of EMPAC as a platform for research.


Before concluding, I would like to “declassify” some much-anticipated news concerning the 204th Commencement of Rensselaer in May. I am happy to share with you the names of the individuals we will honor at our ceremony this year.

Economist Peter R. Orszag, the 37th Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and a member of the President’s Cabinet,  will deliver the 2010 Commencement  Address. In his current role as OMB Director,  Dr. Orszag is charged with crafting the federal budget and overseeing the effectiveness of federal programs. At 41, he is the youngest Cabinet member in the Obama administration. Prior to his Cabinet appointment, Dr. Orszag was, from January 2007 to November 2008, director of the Congressional Budget Office, and before that, the Joseph A. Pechman Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. Under President Bill Clinton, Dr. Orszag served as Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy (1997–1998), and as Senior Economist and Senior Adviser on the Council of Economic Advisers (1995–1996). He graduated summa cum laude, in Economics, from Princeton University, and earned his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, which he attended as a Marshall Scholar.

Three other honorands will join Dr. Orszag at commencement, and give remarks, as well. All four honorands will participate in the Presidential Commencement Colloquy on Friday, May 28th at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, to which all are invited, and at which I expect to see many of you, especially our graduates. The other honorands are:

  • Robert S. Langer, born in Albany, N.Y, Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is a renowned biotechnology pioneer. His research laboratory at MIT is the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world, responsible for key advances in the administration of drugs through the skin without needles or other invasive methods, and important tissue engineering breakthroughs. Dr. Langer is a prolific inventor and holds more than 600 patents. Among his many awards and distinctions is the National Medal of Science (2006), the Charles Stark Draper Prize, and — at the age of 43 — he was the youngest person in history to be elected to all three U.S. National Academies – the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from Cornell University, and his Sc. D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), both in Chemical Engineering.
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, who will kick off the Presidential Commencement Colloquy with a special presentation. Dr. Tyson is a leading voice in astrophysics and a champion of boosting public science literacy. He is the host of Nova ScienceNow on PBS, and his latest two books are the New York Times bestseller Death By Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, and The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Dr. Tyson to serve on a 12-member commission that studied the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry.  In 2004, President Bush appointed him to serve on a nine-member commission on the Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy, dubbed the “Moon, Mars, and Beyond commission.” He received a B.A. in Physics from Harvard University and his Ph. D. in Astrophysics from Columbia University.
  • Harold Elliot Varmus received the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering studies of the genetic basis of cancer. Dr. Varmus is the President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and currently serves as co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He served as the Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1993 to 1999, following a long career as a faculty researcher at University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Varmus served on the World Health Organization’s Commission on Macroeconomics and Health from 2000 to 2002. He chairs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Global Health Advisory Committee, and is involved in several initiatives to promote science in developing countries. A recipient of the National Medal of Science, and a member of the National Academy of Science and the Institute of Medicine, Dr. Varmus is a leading voice in the movement to promote sound science in American government. He received his B.A. in English from Amherst College, a graduate degree in English from Harvard University, and an M.D. from Columbia University.

I do hope all of you will attend the colloquy. It always proves to be a lively discussion, and offers the campus community a rare glimpse into the candid perspectives and thoughts of remarkable leaders.  

COLLOQUY — Re-Igniting the Innovation Economy: Science and Technology

On the eve of Commencement, Rensselaer will convene the 2010 President’s Commencement Colloquy, Re-Igniting the Innovation Economy: Science and Technology. The four honorands will join President Jackson to discuss the topic.

“Through their work, our honorands are shaping the national agenda on scientific discovery and technological innovation,” President Jackson said. “The question is, coming out of the current recession, what are the essential components to re-ignite the innovation economy? We are at a crossroads, where decisions and investments we make today must lay the foundation for our economic strength and global leadership. During the colloquy, we will look back, to examine what sparked the innovation revolution that has fueled our economy for generations. We will look outward, at the current state of collaboration among business, academia, and government essential to support a healthy innovation ecosystem. And, we will look forward, to see how, by removing barriers to creating new approaches, we can power our economy and uplift society as a whole.”

The colloquy will be held in the Concert Hall of the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, on the Rensselaer campus, beginning at 4 p.m. on Friday, May 28.


In closing, let me reiterate that we continue to move forward in challenging times. Though we cannot completely buffer the Institute from global economic and financial volatility, be confident in the fact that we have taken prudent steps to minimize the exposure of Rensselaer to this turbulence.

It is not an ideal world. Nonetheless, we must venture onwards.

Several key questions loom before us — challenges which will shape the next chapter in the story of Rensselaer. Our ability to navigate these choices, these forks in the road, rests upon our capacity to innovate new solutions to familiar questions. Like any organization that outgrows its former self, we now face the task of leveraging our recent successes, of advancing our Institute — growing in scope, size, and reach — without losing sight of what makes Rensselaer, Rensselaer.

In the first 10 years under The Rensselaer Plan, we built a foundation for future success. We have amassed the necessary resources to attract the right people, and develop the necessary programs and platforms, both to mature as a university, and to position Rensselaer as a leader in addressing the “Quiet Crisis,” and nurturing a global innovation ecosystem.

This feat, this sharper trajectory, begets the need to pause and inventory our situation. We have “crossed the chasm,” and while we find ourselves in a familiar arena, the rules of the game are subtly different. Past practices may not be sufficient; tried and true perspectives may need refocusing. We face a juncture where we must innovate in order to scale up our educational and research capabilities, while boosting the capacity of our Institute to compete in the global marketplace of students and faculty.

To excel in our new environment, to traverse boldly the blue ocean of opportunity before us, we must contemplate, and address, key issues ranging from launching a new Center for Cognition, Communication and Culture; and building out the CLASS Initiative and the REACH Program; to scaling up our research enterprise; and realizing much-needed renovations and new additions to School of Science facilities. My leadership team — like all faculty, students, and staff — certainly has its work cut out for it.

I stand before you today, confident that in the coming decade, we will indeed stay our path and, in doing so, continue to change the world. We should be unwavering in our resolve, and fiercely proud that Rensselaer and its students set the bar for excellence, and serve as a model to be emulated by universities and institutions of higher learning. We are trailblazers, and ours is a light that guides.

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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