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The Rensselaer Plan: Spring 2007 Update

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

Rensselaer Town Meeting
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Monday, April 2, 2007

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.

This afternoon, I would like to give you a broad overview of the year ahead and the budget for Fiscal Year 2008, which begins July 1. I will discuss the budget in the context of The Rensselaer Plan, which has served as our blueprint for institutional transformation for almost seven years. I also will have a very special announcement at the conclusion of my remarks about Commencement. And, I would like to leave ample time to respond to your questions and thoughts.

I am pleased that members of the President's Cabinet and the Dean's Council are here this afternoon. There also are two campus leaders who have joined us since the last Town Meeting, who I would like to introduce to you.

William Walker joined us in February as the Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations. Mr. Walker comes to us from Dartmouth, where he served as vice president for public affairs. He is leading this new Institute portfolio, which was created to advance public understanding of, and advocacy for, Rensselaer and to ensure robust communication with all of our constituencies. Mr. Walker is a leader in his field, having served for six years on the Board of Trustees of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), and as chair of CASE's Commission on Communications and Marketing for four years.

In January, Dr. Wei Zhao joined us as Dean of the School of Science. He previously was senior associate vice president for research at Texas A&M University, where he also was a professor of computer science. Zhao worked on the long-term strategic plan at Texas A&M, supervised the Office of Sponsored Research and the Office of Compliance, directed the Institute of Telecommunication and Information Technology, and led the campus-wide homeland security initiative that was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for more than $17 million.

We are fortunate to have both of them here at Rensselaer.

As always, the contributions of all the campus leaders here today during the Question and Answer session are welcomed.

So, first, let me provide you with context by highlighting progress we have made under The Rensselaer Plan.

In the last year alone, there have been many achievements in which we can take pride, and which have resulted in greater recognition of the Institute. For example, being named one of the "New Ivies" by Kaplan/Newsweek last year has raised our profile significantly on a national level. This designation puts us in a select group of colleges with first-rate academic programs which are attracting more of the top students, making us competitive with Ivy League schools.

U.S. News & World Report ranks Rensselaer 42nd among the nation's top universities, up a place from last year, and 24th in the "Best Values" among national universities, up from 27th last year.

Our Engineering graduate rankings have moved up a place from last year as well, from 37 to 36, including movement of a number of engineering departments. Our mathematics, applied physics, and media arts and communications graduate programs remain highly ranked.

Prospective students are hearing the good news about Rensselaer. More than 10,100 high school students filed applications for admittance to the Class of 2011. This represents record growth of more than 81 percent in just two years.

Other admissions trends of note include:

  • Applications from female students have risen 97 percent;
  • Applications from historically underrepresented students have increased 147 percent; and
  • Applications from international students have increased 149 percent.

So, you see that the student body of the future will be more diverse in every way.

Graduate applications have officially passed last year's total (Ph.D.s are up by 100 applications), and graduate confirmations are tracking slightly ahead of last year as well.

Freshman retention is at an all-time high at 94 percent (93.5 percent).

Undergraduate education is being enhanced through the historic PACE gift, announced last September, of software and services valued at more than half a billion dollars.

This consortium, led by General Motors and its suppliers, is providing us with the latest computer-assisted design and prototyping software used in industry and at leading R&D centers like NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Freshmen are using it today in the core engineering curriculum.

The entire undergraduate experience at Rensselaer is being transformed with The Undergraduate Plan, which calls for challenging, engaging, and highly relevant academic programs that combine theory with experiential learning.

One goal, for example, is to increase research participation to 80 percent of undergraduates over the next five years. Research provides undergraduates with the kind of open-ended problem-solving so important in industry, and especially in preparation for graduate school. Currently, about 30 percent of our undergraduates participate directly in research activities.

Another goal is to phase in the opportunity for every undergraduate to study abroad, thereby preparing our students to be global leaders. The opportunities would include international co-op and internship experiences, semesters abroad in other universities, research opportunities, and summer overseas semesters led by Rensselaer faculty.

Our academic programs are expanding as well, making us a more fully realized technological university. An innovative undergraduate degree program in Games and Simulation Arts & Sciences was approved by New York state last month and will begin this fall. We also added a Bachelor of Science degree in Design, Innovation, and Society, which will prepare students to design new products, services, and media, while considering the societal needs and environmental concerns of the 21st century.

On the graduate front, the Ph.D. in Electronic Arts has just received approval by New York State.

This fall we also will launch a joint program with Albany Law School, leading to an M.S. in the Commercialization of Technology from the Lally School, and an M.S. in Legal Studies from Albany Law.

Our unprecedented faculty hiring initiative under the Plan has resulted in new ideas, new academic offerings, and new research thrusts. In the last seven years, we have hired 180 new faculty — 73 into entirely new positions. This has lowered the faculty-student ratio from 17:1 to 14:1 — and for undergraduate students, that ratio is down to nearly 11:1.

Faculty renewal will continue, with 43 hires planned for fiscal year 2008, of which 11 are new constellation hires, bringing the total number of constellation faculty to 18.

We expect the new Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, or CCNI, to be operational this month at a facility in the Rensselaer Technology Park. CCNI, as you may remember, is a $100 million partnership between Rensselaer, IBM, and New York state which is creating one of the world's most powerful university-based supercomputing centers.

In December, IBM awarded Rensselaer a Blue Gene computer under IBM's Shared University Research program, to complement the partnership. The equipment will provide a resource for scientists to acquire experience with the Blue Gene computing environment, and will support a project to develop new simulation technologies for understanding biological systems. The work will help researchers develop algorithms and software that run efficiently on Blue Gene technology, a key part of CCNI.

Rensselaer extended its global reach when I led a delegation last month to Europe, where we met and made connections with leading representatives from government, industry, and higher education, and I delivered speeches in London, Paris, and Geneva. A key objective of this trip — and of our other international trips — was to foster partnerships and collaborations with some of Europe's leading academic, research, and policy institutions on issues of common interest. For example, we signed a letter of agreement with the University of London — Birkbeck College, to promote educational and research cooperation, including student and faculty exchanges and development of collaborative research projects, among other activities. We also received commitments for student and faculty exchange programs with Ecole Polytechnique (the leading technological university in France), CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), and Imperial College of the University of London. Such connections are vital to our mission of becoming a global university, and to helping our students become sophisticated global citizens and global leaders.

Now, let me give you an overview of the budget which was approved by the Trustees last month. This budget builds on our recent successes and accomplishments under the Plan, and it gives us the resources to go forward with our ambitious plans for the coming years.

  • With continued endowment support of the Plan, fiscal year 2008 revenues and other sources are projected at $365.5 million, with expenditures and restricted fund balance commitments of $365.5 million.
  • Spending on current Plan initiatives, including continued constellation hires, faculty renewal, debt service to support new facilities, programming costs for the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, and fund raising campaign and communications costs, will increase from $47.4 million in fiscal year 2007 to $48.1 million in fiscal year 2008.
  • The board has approved an undergraduate and full-time graduate tuition rate increase of 7.1 percent to $34,900. This tuition is necessary to offer the quality of education which we strive to provide to our students. This rate increase will keep Rensselaer in the "middle of the pack" relative to tuition rates at other colleges and universities with which we compete. It is important to keep in mind that 46 percent of total undergraduate tuition revenue is returned to nearly 90 percent of undergraduate students in the form of financial aid.
  • For room and board, on average, rates will increase 5.1 percent. Overall, the cost of room and board, tuition, and fees for undergraduate students will rise by 6.5 percent to $48,100, and will remain competitive with our peer institutions.

Let me spend just an extra minute on the subject of tuition. As you know, we are faced with the realities that tuition does not cover the full cost of a Rensselaer education (as it does not at any higher education institution), and, at the same time, we must strive constantly to add the substance and richness to our academic programs, and facilities, that ensures our students of a truly world-class educational experience. But we know the increase will be difficult for some students.

To support upperclassmen in their financial needs, we have created an additional fund in the financial aid office to be used for undergraduates who may encounter financial difficulties during their time at Rensselaer. The financial aid office has been asked to reach out to those students with greatest financial need to offer assistance in meeting current and future tuition responsibilities. I have also asked our Chief Financial Officer and Vice President for Enrollment to work together to identify resources to increase these funds in the future.

In addition to these new scholarship funds, we have received additional funding for Rensselaer students through the federal government's SMART Grant program and through the Academic Competitiveness Grants program. Our funding from the Federal Pell Grant Program will increase to approximately $2,050,000 for the upcoming aid year, and students also can expect an increase in federal subsidized loans, as well as a reduction in origination fees.

  • Projected enrollment growth at the Hartford Campus is sizeable, resulting in a projected 21 percent increase in revenue, which incorporates a 7.1 percent increase in tuition for the majority of its programs. The growth is based on continued development and improvement in executive education, cohort, and corporate certificate programs.
  • Research expenditures are projected to grow 9 percent, after excluding one-time CCNI funding from the current year totals. Currently proposal and award activity, through the first six months of fiscal year 2007, are trending higher than the prior year, by 13 and 9 percent respectively.
  • The budget provides for merit salary increases for faculty and staff, as well as the continuation of Employer of Choice initiatives.
  • The transformation of the Troy campus continues. The design phase of the East Campus Athletic Village will be completed this month. There was a public hearing before the Troy Planning Board on March 20 on the draft environmental impact statement for the project. We expect construction of Phase 1 to begin this summer, and to be completed by September 2009, in time for the first home football game of that season. The athletic village will include a football field with a 5,000-7,500-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.
  • As a future capital project, we are developing a multi-year plan for the Pedestrian Bridge. The Class of 2007 is providing the initial gift for plaques, and a Student Design Team has developed a variety of concepts for review. The new design will enhance the streetscape and will be reviewed with the City.
  • Also being planned is a substantial upgrade and expansion of Russell Sage Dining Hall to eliminate overcrowding, long lines, and to improve service. The expansion will increase its capacity from 130 to nearly 300.
  • Construction on EMPAC continues, with substantial completion of the building scheduled for May 2008. When EMPAC is completed, and opens with a multi-performance celebration over several days, 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.
  • Financial implications of factors within and outside the Institute will continue to be monitored through five-year modeling (updated each year), enabling timely adaptation to our budgets as we progress in investing in, and realizing, the Plan.

In order to continue to invest in important initiatives, revenues need to grow and diversify. We remain a tuition-dependent institution. The capital campaign, with the goal of raising $1.4 billion by June 30, 2009, remains targeted toward increased giving to support our Plan initiatives and to strengthen the overall financial foundation of the Institute. To date, the campaign has raised almost $1.23 billion. Included in that total is the philanthropy of the Class of 2007, in supporting the upgrade of the 15th pedestrian bridge.

With the recent successes has come momentum. To continue this success, we will remain focused on realizing these outcomes: impact on Institute reputation and prominence; student demand, satisfaction, and retention; and revenue generation. Maintaining revenue growth is critical to sustaining Plan investment and achievement.

We could not have achieved all that we have in the last seven years — and we would not be able to go forward with our ambitious plans for the future — without you, the people of Rensselaer. You work hard. You are dedicated to your research, your teaching, your studies, and to the support and the advancement of the Institute. Your energy, your enthusiasm, your talents, and your passion inspire me, as I carry the message of Rensselaer in the 21st century around the globe. I know that you all have busy lives — families and friends, interests and obligations — and there are only so many hours in the day. However, your devotion to our common purpose, and to our shared mission, makes this university stronger, and makes our ambitious transformation possible. Thank you for all that you do for Rensselaer.

With that in mind, I would like to acknowledge some members of our community who exemplify what I am talking about — who make Rensselaer a place of learning, discovery, service — and fun.

First, the members of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, who were the inaugural recipients of the Rensselaer Alumni Association Community Service Award for Greek Life. The members of Pi Kappa Alpha have volunteered more than 1,000 hours of community service in the last year. Their activities included: renovating the Frear Park Ice Skating Rink, helping to restore and renovate two local churches, promoting AIDS awareness on campus, raising money for holiday gifts for children, and other philanthropic endeavors. They have donated the $1,000 award to the American Cancer Society.

We have been privileged to have more than 40 winners of the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER) — an impressive achievement for an institution of our size. The award is given to faculty members at the beginning of their academic careers and is one of NSF's most competitive awards.

Our recent award-winners are:

Dr. Daniel Gall, assistant professor of materials science and engineering. He is helping to craft the next generation of custom nanoscale structures, specifically developing an understanding of how material vapors condense on surfaces and assemble into nanostructures — knowledge that could lead to the construction of some of the world's most specialized nanomaterials.

Dr. Wai Kin "Victor" Chan, assistant professor of decision sciences and engineering systems, is developing better computer simulation methodologies to improve systems from healthcare to military operations and airport security. With enhanced efficiency and accuracy of simulation models, his research is targeted to handle large-scale, time-sensitive, real-world systems.

Rensselaer is fortunate to have very dedicated staff people, who represent the Institute every day — often from the very early morning until late in the evening, and on weekends.

That dedication was on display last Thursday with the tragic event which occurred on this campus. I thank all of our staff who helped us to manage — successfully — a very difficult situation, especially in Public Safety and the Administration Division. Their dedication, helpfulness, and professionalism set a new standard. I also thank my leadership team for the way they all came together to help me manage the situation.

Peter Pedone, associate advancement officer for Alumni Relations, also is one of our dedicated staff. Peter is the most recent winner of the Pillar of Rensselaer award, the highest honor bestowed upon a staff person. He was cited for his demonstrated understanding of Rensselaer's mission and history, and was praised as a role model and mentor for other employees and students. He also was elected this past Sunday, to honorary membership in Phalanx, the highest leadership honor society on the Rensselaer campus. Clearly, Peter is highly regarded and highly respected by students, by his colleagues, and by the many graduates of Rensselaer he connects with every day, and his sense of humor and good cheer are known throughout the Troy campus.

And, last Monday evening, two special people won the fiercely contested Dancing with the Stars competition, which was sponsored by our Ballroom Team. The very light-on-their-feet winners were sophomore Ali Kennicutt, who is a civil engineering major, a captain of the Ballroom Team, a learning assistant in Nason Hall, and a 4th generation Rensselaer legacy; and Dr. Eddie Ade Knowles, Vice President for Student Life.

Now, as has become a tradition at the Spring Town Meeting, I would like to announce the names of our honorands for Commencement, which will be held on Saturday, May 19, on the Harkness Field. The speaker for Rensselaer's 201st Commencement will be Thomas L. Friedman, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times and author of best-sellers including The World is Flat, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, and From Beirut to Jerusalem, for which he was awarded the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1989.

Mr. Friedman joined The Times in 1981 and was appointed Beirut bureau chief in 1982. He served as Israel bureau chief from 1984 to 1988. He was awarded the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting (from Lebanon), and the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting (from Israel). He became the paper's foreign-affairs columnist in 1995. Previously, he served as chief economic correspondent in The Times Washington bureau, and before that he was the chief White House correspondent. In 2005, Mr. Friedman was elected as a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board.

Mr. Friedman received a B.A. degree in Mediterranean studies from Brandeis University, and a Master of Philosophy degree in Modern Middle East studies from Oxford.

Thomas Friedman's writings about the interconnections between globalization, education, science and technology, energy security, and geopolitical challenges make him an especially relevant and compelling Commencement speaker for Rensselaer.

Our other honorary degree recipient is likewise a distinguished and influential individual in the media.

Don Hewitt has been a leader at CBS News for more than 50 years. He is best known as the creator of the groundbreaking weekly news program 60 Minutes, which debuted in 1968. He served as executive producer of the program for 36 years, and he continues his association with the show in an advisory role.

Mr. Hewitt began his career with CBS News in 1948 as an associate director of Douglas Edwards with the News, then he served as producer-director of the broadcast for 14 years. He later became executive producer of the "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite."

As a producer-director of Eyewitness to History and other CBS News specials, Mr. Hewitt covered the travels of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.

He was executive producer of the award-winning CBS Reports: Hunger in America, produced and directed the first face-to-face television debate between presidential nominees Kennedy and Nixon during the 1960 campaign, and directed two history-making programs Conversations with the President.

If you saw the feature film Good Night and Good Luck, you may remember the character of Don Hewitt among the CBS reporters who grappled with questions of fairness and journalistic integrity during the McCarthy hearings in the U.S. Senate in the 1950s.

Mr. Hewitt is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Emmy, presented by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

The day before Commencement, on Friday, May 18, we will once again hold a Commencement Colloquy in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. Both honorands will participate. Details of the event will follow in the coming weeks. I hope you will attend, as it always proves to be a lively and fascinating discussion of the compelling issues and ideas of our time. It will be especially so this time.

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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