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“Rensselaer and the New Polytechnic”

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

Spring 2013 Town Hall Meeting
EMPAC Concert Hall
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Wednesday, April 3, 2013 | Video


Spring 2013 Town Hall Meeting (EMPAC Concert Hall)


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.

Since we last met, the Board of Trustees has approved the refreshed Rensselaer Plan. The Rensselaer Plan: 2012-2024 recognizes opportunities and strengths that have emerged since the original plan was created, and it builds upon the original Rensselaer Plan in ways that provide a foundation and direction to take the Institute to its bicentennial in 2024.

I hope that most of you already are familiar with the essential aspects of the refreshed Plan. Each of you will be able to take advantage of the framework it provides to enable promising new endeavors and, especially, to support deeper and more effective collaborations.

The refreshed Plan is an important framework which builds on the original Rensselaer Plan. It renews the university’s commitment to the six-part strategic focus of the original plan, and underscores the Institute’s distinguishing strengths in interdisciplinary inquiry and research, interactive learning, and entrepreneurship.

While the Rensselaer Plan was primarily about transforming Rensselaer, The Rensselaer Plan: 2012-2024 is about establishing Rensselaer as a truly transformative force as we continue to reach beyond our campuses. We are a university that is transformative –

  • in the lives of our students,
  • in our pedagogy,
  • and in the global impact of our research.

I will review some of the elements of the refreshed Plan, and I invite you to consider how your own work relates to these elements.

Student life

The original Rensselaer Plan recognized our primary focus – our students. We recognized that learning takes place both inside and outside of the classroom. With CLASS (Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students), we are creating a robust living/learning community which attends to the intellectual and personal growth of our students, while fostering a stronger sense of community.

The refreshed Rensselaer Plan aims to provide even more opportunity for unique student experiences, with programs that bring rigorous intellectual challenges into all places our students live and grow.

Rensselaer student life programs support CLASS in its six target areas—personal, professional, leadership, and cultural development, as well as good citizenship within both the campus community and neighboring communities.

CLASS is no longer just for undergraduates. CLASS programs now offer graduate students assistance with their unique needs, including balancing the demands of academics, research, and family, including support with dissertations and research, and support in turning innovative research into commercial enterprises.

Our goal is to develop engaged thinkers and innovators who are intellectually agile, and who possess the multicultural sophistication to become transformative forces across the globe.

Innovative pedagogy

Rensselaer always has been known for pioneering groundbreaking approaches to teaching. We created the studio classroom and, in the 1990s, brought team-based learning to our students.

The refreshed Rensselaer Plan commits us to go further, creating the next revolution in teaching.

We already have an example of this with a project called “Mandarin Language & Culture: The Lost Manuscript.” The goal is to have students learn Mandarin Chinese by taking advantage of a gaming environment. This has provided an engaging way to learn a full semester’s worth of Mandarin in just eight weeks. And, while, so far, actors have filled roles in the scenario, the narrative has been designed for an environment where students and sentient synthetic (artificially intelligent) characters interact.

Our Emergent Reality Lab, an advanced virtual reality system currently under construction in the Rensselaer Technology Park, will enable an interactive and immersive learning environment more ambitious than any to date. Linked with our high performance computing resources, we are poised to create the next generation in teaching by creating directly responsive immersive interactivity with digitally created environments and synthetic beings.

Research to solve global challenges

Through The Rensselaer Plan, we have developed world class research programs rooted in five signature thrusts:

  • Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials
  • Energy, Environment, and Smart Systems
  • Computational Science and Engineering
  • Biotechnology and the Life Sciences
  • Media, Arts, Science, and Technology

These thrusts support focused engagement with challenges facing the world-at-large, and they empower Rensselaer to be a transformative force in solving them.

The refreshed Rensselaer Plan provides strategic research focus by identifying a broad matrix of interconnected global challenges, including mitigating disease, developing new sources of renewable energy, providing clean water and food, applying new technologies to manage an explosion of data, creating advanced materials that impact energy and health, and establishing a sustainable and resilient infrastructure.

Under the refreshed Rensselaer Plan, research in the coming decade will fall under two broad interdisciplinary umbrellas. “Beyond the Internet: Digital Meets Reality” will explore data and information in the context of big data approaches to fundamental science, engineering natural and manmade networks, cyber-infrastructure and cyber-security, and data analytics and innovation. This is critical in a data-driven, web-enabled, supercomputer-powered, hyperconnected world, and the attendant approaches to deriving information and knowledge from massive data sets.

“Infrastructural Resilience, Sustainability, and Stewardship” will look at building a sustainable future by developing affordable healthcare technologies, transformative materials, and smart logistics and infrastructure.    

Meeting Challenges with the New Polytechnic

The urgent, global concerns that we face in the 21st century—access to clean water, food security, energy security, environmental stewardship, health security, and disease mitigation, to delineate a few—are the key touchstones of our refresh of The Rensselaer Plan. Responding to these challenges will take all that we have in terms of ingenuity, collaboration, and good judgment.

The challenges we face are of unprecedented magnitude, too complex to be resolved by the independent actions of those working in isolation. Because they are critical to our world, and to the ultimate survival of humankind, they demand the best of our imagination and creativity, careful deliberation, tremendous resourcefulness, and the strictest focus and discipline.

At the same time, the interconnectivity of people and things is generating massive amounts of data. To make sense of all that data requires us to exploit that very interconnectivity to collaborate in new ways. It requires us to break out of disciplinary silos, exploit new technological tools, and employ high performance computing, data aggregation, and analytics.

Clearly the research, pedagogy, student support, and formal structures outlined in the refreshed Plan undergird and encourage work across disciplines, and position us to exploit big data.  Articulating a framework to put all of this into the proper context is important.

In January at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London, I was privileged to deliver the ERA Foundation International Lecture.  In that lecture—titled “The New Polytechnic: Collaboration and Leadership Across Disciplines and Sectors to Address Urgent Global Challenges”—I proposed a new way of working to harness the power of science and technology – particularly in the arenas of “Big Data,” high performance computing, and Web science. To meet these demands, I suggested that we must engage an entirely New Polytechnic.

I define the New Polytechnic as an entirely fresh collaborative endeavor merging across a multiplicity of disciplines, sectors, and global regions. It is animated by new technologies and tools—high performance computing, is an example—applied in new ways, with input from Big Data, amplified by new platforms such as the Semantic Web, probed by advanced analytics, and guided by societal concerns and ethics. Engaged in by a broad spectrum of participants, the New Polytechnic ultimately will facilitate novel and effective approaches to global challenges.

Although the New Polytechnic is “new,” it has ancient roots.

John Henry Cardinal Newman set us on a propitious path, more than 150 years ago, when he stated, “all knowledge forms one whole.” In the nine lectures that became his timeless classic, “The Idea of a University,” Cardinal Newman extolled the knowledge continuum to advocate for the unity of academic disciplines, through the lens of the seven liberal or “liberating arts” of the medieval university. These were the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). He used this perspective as the basis for reorganizing and delineating academic disciplines in a way that opened new venues for research and for pedagogy.

His perspective went beyond today’s limited view of the liberal arts as incorporating only the humanities, the arts, history, and social sciences—to include the natural sciences and mathematics. He made a point of saying, “the systematic omission of any one science from the catalogue prejudices the accuracy and completeness of our knowledge altogether, and that, in proportion to its importance.” Cardinal Newman understood that it was through bringing disciplines together that the new might be created, novel areas explored, and fresh solutions developed. His was, and is, a comprehensive, even radical, view. The New Polytechnic springs from his unified knowledge thesis.

The New Polytechnic is an intellectual construct, a new way of thinking, and a new way of doing. It will impact research in powerful new ways. It will impact pedagogy—as we enlist the next generations of students in this construct, and educate them to be leaders in the digital economy. The New Polytechnic will more fully utilize data—in ever more sophisticated ways, while exploiting our ubiquitous inter-connectivity. As such, the New Polytechnic can enable collaboration at a deeper, more fluent level than ever before.

The New Polytechnic—utilizing advanced technology to amalgamate a multiplicity of perspectives and disciplines—can lead to greater vision and deeper understanding. The New Polytechnic is still a work in progress, but, over time, it will help us to understand, interpret, explain, and explore innovative endeavors that are at the heart of the Rensselaer Plan, and that offer the most promise as we take on complex, global challenges.

World Economic Forum

As you know, for the past several years, my outreach has included participation in the World Economic Forum. Its Annual Meeting in January had as its theme, “Resilient Dynamism.” As a member of the WEF Science Advisory Committee and the WEF-USA Board, I moderated a session on “Global Supply Chain Resilience,” focusing on new approaches in risk management. Professor Jim Hendler, head of the Computer Science Department and a Senior Constellation Professor in the Tetherless World Constellation, participated in an IdeasLab titled “Cyber Resiliency,” and on a panel titled “Science: The Next Revolution.”

Through our participation in the World Economic Forum, Rensselaer continues to gain recognition on the world stage for its intellectual resources and its contribution to thought leadership.

Welcome to Watson

Recently, our alumnus Dr. John E. Kelly, III, Senior Vice President and Director of Research at IBM, and his colleagues, helped us to recruit a new “colleague” to Rensselaer—IBM’s Watson computer. The addition of a Jeopardy champion to our ranks has been greeted with good humor. Headlines in major publications worldwide carried the message, “Watson goes to college.” There was much speculation about where Watson would live, and one of our fraternities has rushed Watson.

More seriously, we are the first university to receive such a system. This new computer has vast natural language understanding and cognitive computing capabilities, based on artificial intelligence and semantic technology. The arrival of the Watson enables new leading-edge research at Rensselaer, and affords faculty and students an opportunity to find new uses for Watson and to deepen the system’s cognitive capabilities. This technology, combined with research strengths at Rensselaer (in areas such as big data, semantic web, cognitive science, etc.) will allow our faculty to address global challenges across a broad disciplinary front, and will impact our pedagogy.

We also are steadily boosting our supercomputing capability. With new racks of Blue Gene Q power, we have over four times the computational capacity of the 16 racks of Blue Gene L that came online in 2007. This computing power is balanced by a 16-fold increase in input/output bandwidth, reflecting the need for handling enormous amounts of data. This is being accomplished while reducing the energy usage for the Blue Gene Complex by one half.  The Blue Gene L system is being retired.

The addition of more high performance computing power, massive data storage capability, and the cognitive computing capabilities of Watson will open up vast new research possibilities at Rensselaer.


Freshman applications have set another record, at 16,132, which is 6 percent ahead of last year. Since 2005, applications have grown by 189 percent. Undergraduate International applications have topped 2,000 for the first time ever.

This year, the average SAT critical reading and math score for the admitted group is 1408, the highest level ever.


At its meeting on March 2, 2013, the Rensselaer Board of Trustees approved an Institute budget for Fiscal Year 2014 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 and pedagogical innovations, research priorities, and the enhancement of student life.

The overall operational budget for Fiscal Year 2014 amounts to $394.4 million. As always, it represents a balanced budget.

Tuition for the 2013-14 Academic Year

The Board of Trustees has approved undergraduate and full-time graduate tuition for the 2013-2014 academic year. Tuition for full-time undergraduate and full-time graduate students will be $45,100, an increase of 4 percent. We are beginning to see tuition increases enacted by other universities in a comparable range. On average, room and board rates will increase 4.0 percent.

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 9 percent from the current-year level, to $97 million.

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

Academic and Research Enterprises

The academic enterprise lies at the heart of the university.  Over the course of the implementation of the Rensselaer Plan, we have made, and continue to make, major additions to our faculty.  In Fiscal Year 2014, we will recruit up to 60 tenured and tenure-track faculty, including nine Constellation hires, spread through all five academic schools.

Additional support is in the budget for the research enterprise, including research seed funding.

The minimum academic year stipend for graduate students will increase to $18,500.

Employee Compensation

Guidelines for faculty and staff performance management and compensation are being developed.


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 such pressures. Staff attrition will be managed aggressively to achieve savings. Strategic direction and focus never have been more critical.

Leadership changes and new hires

Our success depends upon effective leadership, and we have been able to fill a number of key positions recently.

It gives me great pleasure to announce that Deepak Vashishth, Professor and Head of Biomedical Engineering, has been appointed as the Director of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, effective April 16.  A search is underway for his replacement as Department Head.

Professor Christopher Carothers, of the Computer Science Department, has been named Director of the Rensselaer Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations. Dr. Carothers is charged with making the supercomputing resources of CCNI accessible to Rensselaer faculty and students, and with forging new collaborations and opportunities for Rensselaer researchers.

Our new football coach is Mr. Ralph Isernia, who comes to Rensselaer from Ferrum College, where he was the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator for the Division III Panthers. In his two seasons there, he helped the team to a share of the 2012 USA South Conference championship.  He is a graduate of Davidson College, where he played two varsity sports, including football.

Dr. Farhan Gandhi recently joined Rensselaer as the Rosalind and John J. Redfern Jr. ’33 Professor of Engineering. He is a tenured Full Professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering. An innovative researcher in the field of rotary-wing aircraft, Dr. Gandhi joins Rensselaer from Pennsylvania State University.

Geomicrobiology expert Dr. Yuri Gorby is now the Howard N. Blitman ’50 P.E. Career Development Professor in Engineering. Dr. Gorby’s interdisciplinary research is at the nexus of environmental engineering and biology.

Dr. Brigitte Arduini has been named Director of the New York state-funded Stem Cell Research Core Facility, within the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. Dr. Arduini previously served as Director of the Rockefeller Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Core Facility in New York City.

Professor Peter Fox has been named the new Director of the Information Technology and Web Science program. Dr. Fox currently is a chaired professor in the Tetherless World Research Constellation, and a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Computer Science.

Professor Donald Schwendeman has been named the new head of the Department of Mathematical Sciences. Dr. Schwendeman's expertise lies in the general field of computational science and engineering.

Academic Enterprise

Honors and Awards

Our faculty continues to garner recognition, and I am delighted to mention a few recent awards and honors.

Professor Ganpati Ramanath of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering has been named a winner of the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany. This award is given in recognition of his research record and accomplishments in the fields of nanomaterials and interfaces.

Physics Professor Shawn-Yu Lin, who is a member of the Future Chips Constellation and Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center, has been selected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Professor Ron Sun (Cognitive Science) became an IEEE Fellow, effective January 1, 2013.

We have four faculty researchers who have been honored with National Science Foundation CAREER Awards:

  • Assistant Professor Sandipan Mishra of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering,
  • Assistant Professor Peter Dinolfo, of Chemistry and Chemical Biology,
  • Assistant Professor Qun Wan, of Biomedical Engineering, and
  • Assistant Professor Thomas C. Sharkey, Industrial Systems and Engineering.

Dr. Laurie Leshin, Dean of the School of Science, was appointed to the Advisory Board of the National Air & Space Museum.

Professor James Hendler, head of the Department of Computer Science and Senior Constellation Professor in the Tetherless World Constellation, has been honored with an inaugural Strata Data Innovation Award, given to individuals who have made significant innovations in the data field.

New Center

Since we last met, the Institute has opened the Center for Cognition, Communication, and Culture with a series of multimedia presentations and demonstrations of research in the initial core research areas: cross-modal displays, mixed reality, and synthetic characters.

As one of the 10 Institute-wide research centers at Rensselaer, this center will focus on the intersections and interdependency of cognition, communication, and culture in the context of contemporary research, technology, and society. The center’s interdisciplinary research activities will draw on the arts, design, engineering, humanities, science, and social sciences.

The Rensselaer Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences (GSAS) program was named among the top 15 out of 150 undergraduate game design programs in the United States and Canada, according to the “ Top Schools to Study Video Game Design for 2013” report from The Princeton Review, in partnership with PC Gamer magazine.

Also, the School of Engineering and several of its programs made gains on this year’s list of Best Graduate Engineering Programs by U.S. News & World Report.

The School of Engineering ranked 38th in the nation, up from 42nd a year ago. Within the school, mechanical engineering moved up three spots to 24, while civil engineering moved up three spots to 26, and environmental engineering moved up from 41 to 34.

Overall, six engineering graduate programs were ranked among the top 25 in their field, while nine programs ranked within the top 30 in their field.

These increases mirror the gains made last year on the U.S. News & World Report 2012 list of Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs, in which Rensselaer was ranked 23rd. Another external survey last year, by industry-focused website Business Insider, recognized engineering at Rensselaer by ranking the Institute fourth on its list of “World’s Best Engineering Schools.”


Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Award finalists presented their work to a panel of Rensselaer alumni/ae judges including scientists, technologists, engineers, and entrepreneurs on February 7. The three finalists were Navid Attary (Civil and Environmental Engineering): A Revolution in Earthquake Protection Devices: RB-MAP; Ming Ma (Material Science and Engineering): Graded-Refractive-Index Light-Emitting Diodes: LEDs for a Brighter and Smarter Future; and Rebecca Wachs (Biomedical Engineering): Enabling Personalized Medicine Through an Elementary and Robust Implantable Sensor.

The final award, announced in a formal ceremony on March 5, went to Ming Ma. His patent-pending invention holds the promise of hastening the global adoption of LEDs and reducing the overall cost and environmental impact of illuminating our homes and businesses.

Student Life

Student Life has instituted robust programming as part of CLASS for graduate students. They are holding weekly sessions dealing with such topics as interviewing skills, wellness, social media, preparation for employment, as well as fellowships and prizes.

In addition, the Office of Student Life has established a Graduate CLASS intervention team to support students facing academic and social challenges.

Continuing our commitment to civic engagement, approximately fifteen students and two professional staff, in collaboration with Wagner College, assisted with the ongoing Hurricane Sandy clean-up efforts on Staten Island during Spring break. This trip was offered as a "spring-break" alternative through the Dean of Students Office.

We continue to emphasize the community and to support cross-cultural education and understanding here at Rensselaer. As part of this, various student organizations—in conjunction with our new Assistant Director of Student Activities and Multicultural Programs—have created a campus-wide multicultural lounge, which is located on the first floor of the Student Union. The lounge will officially open on April 11th.

Finally, I congratulate our Men's Hockey team, which had its best finish in 20 years, advancing to the ECAC quarterfinals against Brown University.

Honorary Degrees

I now am happy to announce much-anticipated news concerning the 207th Commencement of Rensselaer in May. The individuals we will honor at our ceremony this year are:

  • Congressman John Lewis. Representative Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties. He organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, and he volunteered for Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. Along the way, he was fire bombed and savagely beaten.  But he rose above this. He has served as U.S. Representative of Georgia's Fifth District since 1986 and is the recipient of many awards, including the Medal of Freedom.
  • Admiral Mike Mullen was the 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He oversaw the end of the combat mission in Iraq and the development of a new Afghanistan strategy.
  • Ms. Patty Stonesifer was the founding President of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, growing and positioning it to what it is today. She recently became the CEO of Martha’s Table, a non-profit in Washington, DC focused on providing food, nutrition and education to families and poverty reduction programs, and
  • Ms. Ursula M. Burns is Chairman and CEO of Xerox Corporation.  She is an engineer and the first African-American woman to lead a technology-focused Fortune 500 company.

Our honorands will join us for the President’s Colloquy in the EMPAC Concert Hall beginning at 4 p.m. on Friday, May 24. Our entire community is invited, especially our graduating students and their families. We also will give recognition at that time to the Senior Class Officers and the Senior Class Council.

I do hope all of you will attend. 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.


As you have heard today, our dedication to the refreshed Rensselaer Plan and our use of the New Polytechnic as a guide to envisioning possibilities already are reflected in the leadership we are demonstrating and the value we are providing to the world.

This community has taken a thoughtful approach to tackling the challenges our world faces, and our commitment to a renewed strategy and working together to create solutions promises much in terms of future achievement and success.

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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