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Rensselaer Alumni Association Board of Trustees

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

Heffner Alumni House
Rensslelaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Friday, April 12, 2013

Thank you and good morning to each of you. I am pleased to join you this morning and to welcome you back to the Troy campus. 

This morning, I am going to present you with my thoughts on the New Polytechnic and how we can employ this construct to educate our students and to do our research in order to address our pressing Global Challenges. I also will provide you with an update on The Rensselaer Plan: 2012-2024, and discuss its linkage to the New Polytechic. 

But, before doing that, I would first like to congratulate Paul Cosgrave, Class of 1972, for your successful service as president of the Rensselaer Alumni Association (RAA) Board. Thank you, Paul, for your leadership.  I am pleased to welcome Roger Mike, Class of 1970, as the new president of the RAA. Roger, I look forward to working with you as you begin your term during this pivotal time for Rensselaer with the initiation of The Rensselaer Plan: 2012-2024.

As the Rensselaer Alumni Association Board of Trustees, the insights you provided in response to the refresh of The Rensselaer Plan were of particular value, and we are very grateful for your involvement in this effort. Thank you, Alli Woodford and David Haviland, for leading this effort.

Your dedication to Rensselaer enables us to extend our reach, and to continue to accomplish great things.  All of your efforts help to support the Institute and allow us to realize our mission and increase our global impact.

Let me recognize the collaborative work you do with our student life organizations and, in particular, the commitment you have made to the success of Red & White and the new “weR” [We R]: The Spirit of Rensselaer Society. Each of these programs responds directly to our mission to provide a world class student experience in the context of our Navigating Rensselaer and Beyond Program, the First Year Experience, and more broadly CLASS.  The work that you are doing in this arena has been met with national recognition including Red & White receiving the 2012 CASE Student Programs National Outstanding Organization Award, which highlights the organization as the best student alumni association among nearly 600 groups.  Congratulations.

Finally, we recently lost a beloved member of the Rensselaer family and friend, with the passing of Carl Westerdahl.  During his nearly quarter century career at Rensselaer, Carl served admirably as Dean of Students, Director of Alumni and Community Relations, and Director of the Society of Families and Constituent Programs.  Through his many roles, from staff member to volunteer to donor, Carl’s enthusiasm, loyalty, and counsel left a lasting imprint on the lives of countless members of our Rensselaer community. We are grateful for his devotion, and will continue to gain inspiration from his passion for Rensselaer.  Please stand and join me now for a moment of silence as we remember Carl.

In January at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London, I was privileged to deliver the ERA Foundation International Lecture, entitled “The New Polytechnic: Collaboration and Leadership Across Disciplines and Sectors to Address Urgent Global Challenges.”  I would now like to share the essence of this speech with you.  

The 2012 Summer Olympics were a triumph. The event held great potential for both danger and controversy—security guard shortages, air defenses, eligibility and doping, women and the hijab, appropriate national flag display, technology issues, and more—all of them examples of multiple, intersecting vulnerabilities. Despite these challenges, this complex, multifaceted event came off smoothly, thanks to strong leadership, and extensive collaboration across disciplines, professions, and the government, corporate, and nonprofit sectors.

The urgent, global concerns that we face in the 21st century, and beyond, are even more complex than those extant in London and are even more subject to intersecting vulnerabilities. These challenges—access to clean water, food security, energy security, environmental stewardship, health security, and disease mitigation, to delineate a few—will take all the ingenuity, collaboration, and good judgment we can muster.

Our challenges 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.

How are we best to approach these global challenges? What new methods can we employ that will result in workable solutions?  Importantly, how do we educate our students to them?


To meet these demands we must engage an entirely New Polytechnic—a new construct.

While the term “polytechnic” clearly and strongly includes engineering, it reaches beyond any single discipline.

The New Polytechnic embodies an entirely fresh collaborative approach reaching across a multiplicity of disciplines, sectors, and geographic regions. It is animated by new technologies and tools—high performance computing, for example—applied in new ways, utilizing 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.

The New Polytechnic enables collaboration at a deeper, more fluent level than ever before. It helps us to re-envision possibilities, and to clear away barriers on a vast scale.

The New Polytechnic relates to an articulation of the whole of knowledge by John Henry Cardinal Newman, more than 150 years ago. 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 these as the basis for reorganizing and delineating academic disciplines in a way that opened new venues for scholarship and pedagogy.

His perspective went beyond today’s more 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 understanding and working across disciplines that the new might be created, novel areas explored, and fresh ideas developed. His was, and is, a comprehensive, even radical, view. The New Polytechnic springs from this root.

We all are cognizant that the urgent global challenges we face not only have intersecting vulnerabilities, but, also, cascading consequences and unacceptable risks. 

From my own experience, I know that safety in the nuclear power arena has been enhanced greatly by Probabilistic Risk Assessment—a detailed and systematic analysis and evaluation of the interconnected systems and operations in a nuclear power station. One cannot assess risk in a nuclear station only on a component-by-component basis, nor by having experts examine individual systems in isolation, without knowledge of their interactions, or without understanding how people interface with the technology. There is connectedness of the systems in nuclear power stations, and connectedness of the people with the systems, which can lead to cascading effects in the case of a triggering event.

As we have learned over the years, the correct estimation of the magnitude and likelihood of a disaster, and how to mitigate it, can be made only when the perspectives and knowledge of experts from a variety of disciplines and sectors are brought together.

We regularly get reminders of intersecting risks and cascading consequences. The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Super Storm Sandy in the United States, and the extreme heat waves in Europe in 2003 and 2010 are examples.

The earthquake-induced tsunami resulted in extensive damage to the nuclear power reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi site, wrecked infrastructure and homes, contaminated the environment, threatened human health and food safety, disrupted manufacturing and supply chains, shifted capital, and had extensive economic impact across the world.

Super Storm Sandy brought devastation to the New York and New Jersey coastlines, and flooded much of lower Manhattan. This has prompted far-reaching discussion of how—or whether—to rebuild private homes and protect public infrastructure against future storms—and, of course, how to pay for it. 

As “Superstorm Sandy” was beginning to gather steam in the Caribbean, five days before it slammed into New Jersey and New York, US forecasters were predicting a monster storm, but were uncertain of its path. By most indications, the unusually powerful and complex storm would graze the coast, but move back out into the north Atlantic. However, there were steady reports of the “European Model” predicting a sharp turn into the coast of New Jersey and New York, with potentially devastating consequences. The U.S. and European models eventually converged. But, the Europeans got it right first, giving more time for those in Sandy’s path to prepare... no doubt saving lives. The difference in the early predictions lay with the inputs, and the capacity of the computers doing the modeling.

The two European heat waves, unlike any experienced in the previous 500 years, were blamed for thousands of deaths and led to health crises, fires, and drought—which created crop shortfalls, and negatively impacted national gross domestic product. Strengthening climate understanding with more data, better models, and more computational power is critical.

A New Polytechnic approach can help us to assess, evaluate, understand, and mitigate the effects of such occurrences, and, overall, to address the global challenges of this century.

We have seen bursts of inspired inter-and-multidisciplinary integration before.

An example hails from the 19th century here at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which did not, at its outset, include polytechnic in its name. This designation came only after one of its senior professors and, later, Director of Rensselaer, Benjamin Franklin Greene, toured Europe and saw the advantage of an education that incorporated multiple disciplines. He saw the value of deepening engineering students’ understanding of the sciences, so that they could do more than just faithfully reproduce or merely extend prior art. He proposed a new curriculum -- putting scientific thinking at the core, and advocated adding “polytechnic” to the Rensselaer name. He wanted students to study science, literature, philosophy, rhetoric, and the arts -- as a foundation for developing more technical knowledge and skills. This undergirds our curriculum today.

With these changes, students could use emerging knowledge of the sciences, mathematics, and the arts to innovate in engineering. The design and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City is a wonderful example of the thinking engendered by this kind of education. The work was guided by Rensselaer alumnus and chief engineer of the project, Washington A. Roebling, and his wife, Emily Warren Roebling. In his inspired work, engineering and the sciences came together to innovate better bridge support structures—pneumatic caissons and wire cables spun in situ. The bridge, also, is appreciated for its beauty, which was aligned with its engineering design.

You may be familiar with the diaspora of scientists—many of them physicists—at the close of the Manhattan Project—the great research program involving the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, which produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. At the close of the Project, some of these talented and skilled researchers and academics brought their tools and rigor to new research, where they did foundational work in the life sciences and biochemistry.

I will highlight two who crossed disciplinary boundaries in science:

When he joined the Manhattan Project, English physicist Maurice Wilkins had been working on spectrographic separation of uranium isotopes for use in bombs. He used that background and his techniques to contribute to unraveling the structure of DNA, and, with Francis Crick and James Watson, he won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.  There is controversy about the lack of recognition of the role of chemist Rosalind Franklin in their achievements, but there is no denying Wilkins’ successful application of knowledge and skills from physics to the life sciences.

Martin Kamen, a Canadian born American physicist and chemist with the Manhattan Project, helped to discover Carbon-14, and is credited with discoveries in biochemistry leading to the understanding of plant photosynthesis and metabolism. He won the Enrico Fermi Award in 1996.

Cardinal Newman would not have been surprised.

Let me amplify this further with a few examples from current and important realms of endeavor—biotechnology, infrastructure, and social cognitive networks.


In the U.S., if not globally, medicine and biomedical research are at the center of a storm of economic and social concerns. We, already, are seeing how genomics, artificial organs, embedded sensors, and expert systems are transforming medical care and treatment. Emerging interdisciplinary research, and startling new technologies are bringing disruptive change—and hope.

Let me illustrate with an example I have used before.  In October 2004 in Afghanistan, a mortar exploded and tore away seventy percent of the muscle in the thigh of U.S. Marine Corporal Isaias Hernandez, and fractured his femur. Corporal Hernandez endured four years of surgeries and physical therapy—to little effect, until  Dr. Stephen Badylak of the McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh implanted in the marine’s thigh a new gel-based therapy—an extracellular matrix—derived from pig bladders.

The extracellular matrix fills the space around the body’s cells. It contains hormones, structural proteins, and other molecules that maintain cell function and health, mediate inter-cellular communication, and, importantly, guide tissue growth. After six weeks, the implanted gel mixture spurred the growth of muscle tissue, tendons, and vasculature, and restored physical strength to the marine’s thigh.

The extracellular matrix becomes part of the existing tissue; it draws stem cells to the implant location; it shifts the body’s immune response from rejection to reconstruction. By recruiting the body’s own stem cells and putting them to work, the extracellular matrix obviates the need for stem cell implants. It is a kind of biological catalyst. Dr. Badylak’s work is part of a U.S. government-supported regenerative medicine research program at the University of Pittsburgh.

The work draws upon a multiplicity of disciplines including biomedical engineering, nanotechnology, tissue engineering, drug discovery, and health informatics.

Rensselaer faculty, in our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, are engaged in similar multidisciplinary research, deriving breakthroughs in the use of adult stem cells, understanding the role of the extracellular matrix in cell signaling and tissue regeneration, especially as it relates to bone regeneration.  Beyond this, they have developed enzyme-based coatings that kill methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and pathogenic listeria on contact, bioengineered synthetic heparin, understood how to mitigate the role of both H and N proteins in flu virus transmission, modeled the role of hemodynamics in heart disease, developed powerful new approaches to medical imaging from multiple sources, and much more.

These breakthroughs come from research at the intersection of the life sciences with engineering, the physical and computational sciences—what we might call a “medical polytechnic” approach.

The work of Robert S. Langer, an engineer and Institute Professor at MIT, is a consummate example. His activities are anchored in biomedical engineering, but, by reaching into areas such as nanotechnology, tissue regeneration, drug delivery, and business—and collaborating across sectors—he has created innovations that have been awarded more than 800 patents, built the largest biomedical engineering laboratory in the world, founded or co-founded more than two dozen businesses, and provided hope and better health for patients worldwide. Dr. Langer is a recipient of both the U.S. National Medal of Technology and the U.S. National Medal of Science. He, also, is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine. He is the most cited engineer in history.  Our own heparin expert, Dr. Robert Linhardt, was a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Langer.

Interdisciplinarity does not stop here. Today’s medical school graduates may be the first generation of doctors to include an entity with artificial intelligence on their teams. As you know, Watson, the computer that beat out the best human contestants on the American television quiz show Jeopardy!, was designed by Rensselaer graduates and their colleagues at IBM. The social, cognitive, and computer sciences came together to create Watson. Now IBM has added medical science to the mix. They sent Watson to “medical school” (at the Cleveland Clinic) to absorb the existing medical knowledge there, and to use that knowledge to derive data-driven answers to numerous medical questions. Watson now is being deployed at other medical centers.  This takes health informatics to a new level of sophistication.

Now, Rensselaer has become the first university to obtain the Watson technology.  Here it will be deployed to solve a wide range of big data problems across multiple disciplines by taking advantage of the natural language processing and cognitive computing capabilities of Watson.

The kind of developments I have described in biomedicine, and more, will help us to address global disease mitigation and health security in entirely novel ways.


Another example of the New Polytechnic is aimed at the development of sustainable built environments and civil infrastructure.

Buildings account for more than a third of total energy consumption in the U.S., and nearly forty percent of its carbon production. As we look to revitalize and strengthen our urban centers, and as urban in-migration and construction increase exponentially in emerging economies, it is especially urgent to accelerate the pace of architectural and engineering innovation, through the use of sustainable materials, and cost-effective, energy efficient technologies.

At Rensselaer, the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE) is addressing this need with radically new, next-generation building systems. CASE is a multi-institutional and professional research collaboration between Rensselaer and the globally focused architecture firm—Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. CASE is pushing the boundaries of environmental performance in urban building systems by using actual building projects as research test beds. Natural systems and emerging technologies are brought together, with stunning design, to create structures which include integrated and distributed on-site energy harvesting, transformation, storage and redistribution; bio-mechanical air filtration; and dynamic day-lighting systems.

Researchers at CASE have developed a building-integrated photovoltaic system which takes a dramatically different approach to providing interior space with electrical power, thermal energy, enhanced daylighting, and reduced solar gain. It surpasses existing building-integrated photovoltaic or concentrating photovoltaic technologies, and is applicable to both retrofits and to new construction. The system integrates into facades and atria, harvesting solar energy, while still providing outside views and diffuse daylight. It accomplishes this by miniaturizing and distributing the essential components of concentrating photovoltaic technology within weather-sealed windows. Electricity is produced by an array of photovoltaic cells. Much of the remaining solar energy is captured as usable heat-reducing interior solar gain loads on HVAC systems, while daylighting reduces the need for artificial lighting.  The CASE façade will be deployed in a new building to be constructed for the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, as well as in new buildings in Abu Dhabi and Botswana.

Research at CASE combines materials science and engineering, architectural design, and the aggregation and analysis of data from embedded sensors—to provide feedback for optimal building performance. The work is complex. Developing even one dynamic solar façade to maximize solar energy use requires the input of as many as thirty individual disciplines including physics, optical engineering, materials science, mechanical engineering, and lighting research.

The research results in new, performance-driven building technologies that create clean, self-sustaining built environments, and help to meet environmental stewardship and energy security needs.


What these examples progressively illustrate is the increasing importance of data-driven innovation. The explosive volume, timeliness, range, and fungibility of data are unprecedented, and contain an inherent interconnection, which has the potential for creating novel approaches to collaboration.

Today, we also have unprecedented capabilities in data access, aggregation, and analysis, and in high performance computation.

  • The Internet is the new library—with more information than any one individual can ingest;
  • Social networking leaves behind “digital crumbs” for us to follow and study;
  • Sensors and networks are embedded in everything from buildings to automobiles to cameras, to satellites, and are creating what often is referred to as the “Internet of Things.”

All of this produces trillions of bits of unstructured data, often in differing formats. The resultant collection of massive data sets, known as “Big Data,” is more accessible today and shared more widely than ever before. The ability to process that data in an efficient and relatively inexpensive way provides us with new bases for decision-making. It, also, brings data to more participants, and allows them to manipulate it to discover patterns heretofore invisible.

The U.S. Federal Government has opened many of its databases through a website called data.gov, which provides public access to high value, machine readable datasets. And yet, one could say that, concerning Big Data, we are still “pre-Web.” The World Wide Web is one huge “library,” but it has not yet provided uniform access to data. In a word, there is no Google for all data. Data comes in multiple forms—words, numbers, images. Moreover, although it is becoming a “new natural resource,” data, today, does not express relationships.

Data discoverability has been difficult, since one needs a consistent way to refer to data—a “data object identifier,” something like an RFID tag—that will endure as it is entered into a registry. Data tagging would identify its origins, history, context, rights, and much more. Even tags on database entries that identify whether numbers, once abstracted, are metric or English, often are lacking. We need better means to take what may be implicit in the data, and obvious in context, and make that explicit in its description. We, also, need to improve the credibility of information by automating processes that cross-reference and cross-check data from different sources.

One remedy, the “Semantic Web,” is a collaborative movement led by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)—which includes our Tetherless Web Constellation professors (Jim Hendler, Debroah McGuiness, Peter Fox)—to promote common data formats on the World Wide Web. More broadly, the semantic web has been described as a mesh of information linked in such a way as to be easily processable by computers themselves, on a global scale. The approach is based on semantic technology that encodes meanings separately from data in content files, and from application software. New Web-based architecture and ontologies, based on semantic technology, allow intelligent software agents to search for connections among different data—by semantic inference. One can only imagine what the impact will be, as this work proceeds.

The Watson computer operates on semantic technology for cognitive computing.  Professor Hendler and his students will be looking to extend the cognitive computing capabilities of Watson, and to link it to our Blue Gene machine at the CCNI, to do sophisticated modeling and simulation across multiple disciplines, using massive data sets.

Beyond the production of data, digital connectivity, in and of itself, is leading to a whole new thrust that marries data, technology, and the social and cognitive sciences. The torrent of digital footprints from social networking is giving us a new ability to study and predict human interactions in a verifiable way. Researchers at the U.S. Army-sponsored Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) here at Rensselaer are studying fundamental social/cognitive network structures, and how they are mapped onto, and altered by, technology. The research strives to measure and model the interactions that people engage in over these networks, and, in the process, to uncover and foresee complex social patterns, and to understand how technology enhances or changes them. In particular, the Center studies: dynamic processes, the flow of knowledge, the workings of adversary networks, levels of trust (with particular attention to cultural nuance), and the impact of human error in social networks. The research can help us to understand social movements, the spread of corruption, or potential threat.

The very ubiquitousness of the Internet and its overall connectivity create vulnerabilities. The Internet was designed to provide broad access, which exposes it, and other linked networks, to security threats, such as malicious software, which can invade privacy, and damage business systems and control systems for critical infrastructure. Since the overall architecture of the World Wide Web, and the scale on which it exists, are difficult to change, there is nascent discussion on novel approaches to software development, in order to detect, and protect, against malware. One idea is to replicate a living organism’s immune response to an invasive species. Another involves so-called quantum computing for encryption.

Whether we are ready or not, we are entering a data-driven, web enabled, super computer-powered, hyperconnected world. A highlight of the New Polytechnic is that it seeks to link the capabilities of advanced information technology, communications, and networking to other fields, such as engineering, architecture, the arts, the life sciences, and the physical, social, cognitive, and computational sciences.

The success of the New Polytechnic demands, first, that people understand, and find ways to use, the capabilities inherent in Big Data and hyper-connectivity; and, second, that people better appreciate how social and cognitive demands influence the success of endeavors that use these capabilities.

The ability to aggregate, integrate, validate, structure, and fully use the burgeoning mass of information available can be described under a rubric I refer to as “Clouds, Crowds, Jams, and Data.”

Cloud computing delivers data, software, and computing capability over a network—the Internet or a proprietary network—on platforms shared by multiple users. It is a virtual time-sharing environment.

The Cloud brings information and processing power to the mobile world, making it practical—for individuals in the field, or executives on the move—to access and to share vast amounts of information. It supports advanced visualization systems in which matrices of data from a variety of sources are put together in ways that allow them to be understood --despite their complexity.

Crowdsourcing allows us to engage the expertise, perspectives, and enthusiasm of many people, including those who, previously, may not have had a voice in issues that may concern them. The process involves outsourcing a question, problem, or task to a dispersed group of people, many of them unknown to each other. The good news is that Crowds can help to identify problems, suggest ideas, and assist in the execution of solutions.

Wikipedia provides a good illustration of the pluses and minuses of Crowdsourcing. While Wikipedia is a rich resource and a powerful starting point for research, its Crowdsourcing means that a particular topic or entry in Wikipedia may be riddled with errors, despite the efforts of many who make corrections. Some errors may be ephemeral, others persistent. Some are added in good faith, others maliciously—and this raises concerns of trust and validation in an online world, a theme to which I will return.

Perhaps less familiar is the idea of the Jam, which, also, brings together dispersed, but often organizationally linked, participants to concentrate on a selected challenge over a short period of time. [You can think of it as Crowdsourcing where the participants typically have a shared background or more formal connection.] Working from shared data sets, propositions, and questions—within a carefully designed framework—experts and interested parties use online collaborative tools to share knowledge, express concerns, and brainstorm issues and solutions.

But, the approach embedded in the concept of “Clouds, Crowds, Jams and Data” is not the full substance of the New Polytechnic.

The New Polytechnic unites the cognitive and social sciences, the physical and computational sciences, life science, psychology, sociology, the arts, history, language, linguistics, engineering, and more. Further, it marries high performance computing, immersive environments, augmented reality, social cognitive networks, on-line collaborative tools, semantic web platforms, and intelligent agents.  As a construct rooted in what Cardinal Newman envisioned—that “all knowledge forms one whole”—it offers a new way to approach pressing global challenges. This reaches beyond traditional research. It is leading edge, and its impact on the future will be far-reaching.


Beyond theory and application, and the integration of tools and technology, how will the New Polytechnic impact leadership? It is early, yet, for real scholarship on the subject, but there are some things we can surmise.

New technologies always alter leadership.  The timeless leadership characteristics remain: clear vision, strategic thinking and planning, organization, managing talent, developing human capital, and execution.

However, effective use of advanced technological, collaborative platforms strongly suggests a shift beyond traditional leadership, both in process and in personal approach.

The New Polytechnic requires that leaders acquire new skills for a digitally interconnected environment, that they balance authority with engagement, understand nuances of culture and language, and seek new ways to establish trust among, within, and between virtual teams. With more diverse, digitally connected audiences—participants who may never before have had a voice, and may even be volunteers—and with less hierarchical dynamics, there will be concerns about trust on multiple levels.

Leaders must recognize value in divergent perspectives and manage opposing expectations. Consider the many perspectives that must be accounted for in the use of nuclear energy or genetically modified crops. 

In the face of unprecedented challenges, unintended consequences and uneven impacts, leaders will need to be even more acutely sensitive to the ethics and implications of decisions. A fundamental question, always, will be not merely can it be done, but should it be done.  Leadership through social cognitive networks brings a greater need to balance security and profit with concerns of privacy and reputation.

All of this must be accomplished in a virtual environment, where the leader may never look participants in the eye or shake their hands.

Leaders, in this new complex context, must have the ability to “translate” between and among disciplines and sectors. They will need to incorporate analyses and insights from diverse fields—including the cognitive and social sciences—and bring this ability to bear on a given challenge.

Capable leadership in any era rests on identifiable characteristics and makes use of the tools available at the time.

I reference a leader who—although he did not have access to the technologies we have today—nevertheless offers a compelling model of character and abilities that is critical to the New Polytechnic. He united profoundly diverse groups from vastly divergent cultures, languages, environments, and viewpoints. He found solutions to urgent vulnerabilities.

You may know this story, but it is worth retelling in the context of the New Polytechnic.

As the first democratically elected President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela sought to unite a nation riven by bitter and deadly racial animosity.

During the 27 years he spent in prison for militant anti-apartheid activities, he learned the language, culture, beliefs, and values of the fiercest apartheid proponents—his Afrikaner prison guards. That understanding, plus his personal optimism, dignity, diplomacy, sense of fairness, and grace, gave him profoundly effective tools.

Seeking national reconciliation early in his Presidency, President Mandela chose the unifying political power of sport.

In 1995, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup, the first major sporting event held there following the end of apartheid, and the first in which the Springboks were allowed to play.

The team long had been the embodiment of white supremacy and oppression. Blacks detested the game, the primarily white team, and the green Springbok shirt. They routinely cheered the team’s opponents.

President Mandela carefully wooed leaders on all sides, persuading them to a role in unifying the nation, recruiting them to a new team slogan "One Team, One Country," and the notion that "the ‘Boks” belong to all of us now.” Springbok players learned to sing the old song of black resistance—“Nkosi Sikelele iAfrika” (“God Bless Africa”)—which had become the new national anthem. They sang it at the opening of each tournament game.

Although pundits predicted loss, the ‘Boks posted a string of play-off wins. South Africans of every color and political stripe increasingly became enamored with the team.

On the morning of the final game, President Mandela, wearing a green Springbok jersey and ball cap, stepped onto the pitch to shake hands with the team. After a stunned silence, the crowd at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium erupted in thunderous cheers. To top it off, the Springboks won the game in overtime sending the nation into joyous delirium.

President Mandela’s enduring message for us?—“Don’t address their brains. Address their hearts.”

It is impossible to characterize Nelson Mandela without superlatives. But for our purposes, today, his approach—rooted in a profound understanding of—and empathy for—all parties, with a 30,000-foot vision of national unity, with authority, political engagement, personal charisma, and willingness to risk—distills the essence of leadership genius.

I do not suggest that New Polytechnic leaders all will be involved in situations as perilous as those faced by Nelson Mandela. But his personal vision and characteristics stand as important models and metrics for addressing the most urgent challenges of the 21st century. President Mandela used the tools available to him at the time. Imagine what miracles he might have achieved had he had access to the tools of today.


In the end, the New Polytechnic is an intellectual construct, a new way of thinking, 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 and the challenges it addresses require our graduates to more fully utilize data -- in ever more sophisticated ways, while exploiting ubiquitous inter-connectivity to better understand human behavior, and to collaborate in new ways. It requires them to be grounded in disciplines, and to break out of disciplinary silos, exploit new tools, employ high performance computing, data aggregation, and analytics— and, ultimately, to embrace Cardinal Newman’s concept of the “knowledge whole.”  But it also requires empathy, sensitivity to cultural nuance, and contextual understanding.

Our challenge is to educate our students to this standard—to utilize advanced technology, rooted in an ethical framework, to amalgamate a multiplicity of perspectives and disciplines.

To achieve that, we intend that our graduates possess intellectual agility -- to interpolate across fields and sectors – within a broad intellectual milieu; multicultural sophistication—to work with others of diverse backgrounds—to be empathetic, and a global view.

We will accomplish this by moving from transforming Rensselaer, to Rensselaer being transformative—in our students’ lives, through our innovative pedagogy, and through the impact of our research.

We so declare this in the Rensselaer Plan 2012-2024. 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 engineering natural and manmade networks, cyber-infrastructure and cyber-security, and data analytics and innovation.

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

Rensselaer is especially well positioned to take on these challenges because of our experience and capabilities in working across disciplines.  WE also have deliberately assembled the talent and tools needed to create these solutions.  As an example, we have built a leadership position in big data, web science, cognitive science, and the semantic web, which provides opportunities for our faculty—and our students—to do cutting edge research.

Of course, everything starts with our students. Our award-winning First Year Experience provides the foundation for our Clustered Learning Advocacy and Support for Students (CLASS) program, which engages all our students as they progress through the Institute. This model of college life, with residential clusters (or Commons), includes live-in support from assistant deans, graduate students, and upperclassmen—and faculty Deans of the Commons, who live nearby in university housing, who weave together the intellectual, cultural, and social lives of our students.

CLASS also includes time-based clustering. We assign individual class-year deans to rising sophomores—with the responsibility for guiding and nurturing their class as it progresses throughout the undergraduate years. Within CLASS, we also have a dean for off-campus students, and a Greek Commons dean for students in fraternities and sororities. CLASS helps students to grow in all dimensions—broadening their experiences, while keeping them connected to each other and to the larger Rensselaer community.

In order to prepare our students to work in the New Polytechnic, we regularly offer new undergraduate degree programs in nascent disciplines, Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences; Sustainability Studies; and Information Technology and Web Science.

We have new concentrations in the Lally School—in accounting, in business analytics, and in global supply chain management.

We are the first university to receive such a system. Watson enables new leading-edge research at Rensselaer and affords faculty and students an opportunity to find new uses for the system and to deepen its cognitive capabilities.

I would now like to open up the discussion and answer any questions you may have on the refreshed Plan.

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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