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First Year Convocation—Class of 2017

“Your Journey of Transformation”

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

East Campus Athletic Village
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

Sunday, August 25, 2013


Good evening.

As President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and on behalf of the entire Rensselaer community, it is my great pleasure to welcome you—the Class of 2017—into the Rensselaer Family.

There are four points I intend to make this evening:

  • First—you belong here;
  • Second—we are here to help;
  • Third—understand that developing your moral sense is a crucial part of your education; and
  • Fourth—you will do great things.

Tomorrow you begin your Rensselaer journey—as exciting, as transforming, as exhilarating as any adventure that you may imagine. All of us at Rensselaer are delighted that you are here, to have the opportunity to get to know you, and to assist you in every way that we can.

Tomorrow, the true promise of a university education will begin to be realized for each one of you—

  • the promise of learning, especially the fundamentals of a discipline—or, perhaps, of several disciplines;
  • the promise of testing yourselves;
  • the promise of undertaking the surprising, the astonishing, the astounding;
  • the promise of experiencing—and of creating—the new;
  • the promise of following dreams, and the thrill of transforming them into the real.

You already have begun. Most of you met roommates, classmates, a number of Rensselaer staff members, and upper class students this summer at one of several student orientation sessions.

This past week, you were introduced to more members of the Rensselaer community and made connections during the Navigating Rensselaer and Beyond:

  • Perhaps you explored the wilderness areas of the region—kayaking or paddling a canoe, camping and hiking, mountain biking, sailing, or rock climbing.
  • Perhaps you experienced some of the many historical and cultural attractions of this part of New York State.
  • Or, you may have helped in one of many community service projects, such as constructing a house with Habitat for Humanity, or painting a wall mural.

This is a good introduction to the greater Rensselaer community, or—as we often term it—the communiversity.

Tomorrow, you will begin your academic work.

Do you have doubts? Are you worried? Of course. Your concerns may be at the fore right now. Or, they may reside, hidden, deep inside of you. Most of us have misgivings when we undertake something radically new.

But, you are lucky. Uncertainty is a good thing. Let me explain.

The first American expedition to Mount Everest in 1963 began under a national cloud. It was two years after the Soviet Union had launched the Sputnik I satellite—thereby winning the first round in the space race, which was really a science-based defense race—and threatening to beat the U.S. to the moon. Also, it was just after the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban missile crisis, which nearly lured the United States into a nuclear war. In addition, a disastrous war was heating up in Vietnam.

The Americans were very late to the challenge of Everest. Already, the British and the Swiss had summited the highest mountain in the world, a full decade before.

But, the Russians and the Chinese had not—which made the highest summit on Earth another proving ground in the Cold War political battle for influence between East and West.

So, an audacious team of American climbers proposed to scale Everest—from two directions—one, the customary route, and two, ascending the unclimbed, unknown West Ridge, traversing the peak, and descending the other side. Their success would help to reinstate the confidence and optimism of the nation. But if they failed . . . . ?  What would that do?

The charismatic leader of the expedition, Willi Unsoeld, a legendary climber, ethicist, philosopher, professor, and metaphysician, adhered to two maxims:

  • “Information exchanged serves to maximize uncertainty.”
  • And, “Uncertainty increases motivation.”

In other words, because people naturally tend to balance out each other’s optimism and pessimism, and others can offer a new angle on a problem, an exchange of information between colleagues often increases doubt. Fortunately, according to Unsoeld, motivational investment rises in tandem with uncertainty: The more unsure we are, the more we try.  So, whatever trepidation you feel at this particular moment, ultimately, it will help to make you successful here.

Now, let us examine the first of my points this evening—you belong here.

We know you are very smart. I promise you—you would not be sitting here unless we knew that you had the intelligence, the ability, the drive, and the background to succeed at Rensselaer. We know this because Rensselaer is extremely competitive. You have worked hard to get here. You studied well. You passed advanced courses with excellent grades. You spent hours in volunteer and service activities. And, you are creative—perhaps you already are working on your own research. Or, your own video game. Or, your own music. Or, perhaps you are designing an entirely new musical instrument, bridge, or computer algorithm to do specialized things.

My second point is—we are here to help. An approach we call Clustered Learning Advocacy and Support for Students, or CLASS, is central to your success here. CLASS engages all of our students as they progress through the Institute, through residential clusters or what we call “Commons.” CLASS includes live-in support from assistant deans, from graduate students, and upper-class students—and from faculty deans of the Commons, who live nearby in university housing, and who help to weave together the intellectual, cultural, and social lives of our students. There is a Greek Commons dean for fraternities and sororities, and one for off-campus students, as well.

CLASS also includes a dean who will guide and nurture your class throughout your undergraduate years. First, for you as freshmen – the Dean of the First Year Experience; then a Class dean assigned to your class as you become rising sophomores.  The Class dean will be a very key advocate for you and for your class until you graduate.

CLASS will help you to broaden your experiences, to take advantage of the multiple resources available here, to stay connected to each other and to the larger Rensselaer community. Find these deans, and let them help you.

It follows that everything we do as administrators, from recruiting world-class faculty members to recruiting brilliant students, to underwriting our student-run Student Union, we do to support you.

The President’s Cabinet is charged with making this possible. Please allow me to introduce its members to you.

I ask each Cabinet member to stand as his or her name is called, and to remain standing until all the names are read:

  • Dr. Prabhat Hajela, Provost and Professor of Aerospace Engineering
  • Mr. Charles Carletta, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel
  • Ms. Elisha Mozersky, Chief of Staff
  • Dr. Jonathan S. Dordick, Vice President for Research and the Howard P. Iserman Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering
  • Ms. Virginia Gregg, Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer
  • Mr. John Kolb ’79, Vice President for Information Services and Technology and Chief Information Officer
  • Dr. Paul Marthers, Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Undergraduate and Graduate Admissions
  • Mr. Curtis Powell, Vice President for Human Resources
  • Mr. Claude Rounds, Vice President for Administration
  • Dr. Timothy E. Sams, Vice President for Student Life
  • Ms. Allison Newman, Acting Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations

Thank you. You may be seated.

This is a very special time—an auspicious time—for you.

It is, also, a special time—an auspicious time—for Rensselaer. At the turn of the millennium, we created The Rensselaer Plan to realize our mission in new and tangible ways. We invested in the four “Ps” of Rensselaer—people, programs, platforms, and partnerships. We have transformed Rensselaer into a top-tier technological research university with global reach and global impact, building on its storied legacy.

Having done this, we revisited and revised The Rensselaer Plan to take the Institute to its 200th anniversary in 2024. The Rensselaer Plan 2024 moves Rensselaer from being transformed to being transformative.

The new Plan enables the Institute to be transformative in the lives of our students, transformative in our innovative pedagogy, and transformative in the global impact of our research. It creates a complete student experience, leads the way in innovation and in education, and extends our impact on humanity through forward-looking research initiatives. It brings revitalized meaning and substance to the fundamental Rensselaer question—“Why not change the world?”

Under the Rensselaer Plan 2024, learning now takes place both inside and outside of the classroom. We want you to become engaged thinkers and innovators, intellectually agile, and with the multicultural sophistication to become transformative in your interactions across the globe. We are creating programs to help you develop that leadership and cultural awareness.

We are integrating exciting new learning approaches into a Rensselaer education, including the gamification of courses, the mixed reality classroom, and interaction with artificially intelligent synthetic characters. All three are coming together in a course called the Mandarin Project, which uses a sustained multiplayer narrative to teach the Mandarin language and Chinese culture.

In research, we are focusing on two new interdisciplinary umbrellas that address global challenges:

First, “Beyond the Internet: Digital Meets Reality”, which explores the possibilities in this data-driven, supercomputer-powered, Web-enabled, globally interconnected world. Advances in Web Science, coupled with the increasing ubiquity of data, will allow us to  elucidate relationships from seemingly disparate contexts, while computationally-based modeling and simulation will enhance real-time decision-making in research, education, business and finance, health care, and public policy. We recently have launched a new institute-wide center, The Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications—or The Rensselaer IDEA—to harness the remarkable digital tools at our disposal and allow new means of discovery in every field of human endeavor.

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

We aim for Rensselaer research to be transformative in mitigating disease: A new partnership with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai is combining the leadership of Mount Sinai in biomedical research and patient care—with breakthrough Rensselaer research in biotechnology and interdisciplinary studies, rooted in our leadership in science, engineering, and technological entrepreneurship—to create radical innovations in health care. This partnership will create new educational opportunities for our students, including new BS/MD programs, MD/PhD programs, and a collaborative research center.

We also intend to be transformative in developing new renewable energy sources, in helping all of humanity access clean water and food, in creating advanced materials that impact energy and health, and in designing a sustainable and resilient infrastructure.

Now, I move to my third point, which is the fact that you must develop your moral sense as part of your education here, precisely because you will be surrounded by—and, indeed, contribute to the development of—startlingly new technologies.

Technology is a knife’s edge. It can be used to help or to harm the people around you. You must keep your eyes, hearts, and minds open and decide. 

The rules, the regulations, even the law may lag the advances you create – on your own and in partnership with our faculty. Cyber-security in the era of Big Data and global interconnection is an excellent example. Currently, our legal system is struggling to distinguish between spies, whistle-blowers, traitors, leakers, and journalists—as well as young Open Data activists, some of whom have been prosecuted with harshness.

To know what to risk and where to draw the line, when to back away and when to commit yourself whole-heartedly, you have to develop moral self-awareness.

The moral center, is of course, a matter of culture, of history, of religion. But it is also a matter of education and contemplation. So we will do our best to help you consider the perils inherent in new technological tools, as well as the soaring and inspiring opportunities. The answers to the great global challenges facing humankind—access to clean water, food security, energy security, environmental stewardship, health security and disease mitigation—lie in discovery and innovation. As you move through your years at Rensselaer, never forget that you have the opportunity before you to do the world a world of good.

This leads to my final point: You will do great things.  We expect, even demand that you do great things – not evolutionary, but revolutionary. Rensselaer is the place to do it. The Rensselaer motto, “Why not change the world?” is not a mere tag line. For almost 200 years Rensselaer has changed the world with transformative innovations.  Look to your left and to your right. These are the people who will change the world.  You are one of them. This is our ultimate expectation of each of you. What will these transformations be?

  • Will you find a new way to facilitate water desalination with carbon nanotubes?
  • Will you join the multidisciplinary teams of Rensselaer researchers using our supercomputer to model molecules, and lay the foundation for a new field of “cheminformatics”?
  • Perhaps you will uncork the energy secrets in photosynthesis;
  • Or, develop predictive analytics;
  • Perhaps you will use the growing field of haptics—or the science of touch—to improve our interactions with digital devices.

I expect you will surprise yourselves. Certainly, you will surprise us...

So, at this point, shelve any doubts, let the excitement take over, and begin your journey.

To conclude, I will finish the 1963 Everest summit journey. The team achieved all of its goals: ascending an unmapped route, crossing the summit, descending the other side, and surviving an overnight bivouac—unsheltered—on the South Summit, a miracle of survival in and of itself. And, they invented new technologies—including an innovative single-valve oxygen mask—in the process. The maxim concerning uncertainty rang true. They had the motivation to survive and to succeed.

There is another advantage these extraordinary adventurers had going for them. They bonded as a team. This brings to mind an African proverb which advises, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This little proverb harbors a giant truth, and holds a key to thriving at Rensselaer. Your fellow travelers here will be very important to your success, to your learning, to your creativity, to the transformational things you will do. This is because discovery and innovation seldom are solo endeavors. They lie at the confluence of disciplines, at the union of minds, along the edge of cultures, within the amalgamation of diversity. Treasure your colleagues. They are critical to your success. Treasure your time here. It only happens once in your lives.

You—the Class of 2017— will stretch whatever limits there are—or better—you will obliterate those limits.

Get to work. Enjoy yourselves. And, bon voyage!

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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