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Rensselaer at Hartford: 50 Years of Innovative and Collaborative Education for Working Professionals in Connecticut

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

MetroHartford Alliance Rising Star Breakfast
Hartford, Connecticut

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Today, we recognize 50 years of the finest technological education for working professionals in Connecticut, which Rensselaer is uniquely able to provide, given that Rensselaer is the oldest, and one of the finest technological research universities in the nation. It has a proud history of collaboration with business and community leaders across the state.

Rensselaer at Hartford began in East Windsor in 1955 as the Hartford Graduate Center, whose mission was to provide graduate courses to employees of United Aircraft Corporation (now United Technologies). It grew out of the friendship between the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the President of United Aircraft and their collaboration to establish a technological graduate facility in central Connecticut, amidst United Aircraft and other major Hartford-area companies. The lack of such a facility was detrimental to those companies in employing and keeping technical personnel. What was known then as The Graduate Center began with 220 students, and director, and later dean, Warren Stoker and faculty from Rensselaer in Troy, as well as adjunct professors from local industry. Gradually, the venture expanded out of a corporate need to enhance the skills of mid- to upper-level managers — to create leaders with the vision to take their companies to the next tier. Rensselaer at Hartford has provided graduate education to thousands of residents of central Connecticut. Today, we have 13,000 alums of Rensselaer at Hartford — many of whom still reside at or are employed in Connecticut.

Providing a unique, high end educational environment for working professionals in central Connecticut still is our mission, 50 years later. The fact that 20 percent of all master's degrees in the state of Connecticut in management, engineering, and computer science testifies to the lasting Rensselaer presence in Hartford. We also help to shape the region's economic future by enhancing the skills of existing and emerging business leaders. This strengthens the business community in the region — as does the Metro Hartford Alliance.

It is a privilege to speak to Hartford's Rising Star, and, I might add, to so many of its Rising Stars — a terminology I appreciate because it speaks of a dazzling future, here in Hartford, of course, and throughout the region, the state, the nation, and beyond. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is proud to be a part of this dazzling future.

It was with the future in mind that Rensselaer, last week, hosted a unique summit on innovation at our Troy campus, which some of you may have attended. The summit was sponsored by the Council on Competitiveness, as part of a year-long National Innovation Initiative (NII) to shape a new national framework for innovation. When the Council's endeavor has concluded, at the end of this year, it will have captured the elements which are essential for innovation — skills, research priorities, financial configurations, partnerships, metrics, educational focus, federal and regional policies, and more. It will be a tremendous resource and guide to a prosperous and secure future.

The reason that innovation is so critically important to our regional, national, and global futures — and, the reason it is a current focus of the Council on Competitiveness, is because innovation is the driver of the future — of our economic growth, and of our continued global leadership.

That future is challenged by multiple and complex factors. The report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission), which was released this summer, details — if, perhaps, between the lines — a new global environment of terrorism with which our nation currently is grappling, and which challenges security around the world. Although the context of the 9/11 Commission report is homeland security, the issues it raises, indeed, are global. They involve matters of culture, language, geography, history, belief systems, traditions, and national and international politics. These multifaceted aspects provide the context within which business and corporate enterprise, in the United States and around the world, of necessity, will function — certainly within the early part of the 21st century.

Now, I happen to believe that the United States, and other nations of the world, can increase their own security, and contribute to a collective global security, through scientific discovery and technological innovation. Discovery and innovation form — have always formed — the basis for solutions to challenges including health, security, quality of life, sustainable environment, and a thriving market economy between and among nations. As the speed and pervasiveness of communication and transportation technologies bring the world's people ever closer, expectations rise, concomitantly, everywhere. Unless and until more nations develop the tools to resolve their own issues, join the global economy, and share in the benefits thereof, global stability inherently is threatened.

In the 9/11 Commission Report's executive summary, high on the list of reasons the attacks occurred, the report states, explicitly, that "the most important failure was one of imagination." The context refers to a specific and immediate failure to connect the accumulating clues to terrorist intentions.

But, the implication and impact of that statement — a failure of imagination — are greater than, perhaps, even the commission intended. The innovation upon which any society depends for advancement and progress, for economic growth and trade, rests entirely and initially upon imagination — the ability to think new thoughts, to create new ideas, to envision the unimaginable, to break the mental barriers of impossibility — to imagine. From imagination flows all advancement, all progress.

This premise leads to some important questions: How do we ignite innovation? What are the next best ideas, and where will they come from? Who will think them? Who are the new employees? How do we educate, and how do we continue the kind of education, which will give corporations the edge in a competitive global economy, which will create new enterprises? What will make the difference?

The corporate world understands, perhaps better than most, that the new forces and conditions of an increasingly competitive, yet interconnected, world market require a new type of employee, and a new type of education. In the past, professionals may have worked only in this country, or in singular areas, resolving specific issues or problems. Today, however, science and engineering and the research and corporate worlds have moved swiftly to globalization and toward multidisciplinarity and integration — toward convergence. This continuing convergence requires professionals with new skill sets — skills, perhaps, not previously recognized as necessary. They still will need to be grounded in the basics of their primary professions, but, they will need to have advanced communications proficiencies, the facility to identify key issues swiftly, the capacity to think in terms of complex systems, to function in teams, to relate effectively to other cultures, to converse in multiple languages, to be unfazed by the intricate.

This is the concept of convergence writ large. In science and engineering, convergence is altering how research is conducted. Convergence is impacting government, as we are seeing, perhaps, in the public and legislative discussions of how our national intelligence community is to be reorganized, and is to function more precisely in today's world. A similar scenario is at work in the manufacturing and corporate worlds, as well, with the application of multidisciplinary analysis and optimization — a process utilizing advanced computation and information technology to configure the optimal design of complex systems, integrating distinct problems into a single solution.

The imaginative and innovative professional of tomorrow — and, I might add, migratory — might be illustrated by the example of Sean O'Sullivan, an electrical engineer and a 1985 graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. After helping to found MapInfo, a leading global software company, and engaging in other entrepreneurial ventures, including embarking on a career in music and filmmaking, Sean went on to earn a master of fine arts in film from University of Southern California (USC). But, he did not stop there. Last year, Sean O'Sullivan created JumpStart International to help rebuild Iraq. JumpStart employs 3,500 Iraqis, including many engineers, at 65 sites in Baghdad and 19 sites in Fallujah. They demolish buildings damaged by bombing, and construct much-needed housing for the Iraqi people. The work gives Iraqis the opportunity to contribute to the rebuilding of their own nation, provides tangible signs of hope, and recreates a sense of ownership, so that insurgency becomes less attractive to those frustrated with current conditions. Sean says JumpStart could be called "engineers without borders," and he hopes to extend this work to other countries.

How do we educate young people and working professionals to have the breadth of vision, facility, flexibility, imagination, and capacity for innovation of a Sean O'Sullivan? China annually is producing some 400,000 degreed engineers, less expensively than the 65,000 to 70,000 who graduate from U.S. universities each year. Consequently, higher education, here, is grappling with how to add value to the education offered in this country. What will make our graduates the best? Worth the cost?

Clearly, the environment calls for a new kind of education — a Renaissance education, if you will. Beginning with a grounding in the fundamentals, we must educate our future professionals to work between disciplines, and in new, innovative aspects of science, engineering, technology, and management. We must help the employees of the future to be critical analyzers and consumers of information. Information, as an enabler, has sweeping implications for a knowledge-based economy. But, unorganized, unanalyzed, and unstructured information can be as inhibiting and obstructive, as it is enabling. We must educate the new professionals for leadership, for ethical thinking, and for intellectual entrepreneurship.

A Renaissance education promotes practices which foster teamwork and integrity in professional and personal development, and aids in the understanding of vision, culture, and values in the corporate and public worlds. It provides models and methods for problem-solving, and enables students to test personal limits, and to explore cultural assumptions. A Renaissance education stretches minds, broadens experience, sparks innovation, advances technologies, and, ultimately, enhances our national and global security. Its premise diminishes unexamined postures which lead to uniform thinking and narrow constructs. It finds and implements systems which encourage the new. It supports collaboration, effective communication, conflict management, team development, and ethical decision-making. Students are exposed to specific theories, and learn motivation techniques and acquire the tools to succeed in a diverse organizational culture. In short, a Renaissance education and the professional development which it entails promote effective functioning in the corporate and the larger world.

A key phrase, here, is "diverse organizational culture." As the corporate world responds to increasing globalization, today's professionals navigate a career in which their colleagues and their customers, are from diverse cultures and environments. As corporations cast their nets wider for partners, collaborators, clients, and markets, tomorrow's professionals need new knowledge and skills to navigate successfully.

Several years ago, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) required that the subject of ethics be incorporated into engineering education curricula. A single discipline approach might resolve numerous technical problems, but leave in its wake social and ethical issues which may harm a technology's chances for successful application, if not appropriately addressed.

One example occurred in 2003 when physicians at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, transplanted stem cells into the heart of a teen-aged boy from his bone marrow, to help him regenerate heart muscle. He had suffered heart muscle damage from having been shot, accidentally, with a nail gun. He improved with this treatment. When the treatment was revealed, the FDA forbade further transplantation before more nonhuman studies are done. The ability to do this procedure at all resulted from breakthroughs in basic bioscience and tissue engineering. But, it had not gone through requisite trials and FDA approvals. It was risky.

This example demonstrates how professional practice will be impacted by the convergent forces of inter- and multidisciplinarity, interactivity, and ethics. Indifference to such issues is more difficult to sustain when professionals from several fields work together in a joint endeavor. Furthermore, a coalescence of varying perspectives often helps to highlight, and to clarify, issues and potential ethical questions — questions which might escape notice, or mention, among same-discipline colleagues.

There is no way to know where the next technological breakthroughs will come from. We only know that they will come. And, we are wise if we create welcoming and stimulating environments to encourage them.

At Rensselaer, we are focused on a Renaissance education to produce the world°Øs best scientists and engineers and technologically savvy entrepreneurial business leaders. These are leaders who can initiate and guide innovation from scientific discovery and technological breakthrough to transfer to the marketplace for commercial success — combining a passion for technology with the management ability to succeed in today's challenging global marketplace. What is required is a new integration of discovery, management, finance, marketing, operations, and entrepreneurship, for breakthrough innovations.

Rapid technological change and the emerging global marketplace are increasing commercial opportunities, and the need, for scientific and technological entrepreneurship. Understanding how to recognize market opportunities, to assess economic forces, and to execute successful business plans will give tomorrow's professionals the tools they will need to function as leaders in the new environment.

Our experience providing education for working professionals throughout our 50 years in Hartford is the extension of these precepts, a more intense, concentrated version, creating a community of working professionals and a welcome environment for the newest ideas.

At last week's National Innovation Initiative regional summit, IBM Chief Executive Sam Palmisano said something which I thought brought the criticality of innovation into proper focus. He said,

"Where once we fine-tuned our organizations for efficiency and quality, now we must optimize our entire society for innovation."

Doing this will require a new kind of professional.

For 50 years, Rensselaer at Hartford has educated emerging leaders in Connecticut corporations, and has helped to establish inter-corporate networks of premier professionals. They have been the ones who reconfigured the manufacturing floors, restructured the financial systems, built the collaborations and partnerships — the "critical mass" — needed for real innovation, so critical for economic growth.

Rensselaer is a fundamental part of the economic engine in the region, and our educational investment, here, has paid handsome dividends. We look forward to the next fifty years.

I like to think of the Rensselaer contribution to education, to the region, to the nation and beyond, in terms of a comment by noted astronomer Carl Sagan. In his book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, he wrote that,

"New ideas, invention, and creativity in general, always spearhead a kind of freedom — a breaking out from hobbling constraints. Freedom is a prerequisite for continuing the delicate experiment of science, which is one reason the Soviet Union could not remain a totalitarian state and be technologically competitive. At the same time, science — or rather its delicate mix of openness and skepticism, and its encouragement of diversity and debate — is a prerequisite for continuing the delicate experiment of freedom in an industrial and highly technological society."

The collaborative partnership which Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Hartford community have shared for 50 years — and continue to share — has advanced what I like to think of as a kind of community for freedom — a freedom for innovation, a freedom for progress, a freedom for prosperity and for peace.

Thank you, very much.

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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