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Honoring Tradition, Changing the World

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

Inauguration Address
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Friday, September 24, 1999

Thank you. Chairman Heffner, distinguished platform guests, for your charge and your kind greetings.

Let me begin with a salute to you—the Rensselaer community:

  • I salute our students, our raison d'etre and our future.
  • I salute our faculty, the intellectual core of our academic enterprise.
  • I salute our staff, the great enablers of all that we do.
  • I salute our alumni, our heritage and our presence in the larger society.

I especially salute my family, whose encouragement, support and love have sustained me throughout my life and brought me to this day

And I salute our honored guests and friends of this great university who share our belief in Rensselaer, its mission, its history and its promise for the future.

You, all of you, have created and continue to transform this great institution.

As I stand before you this morning, I am proud to accept the charge and the challenge of serving you as the 18th President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

As you might expect of a scientist, I believe in the power of the fundamentals. Let me share with you my fundamentals:

  • Excellence is the mantra and the metric—in all that we do.
  • Leadership must be claimed—in research and in pedagogy.
  • Community is what we are—for there is but one Rensselaer.

With this foundation, let us reflect on the theme for today's Inauguration: "Honoring Tradition, Changing the World: Rensselaer in the 21st Century."

Rensselaer enjoys a storied history, 175 years of leadership in technological education and scholarship. Throughout that time, it has remained true to our founder's mission, "the application of science to the common purposes of life." Through the pursuit of that objective, down through almost two centuries, Rensselaer people, in fact, have changed the world.

We honor that tradition by extracting our founder's values to move Rensselaer to the forefront of the world's great technological universities.

As we approach a new millennium, an ever-shrinking world, inexorable population growth and migration drive our common purposes to human health and welfare, communications in all its meanings and forms, and environmentally sustainable development.

The application of science to these common purposes requires that we enhance our vital undergraduate program, reinvigorate graduate education, invest in research, extend the reach of our programs for working professionals, and foster the entrepreneurial actualization of technological innovation.

Make no mistake. Our ambitious plans will place demands on us all. We will be challenged to maintain balance in critical areas, to nurture and to extend our strengths, to take risks on entirely new initiatives, and to make difficult choices about programs that have outlived their vitality.

As you might imagine, I have done more than a bit of reading as I have thought about today's remarks, and the foundations of my presidency.

Many people—among them Dr. Frank Rhodes, former president of Cornell University—have described scholarship as a public trust — and have pondered the balance between the creation of knowledge and the application of it—the balance between the "basic" and applied research.

We must recognize the need to maintain this balance. Even as we celebrate and extend our long history of technological innovation, I believe we must embrace Dr. Rhodes' view of basic research as a public trust and a fundamental for a great technological university. We must nurture and support, at Rensselaer, the most basic of research—in areas where we claim the underlying skills and capabilities, and—in areas which undergird our technological innovations and entrepreneurial activity.

Greatness also demands balance among the range of disciplines that comprise a fully realized technological university. To innovate, to offer the best education, each of Rensselaer's schools must be excellent in research and recognized in its own right.

We also must maximize the synergies that can be achieved from a robust range of strong research programs. Today, more than ever, we see that much of what is important and exciting lies in interdisciplinary areas—at the interstices (as it were) of traditional disciplines. We say that we have low walls at Rensselaer. Let us "walk that talk," completely.

But the balance between research and teaching also is fundamental. Great research universities have never neglected the primacy of undergraduate education. Rensselaer has an advantage in this regard because it is recognized—and deservedly so—as a world leader in teaching undergraduates. We have given enormous attention to these innovations—and will continue to do so. The challenge is: Whither to now? How do we reach the next level of excellence in pedagogy?

My final word on balance is this: Teaching and research are the clasped hands of the university. I quote John Slaughter, former president of Occidental College: "Research is to teaching as sin is to confession. If you don't participate in the former, you have very little to say in the latter."

Just as we are challenged to maintain balance, we are challenged to make choices. Where will Rensselaer focus to address today's and tomorrow's societal and global priorities? Where does Rensselaer claim leadership now? What bold new initiatives should we undertake to assert unquestioned research preeminence?

I pose three examples for us to consider. Each offers a distinct promise. Each offers a distinct challenge. Each illustrates the choices that lie ahead.

Today, Rensselaer is leading a new wave in information technology. We have established a Faculty of Information Technology, and our undergraduate major in information technology (IT) is drawing students in record numbers. We have a long-established and highly respected program in microelectronics. Additional research programs cover a wide spectrum of related disciplines. Information technology's relevance to all fields of human endeavor is unquestioned, and Rensselaer is poised for great opportunity. Still, we face choices of where to invest for leadership, and how much to invest, even as we extend our presence in this arena.

Applied mathematics provides a second example. Here we enjoy considerable strength, yet to secure genuine leadership will require focus and new investment. Because it embodies modeling, analysis, algorithmic development, even new mathematics, applied mathematics, as a discipline, can be viewed as a common core which undergirds all the sciences and engineering. It is inherently interdisciplinary. We must study this and decide whether we can propel ourselves to a true leadership position.

Finally, I challenge you to take the bold step of choosing for investment an area in which Rensselaer is relatively unknown—but one that holds out great promise and great value to humanity.

Imagine that a biosensor gives you the ability to communicate directly from the brain to the computer, to give instructions to a machine, without the intervention and use of a keyboard. Such a linkage between the human mind and solid state capabilities would revolutionize communication and analysis. Further, consider this assertion: in the 21st century, genomics, combinatorics, and their marriage with information technology, will impact the human condition as strongly as quantum science did in the 20th century. In fact, at the nanostructure level, they overlap. Will such ruminations be realized? The answer lies in integrated research in the biological sciences, engineering technology and computer simulation, in short, in a uniquely focused biotechnology at Rensselaer. This is a field whose impact is so great, so full of promise, so well-suited to Rensselaer, that we simply must drive our stake into the ground of this new frontier.

Why not create a Biotechnology Institute for Rensselaer that would encompass fundamental research, industrial partnerships, technological innovation, and undergraduate and graduate education?

Why not create Bachelor's, Master's, and Ph.D. programs with an emphasis in either engineering or the biological and life sciences, and with projects and courses designed to immerse students at the interface of these disciplines? With careful evaluation, focus and strategic growth, can Rensselaer emerge as a leader in biotechnology in the next decade? I challenge you, I challenge us to think about this — indeed — to do this.

Leadership, however, does not refer only to the leading edge of scientific research, and its applications, but also to pedagogy. We have demonstrated our skill and resourcefulness in developing the studio classroom, in our innovative use of computer-enhanced instruction, in redesigning large enrollment courses. We have extended our leadership through the Rensselaer Center for Academic Transformation. We must, and we will maintain our position on the leading edge.

But what is the next innovation? Can we use our knowledge and understanding of other cultures and the virtual representation of distant locations to solve real world engineering, health or design problems—through remote interactions with another country using information technology? Can we create a laboratory experience for our students to do this? I do not know, but, we must be open to such ideas—in fact, we must seek out these challenges.

If we are committed to being leaders in research, in education, and in the marketplace, we must understand other cultures. We must nurture all human talent and draw upon it for technological leadership to sustain global prosperity. We must then achieve an overall diversity at Rensselaer that reflects the role we intend to assume, and the world we hope to serve.

One hundred and seventy-five years ago, Amos Eaton founded his revolutionary pedagogy on what he called the "Rensselaerean Plan." As the new century beckons, Rensselaer demands the forceful expression of a new "Rensselaer Plan"—one that will articulate new ideas — new ideals — and bold action. This Rensselaer Plan will capture our vision and guide our choices — in short, it will secure Rensselaer's position as a world-class technological research university with global outlook and global impact.

Our goal demands the rigor and discipline that underlie all greatness. The Rensselaer Plan will require answers to five questions. These questions are exact and exacting:

First, what defines the intellectual core in key disciplines at Rensselaer? Is it important, and why? True excellence requires such definition and examination.

Second, in these disciplines, are we in a leadership position? Do we set the standard and the agenda? These areas will serve as our foundation.

Third, if we are not in a leadership position, do we have the underlying strengths and capabilities necessary to move rapidly into a position of primacy with the proper focus and investment? We will build on these areas of strength.

Fourth, are there areas that are so vital that we must create a presence in order to stand in the community of world-class universities? We will stake out an identity in these critical disciplines.

And finally, what areas of current endeavor must we be willing to transform—or to give up—in order to focus our resources and our energies to create the impact we envision? We will make the difficult decisions that are required by a fundamental commitment to our highest ideals.

The realization of the Rensselaer Plan — the Rensselaer dream — requires greatness from all of us, places demands on all of us, and will elevate all of us.

As the 18th President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I pledge that I will give my utmost to realize this vision. As I have said on many occasions, I will work with you, and I will work for you.

I ask each of you for your counsel and your full support. The goals of the Rensselaer Plan are ambitious, and our commitment must be no less so.

Let us begin.

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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