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Presidential Welcome

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

2012 Family Weekend
EMPAC Theater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, New York

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Good morning, and welcome to Family Weekend. I extend a particularly warm greeting to the families of the Class of 2016 — the newest members of our extended university community.

Please, also, join me in welcoming — and thanking — the members of the Parents Council who are here this morning. These men and women are the governing body of the Parents of Rensselaer association and a valuable asset to the university as we seek to create a rich and rewarding experience for all of our students. Would the members of the Parents Council please stand?

Let me begin with a brief news video clip that speaks volumes about the national reputation Rensselaer has achieved. Earlier this month, we were featured on the NBC Today Show as one of the nation's leading institutions for career-minded students. 

That video is a wonderful testimony to the value Rensselaer brings to its students, and, through them, to the world.  As a consequence, our graduates are sought after and treasured. The world values them and Rensselaer, fundamentally, because of the values we insist upon: academic rigor, respect for different perspectives, diligence, and our dedication to creating new knowledge, and using knowledge and expertise to create positive change. Knowledge and thoroughness, you might say.

This weekend is designed to give families the opportunity to experience life at Rensselaer, and it is always filled with activities that showcase our students, our academics, the arts, athletics, and the community at large. This year promises to be no exception, with a full schedule of special events ranging from Honors Convocation later this morning, to concerts and exhibits, international demonstrations, receptions, sporting events, tours, dining extravaganzas, and more.

I look forward to Family Weekend every year, because it offers a wonderful opportunity for me to welcome you, personally, and to tell you about some of the wonderful things that are happening here.

It is my great pleasure and honor to continue to lead this university through an era of transformation, initiated with The Rensselaer Plan. We have accomplished much — building on the legacy of generations of professors, alumni, and alumnae who truly have changed the world for the better.

Overall, The Rensselaer Plan has led to long list of accomplishments. These include:

  • Securing a historic $360 million unrestricted gift and completing the unprecedented $1.4 billion Renaissance at Rensselaer: The Campaign for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
  • Investing nearly $1.25 billion in The Rensselaer Plan, including more than $725 million in new construction, renovations, equipment, technology, and infrastructure for research, teaching, and student life.
  • Designing and constructing the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, a bold platform at the intersections of media, the arts,  science and technology.
  • Establishing the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, (CCNI) our supercomputer center, through a partnership among Rensselaer, IBM, and New York State. Today, with the latest generation Blue Gene – Q technology, providing more than 200 teraflops of computing power and visualization capability, the CCNI drives research, education, and economic development.
  • Constructing the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, which facilitates research at the intersection of the life sciences with engineering, the physical, and computational sciences.
  • Creating the Office of Vice President for Research and developing key research “Signature Thrusts” in Media, the Arts, Science, and Technology; Biotechnology and Life Sciences; Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials; Energy, Environment, and Smart Systems; and Computational Science and Engineering to drive faculty recruitment, research leadership, and pedagogical innovation.
  • Creating Constellations in Biotechnology, IT, and Physics including: Future Chips, the Tetherless World, Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering, Biocomputation and Bioinformatics, Physics, Information Technology, and Entrepreneurship.
  • Hiring 275 new faculty members since 2001.
  • Nearly tripling overall research expenditures, from $37 million in FY99 to $99 million in FY12.
  • Launching the award-winning Office of the First Year Experience, retooling freshmen orientation, and adding leadership training, and more—all to enhance the student experience.
  • Opening the East Campus Athletic Village, which provides athletics, recreation, and community space for the 75 percent of Rensselaer students who participate in intramural, club, or varsity athletics.

All of these accomplishments already have enriched the university in many ways that will benefit your students. But you have not seen anything yet...

We now sit halfway between the approval of the Rensselaer Plan in 2000 and the 200th anniversary (in 2024) of the founding of Rensselaer. Because of the progress we have made, and the changes the world has seen since The Rensselaer Plan was created, we now have the opportunity to take stock and to decide what we will do in the coming years, especially as we anticipate Rensselaer's bicentennial.

So, we are refreshing The Rensselaer Plan, using humanity’s Global Challenges as reference points to help guide our resource allocation, our teaching, and our research. We invite you to participate in our university-wide conversation about the best ways to improve the world’s energy security, food security, and water security, so our systems can serve an estimated 9 billion people in 2050—and serve them sustainably.

We have a wonderful foundation on which to build, and I am confident that, by drawing on the knowledge and creativity of our community, we will position ourselves for greater achievements in the years to come.

We certainly have the people who will be positioned to “change the world” — in important, and I suspect surprising, ways. I will point first to the students who have joined our community — individuals of great talent, accomplishment, and potential.

For seven consecutive years, Rensselaer has set records for freshman applications. This year, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions received a record total of 15,223 freshman applications.

The members of the incoming Class of 2016 show great promise, with an increase in average SAT scores, and more than 100 receiving a perfect 800 SAT critical reading or math score. In addition, three students scored 1600, and two students received a perfect 2400 score. Sixty-six percent of the students are coming from the top 10 percent of their high school classes.

This high-achieving group of 1331 freshmen includes:

  • 371 women, representing 28 percent of the class,
  • a near-record number of underrepresented students, totaling 13 percent of the class,
  • and continued geographic and international diversity.

Our graduate applications have increased as well, to reach 4,355, the highest level in ten years, with those applying presenting ever more outstanding credentials. We welcomed 531 new full-time graduate students to Rensselaer this fall. Including transfer students, overall, 2000 new students entered Rensselaer this fall.

Equally important as attracting new students is our ensuring their success once they arrive. Here again, Rensselaer excels. With a broad array of award-winning student life programs such as Navigating Rensselaer and Beyond, the First Year Experience, and CLASS (Clustered Learning Advocacy and Support for Students), Rensselaer has succeeded in achieving a nearly perfect first-to-second semester retention rate, and evokes very positive responses from students to surveys such as that conducted by The Princeton Review.

The Princeton Review highlighted the high quality of the Rensselaer academic programs, student life, and facilities, based on interviews with students.

With the opening of the City Station Graduate Housing project, we are able to extend the CLASS-based residential model to our graduate students.

Our Rensselaer faculty also are extraordinary. They continue to stretch the boundaries of science and technology. I will cite a few recent examples.

Associate Professor of Architecture Jonas Braasch has been appointed as Director of our Center for Cognition, Communication, and Culture. The Center is scheduled to open next month, but Professor Braasch already has been bringing together researchers from such seemingly diverse arenas as the arts, design, science, engineering, humanities, and social sciences to meet current social and technological challenges at the intersection of the cognitive, cyber, and physical worlds. Work in this center, with a locus in the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, brings together investigators from across the Institute in research areas, such as:

  • cross-modal displays (which seek to employ all human senses in understanding and exploring data),
  • synthetic characters (such as work with interactive narrative and embodied conversational agents), and
  • augmented reality (data overlaid on the real world as related, for example, to computer vision and to the use of narrative and gaming theory in research and education).

To support this work, the CCC will host a new Emergent Reality Lab — a large-scale CAVE Virtual Reality System. The system will be located in the Rensselaer Technology Park, and will support immersive video and audio projection.

Engineering researchers, led by nanomaterials expert Dr. Nikhil Koratkar, the John A. Clark and Edward T. Crossan Professor of Engineering, made a sheet from the world’s thinnest material, graphene, and then treated that sheet with a laser to blemish it with cracks, pores, and other imperfections. The result was an easy-to-make, quick-charging lithium-ion battery with high-power density. Such an innovation could lead to simpler, better-performing automotive engines based solely on high-energy, high-power Li-ion batteries.

Rensselaer researchers demonstrated, to federal, state, and local government officials, a prototype Disaster Management Simulator. This breakthrough resulted from a collaboration involving Dr. William “Al” Wallace ’61, the Yamada Corporation Professor and a member of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE); Dr. Barbara Cutler, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science; and Dr. David Mendonça ’01, associate professor in ISE. They are working to develop powerful new decision-making and data visualization tools to help law enforcement, health officials, water and electric utilities, and others to respond to disasters.

A new study from the Lighting Research Center (LRC) could lead to new approaches to help Alzheimer’s patients sleep better. Results of the study, led by Dr. Mariana Figueiro, Associate Professor and Director of the Light and Health Program at the LRC, suggest tailored light exposures as a viable treatment option for sleep disturbances of Alzheimer’s patients.

What we have accomplished — and all that we continue to do — is garnering Rensselaer the attention and respect it warrants.

The annual ranking of Rensselaer by U.S. News & World Report — 41st among national research universities — is one of a number of recent external surveys that recognize the high quality of a Rensselaer education. These surveys confirm that the Institute remains among the top national research universities in the world, and that our School of Engineering and the Lally School of Management and Technology remain among the leading schools in their categories.

U.S. News is not the only measure of our recognition, impact, and outcomes for our students and graduates.

Business Insider website ranked Rensselaer fourth on its list of the world’s best 50 engineering schools – based on surveys of engineers, professionals, and entrepreneurs at technology companies.

Wall Street and Technology – In their first national study of the top technology schools from which Wall Street firms hire the best IT specialists, Rensselaer was ranked in the top five, along with Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Stanford, and Georgia Tech.

Forbes ranked Rensselaer as one of the “Ten Colleges That Are Great Brands,” citing the successful rebranding that began under The Rensselaer Plan.

But, we do what we do, not for accolades, but for making a difference. 

In a world where information becomes outdated in the blink of an eye, and world priorities shift seemingly overnight, we are preparing your students – our students – to lead in the world of tomorrow. We are teaching them how to learn – a far more valuable asset than any time capsule of information we could possibly impart.

We are almost out of time, but I would like to close with a brief story told by Nobel Prize Winner Kensaburo Oe:

“As a child, I wanted to be a physicist. I begged my mother to let me go to Tokyo to study physics. I promised I would win the Nobel Prize for Physics. So, 50 years later, I returned to my village and said to my mother, ‘See, I have kept my promise. I won the Nobel Prize.’ ‘No, said my mother, who has a very fine since of humor, ‘You promised it would be in physics!’ ”

You, see, Oe won the 1994 Prize in Literature.

My point is this: Parents may have very particular perspectives about the fields in which their young people should achieve.  Rensselaer is a place where people are encouraged to develop their capabilities to the fullest, and to strive toward excellence – in the field of their choosing. A Rensselaer education encourages all of its students to explore areas they never considered and invites them to open themselves to unexpected possibilities – all within a technologically-rooted, strongly disciplined-based yet multi-disciplinary, and multi cultural context.  I expect that your visit this weekend will allow you to see some of this for yourselves.

So, please take full advantage of all the exciting activities planned for this weekend and enjoy exploring, with your student, all that Rensselaer has to offer.

Now, I must, soon, leave to take part in the Honors Convocation, but I would be happy to remain, briefly, to answer any questions you may have at this time.

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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