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Going Forward, Together

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

Fall General Faculty Meeting
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, Auditorium

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Good afternoon. And, greetings to our colleagues at Hartford, who are in attendance via videoconferencing. Thank you for inviting me to your meeting. I look forward to being here, and to the always interesting exchange of ideas, as we go forward, together, to transform this university.

Today, I will give you a brief overview of recent, major accomplishments that are relevant to you as faculty members, and I also will provide updates on other areas of concern. Then, I would like to hear from you — your questions and your ideas.

The $100 million Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, or CCNI, is a major initiative that will have far-reaching impact on faculty research, and on teaching and learning. This partnership among Rensselaer, IBM, and New York state is creating one of the most powerful university-based supercomputing centers in the world. CCNI will be located on the Troy campus and in the Rensselaer Technology Park, and it is expected to begin operation by March 2007. This center will continue the push from traditional semiconductors to the next generation of nanoscale materials and systems. As CCNI focuses on more efficiently reducing the size of devices, the center will extend this model to industries which could benefit from nanotechnology. Companies will be able to perform research at the center, giving a boost to Rensselaer's research in biocomputation. CCNI already has attracted the participation of Cadence Design Systems Inc., and Advanced Micro Devices. The center certainly will support faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students for research and advanced study in computational nanotechnology, molecular biocomputation and simulation, computational cognitive science, computer science, engineering design, and more.

The PACE partnership announced in September also will have far-reaching impact for faculty and for students. The gift from Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering Education has a commercial value of almost $514 million. We are seeing the educational and research value of this historic gift right now. PACE is providing us with the latest computer-assisted design and prototyping software used in industry and at leading R&D centers like the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Our freshmen have this software provided on their new laptops this fall, and it is being incorporated, today, into the core engineering curriculum.

The software is not only for engineering students, however. There is an entire suite of products that, in the coming years, can be used in research in the life sciences, in architecture, in the arts, and in management curricula as well. One of the products, called Teamcenter, enables cross-platform collaboration among PACE partner universities worldwide. This opens up possibilities for real-world interactions for our students with student teams around the world.

This fall, we also are seeing significant progress on the construction of EMPAC. We expect that the structure will be enclosed by this winter. When EMPAC is completed in 2008, and opens with a celebration, it will house a concert hall, a theater, two black-box studios, a rehearsal and dance studio, four artists-in-residence studios, music practice rooms, and several post-production studio spaces. Meanwhile, EMPAC programming continues to enliven — and enlighten — the Troy campus. I hope that you have had an opportunity to attend an EMPAC program. They truly are one-of-a-kind experiences. The next program begins Thursday, November 16, at the RPI Playhouse, and is titled FEED. It promises to "challenge your limits of perception like no other performance has done before." Now that is a very intriguing invitation. I remind you that EMPAC will be a research platform as well for research in visualization, animation, and simulation across a range of fields, and in acoustics.

With the CCNI, PACE, and EMPAC we have created a suite of platforms to undergird our research and teaching across many fields and all academic schools, with a potential only limited by our imaginations and our motivations.

There is more good news to share about our students. First, the number of applications reached an all-time high for entrance to the Class of 2010 — up 23 percent from the previous year. We expect this growth in number of applications to continue as we become even more aggressive in attracting the best students. Another positive trend this fall is the increasing percentage of women — they compose 29 percent of the Class of 2010, while the Class of 2009 is 23 percent women. We have been working hard to grow this number, and we expect to see it increase in the coming years.

The first-year retention rate for the class of 2009 is 94 percent — the highest percentage since we have tracked this number. The retention rate for women was even higher — at 98 percent. This is evidence that we not only are attracting talented students, we are keeping them — through an improved undergraduate experience, student life enhancements, and expanded academic support programs, such as the early warning system and the Early Intervention Team. I know many of you use the early warning system to help struggling students to succeed. I thank you for that. I encourage even greater participation, and I hope that we can achieve 100 percent faculty participation in this critical program. Clearly, it has shown positive results in enabling student success, which is at the heart of our enterprise here at Rensselaer.

In keeping with our goal to create a world-class university, and to create community, I urge to take part in important Rensselaer events, such as Honors Convocation, during the academic year. Your active participation helps us to build a stronger university community, greater unity, a more vigorous intellectual atmosphere, and a vibrant campus experience for all. I cannot stress enough how important this is — to our students and to your colleagues, and to the Institute. Events and activities throughout the year also are wonderful opportunities to get out of the office, the classroom, the studios, or the laboratory, to see colleagues, talk with students, and find out what is going on at Rensselaer beyond one's individual sphere. I am trying to do more of that myself. Indeed, this is what a university is all about.

I want to turn now to some more specific faculty concerns. Faculty growth, as you know, has been a focal area in the transformation of Rensselaer. Since 1999, we have hired more than 170 new faculty members — 73 in new positions. This has occurred in a challenging economic and security climate, when other major universities have been scaling back faculty hiring. But, we knew that investing in — and growing — our faculty would move us toward the top tier of research universities. Along with creating a more robust research environment, faculty growth, also, has resulted in new educational thrusts, and in improved student-to-faculty ratios.

Along with this, we have a special interest in attracting — and retaining — women faculty members. Currently, women represent 20 percent of the total tenured/tenure track faculty at Rensselaer. We want to increase this. We have in place a network for mentoring women and minority faculty. Mentoring is monitored at key junctures to assure that individuals are making career progress. This is intended to improve the supportiveness of the environment and to lead to better tenure outcomes. Also under way is a series of initiatives and activities under the project title RAMP-UP — which stands for Reforming Advancement Processes through University Professions. RAMP-UP is studying and providing mechanisms for the recruitment and the advancement of women faculty members, to increase their participation in the senior ranks, particularly in science and engineering — and particularly at the mid-career point.

Important leadership appointments are being made and searches are under way. In January, Dr. Wei Zhao will begin his tenure as Dean of Science. He currently is senior associate vice president for research at Texas A&M University. He has a very impressive background and depth of experience that will be great assets to Rensselaer and the School of Science. For example, at Texas A&M, Dr. Zhao worked on the university's long-term strategic plan, supervised the Office of Sponsored Research and the Office of Compliance, directed the Institute of Telecommunication and Information Technology, and led the campuswide homeland security initiative that was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for more than $17 million. As director of the Division of Computer and Network Systems at the National Science Foundation, his division processed more than 2,500 proposals and awarded research grants of more than $190 million, comprising 80 percent of total federal research funding in the area of computer and network systems.

Also under way are searches for the Vice President for Research and the Vice President for the Division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, an emerging portfolio that brings together the Offices of Communications and Government & Community Relations to make external and internal communications more robust, more pervasive across the Institute, and more seamless across our various platforms. Creating this division is important to sustaining and expanding our growth in stature, our ability to attract the best students and faculty, and our national — and international — presence and impact. When the appointment is made, I will be asking that individual to form an internal communications advisory committee to work especially with the faculty (and students).

We also are in the process of forming two other committees of interest to faculty. One will deal with Undergraduate Admissions. This committee will be led by the Institute's Enrollment Vice President with a strong participation by the faculty, especially as it pertains to undergraduate recruitment, summer programs, and related areas. A committee on Graduate Student Enrollment and Policies also is being established. I will ask members of this committee to visit several of our peer and aspirant institutions for the purpose of reviewing how they manage their respective graduate programs, and how they address such issues as the recruitment and admission of graduate students, qualifying and preliminary examinations, graduation requirements, and graduate student support.

For each of the committees, I have asked Acting Provost, Professor Robert Palazzo, to seek nominees from the Faculty Senate and from the academic deans and chairs.

I know that you also have a keen interest in issues related to our library. Upon the advice of John Kolb, Chief Information Officer, and Acting Provost Robert Palazzo, I authorized the restoration of $180,000 to the library budget for fiscal year '07, to allow for critical electronic journal subscriptions to be maintained in the Rensselaer Research Library. I also have asked Mr. Kolb to work with various portfolios on the 24 recommendations in the report from the Task Force for Sustainable Research Library Support. The only recommendation I have asked John Kolb not to work on was related to architectural changes on the plaza between the Folsom Library and the Voorhees Computing Center.

A number of the pressures that Rensselaer is experiencing are national problems for research libraries and, as the Task Force pointed out, are difficult to solve. To help us tackle these challenges, I have directed that Mr. Kolb form an internal Library Advisory Committee to provide advice on the Research Library, and that he and Dr. Palazzo form an external Library Review Committee to provide a critical review of the library and future opportunities.

Overall, the challenges we face at Rensselaer today are similar to the ones faced by major universities in the United States. And, we are facing these challenges with a modest resource base Rensselaer — much more modest than other major research universities, which requires tight financial management. We also are challenged by being a relatively tuition-dependent institution, at a time when the cost to educate a student is higher than the tuition "sticker price" at Rensselaer, and at all universities. In addition, our operating expenses continue to rise, as they do at other large institutions. This is driven by faculty hiring, student-related initiatives, health care costs, pension obligations, and energy costs, among others. For example, our utility budget doubled last year to its highest total ever.

However, we are rich in several areas: in our people — you the faculty, our students, and our staff; rich in our intellectual capacity, in our vision of the future, and in our enduring tradition of discovery, exploration, and innovation for the greater good. You are stewards of this tradition, and of this great university. I admire your commitment to Rensselaer, your dedication to our students, your relentless pursuit of excellence in research. Whatever challenges we face, we can face them, and go forward, together, bearing in mind the ultimate goal of advancing learning and discovery that will change the world for the better.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, your insights, and your suggestions on the topics I have raised, or on other subjects.

Now I would be happy to entertain questions and discussion.

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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