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The 2011 Presidential Fall Town Meeting:
“The Common Purposes of Life”

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

Fall 2011 Town Meeting
EMPAC Concert Hall
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Good afternoon. And, special greetings to Hartford. Thank you for coming.

This meeting provides us with a chance to discuss the achievements of the past six months, the direction of our university, and our options for the future.

       I will begin by introducing our leadership team. Please stand when I call your name:

  • Dr. Robert Palazzo, Provost
  • Mr. Charles Carletta, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel
  • Dr. Francine Berman, Vice President, Research
  • Ms. Virginia Gregg, Vice President, Finance and Chief Financial Officer
  • Mr. John Kolb ’79, Vice President for Information Services and Technology and Chief Information Officer
  • Dr. John Minasian, Vice President and Dean, Rensselaer Hartford Campus
  • Dr. Paul Marthers, Vice President, Enrollment, and Dean, Undergraduate and Graduate Admissions
  • Mr. Curtis Powell, Vice President, Human Resources
  • Mr. Claude Rounds, Vice President, Administration
  • Dr. Timothy E. Sams, Vice President, Student Life
  • Mr. William Walker, Vice President, Strategic Communications and External Relations
  • Dr. Prabhat Hajela, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education
  • Mr. Robert Chernow, Vice Provost, Entrepreneurship

It is important in understanding where we are, and where we are going, to step back and take a bit of a retrospective view.

More than ten years ago I accepted the charge of President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I was charged to bring change to Rensselaer –its people, its program, and its platforms.

Addressing the gathering that day, I talked of promise and of challenge, of choices and of priorities, of legacy, and of the future.

I called upon the entire Rensselaer community to create a fully realized technological university. I said change would be holistic—that we would leave no aspect of the Institute untouched.

I said that we would steer by three guiding principles—excellence, leadership, and community.

I pledged that I would give my utmost to realize this vision. I said it would require greatness from each of us.

I, also, said it would not be easy—but I said that, together, we could realize the Rensselaer dream.

In the months that followed, working across all university sectors, we devised a comprehensive strategic plan — The Rensselaer Plan — whose essence and strength is drawn from the two essential roots of Amos Eaton’s original Rensselaerian Plan. Those roots, of course, are “…the application of science to the common purposes of life,” and the employment of unique educational strategies for engaged, interactive, self-directed learning.

Our intent was to have Rensselaer emerge re-energized, re-awakened, refocused. It meant that we had to imagine a different, bolder future for the Institute. We needed to recognize that, while building on its legacy and existing strengths, Rensselaer had to change.

So, during the past decade, we have focused on the six Rensselaer Plan goals—assuring the academic scope, strength, and relevance of the Institute; enhancing the robustness of its research; elevating the student experience; guaranteeing administrative consistency and financial viability; expanding, managing, and upgrading the physical plant; enlarging Rensselaer partnerships; and bolstering an ever-greater prominence and recognition for the university.

From the very beginning, as you all know, our mission has been “instructing persons ... in the application of science to the common purposes of life.” The purposes may be common, but our approaches and our people never have been.

They cannot be common because if we are to respond to national and global — for energy, resources, environmental sustainability, healthcare, security, and more – we need resolve, flexibility, and engagement.

I will begin with resolve. Resolve means knowing your priorities, keeping your promises, and keeping your focus.  For over ten years, this has meant using The Rensselaer Plan as a guide and a touchstone. Along the way, we have seen our university transform substantially, and we have seen the world change. The many achievements, achievements by people in this room, have demonstrated the vitality of the Plan and how well it embodies our values. We continue to enrich our university through portfolio performance plans that reference our goals, and bring benefits to our community and the world. The “common purposes” are well served by people of ingenuity, knowledge, imagination, and tenacity. As a result, we have accomplishments in research, education, and community service, a few of which I will share with you.

But, as our university has moved forward, the world has changed, and these changes impact our tactics. We have needed to be flexible and resourceful, yet steadfast, in how we achieve our goals. Most dramatically, we have had to confront the ups and downs of an economy that is beyond our control.

As we meet today, Rensselaer is strong and solvent, but it is not immune to the weak economy that surrounds us. We manage our expenses very carefully as our investments continue to recover from the great recession of the last three years. Anyone who manages a household budget or who has retirement savings knows exactly what I am talking about.

But, as I said, this downturn cannot deter us, and has not deterred us, from our mission. As I told our alumni/ae last month, we continue to explore the frontiers and build for the future. We continue to work to provide the best teaching and the finest living and learning environment we can for our students.

We are able to do this in times of financial stress by being prudent with our assets and by reaching out to our friends and alumni/ae for their support. We are making sure to make the best possible use of every dollar in our budgets -- across the board.

Our intention is to maintain our commitment to our students. Going forward into Fiscal Year 2013, our focus as well will be on hiring faculty into endowed and constellation faculty positions. And we will continue to hire into fully funded research positions.

Now, no one wants to cut budgets, especially as we come to appreciate the rich possibilities the future holds, and all that our community stands to contribute.

That is why we also are focusing on raising funds.

Reaching our goals in the current environment will require renewed commitment on our part. We need to grow our faculty and provide world-class platforms for teaching and research. We must provide more financial aid to our students, so we can begin to move to more need-blind admissions and full aid policies. Brilliant minds do not always come in wealthy packages. We must continue to improve the student experience and career prospects and outcomes for our graduates.

Faculty — excellent faculty — are at the heart of what we do here. As I stated, serving common purposes requires uncommon people.

Growing our faculty is an explicit goal of The Rensselaer Plan, but it has been a challenging one to achieve. Retirements, the return of talent to emerging nations – such as China and India, and the enticements of industry – each of these make the faculty-hiring environment more difficult, especially with enhanced competition for quality faculty, especially in technological fields. And frankly, as our reputation has grown, external efforts to lure away our outstanding faculty members have intensified.

Once accomplished candidates are identified and attracted to Rensselaer, there is one more factor – the start-up costs for a new professor in a technological field can be on the order of one half to two million dollars.

With a near-term goal of expanding our tenured and tenure track positions to about 400, and a long-term goal of 500, it is clear that we will require significant funding for start-up packages.

Many of the triumphs we take pride in, such as the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the construction of the Panama Canal, would have been unimaginable without the integration of new scientific discoveries into engineering design. Yet, the hub of our scientific endeavor here, the Jonsson-Rowland Science Center, is half a century old, dating back to 1961.

So, it is time to renew our commitment to the highest caliber scientific facilities so that we can bring together the scientists who are spread across the campus, and to create conditions where their programs can grow and prosper.

If we accomplish this, it allows us to provide more space for the School of Engineering, and other schools.

With proper support, we can raise research productivity even further, and it is the only way that we can attract the faculty and students we need to honor the character and tradition of our university, and to continue to impact the world.

To accomplish these two objectives – expanding faculty and building a new Center for Science, the Rensselaer Board of Trustees has approved a lead-in to our next major campaign, a focused fundraising effort designed to bring in between 150 and 170 million dollars over the next two to three years.

Of course, the overall goal for our next Capital Campaign will be much larger.

In our upcoming Capital Campaign, still in the planning stages, our focus will be on substantially increasing financial aid funds for students and endowed chairs for faculty, while growing the endowment overall.

Our friends and benefactors stand ready to help us, and I am confident that we will be successful.

Recently, Rensselaer was chosen once again as a top-ranked school by U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges guidebook, and this year is tied with two other universities at 50th on the list of the nation’s leading institutions. The Institute received a higher overall score in its category of national research universities and improved two points on the 0-100 scoring scale, rising to 62 from 60 last year, its highest overall score in 10 years. However, several other universities’ scores improved at a faster rate. In fact, only two points on the 0-100 scoring scale separate the institutions tied at 50th and those tied at 42nd.

Our primary interest is to use those metrics to maintain a sharp focus on enhancing the quality of education we provide, and on elevating the overall student experience at Rensselaer. The ranking underscores our need and intent to accelerate our efforts to build the strength and numbers of the faculty, and to continue to invest in programs to enhance the richness of student life inside and outside the classroom.

But U.S. News rankings are not the only measure of success. We use a number of media-related measures, but internal and external benchmarks, and, importantly professional society recognitions of our faculty also help us to measure our progress and our impact.

We look forward to continuing the growth and transformation of Rensselaer, and we are proud that we remain a leading and impactful, globally-focused research university for this nation, and for the world.

Our faculty, of course, play a major role in shaping our community, but our administrators and staff influence student experiences from the day they arrive – and often earlier – until they leave to make their marks in the world.       

Each year, Rensselaer recognizes a member of our university’s staff who understands our mission and history; has been a role model for other employees; has shown concern for students and their welfare; has added to the human dimension of the University; and, who has played an active role in his or her own home community.      

Last month, we honored Mr. Kevin Beattie, associate athletic director for communications and compliance with The Pillar of Rensselaer Award, the highest honor Rensselaer gives to a staff member. Mr. Beattie has been on the staff of Rensselaer for 13 years.

Mr. Beattie is with us this afternoon. I would like him to stand so we can recognize.

I have said something about resolve — our commitment to The Rensselaer Plan and to keeping its promises — and I have talked about the flexibility and resourcefulness we need in the face of a changing — and challenging — world.

But if we are to apply our talents and skills to the common purposes and have uncommon results, we must be engaged in the world around us. Fortunately, we have ample evidence that Rensselaer is engaged and effective.      

I will share a sample of recent achievements at Rensselaer. I will provide details on how we are approaching a world that, despite the challenges that make headlines, promises wonders and benefits. Success never has come easily, and much that we wish to do will demand renewed commitment and true collaboration. But the potential that we see realized daily on our campuses, both in the lab and in the classroom, demonstrates the promise of achievement for those who have the confidence to match their talents to the challenges we face.

To a large extent, our claim on the future is through our students, our faculty, and our alumni/ae. Many of you, I am sure, appreciate the uncompromising and challenging education offered by Rensselaer. Students arrive here with great minds, and it is our institutional mission to provide them with the skills, tools, and preparation they need to contribute to our society and set the standard for achievement.

We continue to stretch our students, to encourage them to reach beyond imagined limits. Our selection process for admission is finely tuned toward identifying students who can and do meet the challenges that our educational approach puts before them. It is not accidental, then, that our retention rates are high.

The freshmen students come in with strong records. For the Class of 2015, the average SAT is 1366, up 46 points from 2005, and up 84 points from 2000. A total of 64 percent of enrolled students were in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

We have experienced an explosion of interest and applications. In 2005, we had 24,211 freshman inquiries. For the Class of 2015, this number more than quadrupled to over 100,000.

In 2005, we had 5,570 applications for freshman admissions. This fall, it is 14,583 —and we continue on that rising trajectory.

So, we are more selective than ever, but we also have learned how to assist our students in ways that deliberately develop and create successful individuals, and global leaders.

It takes a village to nurture and inspire the fine young men and women who come to Rensselaer. Our faculty, of course, play a major role, but our administrators and staff influence the experiences of our students from the day they arrive — and often earlier — until they leave to make their marks in the world.

You already have met Dr. Timothy Sams, our new Vice President for Student Life, but I will ask him to stand again. Dr. Sams served as Associate Dean of Students at the New York University Abu Dhabi campus. He is an experienced leader, student life authority, and senior administrator. Throughout his career, he has been instrumental in bringing about progressive change to the undergraduate experience — both nationally and internationally. Vice President Sams received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Temple University, a master’s in Africana Studies from the State University of New York at Albany, and his bachelor’s in history and sociology from Union College.

We have three new deans, and I will ask them to stand as well as I mention their names.

Our new Dean of the School of Science is Dr. Laurie Leshin. She joins us from NASA, where she served as deputy associate administrator of exploration systems. Dr. Leshin has said, “our work together within the school, making transformative discoveries, shaping new interdisciplinary fields, and training the next generation of scientists, will propel Rensselaer to even greater heights.”

Last month, Dr. Mary Simoni took over as Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. At the University of Michigan, she served as associate dean for research and community engagement, and was a tenured full professor in their School of Music, Theatre and Dance. She brings with her a wealth of experience at the intersection of technology and the humanities, and interdisciplinary collaboration.”

We have named Dr. Thomas Begley as Dean of the Lally School of Management and Technology. His work at University College Dublin, where he was Dean of the Business School, along with his experience teaching in some of the top business programs across the world, will serve him well as he leads the Lally School to higher levels of prominence.

If any of our new faculty are in attendance today, I would ask them, as well, to stand and be recognized.

While I am speaking of the faculty, I will provide one update: The revised Faculty Senate constitution was submitted after the end of the 2010-11 academic year. It has been under administrative and external legal review to determine its compliance with the Board of Trustees resolutions on the definition and role of the faculty in shared governance. I anticipate that this matter will be resolved in the near future.

Members of our staff also play a vital role in supporting and developing our students. Last month, Mr. Joseph Cassidy became our new Director of the Student Union. The Rensselaer Union is a student-managed organization, with a multi-million dollar budget that supports more than 200 clubs and organizations and intercollegiate athletics. Mr. Cassidy has a distinguished career in university administration, and he will be pivotal to our ensuring the Union continues to help Rensselaer develop our student in ways that reach beyond the classroom.

Our commitment to our student-athletes is reflected in some of our recent hiring of outstanding head coaches. These include:

  • Ms. Erica Hollot: Head women's tennis coach who has an 18-9 record since being hired in Spring 2010.
  • Mr. Tim Landis: Head football coach who arrived with 17 years of head coaching experience, at schools such as Davidson, St. Mary's (CA), and Bucknell. He succeeds Joe King, who retired after many years here.
  • Mr. John Lynch: Head men's and women's cross country coach.
  • Ms. Amber Maisonet: Our head softball coach, who led the team to first place in the Liberty League regular season standings as an interim head coach in 2011.
  • And Mr. Jon Satkowski: Head men's tennis coach, who was hired in Fall 2010.

We take very seriously our scholar-athlete model. We seek excellence in all that we do, and athletics is no exception. For 20 consecutive semesters, Rensselaer student athletes have had higher Grade Point Averages than the student body in general.

Rensselaer students are scholars, athletes, and much more. They are engaged in the larger community.

This past summer, this area was struck by tropical storms and flooding. The Troy campus did not suffer serious damage, but some of our neighbors have been overwhelmed by this disaster.

In response to the widespread storm damage, the Student Senate’s Advocacy, Community, and Advancement Committee, with the support of the Dean of Students Office spearheaded the RPI RELIEF: Hurricane Irene efforts to raise money for the American Red Cross of Northeastern New York and the Regional Farm and Food Project. Their aim was, and is, to assist victims of flooding throughout the Capital Region. They also have been organizing volunteer initiatives in Schoharie, Rensselaer, and Greene Counties, and collecting items to assist victims with cleanup. The list of student groups involved in RPI Relief: Hurricane Irene includes:

  • The RPI Student Senate,
  • The American Red Cross Club,
  • The Class of 2013,
  • The Community Advocates, and
  • The Community Service Committee.

Our students are having an impact. I will quote from a letter sent to me my Mr. Dominic Jacangelo, Supervisor of the Town of Poestenkill [in Rensselaer County]:

“I have always thought of RPI as one of the finest institutions in the world, but only recently have I become aware of how wonderful its student body, faculty and staff members are!”

With the development of The Rensselaer Plan, we challenged ourselves to move into new research domains at the intersections of important disciplines, especially where they could benefit from our existing core strengths in engineering; science; management; architecture; the humanities, arts, and social sciences; and information technology. To accomplish this, we have invested in five signature thrusts.

In the area of energy and the environment, Rensselaer researchers are exploring the development of renewable technologies to enable us to coexist with a bio-diverse planet.

Researchers in biotechnology and the life sciences are leading the way to the creation of life-saving treatments for disease.

In nanotechnology and advanced materials, researchers are enabling the development of new materials that support a safer, more cost-effective, and sustainable environment.

Through their work in computational science and information technologies, Rensselaer researchers are deepening our comprehension of a multi-faceted world that extends as far as -- computational modeling of new drugs.

You are sitting in a building that exemplifies our fifth signature thrust, experimental media and arts. Such an extraordinary platform as this blur existing boundaries between observation, perception, and experience -- allowing our researchers to create environments that expand our ability to learn, understand, and communicate.

These areas are critical to addressing key national and global challenges. Based on this strong foundation, Rensselaer research is creating a better future through the innovation and engineering of a better world.

Research activity at Rensselaer is substantial, and it is impossible for me to update you on all of the projects, initiatives, and partnership. Instead, I will give you a taste of how the faculty here pushes at the boundaries and finds new solutions, day after day.

For example, those of you who love your iPads, Blackberrys, and Wii gaming systems probably hope they will continue to get better. But copper already is showing its limits as interconnects get smaller and reliability suffers. We need a new material to take its place and Physics Professor Saroj Nayak is leading the way. He and his team of researchers discovered they could enhance the ability of graphene to transmit electricity by stacking several thin graphene ribbons on top of one another. This brings industry closer to realizing graphene nanoelectronics and naming graphene as the heir apparent to copper.

Professor Deanna Thompson of our School of Engineering has been working on another vital problem – repairing the peripheral nerve system. This system has a greater ability to repair itself compared to the central nervous system housed in the brain and spinal cord, but patients with severe injuries to the peripheral nervous system rarely regain full function.  However, Dr. Thompson and her colleagues have made some promising discoveries that indicate nerve repair can be stimulated and directed to repair large-gap injuries that cannot spontaneously regenerate.

By using small electrical pulses, similar to the electrical stimulation created naturally in the body during development, she has found that she can orient and direct helper cells called Schwann cells into the site of an injury. In addition, she has found that the pulses also stimulate re-growing nerves to extend faster, potentially increasing the rate of repair. Dr. Thompson recently was awarded a $1.4 Million NIH Grant to continue this work.

Professor Robert Linhardt, Ann and John H. Broadbent, Jr. ’59 Senior Constellation Professor of Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering, recently announced a new synthetic method that may forever change the way some of the most widely used drugs in the world are manufactured. The new process uses chemicals and enzymes to reduce the number of steps in production of an important anticoagulant drug from approximately 50 steps down to just 10 to 12. In addition, it increases the yield from that process 500-fold.

Our faculty continue to push the limits with their research. The research effort at Rensselaer attracted nearly $90 million in the past year—matching our record level and more than double that of eleven years ago ($37 million). We accomplished this in spite of cutbacks in government awards, thanks to the competitiveness of our faculty-sponsored research proposals and to an increase in awards from corporations. We are determined to reach $100 million—a key research-funding threshold in The Rensselaer Plan.

I will take a moment now to answer a question I often hear from our alumni/ae:

“How does our research enterprise affect our undergraduates?”

The answer is that research is an essential and vital part of their education. Since the beginning, Rensselaer students have stepped out of the classroom to engage in real problems and to push the frontiers. They did not wait until Commencement to change the world back then, and they do not wait now.

When I mention the many breakthroughs Rensselaer has made – whether in fundamental science, or high-end engineering or artistic design – please understand that our students have a part in these. Students, both undergraduate and graduate, are our partners in our most important endeavors. In fact, direct participation is something they expect. They came to Rensselaer with the understanding that these opportunities would be made available to them, and we are determined to fulfill those promises.

Research is done here as part of the undergraduate experience, not at the expense of it.

And I use my own external involvements to continue to project Rensselaer into frontiers.

I have been involved over the past few years with, and have attended, the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. This is the premier world gathering of world leaders, business leaders, academic leaders, and thought leaders from around the world. This year, for the first time, Rensselaer has been invited to present an IdeasLab in Davos – based on some of our faculty’s research.

We attract world-class leaders to Rensselaer for recognition. And we continue to have our own alumni/ae honored for their amazing achievements. Last May, we had three outstanding Commencement Honorees participate in the President’s Commencement Colloquy. They were:

  • Regina M. Benjamin, M.D., 18th Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service and a recipient, in 2008, of a MacArthur Fellowship — the “Genius Award.”
  • G. Wayne Clough, Ph.D., the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who leads the world’s largest museum and research complex, and who is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  • And our own Mr. Samuel F. Heffner, Class of 1956, founder and president of Dickinson-Heffner Inc., a building and land development firm that has developed several million square feet of office and industrial space in the Baltimore region. Mr. Heffner was a member of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees for 33 years, and he served as board chair for 15 years.

By anyone’s measure, these individuals all are “world class.”

Our alumni/ae also have distinguished themselves over the past year. Perhaps most noteworthy is the recognition of Mr. Steven Sasson ’72 and Dr. Marcian E. “Ted” Hoff, Jr. ’58.

These two Rensselaer Alumni received National Medals of Technology and Innovation, becoming the ninth and 10th graduates to earn national medals. Mr. Sasson earned his distinction for the invention of the digital camera, which has revolutionized the way images are captured, stored, and shared, thereby creating new opportunities for commerce, education, and improved worldwide communication. In 2008, 73 percent of Americans owned a digital camera, and 34 million digital cameras were sold in the United States, generating $7 billion in revenue. Mr. Sasson visited the Troy campus recently, and was this year’s recipient of the Davies Medal for Engineering Achievement. He also was inducted into the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame.

Dr. Hoff is part of the team honored for the conception, design, development, and application of the first microprocessor. The subsequent commercial acceptance of this universal building block has enabled a multitude of novel digital electronic systems. Dr. Hoff also is a member of the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame.

And I am happy to add that, a few weeks ago, Professor B. Jayant Baliga (faculty, North Carolina State University), who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at Rensselaer in 1971 and 1974, was announced as a National Medal of Technology and Innovation honoree for his contributions to the development and commercialization of the Insulated Gate Bipolar Transistor and other power semiconductor devices. These are used extensively in transportation, lighting, medicine, defense, and renewable energy generation systems.

Of course, I must acknowledge the success of the IBM system, “Watson.” Rensselaer alumni Dr. David Ferrucci (’94), Adam Lally (’98), Dr. Chris Welty (’85, ’89, ‘95), and Dr. John Kelly (’78, ’80) had essential roles in the computer’s design. In winning the Jeopardy! Challenge by taking on the best players the game has seen, this system demonstrated a new level of language recognition by a computer. Last February, along with Dr. Chris Welty, we shared Watson’s triumph with panels, talks, and broadcasts, here in this concert hall.

The achievements I mentioned may have come with joy and pride, and they may have come with sacrifice and doubt. But none have come without a deep commitment, a resolve to finish the job in the face of obstacles.  They all have required resourcefulness because the real world is never exactly as we have imagined it. It always holds surprises.

And all that we have accomplished as a university is dependent upon engagement. We must understand and appreciate what is needed. We must negotiate, persuade, and cooperate. And, ultimately, engagement means sharing moments, experiences, burdens, and hopes.      

Such engagement shapes our success in addressing “the common purposes of life.” It is what pulls us, inexorably, into the endeavors that will change the world.

You know, education, by definition, is change. Education changes lives, and changes societies. It is challenge and hard work for great rewards. It is compelling because, ultimately, education is the choice for freedom.

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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