Four Rensselaer alumni were honored last Friday during the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame 2013 Induction Ceremony. Alfred Tredway White Class of 1865 was an engineer and philanthropist who worked to improve the living conditions of the poor. Lewis B. Combs Class of 1916 cofounded the Seabees. The third inductee, Thomas W. Phelan Jr. was the dean of School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences for over twenty years. Finally, B. Jayant Baliga ’74 developed the insulated gate bipolar transistor, which is used in many electronics today.
According to Assistant Vice President for Alumni Relations Jeffrey Schanz, with the addition of these four notable Rensselaer graduates, the Hall of Fame is now comprised of 72 total alumni. Schanz thanked the selection committee and introduced Chairman of the Board of Trustees Arthur J. Gajarsa, who pointed out that the four alumni being inducted “remind us how important it is to have a Rensselaer education.”
Before the induction, President Shirley Ann Jackson gave a speech about the Institute and how innovations in academics, research, and student life are driving Rensselaer forward. Jackson also offered congratulations to those who had graduated in 1963, the “newest class to enter the 50-year club,” while reminiscing about her own reunions at MIT.
As well, Jackson explained the need for a Rensselaer education. According to Jackson, many issues exist in today’s world, and an interdisciplinary education like the type offered at Rensselaer will prepare students to solve these problems. She talked about the difficulties of educating the “cyber-savvy” students who are “not tempered by life, need and deserve Rensselaer’s support in every aspect of their life.” According to Jackson, the Class of 2017 is the largest class in Rensselaer history, with around 1500 students. To educate these students, 29 new tenured and tenure-track professors have been hired this past year. Also, part of the Rensselaer Plan according to Jackson is “giving all students a chance to do research.” Students deemed in need of the extra help will be offered an online calculus course the summer before coming to Rensselaer. Another project to further Rensselaer education is the Mandarin project to “teach students Mandarin and Chinese culture.” Education is not the only part of students’ lives being enhanced; according to Jackson, the Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students initiative “is designed to foster the interactions in all students” by facilitating community in each class year. The Center for Career and Professional Development has programming specifically for each year to help students’ future careers. Juniors are encouraged to seek out a co-op or to study abroad. Additionally, RPI athletics are also doing well; men’s hockey was second in the ECAC last year while earning an average of a 3.4 GPA. All of these advances are recognized; this year, the US News and World Report ranked Rensselaer 41st best among U.S. colleges.
During the induction ceremony, Jackson recognized several members of the Rensselaer Hall of Fame present in the audience as well as their relatives. She and Gajarsa then inducted the four new members of the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame. Alfred Tredway White Class of 1865, represented by his great-granddaughter, was honored for his work on improving tenements. White also raised money to help elevate the living conditions of the poor. He designed new tenements and set higher standards for tenements in general.
Lewis B. Combs Class of 1916 cofounded the Seabees of World War II. The Seabees built much of the infrastructure used during World War II, such as airstrips and medical structures built in hostile territory. Combs returned to RPI from 1947 to 1962 to head the Department of Civil Engineering. Combs was represented by his grand-nephew.
During his time as dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences from 1972–1994, Thomas W. Phelan Jr. bridged the gap between HASS and science and technology. Rensselaer’s Department of Science and Technology Studies was one of the first steps in this process. The arts department at RPI also became far more interdisciplinary under Phelan’s tenure. Phelan also built the Chapel + Cultural Center and served as a mentor and counselor to many students. He was represented by his niece, who also went to RPI and graduated in 2000.
B. Jayant Baliga ’74 was honored for his work on power semiconductor devices. He invented the IGBT, which is an energy-saving electronic devicethat is essential to the smart grid. The IGBT, according to Baliga, powers air conditioning units, washing machines, robots, compact fluorescents, and defibrillators. The IGBT saves a great deal of energy through doing so. Baliga was the only alum honored who is still alive; he thanked the committee for allowing him to stand there and be awarded for his achievements. Baliga was one of the first students from India to attend Rensselaer as a graduate student. He noted that many faculty had reservations, but he graduated with a 4.0 GPA. Baliga has taught at Rensselaer as an adjunct as well as worked at GE, where he invented the IGBT.
These four alumni join the 68 already honored since the Alumni Hall of Fame’s inception in 1995. Next year and beyond will hopefully allow many more deserving alumni to earn this distinction.