Rensselaer and its constituent departments and organizations are taking the 190th anniversary of the founding of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to consider and celebrate their past and plan for their future. The Institute has a long, colorful history worth reflecting upon for inspiration for its future direction. From the start, Rensselaer was a leading institution in higher education, employing revolutionary learning methods. It has been central to many important advances in a multitude of fields, and continues to be a leader in research in the 21st century. With the 200th anniversary of Rensselaer’s founding upcoming and drawing upon the successes of The Rensselaer Plan, President Shirley Ann Jackson announced The 2024 Plan in 2012 as a road map to the continued future success of Rensselaer.
Stephen van Rensselaer III served as lieutenant governor of New York, owned 1,200 square miles of eastern New York State, and was one of the richest people in history, with his estate valued at $68 billion in 2014 USD. The generally agreed upon founding of Rensselaer was marked by a letter from van Rensselaer to the Rev. Dr. Samuel Blatchford, a trustee of Union College. He asked Blatchford to assume the presidency of the Rensselaer School, which at the time was merely an idea for a school devoted to science. The letter also included appointments of the first Board of Trustees and Amos Eaton as the first senior professor, who effectively had the duties of a chief operations officer. Over the following months, the Board developed an unconventional protocol for instruction; students spent six hours daily performing experiments, then giving their own lectures, rather than listening to seminars from professors. The school opened on January 3, 1825 at the Old Bank Place in the then north end of Troy.
In the summer of 1830, the unique Rensselaer School Flotilla was held, in which the students and faculty embarked on towed canal boats for a 10 week cruise from Troy, up the Erie Canal, to Lake Erie, and back. During the unique educational experience, students and faculty engaged in lecture, conversation, and debate and studied the plants, animals, geology, “engineers in actual operation,” and the laboring of agriculturalists they encountered along their path, practicing methods of collecting field specimens. The topics of instruction of the Flotilla gives insight into the focuses of education at Rensselaer at the time: “Mineralogy, Geology, Botany, Zoology, Chemistry, Experimental Philosophy, and Practical Mathematics, particularly Land Surveying, Harbor Surveying, and Engineering.”
This event exemplifies the cutting edge, experimental education methods employed at Rensselaer in its early years. Continuing this trend, Rensselaer awarded the first four civil engineering degrees granted in the United States to members of the Class of 1835, launching a dynasty of the greatest US civil engineers of the time. Rensselaer occupied a rather unusual niche during this time as a purely graduate school; most of its students during the era already possessed degrees from top universities at the time of their admission. In 1832, the Rensselaer School changed its name to the Rensselaer Institute and moved to the Van der Heyden Mansion, where they would remain for only seven years.
The man behind this developmental period in the Institute’s history was Eaton, personal friend and life-long collaborator of van Rensselaer, and namesake of Amos Eaton Hall. Eaton professed the disciplines of botany, geology, mineralogy, and surveying. In his administrative roles, Eaton rebelled against the standard liberal arts style of education which prevailed at the time, consisting solely of lecture and recitation. His vision for higher education incorporated creativity, individual thought, and learning by experimentation and observation, focusing on the scientific method as the primary mode of learning. At earlier commencements, students presented a final demonstration lecture to the assembly, the first of its kind in American education, an example of Eaton’s vision. van Rensselaer died in 1839 and Eaton in 1842; this pair of losses dealt a great blow to the Institute and its continued development of revolutionary education methods, representing the end of an era in Rensselaer history.
In 1850, recently appointed Senior Professor Benjamin Franklin Greene, Class of 1842, implemented a radical transformation of the Institute after a lengthy tour of European technical schools. Greene transformed Rensselaer from a one- to two-year graduate school into a three-year, undergraduate-focused university incorporating concepts from its early years and Greene’s analysis of European polytechnic schools. The plan was for division of the Institute into six largely independent schools, some of which still exist today as the Schools of Engineering, Architecture, and Science. The ambitious plan required $1–2 million dollars of financing, a very large sum at the time, and the development of an architecture curriculum (for which there had never been a curriculum for at any school). The School of Architecture, however, wasn’t founded until 1929, and it’s primary residence, completed in 1932, was named the Greene Building to recognize his visionary plan ahead of his time. The plan also involved moving to a 32-acre site at the base of the hill which now contains the Approach. However, Greene abruptly left the Institute in 1859, before the plan could be completed, due to conflicts with the board of trustees. He then started the Glenmore School of Engineers in Troy, his own similar and competing institute, which failed after three years.
The 1860s saw further transformation of Rensselaer into a more recognizable form by today’s students. In 1861, the name was changed from Rensselaer Institute to its final form, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This was accompanied by the addition of a fourth year to the curriculum. The next year, the Great Fire of 1862 destroyed the majority of the City of Troy, including the entirety of RPI’s property. Talks of moving to New York City and merging with Columbia University cast great doubt over the future of the Institute. The decision to rebuild was made, and classes were held in the premises of the short-lived Troy University until construction of the Main Building on 8th Street was completed in 1864.
The 1860s also saw other changes to make RPI more recognizable. The Transit and The Polytechnic published for the first times in 1865 and 1869, respectively. Also, the Winslow Chemical Laboratory opened in 1866 next to the future location of the Approach on 8th Street, the oldest building on campus still actively in use.
Unique to RPI is the position of Grand Marshal, created in 1866 to honor an exalted member of the student body and honorable soldier returning from battle in the Civil War—Major Albert Metcalf Harper, Class of 1867, and a brother of Delta Phi. Harper was presented with a ceremonial sword and recognized as the highest-ranking leader of the student body. In its early years, the position was largely ceremonial, with duties primarily consisting of representing the student body to the administration and the community. The yearly election of GMs were marked with extravagant celebration, including dancing and a student parade, often lasting through the night.
Around this time, fraternities made their first appearance on campus. The first on campus was Theta Delta Chi in 1853. This was followed by the founding of the local fraternity Sigma Delta as a rival fraternity to Theta Delta Chi in 1859. Neither organizations exist on campus today. In 1864, the Lambda Chapter of the Delta Phi Fraternity was chartered at Rensselaer, one of two oldest currently active fraternities on campus. In 1864, the Alpha Chapter of the Theta Xi Fraternity was formed by eight former members of Sigma Delta, which would eventually become a 60,000 member-strong national organization of over 50 chapters. Theta Xi is still active today at Rensselaer, located at the corners of Sherry Road and Sage Avenue. Palmer C. Ricketts, Class of 1875, an extremely influential figure in RPI’s history, was one of Theta Xi’s early brothers.
The next major era of Rensselaer’s existence was brought about by Ricketts upon his appointment to director of the institute in 1892. In 1901, he was named president of the institute, where he would serve until his death in office in December 1934. During this long period of sustained growth, Ricketts oversaw the construction of ten major academic buildings and 29 dormitory buildings. Those buildings are recognizable today as the bulk of the northern part of campus, which were constructed in the brick colonial revival architectural styles, featuring copper roofs. At the time of assuming directorship, RPI consisted of five buildings between 8th Street and 10th Street. The Main Building and Winslow Building on 8th Street housed the majority of academic buildings. Next to the academic buildings was a gymnasium, the minor Ranken House (acting as a recitation room), and the Proudfit Observatory, which was infrequently used due to the lack of study of astronomy on campus at the time.
Ricketts found a substantial boost to his ability to expand campus through Margaret Olivia Sage, widow of railroad magnate and Trustee of the Institute Russell Sage. After his death in 1906, M. Sage became the wealthiest woman in the US with a net worth of $70 million. She immediately devoted a large portion of this fund toward promoting social and educational causes. Apart from providing the seed capital for the Russell Sage Colleges, M. Sage donated over $1 million for the construction of the Russell Sage Laboratory to house the new electrical and mechanical engineering departments, which was completed in 1909. Additionally, she donated $100,000 for the Russell Sage II Dining Hall, which was completed in 1916, to honor her nephew Russell Sage, Jr., Class of 1859.
Ricketts soon decided to continue the trend of RPI’s movement up to the hill toward its current location. At the last centennial celebration in 1924, the citizens of Troy raised the funds to construct the Troy Building, which housed the Civil Engineering department. The Class of 1887 donated $150,000 for the construction of the ’87 Gymnasium, built to replace the aging gymnasium down the hill. Other buildings constructed during this period include the Carnegie Building in 1906, built through a $125,000 donation by steel industry magnate Andrew Carnegie; the Approach staircase in 1907 by the City of Troy; Quadrangle Dormitories in 1916; Amos Eaton Hall in 1928; the Greene Building in 1931; North Hall and E-Complex Dormitories in 1932; and finally the Ricketts Building in 1935. Originally planned to be named in honor of van Rensselaer, the building name switched to honor Ricketts after his death in 1934. Also, in 1932, the Rensselaer Union Clubhouse was constructed, which is more familiarly known today as Lally Hall. Tragically, in 1904, two consecutive fires destroyed the Main Building and severely damaged the Winslow Building, cementing Rensselaer’s move up the hill.
Also during Rickett’s presidency, Rensselaer’s finances greatly improved from less than $500,000 to over $11 million, especially in part due to the actions of John M. Lockhart, a son of a founder of Standard Oil; he donated over $5 million under the pseudonym “Builder.” The number of degree programs offered increased from two to 12, including the addition of mechanical, electrical, metallurgical, aeronautical, and industrial engineering, plus biology, physics, and architecture. Enrollment increased from 200 to 1,900. Also, Rensselaer returned to the graduate education in this period. Rickett’s legacy was that of a period of great growth of the Institute.
Furious construction of buildings did not cease for long after Rickett’s death. To accommodate the increase of enrollment from 1,604 in 1945 to 3,987 five years later, a “tin town” of 50 surplus metal military barracks were installed to temporarily house students until the freshman hill dormitories were completed in 1953 and added to in 1958. This increase in flux of students following the conclusion of World War II was caused by the passing of post-war legislation encouraging higher education, especially the GI Bill, and the abundance of returning soldiers in search of opportunity.
The 1960s saw Rensselaer develop into a leader in new fields. The Gaerttner Linear Accelerator’s completion in 1961 catapulted the Physics Department to the forefront of the field of particle physics, allowing cutting edge research into the fundamental building blocks of matter. Evidence of this can still be seen in the Jonsson-Rowland Science Center, where a poster about research into exotic baryons still hangs alongside posters of molecular biology research. The Science Center built for $3 million and was dedicated on October 21, 1961, the same date of the dedication of the linear accelerator. The event was recognized by President of the United States John F. Kennedy in a message congratulating the Institute. Kennedy had been working closely with RPI graduate and future President of the Institute George M. Low ‘48 on the U.S. space program.
Low’s importance in the early development of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the subsequent landing of Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon can not be understated. The memorial museum in the George M. Low Center for Industrial Innovation, which completed in 1987, details Low’s accomplishments. Low was intimately involved in the design of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo Projects and even in the planning of NASA itself as an organization. Becoming deputy administrator of NASA in December 1969, Low was instrumental in developing the vision of NASA after the first moon landing, including spearheading the Space Shuttle, Skylab, and Apollo-Soyuz Test Projects and continuing the manned study of the moon through subsequent moon landings.
After retiring from NASA in 1976, Low became President of the Institute until his death in 1984. Under his leadership, the Jonsson Engineering Center was constructed, which would later become the centerpiece of the first administrative vision The 2024 Plan is a part of, The Rensselaer 2000 Plan. The Alan Voorhees Computing Center opened in 1979, housing RPI’s mainframe computer of the time and contributing to the development of computing research at RPI, which would eventually include such achievements as the Advanced Multiprocessing Optimized System in 2014, the fastest supercomputer at a private university. The RPI incubator program was founded in 1980 with the rededication of the H-Building. The first of its kind sponsored by a university, the incubator program encouraged the growth of startup companies and the commercialization of Rensselaer-developed technologies. The presence of this program would bring a focus within the Lally School of Management on entrepreneurship, which would later launch the Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship and offer the Technology Commercialization and Entrepreneurship master’s degree. This innovation by the Management School in leading management education mirrors the educational innovation of the early to mid 1800s by Rensselaer. Low tragically died while still president of the institute in 1984, a severe and unexpected loss to Rensselaer.
The next era in Rensselaer’s history was marked by President Shirley Ann Jackson’s assumption of the presidency of the institute in 1999. Entering office at the end of the term defined by The Rensselaer 2000 Plan, Jackson quickly set about evaluating the Institute and subsequently unveiled The Rensselaer Plan, a strategic vision to direct the Institute through the first decade of the 21st century. The Plan focused on improving the student experience, especially educational experience, through a variety of initiatives: increasing scientific and technological entrepreneurship, increasing diversity in a variety of areas, and revitalizing various campus communities.
New undergraduate programs have been created recently. These include new majors such as Bioinformatics and Molecular Biology, Cognitive Science, Electronic Arts, Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences, Information Technology and Web Science, Sustainability Studies, and Design, Innovation, and Society. Many of these majors are interdisciplinary and bring science, technology, arts, humanities, and social sciences together in order to create Rensselaer alumni with breadth and depth of knowledge. Programs in conjunction with other colleges have been launched to further expand the possibilities for RPI students in fields such as medicine and law. Accelerated and co-terminal degree programs additionally provide Rensselaer students with more options, based on their ambitions. RPI has also instituted the First-Year Experience and Navigating Rensselaer & Beyond programs to assist first-year students in their adjustment to RPI.
The Rensselaer Plan 2024 makes many commitments and thrusts to improve undergraduate and graduate education at RPI. Among these commitments are expanding Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students to include graduate students, creating an undergraduate honors program focused on research, and expanding the funding research. Research, especially interdisciplinary research, is a special focus of the Plan, because it is incredibly important for educating students and enhancing RPI’s reputation. Research provides undergraduate students with the skills and professional development needed in both graduate school and in the professional world. Another commitment is to increase diversity among students, faculty, and staff—not just ethnic diversity, but also gender, intellectual, and geographical diversity. Opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation to expand are also planned.
Another plan is to “Embed curricular and co-curricular activities designed to foster a culture of creativity, discovery, and innovation” and bring RPI’s strengths of science and technology to other fields. CLASS will be increased to include addressing global challenges and embracing diversity and inclusion. Academic and co-curricular opportunities, including leadership, will be expanded, too. Graduate CLASS will include establishing “a Graduate Center to provide advocacy, support, and guidance for graduate students, and their families, throughout their tenure at Rensselaer.”
Five thrusts to expand research are being instituted: nanotechnology, energy, computer science and IT, biotechnology, and media. There are additionally five critical research umbrellas: Beyond the Internet: Digital Meets Reality; Engineering Natural and Man-made Networks; CyberInfrastructure, Cyber-Security, and Technology-Assisted Decision Making; Data Analytics; Infrastructural Resilience, Sustainability, and Stewardship.
With the Rensselaer Plan 2024, RPI commits to drawing on its legacy and building up RPI to be even more of a world-class university. Research, resources for students to help them succeed at Rensselaer and beyond, and interdisciplinary academics are among the various commitments planned. Rensselaer’s colorful and celebrated past, along with The Plan and its structure for implementation, indicates that yet more greatness is to come.