Town Meeting

Schmidt holds first Town Hall as president

After a brief opener by John Kolb, the vice president for Information Services and Technology and chief information officer, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Martin A. Schmidt identified “four key areas of opportunity” for the Institute: education, research, translation of ideas, and regional engagement. Schmidt advocated for a more student-driven education at Rensselaer, an increased use of campus research centers, and a focus on translating RPI’s discoveries into the real world. He then brought up that RPI was ranked third nationwide in the percentage of alumni who become inventors, according to Opportunity Insights, a research institute focusing on improving economic opportunities.

For the fourth area of opportunity, regional engagement, Schmidt wants the Institute to “deliberately amplify the strengths of [the Capital region],” noting the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act supported local semiconductor manufacturing. Schmidt also mentioned diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of RPI’s “warm and supportive culture.” Schmidt also mentioned about the importance of making campus more accessible for disabled students.

Schmidt said a draft report on the campus climate survey conducted back in 2021 was expected before Thanksgiving.

Schmidt acknowledged concerns about the Arch, such as the difficulty in receiving Arch exemptions and the stress from doing three or four semesters in a row. However, Schmidt also believes the Arch is an important opportunity to “differentiate and deepen the Rensselaer education” and asked Vice President for Student Life Peter A. Konwerski to look into “pain points.”

A student-led Union has remained a point of controversy ever since the Save The Union protests back in 2016. Schmidt said a student-led Union should be a source of pride, but there should be “greater clarity about what has changed” and how those changes impact a student-run Union. Schmidt then mentioned he will discuss the matter more fully with Grand Marshal Cait Bennett ’22G and President of the Union Colleen Corrigan ’21G.

Other topics included the state of Greek Life at RPI and the Institute’s rankings and recognition. Schmidt also elaborated a three-step plan for the next decade, emphasizing that all members of the RPI community can contribute to the plan.

The first step of the plan is to receive feedback on the four areas of opportunity plus Schmidt’s statement on inclusivity. After deciding on the areas, the second step would refine the ideas by commissioning five groups to release a set of reports by the end of the Spring 2023 semester. The final step would be to integrate the reports into the plan by the end of that same year.

Before the Q&A, Schmidt talked about RPI’s upcoming 200th birthday in 2024, picturing the bicentennial as a series of events that will allow the Institute to celebrate its achievements and tell the world who RPI is. Web Technologies Group chairperson Gabriel Jacoby-Cooper ’24 asked if students will be involved in planning the bicentennial, with Schmidt replying that it is still too early to tell.

Class of 2024 Senator Harper Chisari led multiple questions on tech and entrepreneurship. Chisari remarked that RPI used to have a business incubator in the J Building and wondered if there were any spaces on campus allocated for that purpose. Schmidt replied that it is too early to give an answer, but compared RPI’s education to “building a runway” for innovative ideas. Schmidt also noted that incubators and mentors are available in the Troy area. Chisari followed up by asking how RPI will “bridge the physical thought gap” between the Rensselaer Technology Park and the main campus, as the two areas are far apart. In response, Schmidt called the park an “asset for certain characteristic elements,” and an opportunity for projects that require more working space. Chisari’s final question involved the Institute’s lack of quantum computing and photonics in the current curriculum. Schmidt handed the question off to Dean of Engineering Dr. Shekhar Garde, who affirmed that RPI is hiring faculty in both fields.

An audience member noted off-campus incidents are underreported for fear of repercussions due to the Institute’s “hardline measures” in mitigating these incidents and wondered how the process would look in the future. Schmidt forwarded the question to Konwerski, who emphasized education, bystander intervention, and a “community of care and concern.” Konwerski also said RPI generally has “students who make really good decisions.”

Graduate Senator Alexander Lutsevich brought to attention an underrepresented group on RPI: children. Lutsevich, an international student and a father, noticed a “stark contrast” with the institutional support he receives as a parent in comparison to the official RPI guidelines. He further noted that there used to be a daycare on campus that is now inactive. Schmidt replied that the Institute is “working very aggressively” on building a child care facility and are narrowing down on potential sites local to campus. Howie Lien, the assistant director of Student Activities, added that RPI should also consider a dog park on campus.

Editor-in-Chief of The Polytechnic Alexander Orr asked if there was a plan or team prepared to make the campus more accessible for disabled students. Schmidt acknowledged there were challenges to the physical layout of campus but hoped to analyze each building and determine areas deemed inaccessible. He then considered tackling classrooms first, since those spaces are most often used by students.

An audience member voiced concerns about RPI’s unreliable shuttle service, mentioning that students who live in dorms far away from campus have a hard time dealing with getting home. They then asked if there was a plan to improve the shuttle system as a whole. Schmidt responded that a major struggle was getting drivers and vehicles for the service, and he doesn’t know when the Institute can “get ourselves to a better spot.” Schmidt added that it’s “not a great answer, but it’s the truth.”

For the final question, Brandon Costelloe-Kuehn, a Science and Technology Studies lecturer, raised the possibility of adding an office of sustainability or an office of community engagement to RPI. The purpose of these offices would be to provide institutional support for student projects and allow them to “break through to another level.” Schmidt admitted RPI needed more people working in community engagement as there is currently one staff member in Government & Community Relations. He also added that the Institute may not necessarily have the resources to elevate student projects regardless of how exceptional they are. Schmidt concluded his response by calling the sustainability office “a great thing,” but noted it may take a while to organize.

The Fall Town Hall was held on Wednesday, November 2, at 3 pm at the EMPAC theater.