TROY — Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s new president plans to continue to expand the school’s profile in the Capital Region and in the industry-government-academic partnership boosting the area’s high-tech sector.
Martin Schmidt’s installation as the 19th president of the 200-year-old college comes as the federal government is poised to pour billions of dollars into technology research and development.
And it follows the 23-year tenure of Shirley Jackson, who greatly expanded RPI’s profile as a research university, among other transformational changes.
With this foundation to stand on, the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 signed into law this week presents a unique opportunity for RPI to make an outsized impact in the field of knowledge and in the world around it, Schmidt said.
The new president spoke to The Daily Gazette six weeks into his tenure. He already knows the broad areas he’d like to focus on — educational innovation, research, regional engagement and entrepreneurship — but not the specific details of how he’ll advance them.
He’ll be in a listen-and-learn mode for a few months so he can develop those specifics.
“I’m trying not to presuppose where the community wants to go,” he said.
Schmidt, 62, and his wife, Lynn, now live in Troy.
He grew up near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, with the common boyhood interest in building and tinkering. Narrowing his career choices to architecture or engineering, he chose RPI, which was strong in both.
But it was the era where minicomputers and personal computers were proliferating in businesses and homes, and he was drawn to micro-electronics instead of larger-scale construction. He earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering but didn’t put it to use right away.
“I felt like I wanted to learn more before I went into industry,” he said, so he began graduate studies at MIT, gradually becoming more and more involved in semiconductors.
He spent the next 41 years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first doing graduate and doctoral work, then as professor, researcher, entrepreneur and administrator. He was named provost of MIT in 2014, and was still serving in that role last year when the RPI search committee contacted him.
“It was never an intention of mine to get into academic leadership,” he said, looking back on his early years. He was asked to lead one of the labs where he worked, and accepted. The larger roles followed.
It wasn’t all academics all the time — Schmidt has been issued more than 30 patents, had a role in seven startup companies, and collaborated on research with external partners including 3M, Bosch and General Motors during his faculty days.
Schmidt says he was aware of changes happening at RPI and in its hometown during his four decades away but not to the extent most alumni would be. When you work for one college, he explained, it tends to push other colleges out of mind.
So when the search committee contacted him, “It wasn’t something that I immediately jumped on, I would say it intrigued me,” he said. “It was hard for me to have appreciated how personally meaningful it was to return to the institution that got you started.”
When he came back for interviews, Schmidt saw enormous potential in the situation, both at the Capital Region’s largest private university and in its third-largest city.
“The Rensselaer of today, the Troy of today, is a much different place, in a good way,” he said, comparing it to the late 1970s.
Troy was like a lot of cities in that era, nearing the bottom of a cycle of neglect and decay. Kendall Square near MIT is an upscale tech hub today but was a bit of a wasteland when he first saw it in 1981.
“As I walked around downtown Troy I was surprised by the revitalization,” Schmidt said.
RPI had changed as well.
“We are not without challenges but the quality of the students and faculty are really quite tremendous,” Schmidt said.
Jackson has said there was a malaise at RPI in the late 1990s, when she was hired as an agent of change. She addressed many of the challenges facing RPI, Schmidt said, and “I’m grateful for what I consider a very strong foundation this institution sits on.”
Schmidt said as he settles in, his instinctive focus is initially on four areas:
Innovation in education — RPI already has a tremendous history of this type of innovation, Schmidt said, so much so that some of his colleagues at MIT visited RPI to see how physics was taught and adopted their methods for themselves. What, he said, is the next wave of innovation RPI can push forward?
Research — RPI has multiple centers of research, including data science, artificial intelligence and precision medicine, Schmidt said. All are well-focused programmatically and touch on global challenges or mega trends. The goal now is to grow and to enhance those, he said, and a new federal initiative backed with tens of billions of dollars — the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors Act, or CHIPS — presents a unique opportunity to do that.
Regional engagement — This benefits both the region and the institution, Schmidt said. The city of Troy is front and center in this.
Innovation in entrepreneurship — Schmidt said there is a passion in all institutions of higher education for making a real-world impact with ideas, even more so at science and technical institutions. Startups and incubators are one way this happens, he said. “It does require research universities to facilitate those pathways.”
Beyond these things, the collaboration among RPI, other colleges, state and local governments and industry heavyweights such as IBM and GlobalFoundries pave the way for further regional growth in computer chips and microelectronics, Schmidt said.
He recalls reading trade publications decades ago and seeing New York pitch sites for semiconductor manufacturing. That’s the type of long-term commitment that’s needed to build a successful infrastructure and ecosystem, he said.
“What I learned at MIT is, if you look at the biotech revolution in the Boston area, that doesn’t happen by accident,” Schmidt said.