RPI's mission has slowly evolved over the years while retaining its focus on the scientific and technological roots upon which the school was founded. Adopted by the Board of Trustees in 1995, RPI's current mission is to "educate the leaders of tomorrow for technologically based careers. We celebrate discovery, and the responsible application of technology, to create knowledge and global prosperity.
The school opened on Monday, January 3, 1825 at the Old Bank Place, a building at the north end of Troy. The opening was announced by a notice, signed by the president, and printed in the Troy Sentinel of December 28. The school attracted students from New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The fact that the school attracted students from afar is attributed to the reputation of Eaton. Fourteen months of successful trial led to the incorporation of the school on March 21, 1826 by the State of New York. In its early years, the Rensselaer School had greater resemblance of a graduate school than of a college. It drew graduates of older institutions such as Amherst, Bowdoin, Columbia, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, Union, Wesleyan, Williams, and Yale. Indeed, there was a considerable stream from Yale, where there were several teachers interested in the sciences.
During this period, the Rensselaer School, renamed the Rensselaer Institute in 1832, was a small but vital center for technological research. The first Civil Engineering degrees in the United States were granted by the school in 1835, and many of the best remembered civil engineers of that time graduated from the school. Important visiting scholars included Joseph Henry, who had previously studied under Amos Eaton, and Thomas Davenport, who sold the world's first working electric motor to the institute.
In 1847, alumnus Benjamin Franklin Greene became the new senior professor. Earlier he had done a thorough study of European technical schools to see how Rensselaer could be improved. In 1850 he reorganized the school into a three-year polytechnic institute with six technical schools. In 1861 the name was changed to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
RPI enjoyed a period of academic and resource expansion under the leadership of President Palmer Ricketts. Born in 1856 in Elkton, Maryland, Ricketts came to RPI in 1871 as a student. Named President in 1901, Ricketts liberalized the curriculum by adding the Department of Arts, Science, and Business Administration and the Graduate School. He also expanded the university’s resources and developed RPI into a true polytechnic institute by increasing the number of degrees offered from two to a dozen; these included electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, biology, chemistry, and physics. During Rickett's tenure, enrollment increased from approximately 200 in 1900 to a high of 1700 in 1930.
Another period of expansion occurred following World War II. Enrollment for the 1946 school year was so high that temporary dormitories had to be constructed. Fifty surplus metal military barracks, each housing 20 students, were arranged into a trailer-park like camp over a mile from campus nicknamed "tin town". This arrangement was used by students until new freshman residence halls were opened in 1953. The new dorm complex, affectionately called "Freshman Hill", was subsequently expanded with the Commons Dining Hall in 1954, two more halls in 1958, and three more in 1968, just in time for the baby boomers. The year 1961 saw major progress in academics at the institute with the construction of the Gaerttner Linear Accelerator, then the most powerful in the world, and the Jonsson-Rowland Science Center. In addition to new academic buildings, the growing student body also needed a large dedicated building for the Student Union which was finished in 1967.
The next three decades brought continued growth with many new buildings (see 'Campus' below). It was during these years that the university began to become proactive in helping businesses. In 1980, several researchers and graduate students who wished to start a company approached the administration and asked for a place to set up a small lab. The administration provided them with a basement in an old engineering building. Two weeks later, another start-up company made a similar request. It was at this point that the J-building, which had previously been used for storage, became the home for the RPI incubator program, the first such program sponsored solely by a university. Shortly after this, RPI decided to invest $3 million in pavement, water and power on around of land it owned south of campus. Now known as the Rensselaer Technology Park, companies can rent out the land, and if they want, collaborate with RPI students and researchers. As companies began to move in, the New York State government realized how the university was helping the local economy. This is one of the reasons legislation was passed to grant RPI $30 million to build the George M. Low Center for Industrial Innovation, a center for industry sponsored research and development.
In 1999, RPI gained attention when it was one of the first universities to implement a mandatory laptop program. Many saw the program as unnecessary, costly, and rushed into practice too quickly by the administration. However, the program has persisted, and remains an integral part of life at RPI, with many courses requiring that a student bring their laptop to class. 1999 also saw the arrival of President Shirley Ann Jackson. A graduate of MIT, Dr. Jackson had held physics research positions at Bell Labs and Rutgers University, and had most recently served as chairperson for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She brought with her "The Rensselaer Plan" (discussed below), an ambitious plan to revitalize the institute. Many advances have been made under the plan, and Jackson has enjoyed the ongoing support of the RPI Board of Trustees. However, her leadership style may not sit well with many faculty; on April 26, 2006, RPI faculty voted 155 to 149 against a vote of no-confidence in Jackson. In August 2007, Jackson's administration disbanded the faculty senate and called for a full review of faculty governance, prompting a strong reaction from the Rensselaer community, including faculty petitions against the measure and a faculty hosted "teach in".
Having nearly two centuries of history and a high tech future in store, the Princeton Review remarks, “Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is simultaneously the oldest technological school in the country and the most modern school of technology in the U.S. It’s like George Jetson meets Archimedes.”
President Palmer Ricketts supervised the construction of the school's "Green Rooftop" Colonial Revival buildings that give much of the campus a distinct architectural style. Buildings constructed during this period include the Carnegie Building (1906), Walker Laboratory (1907), Russell Sage Laboratory (1909), Pittsburgh Building (1912), Quadrangle Dormitories (1916–1927), Troy Building (1925), Amos Eaton Hall (1928), Greene Building (1931) and Ricketts Building (1935). Also built during this period was "The Approach" (1907), a massive ornate granite staircase found on the west end of campus. Originally linking RPI to the Troy Union Railroad station, it again serves as an important link between the city and the university.
After World War II, the campus again underwent major expansion. Nine dormitories were built at the east edge of campus bordering Burdett Avenue, a location which came to be called "Freshman Hill." The Houston Field House (1949) was reassembled, after being moved in pieces from its original Rhode Island location. West Hall, which was originally built in 1869 as a hospital, was acquired by the Institute in 1953. The ornate building is an example of French Second Empire architecture. Another unique building is the Voorhees Computing Center (VCC). Originally built as St. Joseph’s Seminary chapel in 1933, it was once the institute's library, until the completion of the Folsom Library in (1976). Interestingly, the new library, built adjacent to the computing center, was designed to match colors with the church, but is very dissimilar architecturally; it being an excellent example of the modern brutalist style – a style that has invited comparisons with a parking garage. The university was unsure of what to do with the church, or whether to keep it at all, but in 1979 the institute decided to preserve it and renovate it into a unique place for computer labs and facilities to support the institute's computing initiatives.
The modern campus features more modernly styled structures such as the Jonsson-Rowland Science Center (J-ROWL) (1961), Materials Research Center (MRC)(1965), Rensselaer Union (1967), Cogswell Laboratory (1971), Darrin Communications Center (DCC) (1973), Jonsson Engineering Center (JEC) (1977), Low Center for Industrial Innovation (CII) (1987), a public school building which was converted into Academy Hall (1990), and the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (2004). Although rarely used by students, a system of tunnels connects the Low Center, DCC, JEC, and Science Center. A tenth dormitory named Barton Hall was added to Freshman Hill in August 2000, featuring the largest rooms available for freshmen.
On October 4, 2008, the university celebrated the grand opening of the expansive Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) situated on the west edge of campus. The building was constructed on the precipice of the hill, with the main entrance on top. Upon entrance, futuristic walkways lead into a 1,200 seat concert hall. Most of the building is encased in a glass exoskeleton, with an atrium-like space between it and the "inner building". Adjacent to and underneath the main auditorium there is also a 400 seat theater, offices, and three studios with to ceilings. In October 2007, tentative plans were announced for a major addition to the Jonsson-Rowland Science Center, which would add 100,000 to 120,000 square feet of lab space. Although final designs have not been announced, the plan is to build an adjacent building in a fashion similar to the Biotechnology center, with the second inner L-shaped building being built adjacent to the Science Center, with a glass-enclosed atrium between the two. And like the biotechnology center, the new addition will house most of the lab facilities, and the older building will house mostly classrooms and offices.
RPI also runs a campus in Hartford, Connecticut, a distance learning center in Groton, Connecticut, and a navy-based nuclear training facility in Malta, New York. These centers are used by graduates and working professionals and are managed by the Hartford branch of RPI, Rensselaer at Hartford. At Hartford, graduate degrees are offered in Business Administration, Management, Computer Science, Computer and Systems Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Engineering Science, Mechanical Engineering, and Information Technology. There are also a number of certificate programs and skills training programs for working professionals.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has five schools: Architecture, Engineering, Humanities & Social Sciences, The Lally School of Management and Technology, and Science. The School of Engineering is the largest by enrollment, followed by the School of Science, the School of Management, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and the School of Architecture. There also exists an interdisciplinary program in Information Technology that began in the late 1990s, programs in prehealth and prelaw, Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) for students desiring commissions as officers in the armed forces, a program in Cooperative Education (Co-Op), and domestic and international exchange programs. All together, the university offers around 140 degree programs in nearly 60 fields that lead to bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. RPI is a technology-oriented university; all buildings and residence hall rooms have hard-wired high speed internet access, most of the campus buildings have wireless, and all incoming freshmen have been required to purchase a laptop computer since 1999. In 2004, Forbes ranked RPI #1 for having the "most connected campus.
The Newsweek/Kaplan 2007 Educational College Guide proclaimed Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute one of the 25 "New Ivies", an elite group of 25 schools that provide an education equivalent to schools in the Ivy League. Nationally, RPI is a member of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) and the NAICU's University and College Accountability Network (U-CAN).
The ability to attract greater research funds is needed to meet the goals of the plan, and the university has set a goal of $100 million annually. As of 2006, research expenditures have reached $90 million per annum. The university recognizes the relatively small size of its endowment compared to its competition (cf. Case Western Reserve U., University of Rochester, etc.), as well as its relatively strong dependence on funds from undergraduate tuition to support its operations. To help raise money the university mounted a $1 billion capital campaign, of which the public phase began in September 2004 and was expected to finish by 2008. In 2001, a major milestone of the campaign was the pledging of an unrestricted gift of $360 million by an anonymous donor, believed to be the largest such gift to a U.S. university at the time. The university had been a relative stranger to such generosity as the prior largest single gift was $15 million. By September 2006, the $1 billion goal has been exceeded much in part to an in-kind contribution of software commercially-valued at $513.95 million by the Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering Education (PACE). In light of this, the board of trustees announced a new goal of $1.4 billion by June 30, 2009. The new goal was met by October 1, 2008.
The Lally School of Management and Technology’s entrepreneurship programs ranked 21st in the nation, and its technological entrepreneurship program was ranked sixth by Entrepreneur Magazine. The Lally School's corporate strategy program was ranked first in the nation by BusinessWeek magazine.
The Electronic Arts program is one of the highest ranked departments at RPI. For four years in a row U.S. News ranked the iEAR program 8th in the nation: 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006.
RPI has established six areas of research as institute priorities: biotechnology, energy and the environment, nanotechnology, computation and information technology, and media and the arts. Advances in these fields have the potential to effect dramatic transformations in 21st century society.
RPI is home to the United States' first on-campus business incubator, which has helped start over 180 companies in its lifetime, with a survival rate of about 80%. One of the largest companies to have originated in the incubator is MapInfo, a major publisher of mapping and geographic information systems software which is still headquartered in Troy, NY. Others incubator success stories include Vicarious Visions, a well known maker of video games, and CORESense, Inc., a leading provider of multi-channel retail software. RPI operates the Rensselaer Technology Park, which is home to over 50 technologically oriented companies. The park is about south of the campus along the Hudson River. Park tenants collaborate with faculty and students on research projects and hire students for internships, co-ops, and employment.
Some notable research centers operated by RPI are the Terahertz Research Center, Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center, New York State Center for Polymer Synthesis, Darrin Fresh Water Institute, Center for Automation Technologies and Systems, and the Lighting Research Center. The Lighting Research Center (LRC) is the leading university-based research center devoted to lighting, offering the world's only M.S. degree in lighting. Since 1988 it has built an international reputation as a reliable source for objective information about lighting technologies, applications, and products. The LRC provides training programs for government agencies, utilities, contractors, lighting designers, and other lighting professionals.
RPI conducts nuclear research at the 60MeV Gaerttner Linear Accelerator (LINAC) Laboratory. The LINAC is used primarily for the testing of materials, but there is also ongoing research in neutron generation and other technologies. The lab made the news with discoveries regarding bubble fusion and portable pyroelectric fusion devices. Other important research facilities include the geotechnical centrifuge, used for civil engineering simulations, and RPI's array of six subsonic, supersonic and hypersonic wind tunnels.
In May 2006, RPI announced a partnership with IBM and New York State to create the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, a supercomputing center to be used for nanotechnology research. As of June 2008, the $100 million center is North America's most powerful university-based supercomputing center and the 22nd most powerful supercomputing center of any kind in the world.
In the 2006–2007 academic year, RPI's enrollment included 5,142 resident undergraduate, 1,131 resident graduate, 707 graduate students on the Hartford campus, and 189 distance students. It attracts students from every state and 92 foreign countries.
Enrollment was small before the twentieth century and has grown steadily ever since then. Enrollment figures are as follows:
It should be noted that the male-to-female ratio varies significantly between individual schools. For example, the School of Architecture is more than 50% female. However many programs in engineering, mathematics, and the physical sciences have a ratio of around 7:1. One of the stated goals of the Rensselaer Plan is to "reflect the diversity of the global community" in the student body, which includes encouraging more women to enroll.
The school features a competitive Division I ice hockey team, the Engineers, who won NCAA national titles in 1954 and 1985. The official nickname of some of the school's Division III teams was changed in 1995 from the Engineers to the Red Hawks. However the hockey, football, cross-country, tennis, and track and field teams all chose to retain the Engineers name. The Red Hawks name was, at the time, very unpopular among the student body; a Red Hawk mascot was frequently taunted with thrown concessions and chants of "kill the chicken!" In contrast, the official hockey mascot known as The Puckman has always been very popular. The Puckman is an anthropomorphic hockey puck with an engineer's helmet.
Depending on how the rules are interpreted, the RPI hockey team may have the longest winning streak on record for a Division I team; in the 1984-85 season it went undefeated for 30 games, but one game was against the University of Toronto, a Canadian team. Continuing into the 1985-86 season, RPI continued undefeated over 38 games, including two wins over Toronto. Adam Oates, a player during that time, went on to become a star in the NHL. Joe Juneau, who played from 1987 to 1991, also spent many years in the NHL.
The hockey team plays a significant role in the campus's culture, drawing thousands of fans each week to the Houston Field House during the season. The team's popularity even sparked the tradition of the hockey line, where students line up for season tickets months in advance of the on-sale date. Another tradition since 1978 has been the "Big Red Freakout!" game held close to the first weekend of February. Fans usually dress in the schools colors Red and White, and gifts such as tee-shirts are distributed en masse. In hockey the school's biggest rival has always been the upstate engineering school Clarkson University.
The lacrosse team won the national championship in 1952. The lacrosse team also represented the United States in the 1948 Olympics in London. Ned Harkness coached the lacrosse and ice hockey teams, winning national championships in both sports.
The Redhawk baseball squad is perennially atop the rankings of the Liberty League, winning it in 2008 with the help of Liberty League Pitcher of the year Joe Zongol. The team is coached by ex-New York Yankee Karl Steffen (Ithaca '78) with Steve "Smoke" Allard (Massachusetts '87) as Assistant Coach. The Redhawks play their home games at the Robinson Field.
Since 1903 RPI and nearby Union College have been rivals in football, making it the oldest such rivalry in the state. The teams play for the Dutchman's Shoes. Led by Jared Blais the 2008 Engineers look to compete for a National Championship. As defending Liberty League Champions they have the target on their back but Blais seems poised to have a breakout season and lead them to the NCAA playoffs once again.
As part of the Rensselaer Plan, the institute has undertaken a major project to improve its athletic facilities with the East Campus Athletic Village. The plan outlines construction of a new and much larger 4,842 seat football stadium, a basketball arena with seating for 1,200, a new 50-meter pool, an indoor track and field complex, new tennis courts, new weight rooms and a new sports medicine center. The institute broke ground on August 26, 2007 and construction of the first phase is expected to last two years. With the completion of the new stadium, the bleachers on the Class of '86 football field on the central campus will be removed and the field will become an open space. In the future the new space could be used for expansions of the academic buildings, but for now members of the campus planning team foresee a "historic landscape with different paths and access ways for students and vehicles alike".
The students of RPI have created and participate in a variety of student-run clubs and organizations funded by the Student Union. The Union is unusual in that it is entirely student-run and its operations are paid for by activity fees. About 170 of these organizations are funded by the Student Union, while another thirty, which consist mostly of political and religious organizations, are self-supporting. It is a justifiable source of pride for the institute. In 2006, for instance, the Princeton Review ranked RPI second for "more to do on campus. See the official listing of clubs and organizations for a full and up to date list.
Phalanx is RPI's Senior Honor Society. It was founded in 1912, when Edward Dion and the Student Council organized a society to recognize those RPI students who have distinguished themselves among their peers in the areas of leadership, service, and devotion to the alma mater. It is a fellowship of the most active in student activities, and since its founding over 1300 members have been inducted.
Greek organizations are popular with about 30 social fraternities and 5 sororities. There are three coed fraternities, two of which are social fraternities, the Rensselaer Society of Engineers and Psi Upsilon, while the other, Alpha Phi Omega, is a service fraternity. As such, about a third of men are in fraternities and about a fifth of women are in sororities.
RPI has around twenty intramural sports organizations, many of which are broken down into different divisions based on level of play. Greek organizations compete in them as well as independents. There are also thirty-nine club sports. Given the university's proximity to the Berkshires, Green Mountains, and Adirondacks, the ski club is one of the largest groups on campus with weekly trips to local ski areas during the winter months.
The Rensselaer Polytechnic is the student-run weekly school newspaper. The Poly prints about 7000 copies each week, and distributes them around campus. Although it is the Union club with the largest budget, The Poly receives no subsidy from the Union, and obtains all funding through the sale of ads. There is also a popular student run magazine called Statler & Waldorf.
RPI has an improvisational comedy group, Sheer Idiocy, which performs several shows a semester, as well as a sketch comedy troupe, Experimental Error. There are also several music groups ranging from a cappella groups such as the Rensselyrics, the Rusty Pipes and Partial Credit, to several instrumental groups such as the Orchestra, the Jazz Band, and a classical choral group, the Rensselaer Concert Choir.
Another notable organization on campus is WRPI, the campus radio station. WRPI differs from most college radio in that it serves a radius including the greater Albany area. With 10 kW of broadcasting power, WRPI maintains a stronger signal than nearly all college radio stations and some commercial stations. WRPI currently broadcasts on 91.5 FM in the Albany area.
The RPI Players is an on-campus theater group which was formed in 1929. The Players resided in the Old Gym until 1965 when they moved to their present location at the 15th Street Lounge. This distinctive red shingled building had been a USO hall for the US Army before being purchased by RPI. The Players have staged over 260 productions in its history.
Several notable 19th century civil engineers graduated from RPI. These include the visionary of the transcontinental railroad, Theodore Judah, Brooklyn Bridge engineer Washington Roebling, George W. G. Ferris (who built the first Ferris wheel) and Leffert L. Buck, the chief engineer of the Williamsburg Bridge in NYC.
Many RPI graduates have gone on to change the world with their inventions. Famous among these inventors are:
In addition to NVIDIA, RPI graduates have also gone on to found or co-found major companies such as John Wiley and Sons, Texas Instruments, Fairchild Semiconductor, PSINet, MapInfo, Adelphia Communications, Level 3 Communications, Garmin, and Bugle Boy. Several RPI graduates have played a part in the US space program; graduate George Low was manager of NASA for the Apollo 11 project and served as president of RPI. Alumni astronauts include John L. Swigert Jr., Richard Mastracchio and space tourist Dennis Tito. There are also several political figures from RPI, including federal judge Arthur J. Gajarsa, director of DARPA Tony Tether, MA-1 representative John Olver and Senators Mark Shepard(VT) and George R. Dennis(MD). Notable hockey players include two-time Calder Cup winner Neil Little (1994), Joé Juneau (1991) and Adam Oates (1985).
Other notable alumni include physics Nobel Prize winner Ivar Giaever (1964); director of Linux International Jon Hall (1977); president of the NCAA Myles Brand (1964); adult stem cell pioneer James Fallon; and director Bobby Farrelly.