Institutional Transformation

Shirley Ann Jackson

Not unlike many other colleges and universities today, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute faces challenges. For much of its over 175-year history, Rensselaer has realized many notable accomplishments with limited resources, but the gap between its aspirations and its means widened throughout the 1990s, and the pace of growth in research funding, advanced degrees, and endowment lagged. Shirley Ann Jackson assumed the presidency of Rensselaer in mid-1999 and immediately launched an effort to reenergize and transform the institution. She guided the rapid development of a detailed plan that articulates both a strategic vision for Rensselaer and the means by which to achieve it. Jackson describes the planning process and its implementation to date.

Planning the Work

The charge given to me when I became president of Rensselaer was to lead the institute into the 21st century by piloting it through a transformation that would affect its organizational structure, its perception by others, its wealth and financial health, and most importantly, the quality and nature of the activities it pursues to fulfill its mission. The process began with a clear articulation of an ambitious goal: “to achieve greater prominence in the 21st century as a top-tier, world-class technological research university with global reach and global impact.”

In my inaugural address in the fall of 1999, I posed five key “directive questions” that I felt Rensselaer had to address as a community:

  1. What defines the intellectual core in key disciplines at Rensselaer? Is it important and why?
  2. In these disciplines, are we in a leadership position? Do we set the standard and the agenda? That is, do we have great impact nationally and globally?
  3. If we are not in a leadership position, do we have the underlying strengths and capabilities necessary to move rapidly into a position of primacy with the proper focus and investment?
  4. Are there areas that are so vital and so important that we must create a presence in them (even if we do not already have one) in order to stand in the community of world-class universities?
  5. What areas of current endeavor must we be willing to transform—or to give up—in order to focus our resources and our energies to create the impact we envision?

These five questions became the core of an elaborate strategic planning process to create an ambitious, integrated plan for the whole university. Known as the Rensselaer Plan, it would address fundamentals and serve as the basis for future, more-detailed performance and operating plans.

What most shaped the planning exercise, however, was a three-dimensional approach wherein planning occurred in three directions simultaneously: horizontally, across the institute; vertically, from the top down; and orthogonally, from an outside, independent perspective.

The horizontal aspect was driven by RealCom—the Rensselaer Assessment Leadership Committee—a group of about 15 people, led by the provost, who conducted nearly two dozen open workshops, each focused on a particular academic school or administrative division (called “portfolios”). Discussions were centered on the five directive questions, distilling out the issues and opportunities for each portfolio. The vertical aspect of the process was led by the deans and vice presidents, who used the directive questions to assess their portfolios’ strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities, and to shape a vision for them. The orthogonal aspect was conducted by outside consultants—the Washington Advisory Group and an administrative executive from MIT, who reported the results of their assessments directly to the president.

The Rensselaer Plan

The Rensselaer Plan articulates a strategic vision and delineates the means to achieve it. It is an “evergreen” plan, designed to be refreshed on a regular basis. The overarching goals outlined in the plan are as follows:

  • Greater prominence—top tier, world class
  • Becoming a true technological research university
  • Global reach and global impact

The plan delineates the university’s core enterprises:

  • Resident undergraduate education
  • Research and graduate education
  • Education for working professionals
  • Scientific and technological entrepreneurship

Finally, the plan set out three markers to guide all our activities: excellence, leadership, and community.

To drive commitment, the plan posits resource reallocation from discontinued programs and services; redirection and reallocation of personnel and facilities; the use of discretionary funds, incentive funds, and new resources including general funds, grants and contracts; and a capital campaign.

The Rensselaer board of trustees unanimously approved the plan in May 2000.

Working the Plan

It is one thing to make a plan, another to “work” it. The Rensselaer Plan contains 147 “we will” statements, or promissory notes on a blueprint for the future. To work the plan, each portfolio is required to develop an annual performance plan. Each year, in advance of performance planning, a retreat and workshop involving the institute leadership (deans and vice presidents—i.e., portfolio “owners”) identifies institute-wide highest priority initiatives. In its planning, each portfolio addresses these institute-wide priorities as they affect, or are affected by, the portfolio. Each year, through its own consultative process, each portfolio also identifies its own priorities and rank-orders them. The resulting performance plans define the means by which academic and administrative units achieve the Rensselaer Plan. They are three-year, forward-looking plans, resource-loaded on a year-to-year basis dependent upon the rank-ordering of activities and prior-year accomplishments against the plan.

Performance planning identifies priorities, lays out clear milestones, and forms the basis of resource allocation through prioritization, restructuring, reordering, and realignment. Performance planning also identifies the metrics for measuring progress toward achieving goals. It is done with a three-year forward view.

Taken together, performance plans make up a complete road map of activities and commitments for the year to come. Resources are allocated based upon assessment by the president and the cabinet of how well the plans contribute to realization of the Rensselaer Plan: its overarching goal, institute-wide goals, and portfolio-specific strategic goals.


What has the Rensselaer Plan achieved so far? The story is still unfolding, but there is clear progress, as indicated in these few examples of the many positive changes happening at Rensselaer:

Less than a year after its adoption, the Rensselaer Plan drew an unrestricted gift commitment of $360 million from an anonymous donor. That, in and of itself, constituted a powerful endorsement of the transformational goals embedded in the plan. It also enabled the university to leverage the resources needed to begin construction projects totaling $255 million, including the design and construction of two new platforms for change: a Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies Center and an Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. All told, fundraising has nearly doubled in the last three years.

Research recognition and funding are rising, from both the federal sector and the corporate realm, including new grants from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, and partnerships with IBM and the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC). Additionally, major new funding is being provided by the state of New York.

Forty-one new appointees joined the Rensselaer faculty in fall 2002. By the end of the 2002–2003 academic year we will have hired at least 66 new faculty over the past two years—32 in entirely new positions. More than 60 classrooms have been converted to accommodate laptop computers, and connectivity for mobile computing has been extended across campus. Extensive physical renovations and upgrades are also under way.


Over time, even the best-laid plans can be slowly derailed by day-to-day decisions and territorial conflicts. Thus, execution is key…

Change is evident at Rensselaer, as is palpable excitement and renewed enthusiasm and energy. Progress has been made as a result of careful, assiduous planning, all the while remaining true to our strategic goals. The continued and resolute support of the board has been crucial, as has a dedicated, focused cabinet and deans council. Winning the hearts and minds of influential faculty was absolutely necessary, as well. Finally, many avenues of discourse have been open throughout the process, with campus leadership listening and taking note of concerns of key constituents, including students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

Over time, even the best-laid plans can be slowly derailed by day-to-day decisions and territorial conflicts. Thus, execution is key: annual detailed performance planning clearly spells out action plans and metrics for measuring progress. Such planning and associated accountability of key administrators to achieve their plans also demonstrate how a businesslike approach can work in higher education.

The speed of transformation thus far at Rensselaer has been remarkable. Empowered by the trustees, we moved quickly to take advantage of the initial excitement that accompanies a new presidency. From there, maintaining momentum has been essential. Progress is clearly measurable, for example, as we fulfill our “we will” promissory notes and thereby move closer to our transformational goals. Our true secret is creating belief by getting things done—for nothing succeeds like success.

Shirley Ann Jackson is president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Prior to that, she served as chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1995 to 1999. Jackson was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2001. She is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Physical Society.