Presidential Founders Dinner 2006

President Berkey's Remarks at the Presidential Founders Dinner

President Berkey

View President Berkey's Remarks at the Presidential Founders Dinner

I want to spend just a few minutes sharing with all of you a little bit of information about the current state of WPI because you are our investors, as well as our alumni and our friends. And I know that you have interest in knowing, always, how we’re doing, how the students are performing, and what is the state of WPI. So, let me share just a few observations with you.

First, I want to tell you how proud I am of the senior leadership team that we have in place. So let me ask our provost, Dr. Carol Simpson, if she would stand and be recognized.

We have a number of vice presidents in the room, from Steve Hebert, the most senior, to Dexter Bailey, the most recently arrived. I’d like to ask all the members of my senior staff that we work together with on a regular basis to stand so you can see them and acknowledge their work.

A college, or a university, is first and foremost about its students. And I’m very pleased to report that we had another very strong entering class this fall. We received just slightly fewer than 5,000 applications for 780 seats in our freshman class. They’re very well-qualified students. The average SAT score is just a tad below 1300. The percentage of women and minority students has, again, increased in this class. And they really hit the ground running.

You know, sometimes when a class arrives, you can just feel their presence on the campus. This is one of those groups. They’re creative. They’re engaged. We think they’re having a marvelous time. And we’re very impressed by what they’re contributing to WPI.

So our enrollment picture is very strong. Our financial picture is also very strong. I’m pleased to report that we were able to conclude the last fiscal year with an operating margin of about a million and a half dollars which we were able to transfer into the physical plant fund. I know, as investors, you want to make sure that you are supporting a solvent operation that has a very positive financial outlook. And that certainly is the case at WPI.

The investment committee, under the direction of the board of trustees and our chief financial officer, Jeff Solomon, is doing a very good job for us. The return on our investment portfolio in the last year was just about 12 percent, which, comparatively speaking, is a very handsome return given the kind of constraints under which universities of our size operate. Our endowment stands north of some $360 million dollars at this point. And we are very pleased and proud of the work that all of you are doing to help us ensure the financial base from which WPI can proceed to do so many important things for its students and for its faculty.

Academic program development is proceeding very vigorously under the leadership of Provost Simpson and the faculty. This year, we opened a new program in interactive media and game design. As you can imagine, it is very popular with the undergraduate students. Just a few hours ago, the faculty approved the next new degree program in that general area. And that is in robotics engineering. We believe we will be the first college or university in the nation to offer an undergraduate program in robotics engineering.

What that says about the trend in our curriculum—especially in the part of the university that has to do with the engineering and science base—is that while WPI is presenting a very strong traditional core program in the engineering and science disciplines, being placed on top of that are very exciting programs of an interdisciplinary nature that cut across fields of science and technology—such as interactive media, such as communication, such as robotics—that in most institutions students have to wait until they get into graduate programs to really get their hands on.

As we all know, the type of students who are attracted to WPI are very innovative, very broad-thinking, energetic, often technology-oriented people who really want to get their hands on the neat stuff early. And it’s very consistent with the WPI tradition to welcome those students into very applied kind of work at the same time that they are developing the very strong base of their liberal and scientific bases. Of course, that’s our motto, theory and practice.

So with respect to curriculum development, I’m very encouraged and really very excited about a number of these new programs. There also is a new program in environmental engineering. Many of you know that’s a subject that has been offered both in our civil engineering department and in our chemical engineering department. What has now happened is those faculties have come together to form an interdisciplinary program which incorporates the best of all those programs.

Finally, I will just mention to you that our faculty recently authorized the awarding of the bachelor’s of arts degree at WPI, in addition to the bachelor’s of science degree. The first degree that has been authorized under the BA degree is a degree called Engineering and Liberal Arts. It recognizes the fact that engineering education is more and more becoming a type of liberal arts education, a platform from which students can proceed to a very wide variety of career opportunities including, of course, the practice of engineering, as is the tradition at WPI, but, as well, moving into the professions—medical school, law school—and increasingly becoming entrepreneurs, managers in industry, and people who pursue a very wide variety of interests.

So, it’s a very interesting opportunity. I know some of you, with whom I have spoken, have said, "Wait a minute. What’s a BA degree doing at WPI?" And that word liberal was a little bit of a concern to some of you. But I think it makes eminently good sense. And it is another way that WPI continues to innovate and to lead in the development of interesting approaches to undergraduate education.

Nothing, however, is more important to us in undergraduate education than the WPI Plan, which is now some 36 years in existence. And, Bill Grogan, thank you one more time for all you did to work with your colleagues to develop that plan.

The opportunity for students to have the experience of working in small project teams, closely with faculty members, confronting the real constraints of finite resources and finite time, demanding requirements, and the responsibility to be able not only to conclude a project, but to communicate about what has been accomplished in that project, in writing and orally, and to leave the world a little bit better than you found it when you undertook that project—this is the kind of thing that we all learn, of course, once we get out into the world of work, and have that experience of actually having to produce.

The WPI student, by virtue of the WPI Plan, has not only the benefits of a strong education rooted in science and engineering and technology and leavened by the wonderful experiences in the arts and humanities, but with that very important practical aspect of learning how to get things done, how to work with people of differing ideas and differing backgrounds, how to deal with limited resources, how to actually produce in the world.

One of our faculty members made, I think, a very succinct comment this morning. We’re in the business of producing students who can imagine important things, and make them, or produce them, or serve them. And it’s understanding that, at the end of the day, most of what we apply in terms of the knowledge that we use is not something that comes straight out of a textbook or straight out of a course. It’s the integration of things that we learn, formally in our classrooms, but also in our daily interactions with each other, and with the world as we’ve come to understand it.

And that’s what’s so important about the spine of the WPI Plan, which is very strong, and as important to our future as it has been to our past. So, I reassure all of you that remains the mother load of what’s important about the WPI experience. I say frequently to the faculty, "Undergraduate education is the most important thing we do at WPI." The development of these young people is where we start and where we finish. We have to get that right, because that’s what we’re passionately committed to.

As you look around this faculty on this campus, it’s very evident. Those passions run deep. And those passions, as you knew them as students, and as you interacted with some of those favorite colleagues over the years, are here and they’re running very strong, and I’m very proud of that.

WPI, however, continues to evolve and to become more of an active research institution. I’m very pleased to report that the faculty won in excess of $16 million dollars in externally funded research grants and awards last year, that they are doing work that is not only interesting... You know, every university that has PhD programs and faculty who publish and do research is doing interesting things. The differentiator at WPI is the importance of that work. Time and time again, as you look at the output of this faculty, it has to do with saving lives. It has to do with building the economy. It has to do with transferring intellectual property in important ways. It has to do with combining education and research and scholarship in ways that really redound to what’s best about that motto theory and practice, Lehr and Kunst.

And so, this is a small, complex institution that just gets more and more productive, and more and more interesting as we go. I know it sounds like I’m bragging. It’s exactly what I’m doing—because we are like-minded people this evening. And it is very important, from time to time, to celebrate the many qualities and the many achievements that are the hallmark of this fine university.

If you’ve had a chance to look around the campus in your visit here, you may have noticed things are changing a bit. Over on the quad is a beautiful new building called the Bartlett Center that is now the home for our Admissions and Financial Aid offices. It presents such a wonderful place to welcome prospective students and their families, as they can look out over that beautiful quad and have plenty of space to comfortably interact with our Admissions and Financial Aid staff. It’s really making a difference for us.

It’s also freed up space in Boynton Hall to allow us to do some renovations. So if you’re familiar at all with that building, Provost Simpson and her team have moved down from the second floor to the first floor, together with the president’s staff. We have just this week brought the human resources team back up from Dean Street. They are in Boynton Hall now in that second floor space where the provost’s office was.

The registrar’s office has moved out of that very cramped situation on the first floor of Boynton Hall over to the Morgan-Daniels complex, where they are much closer to the students, in more spacious quarters, and much better set up to service the clientele. So, there are some important second-order effects of that new Bartlett Center that are working out very well.

However, the big news at the moment is down at the foot of Salisbury Street. You may have come off I-290, and started through Lincoln Square and Concord Street, and noticed the development on the right. There is a big building that has the WPI insignia on it. There is a new garage that is rising on that site. That’s the development we call Gateway Park. And that’s part of the new and future face of WPI.

The building that you see down there is a 120-square-foot building that will house what we are calling the WPI Life Science and Bioengineering Center. This will be the new home in world-class research laboratories for our departments of biology and biotechnology, chemistry and biochemistry, some people from chemical engineering, and our biomedical engineering department.

The faculty who inhabit that new space will be organized not by departments or by stripe, but by ideas. There will be clusters of faculty working on similar research projects. And that will be a hotbed of research and graduate education in the life sciences and in bioengineering. That is a new area of development for WPI because that’s the new economy of Massachusetts—we have a tradition that dates back more than a century and a half of WPI of driving the economic development of Central Massachusetts on the basis of the intellectual product of the people of WPI. I say the men of WPI led the development of the industry of the last century. Now the women and men of WPI are leading the development of the life science industry in central Massachusetts.

But it’s not just our research building that will populate Gateway Park. There are three other pads ready for construction, and the strategy for the redevelopment of that neighborhood. And by the way, it was a brownfield. We have worked together with the Worcester Business Development Corporation to clean up that brownfield, and to make a plan for a brand new neighborhood that is going to be anchored by the presence of WPI.

But it’s not going to be populated just by life science–related companies. There will be restaurants. There will be retail space. There will be loft apartments. The old vocational school is going to be renovated as housing and retail space on the first floor. It will be an entirely new neighborhood in Worcester whose development is being led very much by WPI, and very much by Steve Hebert, because it was Steve Hebert, years before Dennis Berkey ever arrived in Worcester, who understood the potential of that piece of real estate, convinced our board to make an investment in it, and worked with the Worcester Business Development Corporation to shape that vision into reality.

So it’s really exciting. But sometimes people say to us, "Are we forsaking our tradition of commitment to traditional engineering by doing all this?" Absolutely not. We are now at a point in the development of science and technology where the power of engineering and the power of technology can be applied powerfully in medicine and health in the development of diagnostics, therapeutics, small medical devices, and the like.

As we look across town to the next hill, we see that marvelous University of Massachusetts Medical School. And we can see the importance of building additional bridges, and collaborating with the medical school to achieve what is referred to in Washington as translational research, the whole spectrum, from the lab bench to the bedside, in developing those products that will improve the health of all of us. That’s a marvelous commitment. And it’s very consistent with the kind of civic-minded commitment to applications of research that’s so very characteristic of WPI. So we’re very pleased about all that. It’s a very exciting new development for us. Keep your eye on Gateway Park. It becomes more impressive by the day.

Here on the campus, plans are under way for the construction of our next residence hall, an apartment-style residence facility that will, we believe, attract many of our upperclassmen to come back onto the campus for the kind of apartment-style living that they have been going off the campus to find. I think the more students we could have living on campus, the better it will be for them, and the better it will be for the university.

Finally, we aspire, as you may have noticed in that model downstairs on the first floor, to develop a new sports and recreation complex. Today’s undergraduate pursues a lifestyle that has a lot to do with fitness and recreation and sports, intramurals, all kinds of activities around fitness and health—and that’s an area in which WPI is not as fully competitive as we need it to be.

So, our aspiration for solving that problem is to look at the other end of the quad. We’ve got the Bartlett Center now sitting at the east end of the quad. We have the dormitories and Alden Hall on the south side of the quad. We have Alumni Gym and Harrington sitting on the north side of the quad. Then, on the far side, is the bank that goes down to the playing fields.

We aspire to have a marvelous athletics and recreation complex on the hillside, going down to the football field, presenting a one-story and a half facade on the quad, completing a very traditional style quadrangle, but then opening up fully to three or four stories of facility facing the playing fields.

That accounts for almost everything but the parking problem. Every college president—and I’m sure Jon Strauss can back me up on this—has as his or her nemesis, the parking problem. Part of the solution there, and in fact a big part of the solution, will come down on the playing fields, as you may recall, the baseball field and the softball field are actually at an elevation below Park Avenue. And so, the idea is to go right across those fields, and put a single layer of parking for about 600 cars in that space, and then deck over those cars, and restore the playing fields on a deck built over that single story of parking.

That’s the dream and that’s the vision. What I’m saying to you is we have lots of aspirations for the continuing development of this place. They have to do, as I said, first and foremost with the students. So those of you who are supporting our students through scholarships, I commend you for it. It is exceptionally important for you to continue to do that.

The type of education we offer here is a type of education that really makes a profound difference in young people’s lives. But engineering education and education in the sciences requires lots of laboratory support, lots of people power. It is a very expensive kind of program. Our students are fully deserving of the investments that you make in them with your scholarship programs. So I thank you for it, and I encourage you to redouble those efforts.

Secondly comes our faculty, and there are a number of people present in this room this evening who are working to develop professorships, fully endowed professorships for members of our faculty. I can tell you, there’s no more deserving group of faculty in any college in this country than the WPI faculty. And I think that’s a wonderful way to signify the quality of the commitment that those people make not only to their scholarship and to their research, but to what all of us believe in about the essential aspects of the commitment to undergraduate education, and especially in the context of the WPI Plan.

So think about the faculty. Help us work toward better supporting them. This is a faculty that is much more deserving of named and endowed professorships than what they have. It will be a great honor and pleasure for me if I can continue to work with a number of you to make that reality happen.

Finally, there is the campus—and all of you know how important campus life is to the quality of the WPI experience. As you have just heard, there will be a number of opportunities for people to work with us in continuing to develop this campus.

So I encourage all of you, from the point of view of an investor, to continue regarding WPI as a wonderful investment opportunity. The nation needs the kind of young people who can proceed into their lives with a very strong understanding of science and technology, leavened by the kind of experience that we have on this campus, and those close, personal relationships with faculty that shape and build character, that prepare people for leadership. No one is doing it better than WPI.

But there is more to that story. Because as I meet our alumni and come to know the effect of the WPI education, it’s not only the case that we produce so many capable and high achieving engineers and scientists who go into those laboratories and produce and practice their profession, but increasingly it becomes clear that the WPI graduate proceeds into a much broader range of career opportunities. I meet so many successful entrepreneurs who are WPI graduates. I meet so many leaders of organizations, large and small.

I was at a dinner party last week in New York and two of the young people sitting to my left said to me, "You know, President Berkey, we kind of think of ourselves as the black sheep of WPI." And I said, "Why do you say that?" And they said, "Well, because we have degrees in engineering. But we’re not really practicing engineering." "Well, what have you done?" "Well, we’ve started businesses. We’ve formed alliances between corporations." One of them is a consultant on Wall Street. They’re doing marvelous things. There is no reason they should be thinking of themselves as black sheep.

This is the power of engineering and science education. I will tell you, even Gloria Steinem, who spoke this week on this campus, believe it or not, in her remarks essentially said to the students that engineering is where it’s at for this century. That education last century was about the liberal arts but now it is about engineering. I think, if Gloria Steinem understands that, the world is ready to more fully appreciate WPI. So work with us, please, and continue to be as supportive and as loyal as you have been to this institution, because it is fully deserving.

Thank you.

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President Berkey's Remarks at the Presidential Founders Dinner

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Closing Remarks

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November 16, 2006