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Inaugural Address

November 8, 2014

Leshin InaguarationIMAGINE MORE

WPI President Laurie Leshin
November 8, 2014

Chairman Ryan, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni, members of the Massachusetts delegation, distinguished guests, friends, and family: I am truly inspired and humbled by the trust you have placed in me, and it is my profound honor to accept this appointment as the 16th president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

While it is impossible for me to convey all that is in my heart at this moment, I want to begin my remarks this morning by sharing a story that captures so much of what I feel about this wonderful place called WPI.

Just a few days into the new academic year, I was walking outside Boynton Hall when I came upon two students. I introduced myself to them and asked their names. They were Lexi Crowell and Amanda Leahy and they are both here today. We began to chat and I asked them about themselves. They said they were first year students, roommates, in fact. Lexi is from Oregon and Amanda is from Washington State. And here they both were, in Worcester, Massachusetts—thousands of miles from home. Then, I asked how things were going so far. They both broke into big smiles and Lexi said, “I never, ever want to leave.”

Well, that is how I feel. There is just something about this place, about this community. There is something about WPI. It feels like home. I joined the WPI family in June and these past five months have been some of the happiest and most invigorating of my life. There have also been difficult times, to be sure, but that is also part of what it means to be at a place that people care so much about.

Today’s ceremony, filled with pomp and circumstance and academic tradition going back centuries, marks the official beginning of my tenure as president. But I want to be clear—this isn’t about me. It is about this place that we all care so much about—it’s about WPI. It is about celebrating our distinguished history—150 years of Lehr und Kunst, theory and practice. It is about reflecting upon our exciting present, embodied by our more than 200 students who are today out in the world—watching from our project centers in South Africa, Albania, Australia, Puerto Rico, China, Washington, D.C., Nantucket, and Worcester. And it is a call to imagine more for our future—the future of WPI.

I realize that you are entrusting me with something precious—the opportunity to guide this university onward into its next 150 years--and so I hope you will indulge me in a few personal thank-yous.

First I would like to thank our distinguished Board of Trustees. Thank you for choosing me! I am honored by the confidence you have placed in me to lead this institution. And with your wise counsel and guidance, I look forward to doing so for many years to come.

And I want to thank everyone who has welcomed me into the WPI campus community, beginning with our students. You have reached out to me in so many ways, waving friendly hellos, inviting me to your classes and sporting events, attending my office hours, and even gathering around to cheer as a robot poured a bucket of ice water on me. I thank you for your energetic embodiment of what we care about most at this university.

To our dedicated faculty, thank you for generously giving your support, your best ideas, and your patience as I have embraced the opportunity to immerse myself in all things WPI. As a freshman in my own right, in August I had the honor of crossing Earle Bridge with the Class of 2018, and I was deeply touched by the number of faculty members who came out to welcome all of us. I think that may have been the moment when I truly felt like a member of the WPI family. And I am equally touched seeing so many of you here participating today. Thank you for your deep commitment to WPI.

To our staff, who make every part of WPI sing, thank you for making this transition period such a smooth one for me and my family. Your talents, insights, and can-do attitudes are vital assets to this university and I will continue to lean on them daily.

To our alumni: more than 35,000 strong! You have set a standard of excellence and achievement for all of us to follow. I have already enjoyed talking with many of you during my travels—from Boston to Bar Harbor to Bangkok—and I hope you will become even more engaged in the life of your alma mater. We need you!

To our friends and neighbors in Worcester, thank you for welcoming me into the heart of the Commonwealth. I am deeply inspired by WPI’s connection to its home and namesake. Worcester is a great city and I am committed to helping WPI contribute to that greatness through innovation, productivity, and the contributions we can make as loyal citizens and friends.

I am thrilled that many of my own close friends could be here today, including my best friend CJ and her family, and many dear friends from NASA and from Rensselaer. And my PhD advisor, Ed Stolper, who really taught me how to be a scientist, is here all the way from Caltech! I am grateful for the support of all of my friends!

Finally, I want to acknowledge my family. When I look out on all of your encouraging faces, I see aunts and uncles, cousins (including my dear cousin Bonnie who is signing this speech!), I see nieces and nephews, both of my brothers, and my stepson Jackson (and a shout out to my stepson Riley, who couldn’t be here). I’d like to give special mention my wonderful Mom and Dad, Steve and Gerie, and my fabulous in laws and step-parents. And finally thank you to my darling husband, Jon for being by my side throughout this journey. To all of my family, your love means the world to me, and I wouldn’t be standing here without it. To paraphrase WPI alumnus Robert Goddard, who is a personal hero of mine—you have helped make my dreams of yesterday, my hope and reality of today.

On an occasion like this, my thoughts are filled with what has come before. I cannot help but think about all of the presidents who have held this distinguished office before me, like President Earle, who led WPI during a period of great progress in the 1920s and '30s and injected a spirit of goodwill and affection to a school that had been built on stiff and stern measure; and President Cluverius, who provided strong and steady leadership during the years of World War II, refusing to lower admission standards when enrollment dwindled as so many young men went off to join the fight; and President Storke, who had “great faith in American youth” and paved the way for the WPI Plan.

When General Storke was installed as WPI’s 10th president, an army colleague sent word that, “Harry Storke will be there to be the best college president in the country. The people in Worcester are damn lucky.” In fact, WPI has been fortunate to have so many outstanding individuals serve as president. Their collective leadership, energy, and devotion have helped make this university what it is today.

And today, if you visit the president’s office webpage, you will see images of all of WPI’s presidents beginning with Charles O. Thompson in 1868. Fifteen presidents later, it ends with a picture that looks a little different from all the others—and it’s not just because I don’t have muttonchops. I will admit that it is striking to see my portrait next to the other WPI presidents for many reasons, but I am deeply honored to join their ranks, and to be the first woman to serve as president of WPI.

And so, today I join two societies—the society of presidents and the society of women pioneers at WPI. These women include:

  • Lesley Small Zorabedian, the first woman to earn an undergraduate degree from WPI in 1972. I am delighted that Lesley is here today. Lesley, please stand and be recognized.

  • Barbara Murphy, who was the first woman faculty member at WPI; Maryann Bagdis, now Mary Ann Goebel, WPI’s first female student body president

  • JoAnn Manfra, a historian and the first female faculty member to earn tenure at WPI; and

  • Judy Nitsch, the first WPI alumna elected to the Board of Trustees, who remains a strong and active mentor to today’s students. Judy, you are an inspiration to me and to so many others at WPI. Please stand and be recognized.

I am so proud to stand on the shoulders of these remarkable women who lived moments of courage and refused to accept the status quo. And this is something I want to talk about today—having the courage to imagine more, the willingness to commit yourself fully, and the faith in your ability to achieve something extraordinary.

Being here in the great state of Massachusetts, and being a space nerd (as you all know), I can’t help but draw inspiration from President John F Kennedy. In 1961, he showed great imagination, great courage, and great faith in America’s scientists and engineers. Before a joint session of Congress, President Kennedy made this bold declaration: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Landing a man (or woman, for that matter!) on the Moon seems entirely achievable these days, but what most people don’t remember is how absolutely impossible it seemed when he said we would do it. When President Kennedy declared this vision, when he invited this dream of Robert Goddard to become a reality, when he spoke these words, an American had not yet even orbited the earth. At that time, a single American, Alan Shepard, had logged a grand total of 15 minutes in space, on his suborbital, up-and-down flight just two weeks before. We honestly had no idea what it would really take to get all the way to the Moon and back.

After his pronouncement about our Moonshot goal, he took his message directly to the American public. Here is the audacious proposal he made to 40,000 people who came to hear him speak at Rice University:

“…If I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to Earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun...and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out—then we must be bold.”

And, reflecting on his declaration, I am inspired to ask: Can we be just as bold, and just as audacious as we imagine more for the future of WPI? Can we? I believe we can, and we should.

WPI is a fine university today. We begin our future path from a foundation that includes almost 150 years of achievement. We have many distinctive qualities and a high impact on our students’ lives. We offer a rigorous, project-based education that has been envied and emulated by other institutions. We can be rightly satisfied that our model is a sound one—that our students learn well while they are here and do well after they graduate. We can be justifiably proud that our faculty and staff are of high quality and demonstrate daily their commitment to the ideals of theory and practice.

But is that enough? Is that enough for our students, this fearless bunch of explorers, innovators and problem solvers? Is it enough for our faculty, who are leaders in their fields and so dedicated to the work of discovery? Is it enough for our alumni, who carry the mantle for this university throughout the world? Is it enough for our neighbors in Worcester? For the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? The United States? Planet Earth? Or even beyond…?

Frankly, because of our past achievements, our continuing commitment, and because of all of you in the WPI community, we could say, “Yes, what we do today is enough.” And then I could end this speech right here. [Don’t get too excited…I’m not done yet!]

Because here’s the deal: Because we are a community that thrives on imagining more—because we are WPI—we must instead look at the challenges that still exist in our neighborhood, our nation, and our world and ask, “How can we do better?”

We can start by setting for ourselves a goal as bold in its own way as President Kennedy’s ambition was for our space program. I believe that WPI should commit itself to achieving the goal of becoming the premier global polytechnic. I’ll repeat that: the premier global polytechnic.

What does being the premier global polytechnic mean to me? If I could sum it up in one word, it would be impact. We become the premier global polytechnic by focusing not only on the number of well-educated STEM graduates we produce, or the number of research grants we receive, but by the positive impact that our students and faculty, that our staff and alumni, have on communities around the world.

Let me say more about impact – when the visions of John Boynton and Ichabod Washburn were merged to forge a new institute in the heart of Massachusetts, the concept of integrating theory and practice in higher education was not only revolutionary, it was what was needed at that moment. If we ask ourselves today, what the world needs from higher education, what the world needs from STEM professionals, what the world needs from WPI—today, the world needs us to focus on impact and outcomes, now more than ever.

In fact, I judge impact, this new standard of measure, to be so critical to our future success, to WPI’s future value to the world that I believe we should consider it as WPI’s third tower. Theory, practice, and impact: that should be the focus of our work.

And we have the perfect foundation upon which to build the premier global polytechnic, focused on real world impact. WPI’s project centers give students an unmatched educational and cultural experience—and they truly make a difference to the communities in which they operate. I saw this first hand a few weeks ago when I was in Bangkok. There I met David Valentine, director of Population Services International, who told me about the work that teams of WPI students, advised by our faculty, are doing to help reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS in the most vulnerable populations in Thailand through use of mobile technology for education, self-assessment, and reporting. This kind of challenge, where the technological and the human meet to address a problem of high local impact, is what we shall build upon together. And we are being recognized for our efforts! We and our partners at Chulalonkorn University recently received a gift of $1 million from Bangkok Bank and its President, Tony Sophonpanich, WPI Class of 1980, to continue and expand this work well into the future.

So how do we fully realize our potential to become the premier global polytechnic? Well, when our students and faculty set out to solve real world problems—whether improving living conditions in Namibia, or alleviating poverty in Paraguay, or preserving the endangered canals of Venice—they start by asking themselves how they can create a solution that is truly responsive to the goals of the project and, most important, to the needs of the community they are trying to serve. Then, they devise a solution to meet the challenge.

I propose that we take this method that WPI so embraces, our project centered approach, and apply it to the university itself. Let us ask the same kind of probing questions about the design of our university and whether it best meets the challenges our world faces today—challenges that lie at the intersections of disciplines, challenges that require agility in learning, creating, and integrating knowledge in new ways, challenges that require new tools and new technologies and new ways of thinking.

In fact, as a community we have begun to do our WPI project work already. This coming week we will formally launch six project teams—we call them “ignite teams” because they will help illuminate our future path. They will tackle several strategic areas for planning and advancement. I won’t go into all of the details now, but this is exciting work that we are all invested in, so I would like to share just a few thoughts on where we are headed.

First, to become the premier global polytechnic, we must expand WPI’s global presence to increase our impact in communities locally, nationally, and worldwide. WPI is engaged in a quest with a critical focus: to prepare the next generation of STEM leaders who are vital to the future competitiveness and prosperity of our nation. If we want to prepare our students to become these leaders, then we must give them the opportunity to work within the world, out in the world, as a part of the world, not comfortably installed on this campus for four years, as beautiful as it may be.

Doing so will bring even greater benefits to those communities and to the heart of our enterprise, our students. We know that doing off-campus projects has a huge and positive impact on our students, so I believe we must commit ourselves to make it possible for all undergraduates to have the opportunity to pursue at least one of their projects off-campus. By making this possible for every student, WPI will lead a new movement in STEM education, one that makes deep global engagement the way we teach and learn STEM, not just a single option among many, or an opportunity only for those who can afford it. And I am confident we can find more partners like Bangkok Bank who will support our global work.

Second, we will take our distinctive undergraduate programs to the next level of value and impact, by striving for more integration across disciplines and across the curriculum, exploring innovative ways to enable our students to achieve more during their time here, and incorporating technology into the teaching and learning experience while always seeking to measure and understand how new approaches enhance learning and understanding.

Third, we will work to make our research enterprise and PhD programs larger, of higher quality, and more distinctively WPI. This will entail making some strategic choices about scholarly areas in which we focus on world-class impact. The world needs our best use-inspired research in areas such as robotics and cyber-physical systems, medical devices and bioengineering, transformational materials, fire protection engineering and data science. These are only examples—in the coming months we will work together to define those areas where we will focus our energies and investments.

And even as we define our research themes, we must recognize that the world is changing fast. The idea that our students only need to spend a few years with us and then are set for their careers, frankly, is an outdated way of thinking. The premier global polytechnic recognizes that technological education continues for a lifetime.

And so, fourth: we must seek to expand and enhance our graduate and professional education opportunities, leveraging technology, introducing innovations in teaching and learning, combining new research and knowledge across disciplines, and helping people put that knowledge to work. This will build upon our recent successes—this year we will engage 1,500 students through our online and blended program offerings. If we want to enable learners everywhere to increase their impact in technological fields, we must live our value of lifelong learning.

Fifth, given the more than 1,000 projects completed by WPI students each and every year, and given the increasing breadth and excellence of our graduate programs and research enterprise, we must work to create a thriving engine of innovation and entrepreneurship, focused on translating our scholarship and creativity, our research and our projects, into impact. When we think of innovation and entrepreneurship in this broadest possible way—creating impact with our work, then it is beautifully aligned with WPI’s values and character.

And finally, to deliver on the WPI Promise, the promise of the premier global polytechnic, we must have a great sense of place—with the facilities, staffing, and processes needed to support our efforts, all encompassed in a positive, productive work environment.

Many of the ideas I have just shared will come together in a splendid new place, right in the heart of our campus, when we transform the iconic Alumni Gym into the Robert A. Foisie Innovation Studio. This marvelous facility will give our students and faculty the tools they need to pursue their ideas to the fullest, tools like a robotics laboratory, project team collaboration spaces, and a “maker space” for prototype development. The Innovation Studio will also house a business development accelerator, which students, faculty, and alumni can use to bring their ideas to fruition. By providing a new home for innovators right in the center of our campus, I see the studio as being the physical embodiment of our third tower: of impact. In fact, we may need to think about how to add a tower to symbolize our dedication to that theme (sounds like a great senior project for our architectural engineers!).

The Innovation Studio is named for one of WPI’s greatest champions and supporters, Robert A. Foisie, of the great WPI Class of 1956. And today, I am delighted to announce that another champion has stepped forward to support the future of innovation at WPI. The Alden Trust has recently committed $3 million toward the creation of the Innovation Studio. That’s an amazing investment. Thank you to the Alden Trust!

This gift comes in the form of a challenge—in order to receive the $3 million we need to raise $9 million. The studio will embody the WPI project-based, experiential, interdisciplinary education we all value so much. And so I know we can get there and meet the Alden Trust challenge, and bring the Foisie Innovation Studio to life!

So, creating greater opportunity for our students to pursue projects off campus, elevating our undergraduate programs, making strategic choices about research focus areas, putting innovation at the heart of what we do, and making WPI a great place to live, learn, and innovate—all in the quest to become the premier global polytechnic: no big deal, right? Actually, this is a big, challenging, exciting deal. It will take great imagination and creativity to go through this process of reflection on our past, to assess the opportunities of the present, and to achieve our goals for the future of this great university.

But if history is any guide, then I know we can do it. WPI has imagination deep in its DNA. It has been here since the very beginning, during those uncertain days following the end of the Civil War, when WPI’s founders set out to open “the first attempt in our country to combine theoretic knowledge and practical training.” And it was here a century later when the faculty created and adopted our revolutionary undergraduate program through the WPI Plan. And when I see our community working to solve problems, invent what others only dream of, and make people’s lives better, I know that imagining more is still in our DNA today.

And that is a good thing. Because the challenges humanity faces are urgent, complex, and demanding of our best work. And so it is even more important to remember that these goals I have laid out are not ends in themselves. They matter because WPI matters—the intensive, empowering way that WPI educates students, and the problem-focused research that we do here matters—now more than ever.

As I conclude my remarks today, I turn once more to those two young women I met back in August—Lexi and Amanda—who never want to leave this place. The fact is that you, and all of our students, will leave WPI, many times.

Because leaving is part of the adventure, and also because it is critical—for your personal success and for the people, communities and companies that you will help when you set forth to engage in your project work. Our alumni tell us that the education they received under the WPI Plan made them better professionals. They tell us that their projects made them understand the importance of their scholarly work and their potential in the workplace. But they also say that this place, this institution of theory and practice and impact, of technology and humanity and community, made them better people. Now that is truly profound and inspiring!

And so, for our students (not our presidents!), leaving WPI is part of the plan. But here’s what I have already learned—WPI never leaves you. This place. This commitment. These people. We will always be here to support you, and whenever you leave us to go do good in the world, we will eagerly await your return. And if you are anything like our alumni, you will return. Because WPI is home.

As the president of this fine university, it will be my sincere privilege to work with our outstanding faculty and staff as we nurture and then launch students to a bright and bold future. It will be a tremendous point of pride to watch our research efforts grow. To see the fruitful realization of ideas and the creation of enterprises. To open new pathways for lifelong learning and engagement. To build upon a foundation of excellence to become the premier global polytechnic. To take theory to practice to impact.

I am both humbled and delighted as I contemplate the exceptional position I find myself in today. As your new president, I ask you to embark on a journey with me—a journey that would surely inspire and excite the likes of Robert Goddard.

Let's work together to imagine more—let’s bring the third tower to life. Thank you.