President Schmidt Shares His Experience and Perspective with ECSE

Posted July 4, 2023
RPI 19th President, Dr. Martin Schmidt
The 19th President of RPI, Dr. Marty Schmidt, is a faculty member, and also a graduate, of the ECSE department. He returned to RPI a year ago to lead his alma mater. He sat down with the ECSE department head, John Wen, to share the story of his journey and thoughts for the future.

Dr. Martin Schmidt received his B.S. (1981) in Electrical Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, M.S. and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1983 and 1988, respectively. He joined MIT as a faculty member in 1988 and served as Director of the Microsystems Technology Laboratories (1999-2006), Associate Provost (2008-2013), and Provost until 2022, when he returned to RPI as the 19th President and a Professor in Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering (ECSE). He sat with ECSE head John Wen for an interview on June 12, 2023. The following is an excerpt from the interview.

John Wen: Hi Marty, thank you for taking the time for this interview. You came to RPI in 1977 as a freshman and received your bachelor's degree in the ECSE Department in 1981. Could you describe a bit of your background, how did you decide on electrical engineering, and how did you decide on RPi?

Marty Schmidt: I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, a small town outside of Wilkes Barre. I think at some level, anybody who goes to a place like RPI probably had a real affinity for science and math. That was true for me as well. But also, I really liked building things, building furniture, rebuilding cars, when I was in high school. So that made either engineering or architecture of interest. My father was a medical doctor, a pathologist in the latter part of his career, but he was a latent engineer. He was getting all those home kits and building computers. This was the time of the microelectronics revolution, shortly before the PC rollout. It just felt like computing and computers were really where all the excitement was. So that tipped the balance to electrical engineering. As far as RPI goes, I don't know what it was, really; it's an interesting thing. I told this story to a group of RPI students that when my sons were looking at colleges, I would do the college tours with them. And once they decided where they were really going, then Lyn [Marty’s wife] would take over. My third oldest, Kevin, got into a couple of state schools, and one of them was the University of Maine in Orono. We went up to visit the school in March, shortly after he was admitted and was trying to decide. Going up to Maine in March, you're either looking at a foot of snow or an inch of mud. It's hard to make campuses look really good. So we're walking around, and I'm thinking, OK, this is going to be a short visit and we will be back to Boston soon. And as we did the whole tour; Kevin kept going. Then at the end, he turned to me and said, ‘Dad, I can really see myself here’. Wow. And he went, and it was a great experience for him. I think there was a similarity there with me. I mean, I just walked around the campus, and probably said something almost the same to my parents. It was kind of far enough away from home, but not too far. At that time, my older sister was a sophomore at Mount Holyoke; it’s nice having a sibling nearby.

John Wen: What are some of the things you remember about your RPI experience? Were there any things in the curriculum, the department and professors and staff, or other students or clubs, that really made an impression on you?

Marty Schmidt: There are professors that I remember very well: Bruce Carlson, he wrote several of our textbooks. And Ken Conner, I maintained connection with him for a long time, actually. I remember taking John McDonald's course, I think it was called COLD [Computer Organization and Logic Design]. Logic class, which was kind of neat, because, it put you right in the middle of computing. But also, I remember some of the classes I took in Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. There are certain moments where you remember faculty and your classes. I think I appreciated the fact more so when I got to MIT because MIT was different in a lot of ways, and I'm not sure if it's entirely this way anymore, but back then you really didn't get into your major discipline at RPI until fairly late in your sophomore year, or possibly the junior year. So, I got to take fluid mechanics and all sorts of classes like that, even as an electrical engineering major. I personally benefited from that, because that breadth helped me. But it was actually one of the catalysts for wanting to go to graduate school because I felt like, compared to students who had immediately dove into their major at another university, I just didn't have the same domain knowledge. I had this breadth of knowledge, but not the domain knowledge and that's where I thought graduate school would help me. But I think the experiences are mostly these faculty, remembering some courses, and also just the appreciation I have for the breadth of the education.

John Wen: Did you participate in any clubs?

Marty Schmidt: Not really. I had a group of friends that were mostly friends I got to know from Bray Hall in freshman year. We had intramural teams together. Back then, GM Week was a weeklong thing, where there were a lot of group activities. You could create the tug-of-war team and stuff like that.

John Wen: Intramural sports – mostly hockey?

Marty Schmidt: Well, we used to do what's called street hockey up in the 87 gym. And, yeah, pretty much anything for hockey. That was great. We, of course, went to all hockey games, but at that point, I didn't really know much about hockey. I just enjoyed going to the games. But it was when our oldest son was born, and we settled in Boston, I realized these kids need to learn how to play ice hockey if they're going to grow up in New England. So, the appreciation for hockey grew as our sons played.

John Wen: Could you describe a little bit about your career path after your graduation?

Marty Schmidt: I would say, everybody has a different path. I have friends who were very clear from a very early age where they wanted to go, what they wanted to be, and what their future vision for themselves was. For me, it was never that prescriptive. I had interviewed for a bunch of jobs during my senior year here. But none of the job opportunities that were presented to me seemed that interesting. Or I felt like I was going to be doing things that just weren't going to excite me. I thought, well, let me get some more education. I had applied to one graduate school, just as a safety net in case I didn't like the industry stuff. And I got in. So, I went off to MIT. My plan was basically to get a master's degree, then go to work in industry. I always felt like I wanted to work in an industry setting. But it was always, after completing RPI, one level more, so I did the master's degree, enjoyed it, enjoyed the research I did. Just kind of as a gamble, I took the doctoral qualifying exam and passed. At that point, it is like, well, maybe I'll just keep doing this because it's really interesting. Once I did that, got a Ph.D., then I can either go to a startup or go to work at a company and have more responsibility with a Ph.D. than I would have with a bachelor's or master's degree. When I finished my Ph.D., I did interviews for a bunch of companies and about five or six universities. I had an offer from Stanford and an offer from MIT. I wanted to go to Stanford. At the end of the day, Lyn vetoed that. Her twin sister and all of our families are on the East Coast. I joined the faculty at MIT because it felt like the best opportunity, both in terms of family, but also in terms of career. When I first got to MIT, you're looking at what was happening with digital computation and computers. The exciting thing that I recall at the time was digital signal processing. And there are a number of faculty at MIT who are really pushing the envelope of that, and so that's what I wanted to do. I remember the first semester in graduate school. I was a teaching assistant for an electronics laboratory class. I took digital signal processing, and also had to take stochastic processes. I went into that first exam feeling like I really knew the material. Halfway through the exam, I realized I didn't even understand the questions they were asking. The first time ever in my life, when I just got up in the middle of the exam, gave the exam back to the instructor. And I said, I just felt like this isn’t for me. Then I switched to semiconductors, because VLSI was all the rage at the time. Then I realized that I was less interested in designing chips than in how they were built. And that got me into semiconductor fabrication. Then there was this emergent field, it became called MEMS (micro-electromechanical systems), which really piqued my interest because that was like an ability to exercise your desire to build things, but at a smaller scale. So that was the path I took. The MEMS field really goes back to the mid to late ’70s, when a guy named Kurt Peterson wrote a seminal paper called “Silicon as a Mechanical Material.”

One of the things that struck me is that while it was an exciting field, it was predominantly a lot of academic research with very little commercial impact. I felt like, OK, this would be something good to do, which is I'm going to focus my research on working with industry to try and make sure that this field goes out and has impact. When I joined the faculty at MIT, within a year or two, about 80% of my research funding was from industry. I kept it like that for at least a decade until DARPA started investing heavily in the field. What also was helpful for me was that I find that I get really curious about certain areas, work on them pretty intently, and then I kind of lose interest in them. What was fun with the MEMS field is that I started out working on mechanical sensors and learned a lot of mechanics and accelerometers and microphones and things like that. But then eventually, my interest shifted more toward biological applications. We started working on biological applications of this technology. Then we started working on energy applications, like fuel cells and energy harvesters, and then eventually ended up in the last part of my career focused on the manufacturing processes, and how you could make better tooling for that. The field gave me this opportunity to kind of evolve over time and just pursue things that fueled my passion.

John Wen: Did the RPi education help?

Marty Schmidt: It did. I remember that in graduate school, when I started, I had done all the classic courses on digital integrated circuits and so on in semiconductors. But then, as I started moving into the MEMS field, we started working on my first project on a flow sensor that we had conceived with my adviser. And all of a sudden, I found myself needing to remember fluid mechanics. Having had that broad exposure at RPI probably served me well as I went from mechanical devices to biological devices to energy devices. It's just kind of mapped onto my curiosity.

John Wen: It is interesting that 80% of your initial funding for many years was from industry.

Marty Schmidt: That was very satisfying because I was told that my tenure case was based largely on the fact that there were at least three companies that were manufacturing products using processes that came out of our lab. It's helpful when a university can recognize impacts more than just publication citations.

John Wen: You emphasize the importance of translational research, and you've been involved in seven startups. Can you tell us a little bit about your entrepreneurial experience? How did that square with your academic pursuits? What advice you would give our entrepreneurial students?

Marty Schmidt: My passion had always been seeing things that we created in the lab going out and being used to some benefit. What happened early on was all those 80% sponsors, General Motors, Ford, Honeywell, 3M, Bosch, were big companies that had large research laboratories. The typical model was they would fund our research where they were interested in a particular way of making something in a micro setting, and we would develop it to a certain level, develop fundamental understandings of how the process work. Then we would hand it off to them, and they would run with it. The things that my tenure case was built on were figuring out a way to electrochemically etch silicon. Then GM is using that to make pressure sensors and so on. But then what happened was we saw the decline of corporate research labs, so a lot of the labs that we were partnered with no longer exist It just became challenging for large companies to maintain those kinds of research laboratories that would facilitate the translation. When we started working with medium-sized companies, they expected much more engagement in the translation piece. A lot of times what that would mean is, when it was ready to go, basically, they would hire a Ph.D. student, and that was the translation path. Then eventually, even that translated more into startups as the vehicle to get things spun out. So that it was just this evolution that was driven by the changes in the way technologies were being deployed in the market. It just meant that you had to move with that shift.

John Wen: But you never took a leave.

Marty Schmidt: No, I mean, there were times when we get something going, and I think maybe this is the moment where I'd like to just go all in on that. There was a point in time when it was probably every two to three years we'd spin out a company when my research was really cranking before I got into administration. That just felt more satisfying, to be honest. So I never quit my day job. Some people say, oh, you're a serial entrepreneur. The answer is no. I'm not because serial entrepreneurs put all the chips on the table. I stayed safely in my day job and used my one day a week of consulting to help start the company. And the way we do that is students from my research group or former students, I would recruit to drive the company. I help them as much as I could for the first few years. Eventually, they achieve escape velocity, and I'm irrelevant, and then we're on to something else.

John Wen: You mentioned your administrative roles. You were very successful with translational research, then you switched gears and went into administration. How did that happen?

Marty Schmidt I was working in a large laboratory at MIT called the Microsystems Technology Lab. It was basically my home. There were about a dozen faculty members physically located in this building, the building where the cleanroom was. Your research lived and died by the vibrancy of that cleanroom in terms of equipment, in terms of the staff that maintained it. It was obviously very important to my success as a researcher. There was a transition period where the previous director, Rafael Reif, was stepping down. They needed a new director of the microsystems lab. I didn't have any interest in it. But the Dean of Engineering, a pretty clever guy, called me up and said, I talked to everybody, people would like you to do it. I said, I'm not really interested. And he told me who he was going to ask if I said no. I just had a hard time envisioning that person doing the job. Yeah, it was a very good trick. So, I did that for about six years. I remember vividly in the sixth year, someone came to me with an issue. And I realized, you know, this is exactly the kind of problem that I was solving six years ago. I found it interesting because I was learning things and learning things outside of the field, I needed to understand what other faculty’s scholarship was. It was learning the kind of juice that made it interesting. And I was still able to do my research. But at that six-year point, I really wanted to go back to research and teaching because I throttled back some of my teachings in order to do administration. At that point, I told the dean, I'm going to step down and the person after me was Anantha Chandrakasan, who's now the dean of engineering at MIT. I ramped up a big research program with Hewlett Packard on printed electronics. When Rafael became Provost after a couple of years, he called me up and said, I'd like to talk to you about something. And indeed, when I got in his office, he said, well, we have this need for an Associate Provost. When he became president, he said, I need a provost. And it was easy because I knew him, we would work together well. The relationship was comfortable. I mean, he challenged me for sure. But it was also learning. My first responsibility as Associate Provost was space allocation and managing the renovation budget, which seemed like a pretty mundane job to me. But what was interesting is you really needed to understand people’s scholarship in order to figure out what space they needed, and also at what level. Then you get involved in reviewing people's tenure cases. You're learning, and it comes back to the learning thing. Even as Associate Provost, I kept my research going. When Rafael asked me to do the Provost job, it was a moment in time when I felt that there are a lot of exciting things that MIT could do, and being able to be a part of that. When I look back at MIT today, I can see things that I was involved in getting started 15 years ago; it's personally satisfying. But even that, before the chair of the search committee called me back in the summer of 2021, I had sort of laid the tracks for stepping down as Provost and had a whole bunch of things I wanted to do.

John Wen: Well, we're so glad that you're back here at your alma mater. What do you look to accomplish? What's the vision that you have for RPI?

Marty Schmidt: What makes it really interesting to me, first of all, it's personally very meaningful, to think that I can finish my higher ed career where it started. And, to the extent to which I can help move RPI in a positive direction and advance it, that'll be personally satisfying. What's interesting to me is that having come from an institution that has a $25 billion endowment to another institution that is trying to execute the same business but with a much different financial structure. Yes, it's a fascinating challenge, too, because the world can't live just off of the well-endowed private institutions. Organizations like RPI need to succeed and thrive. The exciting challenge is, what is our path forward? What is our future that creates a healthy and vibrant RPI? That, to me, is interesting. That's a lot of what I thought about leading up to the decision to give my application to the search committee. It's something that I spent all my time thinking about, which is, what's our path forward? This process we're going through right now, strategic planning, has to lay that path out, but at the end of the day, RPI has an amazing history, and I think has a really bright future. We just need to figure out what that path looks like and move forward on it. The world needs institutions like RPI.

John Wen: You were involved heavily in the open courseware activity and MOOC, such as the edX. How do you envision their continuing roles in higher education? Where do you see the future of higher education in general, and for RPI In particular?

Marty Schmidt: When I was a junior faculty member, it was right when MIT Open Courseware was created. These things happened in waves, and there was a wave when a lot of universities were going to distance learning. Pre-Internet; they would send videotape! There was a little bit of a gold rush when the internet came along. I remember at the time, the leadership of MIT felt like this was commoditizing education. And in a commodity market, you need to be the low-cost provider. I remember the president of MIT at the time saying, we will never be a low-cost provider; it's just not our mentality, we are not structured to be that. At that point, I think it was Chuck Vest, who basically said, we're going to put all the course content online for free, full stop. And that's what they did with the Open Courseware. The decision to do that drew a lot of philanthropic support from people, even people that aren’t affiliated with MIT. And it allowed MIT to keep that going for a while. But eventually, that activity got severely resource-constrained, and it was challenging for MIT. MIT was maintaining it almost as a public good, but it wasn’t a net revenue source for MIT. But I think there was enough passion toward it that the administration kept funding it. Then the MOOC comes along. This was right when some of the folks at Stanford were doing the very first MOOC; it's like 150,000 people taking this computer science class and dollar signs start rolling around in people's eyes. There are a lot of private conversations occurring among some of the most elite private institutions about: can we create one entity that channels all of our brands out, and this could be a pretty significant revenue stream. And to their credit, the leadership of Harvard and MIT looked at it and said, well, that feels a little bit like, we're supporting the Elsevier model of journals. The way I thought about it is: who should be the king, the content providers or the content deliverers? If you think about it, content providers are going to be the universities, and the content deliverer could be Facebook or whatever. But if you think about it in this social media world, really the content deliverers dominate, right? I mean, the Amazons, the Googles; it's not the producers. The thought of creating an edX was: if you create a not-for-profit deliverer, you put the producers more in the driver's seat. Because then this delivery of content is not profit-motivated. That was a reason for creating edX as a nonprofit, and everybody got on board with that. What's interesting is that you fast forward 10 years, we ended up selling edX for $800 million to a for-profit. A lot of people thought I was crazy. But what had happened in the meantime, is all of a sudden, there was a competitive landscape of many providers. And you didn't really need to have the nonprofit channel. In fact, the nonprofit channel was losing so much money that it was not sustainable. But if we have all these people competing to provide content, we've prevented the Amazon or the Facebook or whatever from being created. Instead, we've created a competitive landscape, so we could get out of that business. Take the profits from that activity, MIT and Harvard created a separate nonprofit that's basically focused on funding research and activities around online learning. I guess it's a long-winded way of saying that it's been an interesting evolution. Some of the predicted transformations in education just never came about. But obviously, these resources helped us a whole lot during COVID in the two-week pivot in March 2020. I think the story is still out there as to how this will change things. I believe that throughout this journey, that you're never going to fully replace the residential experience, particularly for a research-centric university, because you just need the physical presence on campus. I liked the phrase that Arthur Levine used in his book called The Great Upheaval, a general sense that there is a decline in confidence in the value of a higher ed degree. He uses a phrase, moving from “just in case” to “just in time.” The mentality of the past has been, you get the four-year degree because that will be the path to prosperity. You get it just in case. But the notion now is that, well, maybe you don't need that full degree, as long as there's a pathway to take the materials you need in the time you need them. So as your career advances and evolves, you have access. I do think we'll see a more robust pipeline of “just-in-time” offerings for people as they advance their career. When you think about Rensselaer at Work, I think that's a really important platform for us, because they're doing a really great job, in my opinion. They're at a very small scale, and they should grow. But I think it's a tremendous opportunity. One of the things that I learned that surprised me, and when I told the board they were even more surprised, is that RPI has about 108,000 living alumni. Rensselaer at Hartford has awarded 25,000 degrees. It's not insignificant in its history since 1955. I think what they're doing today is what I consider to be best in class. And if they can scale, it is a great opportunity to deliver a Rensselaer education in a lifelong sense to a lot of people. The other thing that I was really interested when I arrived, is all the work we have in gaming, and immersive learning. You've heard me say many times this kind of fundamental passion toward educational pedagogy. I just keep wondering, is there something that when you put that all together, that creates an opportunity for RPI to lead the world in personalized education?

John Wen: You were also involved in international education outreach at MIT. International education, and immigration in general, had been under scrutiny in the past few years. Our own international student enrollment had declined. Where do you see the landscape of international education for RPI?

Marty Schmidt: We're at a very challenging time, without a doubt. But if you actually roll back the clock, I remember in the ’80s, everybody was worried in my field about the Japanese semiconductor industry crushing the United States. And I remember vividly the president of MIT being called to Washington to testify before the Congressional panel and being called out over some exchange programs that were bringing Japanese engineers to the MIT campus to interact. These things happen; they cycle, and I think it's incumbent upon universities to really take the long view. We are a U.S. institution, and we have to be attuned to the concerns of the nation. But we benefit from that diversity of talent and from the global connections. I think we should continue to do them in a way that's respectful of the concerns that people might have in the country, but also keeping that door open as much as possible. We're in the talent business, and there's a lot of talent out there that's not necessarily in North America. If we can attract that talent here, history has shown that in this country, that talent stays.

John Wen: You mentioned diversity. How do you see RPI and ECSE doing more in this area?

Marty Schmidt: In my view, and in my experience, the most important thing is, are you creating an environment that's welcoming to everyone? One way you do it is when people see people like themselves in that environment. I've seen so many instances where you get in a situation where one demographic dominates. And the culture tends to hover around that demographic in a way in which others don't feel welcome. They feel perhaps excluded, or they just don't feel the same way as other members. And to me, that's the biggest barrier to getting a more diverse population and an academic unit. It's not a numbers game; it's about the environment, and whether or not it's welcoming. But if you don't have the numbers, you may not know what produces a welcoming environment. There's a kind of push and pull there. But I do think that, in my observation, when you talk about gender balance, in particular, you can reach these sorts of tipping points. I remember having a conversation with a senior woman faculty member at MIT, who had been the first tenured woman in this particular department in the School of Engineering. She told me that, even with tenure, when she would be in faculty meetings for the department, and someone would say something that she found off-putting or offensive, her attitude was, well, this is just not what I'm going to dwell on; I'm just going to focus on doing my work. But what she relayed to me was, there was a point in time in the department when the number of women in the department reached the sort of critical mass when they collectively looked at each other and said, I don't know why we're putting up with this. I mentioned in the Commencement address, Nancy Hopkins, that was another example. When Nancy felt like she was being ignored, or not getting the same amount of space as the men in the department, she did her research and validated that, in fact, that was true. Then she started talking to a lot of other women faculty. Together, they approached the administration about the issue. Fortunately for them, they had a president who was prepared to accept that result and address it. I think there's a responsibility for leadership to think about as we're driving toward a more equitable community – what am I doing to make sure that this is more welcoming? I think one of the challenges is, and it was sort of epiphany for me, we hire faculty with the expectation that they'll be great teachers and great researchers, and we cultivate them that way. And then at some point, we asked them to take on a leadership role, either by hoodwinking them and telling them who else or by some means. But historically, I think universities have not done a great job of mentoring people and supporting them in those leadership roles when they first step into them. There are things they know how to do really well; they know how to supervise graduate students, they know how to deliver a curriculum. They've been trained in that research and teaching, but haven't been trained in how you make a community welcoming and inclusive. For me, the focus at MIT was creating resources that supported distributed academic leadership. I could give lots of examples of areas where there are really small things that an academic leader was doing that were really just setting the tone. If a person unwittingly didn't realize what they were doing was not really helping that cause, these trusted people could sit with them and say, hey, this is an area where you're not performing well, and here's what you can do about it. It's a little frustrating that everybody looks at DEI staffing and they feel like the universities are gone off the deep end. But it’s just developing or supporting the distributed leadership and doing all aspects of their job.

John Wen: Do you have any advice for ECSE students and ECSE faculty?

Marty Schmidt: Well, it's been great being back. I really, really valued my interaction with the students at RPI. It's really fascinating to me. We had an event out in California at Trustee Nancy Mueller's house, with 21 of the students that have been admitted to RPI and are coming this fall. Nancy asked them each to say what was it that they liked about RPI. And they very consistently said two things. One is they liked the fact that it was a very rigorous education. And two, they felt like it was a supportive community. And I hear that from current students. I guess the message to students is to embrace the rigor and support your colleagues. And for faculty, I'm not sure what I would say other than recognizing that we're in the talent business and that what you do should be anything that makes people want to come here and be successful. So that means, supporting students, supporting graduate students, creating very good environments for them, supporting the staff, in all aspects of their job, and helping identify colleagues that really advanced the university.

John Wen Thank you very much, Marty, for sharing your experience and insight with us.