In an inaugural speech to students, faculty, public officials and industry partners of New Jersey’s public technological research university, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) President Robert A. Altenkirch, Ph.D. sounded a voice for optimism grounded in the promise of technological advancement, and articulated the changing roles the 125-year-old university will likely play under his leadership.
“Today, the complexity of research issues demand unprecedented creativity and diversity of interaction among academic disciplines. It has prompted a paradigm shift for research universities not unlike that which occurs in the sciences themselves,” Altenkirch said. “Like so much of the best research being done today, NJIT researchers and students are participating in pursuits that bridge what we know as academic disciplines, and challenge the sufficiency of the traditional undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate structures of the research academy.”
Altenkirch noted the achievements of NJIT students and faculty in particular fields, citing recent grants and awards from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and other organizations. But he also indicated that New Jersey’s information-driven industries will call for more flexible and inventive partnerships to sustain the state’s economy in the coming decades.
“The collaborations that we foster at NJIT—with industry, government and other institutions of research and higher learning—will grow accordingly,” Altenkirch said. We need only the right vision and to be willing and ready to embrace it.”
Altenkirch also emphasized the value of diversity for NJIT’s mission, and the interrelated importance of continuing to extend educational opportunity for all New Jersey residents. “Hard work and technical excellence know nothing of race or gender, color or creed,” said Altenkirch. “Advancement of the human condition comes from bringing together the most talented people, tools and ideas. New Jersey has these in abundance, and our campus is where they come together productively.”
Altenkirch, a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, who has worked collaboratively in positions of authority at several major public research universities in the United States and on projects for NASA and other federal and state agencies, referred to such diverse figures as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Kuhn and Yogi Berra to highlight the importance of fresh thinking, diverse experience and what he called “the native optimism” of the NJIT community.
“Our goal must be to continue to build a campus that meets social as well as intellectual and physical needs — a community of the mind that fosters thoughtful sensitivity to many points of view to the humanistic and the artistic as well as awareness of scientific and technological frontiers,” he said.
Acknowledging his predecessor, Saul Fenster, for giving the university “its current position, reputation and sense of identity and momentum,” Altenkirch added: “To build on such a legacy will be a test of vision and endurance. The solutions we need will demand a different way of thinking, perceiving and acting. Foremost will be more creative partnerships with government, industry and each other, by drawing together the best talent in New Jersey from every quarter.”
The inaugural ceremony began with a colorful academic parade lead by University Marshal Jack Gentul, dean of students at NJIT, which featured NJIT faculty, elected officials and delegates. The academic entourage followed the resonant Gaelic pipe band, Saint Columcille United Gaelic Pipe Band, of Kearny, which featured a bagpiper and drum corps.
The Scottish theme for NJIT reflects the university mascot, which is called the Highlander. The name was derived more than half a century ago from the school’s geographical location in the highlands of Newark. A highlander traditionally signified a brave warrior. A color guard from Air Force R.O.T.C. Detachment 490 also participated in the processional.
William Van Buskirk, Ph.D., provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, opened the ceremony. The Rev. Mark Francis O’Malley, chaplain and campus minister, followed him with the invocation.
Members of the Newark Boys Chorus under the direction of Donald C. Morris, musical director, sang the national anthem. Later in the program, the Chorus performed a gospel medley.
In an address that was often passionate, New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey praised Altenkirch as a shining star. The Governor called on the new president to continue NJIT’s mission to forge a critical link between education, jobs and economic development.
“We understand here in the state of New Jersey that while manufacturing recedes,” said the Governor, “New Jersey has the highest concentration of research scientists and engineers per capita in the nation. Our future is as the information and innovation state and NJIT will play a critical role in that development.”
McGreevey also said that he had “incredibly high expectations” of Altenkirch, based on the new president’s accomplishments to date.
“I know I share here today with Senator Rice and the leadership of the New Jersey State legislature that we will move this university forward, at the same time that we embrace dynamic change in the restructuring of our universities to insure a world class, research-based university system,” said McGreevey.
“We understand NJIT’s commitment to excellence and, underscoring the dichotomy between tradition and, yes, innovation, between the steadfast and immutable and ever-changing frontiers of science. We celebrate all of that in the proud history of NJIT. But we also commit to achieve excellence. And, that is why as governor, I am here to celebrate NJIT.”
Other speakers included New Jersey State Senator Ronald L. Rice; Colin Dino, president of the Alumni Association of NJIT; Tony Howell, director of the Educational Opportunity Program at NJIT, alumna Elizabeth Garcia; and Nadine Aubry, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering and chair of the mechanical engineering department. Aubry, who is a distinguished professor, is the only woman in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania to chair a mechanical engineering department. Garcia, who received her master’s degree in chemical engineering in 1973 from NJIT, is public affairs manager for Infineum USA, Linden.
James A. Kennedy, chairman of the NJIT Board of Trustees and the former chairman and chief executive officer of National Starch and Chemical Company, Bridgewater, presented and installed Altenkirch.
A short reception celebrating both the day’s events and NJIT’s long-standing ties to Newark was later held at the Newark Museum.
The university chose the Newark Museum as the site for the final celebration, because of its symbolism. “We consider NJIT to be not only a state institution, but since its inception, an important resource for Newark residents,” said Henry Ross, Ph.D., chief of staff at NJIT. “NJIT owes its origins to Newark Technical School, founded in 1881 by Newark City Fathers. It is proper for NJIT to visibly support a sister cultural and educational institution.”
NJIT students often contribute to the city. This past year, architecture students in the master’s degree program in infra-structure planning program offered by the New Jersey School of Architecture (NJSOA) at NJIT developed a proposal for the Business Improvement District in the Ironbound section of Newark.
In addition, during the past academic year, more than 450 NJIT students volunteered more than 18,000 hours to benefit the city. Projects included literacy tutoring in neighborhood schools and libraries; computer technology assistance for nonprofit community groups and centers; and support of community housing development for local nonprofit agencies.