President Ángel Cabrera's 2021 Institute Address

President Ángel Cabrera
Institute Address
Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021
Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons

(as written, not necessarily as delivered)

Good morning, everyone! I want to welcome our newest students and colleagues to Georgia Tech. And to the rest of you, welcome back! I’m always excited about the start of a new academic year; the energy on campus; and the promise of new, great things on the horizon.  

Like most of you, after a long year and a half fighting Covid, I had hoped the worst would be behind us and that I could spend this morning celebrating with you the extraordinary year we just completed. But we are where we are, with cases again growing across the nation, especially in the South, and great concern about the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff.

So, before I highlight the impressive work we did this past year, I first want to address what is on all of our minds these days: How do we keep our community safe while we deliver on our crucially important education and research work?

I have received messages of concern from many of you. I realize how many are dealing with a host of issues at home in addition to your work — including the many of you with young children or other family circumstances. I know it’s hard. There is no way to sugarcoat this, we are still in the middle of a long and difficult public health crisis that will continue to test us in countless ways. But we are in this together and, like we did last year, we will navigate through this successfully again.

What this community did last year was simply remarkable. Though different, the situation was equally complex. And we not only went through it, we thrived and ended up delivering one of our most impactful years ever. I have no doubt we will do it again, together.

We have learned a lot about how to deal with this situation. We know what worked then and will, without a doubt, work again this year. We innovated, we collaborated, we took personal responsibility, and cared for each other. We relied on science and technology. We shared information openly and widely. We were adaptable, resilient, and compassionate. That is what got us through. We learned that a community health threat can only be fought by a community working together. That we’re strongest when we work together.

I keep receiving letters and messages from many of you, and I realize many would prefer different policies at the state level. I appreciate all that feedback, and I assure you that I am in constant communication with state decision-makers. Our colleagues in the System office and the members of the board are fully aware of our circumstances. We will continue to work with them to convey data from Georgia Tech and propose ideas.

But while we do that, I want us, each one of us, to focus on what we can do ourselves to keep Georgia Tech safe for everyone. Each of us has an important role to play. Decisions and actions we each make every single day, big and small, have a large effect and will once again get us through this.

What are the main tools at our disposal?

  • Number one, a vaccine that works. The new vaccines are safe, and extraordinarily effective at preventing severe illness. We estimate that the majority of our students and our faculty are vaccinated. Numbers among our staff are lower though. We continue to deliver a few hundred vaccines every week, and Dr. Holton reports an uptick in new vaccine takers. But we need to get more people to get vaccinated. This past month, we lost a dear employee who I knew well to Covid. She was unvaccinated. Let’s keep doing what we can to address the fear some people still have and find ways to incentivize vaccine adoption. The increase of the well-being credit to $200 for vaccinated employees and spouses announced by the University System this week is a good example.
  • Second, everyone should be wearing a mask indoors, especially in lecture halls, labs, and spaces where we cannot appropriately distance. Reports from faculty so far are promising but certainly not uniform. I appreciate the majority of our students who are masking in class, but it needs to be everyone. No one wears a mask for pleasure. I most definitely don’t. I do most of my meetings outside so we can unmask safely. Wearing a mask is an act of kindness and care toward others. No matter how careful I am, I cannot be 100% sure that I didn’t catch Covid yesterday. If I did, the last thing I would want is for you to get sick because of me. That’s why I wear my mask. I encourage our faculty to keep having the conversation with students. Tell them why it is important to you that they mask up. And I ask that our student leaders find ways to encourage fellow students to mask up.
  • Surveillance testing remains critical. It’s our only way to catch an infection before it puts others at risk. A state elected official who went through our testing program during this past legislative session told me that if it hadn’t been for our test, he would not have known for three to four days that he had Covid. He was asymptomatic at first and would have continued to participate in committee meetings and would have likely infected many other legislators and staff. Asymptomatic testing is our best chance to stop an infection from spreading and to give us the data that we need to navigate this effectively. Please test weekly and encourage your students, colleagues, friends, and peers to do the same.
  • Lastly, if you have symptoms, report it immediately and isolate. Even if you’re not sure you have Covid, stay home. Isolate. Don’t come to class or to the office. If you’re a faculty member, make it as easy as possible for students in isolation or quarantine to follow your class so they don’t feel pressured to attend and put others at risk. The Provost Office has suggested several technology solutions to do this, and these solutions will likely be of value to many other students as well.
  • In addition, our staff has made major improvements in classrooms, they have increased ventilation rates, they have installed air purifying units across campus, and indoor air quality sensors in a sample of 33 classrooms. Early assessment indicates that aerosol levels remain at acceptable levels despite higher occupancy with a higher rate of decay from last semester — in some cases up to two times faster.

Much of what will help us through this is already within our reach and control. While I will continue to work with state leaders to find additional flexibility in certain areas, just like we did last year, we are finding ways to successfully navigate this pandemic within the parameters we have.

Thank you to the majority of the members of our community who are doing all of this already. But we need everyone on board, so please keep up the fight.

I know we can do this. I am sure of it.

As I indicated earlier, what we accomplished together this past year was nothing short of remarkable.

We recruited our largest, most diverse class ever. We graduated our largest class. We won more research awards and had more economic impact than ever before. Our donors, alumni, and friends stepped up too. We had one of our best fundraising years, and our endowment reached a new record. It would have been a great year even under the most favorable circumstances.

The fact that we did it while navigating through a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis, says it all about this community, the caliber of the individuals that comprise it, and the values that bind us together.

In a minute, I will share some details about these achievements. But before that, I would like to acknowledge a few colleagues and leaders here today:

  • Members of the Cabinet and Deans.
  • Al Trujillo, president of the Georgia Tech Foundation.
  • Dene Sheheane, president of the Georgia Tech Alumni Association.
  • Samuel Ellis, president of our Undergraduate Student Government Association.
  • Stephen Eick, president of our Graduate Student Government Association.

I am deeply grateful for what you have done and continue to do to move this community forward.
The other day, Provost McLaughlin reminded me of the quote: Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it. This past year revealed so much about our community. We were tested again and again, and we did what we do best. We innovated. We collaborated. We took care of one another. We created new solutions.

One of the most impressive examples of this was the surveillance testing system we built from scratch. With no prior clinical testing experience, we created a novel, noninvasive saliva PCR test, built and automated a lab based on an innovative double-pooling process, developed a software system, recruited and trained staff, and established a campus network of sample sites.

In the span of a few weeks, we were collecting, analyzing, and distributing data on 2,000 to 3,000 samples per day — all done in house with our own systems and a product of extraordinary collaboration between faculty, GTRI, staff, and our amazing students. And when asked to help others, we deployed the same system to keep our state elected officials safe during their legislative session.

That is just one example.

Faculty showed incredible resilience and adaptability. While dealing with their own set of challenges at home, some with elderly parents or young families, our faculty found a way to leverage technology and adapt their courses to cater to the multiple needs of our students.

Our students were outstanding. They, too, had to adapt their studies to new delivery formats, deal with personal concerns at home, and navigate a host of restrictions on campus. Yet, they took care of one another, they progressed academically, and found ways to keep the most cherished traditions on our campus alive and well.

Our staff also had to change the way they work in order to help the rest of us continue our work. They had to find new ways to offer support, to adjust processes, and to ensure our campus and facilities were safe.

We even managed to post the best athletic season in recent history. When other athletic conferences decided it was too difficult, we chose to find a way forward. It wasn’t easy, but our student-athletes had the opportunity to compete and, while doing so, bring hope to the rest of us at Tech and beyond. Eventually, other conferences followed our lead.

One of our most important outcomes this year was to recruit our largest class ever, even without our usual means to reach prospective students. Campus tours were cancelled; athletic events, mostly closed to outside visitors; and outreach programs were significantly hampered by health protocols.

Yet, our admission and communications teams, faculty, and staff found creative ways to engage students. Their work, coupled with our increasing global reputation, produced a record 45,537 undergraduate applications, an 11% increase over the prior year, including a record number of women, first-generation, African American, and Hispanic students.

Overall, student enrollment this fall is estimated to reach or exceed 44,000 students, our highest ever, driven not only by the online master’s, but by records in undergraduate and campus-based graduate programs. We are not only the fastest-growing institution in the state but one of the 10 fastest-growing institutions in the nation in the past decade.

These numbers reflect our strategic commitments to amplify our impact, produce more talent, serve learners throughout their lives, and expand access to careers in technology to women and underrepresented groups.

Of course, getting talented students to Georgia Tech is not enough. The real measure of our success is their success. We have made great progress on that front too, with our six-year graduation rate reaching an extraordinary 90.5%, which places us among the top 10 public universities in the nation. The days of the “look to your left, look to your right” are fortunately, and definitely, over!

We aim to grow our first-year class to at least 4,000 and grow transfer enrollment as well to answer the growing demand from students and employers alike. A combination of larger incoming classes and high graduation rates will produce more talent, which is our most important contribution to our state economy.

A recent report published by the University System, and which, to avoid any suspicion, was elaborated on by our colleagues in Athens, listed Georgia Tech as the biggest contributor to the state economy among all public universities. According to their numbers, Georgia Tech was responsible for more than $4 billion of economic output or 22% of the overall impact of all our public universities.

Our growth will increase those numbers further and will help us continue to attract leading companies like Microsoft and Google to our neighborhood and serve the growth needs of the many who are already here.

We are modeling the resources needed to accommodate growth, including faculty, student services, and facilities. I am delighted that the Board of Regents recognized the importance of our growth for the state and included Tech Square Phase III in its capital recommendations this year.

Expanding our student body allows us to recruit many more students who have traditionally been underrepresented in science and technology careers, another of our strategic goals, and an important reason cited by many companies that are investing and growing in Atlanta.

The good news is that we are surrounded by incredibly diverse school systems in our state and in our own backyard. Our new transfer pathway with Atlanta Public Schools, our work with CEISMC, Project Engages, Constellations, EarSketch, and others are great examples of what we know works.
We will pay special attention to students with financial need. Recently, the number of Pell students at Tech has stagnated. As a public university, the recruitment of low-income students must be a top priority. That requires effective outreach and, very importantly, new philanthropic resources to support need-based financial aid. This will be a central priority in the new campaign currently being planned.

In terms of student success, after improving six-year rates to top national benchmarks, we must turn our attention to improving four-year rates. On-time graduation reduces the cost of education and increases the value of a degree for our students. This goal will require both curricular and non-curricular interventions.

On the non-curricular side, I am thrilled to have recruited Luoluo Hong as our inaugural vice president of Student Engagement and Well-Being, two factors that we know are critical to student success. Her portfolio will combine campus services and student services into a new unit, linking critical pieces to the student experience and, ultimately, student success. The climate and programs in our residence halls, fraternities and sororities, the food we serve in our dining facilities, the Campus Recreation Center, Stamps Student Health Services, the Center for Assessment, Referral & Education, or CARE, and student organizations… are all integral parts of the Georgia Tech experience.

We are also evaluating various initiatives to strengthen our culture of inclusion to better serve minority students so that success rates are high across the board.

On the curricular side, Provost McLaughlin and our deans will be working with faculty on a number of initiatives to help more students graduate on time.

As our services, programs, and climate continue to evolve, progress will also continue on the spaces and environments in which each of us experiences this campus.

Once renovations are complete, the Student Center will house student resources and services, meeting, conference, and socializing space. I have now toured the new facilities twice, and I can’t wait to see them open and full of life. Together with the new Exhibition Hall and Pavilion, the new additions to our campus will have a major impact on student life.

The beautiful 8-acre EcoCommons is now officially open. It offers an example of how ecosystems can be restored inside an urban core, and how green spaces can contribute to well-being and inclusion. If you haven’t experienced it yet, I strongly recommend you do!

Tech’s research enterprise also saw historic growth this past year, reaching nearly $1.2 billion in research and other sponsored awards, and nearly $1.1 billion in research expenditures. More than $781 million of our research awards were received by the Georgia Tech Research Institute.

Our researchers from across campus and GTRI are working with local, state, and federal agencies, industry collaborators, and others. They are doing exciting interdisciplinary work. This year, I spent time visiting labs and meeting with faculty in each one of our Colleges, and I am in awe of the work we are doing in fields from mRNA, to cell therapy, climate change, space exploration, the health of our oceans, robotics, advanced manufacturing, materials, batteries, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, neuroscience, policy and ethics, culture and technology, business responsibility, and so much more.

Here are just a few highlights among an impressive list of recent awards

  • A three-year study to bring more diverse voices into computing ethics education, research led by Jason Borenstein in the School of Public Policy, in collaboration with Professor Ellen Zegura and Dean Charles Isbell in the College of Computing.
  • An NSF Smart and Connected Communities award to support research on civic data analytics, led by Omar Asensio from the School of Public Policy and Srinivas Peeta from Civil and Industrial Engineering.
  • And, as we recently announced — two awards totaling $40 million to establish new NSF Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes, plus a third award for $20 million to be led by the Georgia Research Alliance, and in which we will also play an important role.
  • These are just examples of the impactful work that happens across the Institute every day and that is helping answer important scientific questions, solve consequential problems, and drive economic innovation at home and around the world.
  • These accomplishments reflect the goals we agreed to in the strategic plan we launched last year. We agreed, among other things, to amplify impact, to champion innovation, to expand access, to connect globally, cultivate well-being, and lead by example. The strategic plan is off to a good start, and I am very excited about the work to come.

The most important part of this plan is not the decisions that I or the provost or a dean will make, though, but the initiatives I know it will unleash at all levels. This plan belongs to all of us. One of the main elements of this plan is actually the core values that will serve as a framework for all of us. With a focus on students as our top priority and a drive toward excellence, diversity, collaboration, innovation, freedom of inquiry and expression, well-being, and acting as ethical and responsible stewards, our values are our guiding star. The new campaign — Living Our Values Everyday — will help communicate these commitments widely in our decision-making, our interactions, and our path ahead.

Extraordinary achievements take extraordinary efforts, and I thank each of you, including those in leadership among our faculty, staff, and student organizations. Along with new members of our faculty and staff, we also welcomed new leaders in the past year, including

  • Dean Raheem Beyah, dean of the College of Engineering.
  • Steven Girardot, interim vice provost for Undergraduate Education.
  • Luoluo Hong, vice president of Student Engagement and Well-Being.
  • Bert Reeves, vice president of Institute Relations.
  • Michelle Rinehart, interim dean of the College of Design.

Our evolution continues, and I am so glad these leaders and all of you are here for it.  

You may have noticed during today’s presentation that our look is going through its own evolution. Our Institute Communications team thought we were due for a refresh that better and more consistently reflects our new mission and values, and I agreed.

The team surveyed thousands of students, faculty, staff, and alumni, and some outside guidance. The overwhelming feedback was that the interlocking GT is our most recognized brand and should be the common element across our communication channels. The team has reviewed colors, fonts, photography, design styles, and accessibility. I’ll tell you, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of a coherent, simple, recognizable brand throughout the process, and I am excited about the results. Fresh, yet fully Georgia Tech.

I’d like to thank the working group members that supported this effort. Expertly led by Louise Russo and the Strategic Marketing Communications team from Institute Communications, the working groups and an advisory group were comprised of dozens of our colleagues across campus.
Stay tuned as they roll this out beginning immediately and phased throughout the next weeks and months.

Before we move to questions, I want to share the first piece of our new visual brand to come to life. Institute Communications captured our student leaders from the Invention Studio maker group fabricating the first physical version of our new look.

I am excited to see the new look come to life all over our campus, and I hope you are too.

Let me go back to where I started: recognizing the complexity of the public health situation we are in, yet reaffirming with great confidence that we will navigate it successfully. We did it last year, together, and we will again. Every institution is dealing with the same challenges. But there’s no place I’d rather be to deal with those challenges than here.

I recognize how stressful and difficult — and long — this has been. And I am so proud and grateful to all of you.

This year has offered an invaluable reminder of our crucial mission, a reminder I hope no one will forget. When we face difficult, global, existential challenges, science, technology, and people who understand and can deploy new solutions are all we have.

It took decades of investment in molecular biology in institutions like ours to build the foundation that allowed us to create an mRNA vaccine in record time. And it was the digital revolution, advanced also in institutions like ours, that gave us the tools to work and learn remotely, to remain in touch with our loved ones, when it became necessary.

Even after the pandemic is finally behind us, we continue to face equally consequential challenges that need novel solutions and committed leaders, whether that’s global warming, economic and social inequities, access to water, food, education, or healthcare around the world.

Our mission to develop leaders who advance technology and improve the human condition has never been more relevant.

Thank you for doing your part.

I’m happy to take questions.