As a member of the RPI community, you’ve probably heard about President Shirley Ann Jackson’s accomplishments numerous times. As the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from Massachusettes Institute of Technology, her résumé is packed with academic accomplishments, and she’s certainly done a lot to increase the prestige of Rensselaer. In addition, The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that she was the highest-paid private university president in the nation, something Vice President for Strategic Communication and External Relations William Walker called “a reflection of her extraordinary accomplishments, envisioning and leading a comprehensive transformation at Rensselaer, moving it to a top-tier, world-class teaching and research institution with global reach and global impact.”
While I’m sure many of us are pleased to have such a talented president, some students seem displeased with the Institute’s administration. Since I arrived at RPI more than two years ago, there has been a palpable tension between the administration and the student body. Students appear cynical and distrustful of their university’s leaders’ intents, while the administration seems to be growing weary of students that come across as disrespectful and harshly judgmental. As the president of the Institute, Jackson becomes a focal point for any bitterness felt by students, especially those who may not know exactly who is responsible for whatever change they’re unhappy with.
This is undoubtedly an unpleasant experience for Jackson, and surely makes interacting with students difficult. Perhaps this is why we’ve seen Pizza with the President vanish in favor of Pizza with the Cabinet. And perhaps it’s why we rarely see her face while walking around campus, and why she doesn’t often mingle with the students when she attends at hockey games. However, this absence from student life makes her an enigmatic and distant figure, which only widens the gap between the administration and the students.
I’m sure I speak for many of my peers when I say that, in spite of any disagreements I may have with Institute policies, I would love to see Jackson interact with us more often. I recently read an article in The New York Times about the president of DePauw University, Brian Casey. The article described how a walk to his office from the student union, where he had gone to get coffee, took far too long because he kept stopping to talk to students. To me, the most shocking part of this wasn’t even that he was so social with the students—it was that he went to the student union to get coffee in the first place. Can you imagine bumping into Jackson at the coffee stand in Father’s Marketplace?
According to the article, Casey is highly regarded by both students and faculty at DePauw. He attends 6 am swim practices with the school’s varsity swimmers, has turned the president’s house into “the campus living room,” creates playlists on his iPod for campus events, and invites both faculty and students over for dinners. The article quotes the student body vice president as saying, “He’s a framework for success and achievement and intellectual engagement, and he wants to share his passion with us. How cool is that?’’
I wish Jackson would share her passion with us.
Rensselaer is not DePauw, and Jackson is not Casey. It’s worth noting that there are significant differences between liberal arts and engineering schools, and I’m sure Jackson’s schedule is already jam-packed with events that are geared toward improving the stature of Rensselaer, something we should all appreciate. However, it appears that she and Casey have some similar goals, such as turning their university into “a living and learning community” thriving with “creative energy, excitement, and relevance.” While Jackson may not have time to throw dinner parties for students and I’m not holding out hope of running into her at Father’s, she could step up her efforts to be involved with student life. The Clustered Learning Advocacy and Support for Students initiative seeks to create community and increase intellectual discourse, but might Jackson striking up conversations with students during a morning walk be another way? As Casey said, “conviviality actually matters for community,” and more of that on Jackson’s part would go great lengths to improve the strain between the administration and students.