Discussion repairs relations

I was pleasantly surprised to read the following in the Opinion section of The Troy Record:

“It’s incredible what [President Shirley Ann Jackson]’s done in the decade she’s been in Troy and she just signed on for another decade’s worth of work so it will get nothing but better. RPI is an institution with world wide reach and her tenure has done nothing but make it more so.”

The relationship between Troy and RPI has been uncomfortably strained for the three years I’ve been here, so such a laudatory comment from The Record threw me for a loop. What caused them to praise Jackson as they did?

She talked with them. She didn’t have a spokesman talk to them; she didn’t send a press release. She just sat down with them and answered their questions.

“[Jackson]’s actually not a bad person to talk to,” continued James V. Franco of The Record. “After sitting down with her for the first time, it’s a shame she doesn’t come down off the hill more often and talk to real people. Maybe stop in at Francesca’s or Arnet’s or the South End Tavern or Holmes and Watson for lunch and/or dinner. Mix it up with the people who also call Troy home.”

I was impressed to see Jackson take this step, which could go a long way toward repairing RPI’s relationship with Troy. The Institute does so much for Troy that doesn’t get publicized, and Fire Chief Tom Garrett’s criticism just keeps getting louder and louder. Taking the time to meet The Record for lunch and go over a number of controversial issues sent a signal that Jackson and the school as a whole care about Troy. It demonstrates a willingness to be accessible, to answer questions, and to be held accountable for actions. And it took some guts—public opinion of RPI in Troy can be extreme, and Jackson becomes the focus point for all the frustrations. The more face-to-face interaction Jackson and her staff have with the city, though, the less likely we are to be seen as “snooty college professor[s],” as Franco put, in our ivory tower on the hill.

While I like the idea of Jackson visiting Troy citizens, as Franco suggests, I also hope to see more of that within RPI. In her editorial on page 7, Jackson discusses the benefits of old-fashioned social networking and encourages face-to-face interaction. Hopefully she’ll take that principle to heart and we’ll see more interaction between the administration and students, faculty, and staff this coming academic year. There have been some sore spots between the administration and the other community groups, but I firmly believe that the best way to fix that is through communication. People need to feel listened to; they want to be assured that policy-makers are considering their perspective when making decisions. This holds true with all decisions that affect our community, big and small: CLASS, the tobacco-free policy, research overhead funds, changes to the academic calendar, and so forth.

Jackson and her cabinet have been very accessible to student leaders over the past year, and we’re all very appreciative of that. The rest of the student body, however, is a little more disconnected. The semesterly Pizza with the Cabinet is a fantastic mechanism for direct communication between students and administrators; however, Jackson is not present at these events. While it’s a great idea to have the cabinet present, as Pizza with the President could sometimes put undue focus on Jackson, it would be nice for students to have the opportunity for face-to-face conversation with their president.

Even more distant than students, however, are the faculty. Faculty members I’ve talked to recently reiterate a common theme: they don’t feel like the administration listens to their concerns. While most universities exhibit some amount of tension between the faculty and the administration, it seems rather exaggerated at RPI as of late. The disbanding of the faculty senate left many professors feeling as though they’d been cut off, as if they no longer had input into how their school was run. They no longer have a formal voice, and most rarely interact with the administration. How can this group, so critical to the Institute’s ability to function and, in fact, thrive, communicate their concerns and needs to the higher-ups?

If Jackson and Provost Robert Palazzo—or simply the president and her cabinet as a whole—were to reach out to the faculty for a discussion on recent Institute affairs, I’m sure they’d be received with open arms. As The Troy Record’s opinion section has shown, a willingness to meet and talk openly about problems can do wonders to improve a rocky relationship.