This Monday, President Shirley Ann Jackson attended the Student Senate meeting. Generally, the President attends Senate meetings once a year to discuss matters of concern to the student body.
Following many concerning changes to campus, such as the decrease in the school’s rank, the departure of two upper-level administrators, and the formation of the Alliance for Responsible Governance, Jackson’s presence at the Senate meeting was anticipated to be eventful.
Before the meeting, Timothy Sams, the vice president for Student Life, as well as Joseph Cassidy, the new director of the Rensselaer Union, and Cameron McClean, the coordinator of Student Activities, met with Student Senators to better understand the concerns of the student body before the Senate meeting. According to Anasha Cummings ’12, the chair of the Advocacy, Community, and Advancement Committee of the Student Senate, the meetings were set up to “help prepare Dr. Jackson,” for what issues would be discussed.
To avoid any confrontational or impolite comments from students, Grand Mashal Lee Sharma ’12 began proceedings by advising everyone to be respectful; “the number one rule” for the meeting according to Sharma was “respect.” She stated that personal attacks would not be tolerated, everyone was to properly address those in attendance by stating their title and last name, and there were strict instructions to “talk about actions, not people.”
Jackson’s presentation involved mostly a restating of the State of the Institute Address given during Alumni weekend. Readdressing the “frontiers” theme, Jackson described how past Rensselaer graduates “helped create the means to open new territories” through work on such things as the Panama Canal and the transcontinental railroad. Going on to describe RPI Relief, current and exciting research opportunities at RPI, the positive increase in interest and selectivity of the freshman classes, and newly hired staff such as Sams and Mary Simoni, the new dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.
Jackson also described the Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students initiative. Although she did admit that the program “is certainly not perfect,” she highlighted the benefits it brings to students. According to Jackson, “the CLASS initiative is supposed to provide students with more touch points at the university and to engender a greater sense of belonging.”
The freshman class president Brandon Win ’15, before attending the meeting, was most concerned with RPI’s drop in rank. According to him, a significant number of freshmen students choose Rensselaer over other schools due to its reputation. To respond to such concerns as Win’s, Jackson went into depth to explain at which points the ratings dropped and why. According to the presentation, RPI has decreased in rank due to a variety of factors. Ratings have dropped in many categories, including a graduate retention rank that dipped from 39 to 41, and the faculty resources rank that fell significantly from 39 to 72. Jackson was quick to point out, however, that it is not all bad. The selectivity ranking of the school has risen from 62 to 60.
Also, “the U.S. News and World Report is not the only reflection of progress,” stated Jackson, before she described other benchmarks with which the Institute chooses to measure its reputation by. For example, RPI looks at factors such as recognition of faculty from professional societies, as well as the growth in significant and important research.
Jackson went on to describe the current plan for the future of Rensselaer. To help bounce back from the drop in rankings and current situation, Jackson states that RPI needs to do a variety of things, such as improve marketing and fundraising efforts. Jackson reiterated that currently RPI is “managing through the greatest economic downturn” since the great depression, and that these times are “challenging.”
Following the presentation, Jackson took questions from Senate members and the attending audience. Questions ranged from inquisitions into why there has been such a turnover in administration and deans within the past few years to concerns about the defunct faculty senate to questions regarding communication between the students and the administration.
To many of the students’ concerns relating to changes in the administration, Jackson, along with cabinet members such as Vice Provost Prabat Hajela and Vice President for Human Resoursces Curtis Powell, explained that many faculty or administrators leave for different reasons, most of which are personal and have nothing to do with the state of Rensselaer. According to Jackson, upper level administrators often find prestigious job offerings outside of the school, such as the previous dean of the School of Engineering who went on to become the Provost at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Chair of the Senate’s Student Life Committee Kyle Monahan ’12 asked the administrators how to improve the communication between students and the upper levels. Requesting to sit on the Performance Plan deliberations—to which the President outright refused—and asking for more concrete information from the cabinet members, Monahan invoked stern responses from Jackson.
Chief Financial Officer Virginia Gregg spoke for a while regarding the distribution of financial information to students. While as Jackson had stated, no university freely gives out all information and documents, Gregg explained the effort she has made throughout the years to regularly meet with a representative of the Senate to appropriately distribute necessary information.
According to John Stack ’12, the event could have well lasted up to five hours. Even though students’ questions spanned a large variety of topics, Stack was surprised that some things, such as the increasing gap between tuition and financial aid, were not discussed.
Overall, the meeting, while going to its full length and invoking some curt responses from the President, was successful in that the students and the administrators came together to express their concerns and ideas effectively.