At 6 pm on November 14, the 41st Student Senate convened to work on a bill whose resolution asked for either a distinct change in the leadership style of the Institute’s president, Shirley Ann Jackson, or her removal from office.
Despite what rumors circulating through Facebook and RPI’s sub-Reddit claimed, the resolution is actually significantly more detailed and involved than a vote of no confidence in Jackson, being based on an extensive report that is currently under construction on the part of the Student Senate. The Senate is compiling this report for the benefit of the student body, but given the controversy involved in the resolution, it will likely be presented to the Student Life Committee of the board of trustees in December.
The report itself details aspects of the Institute’s recent financial history, especially in comparison with institutes who share goals and financial situations similar to RPI. One of the report’s key points is that RPI’s credit rating, as evaluated by Moody’s credit rating agency, is currently over two standard deviations lower than the average for other similar institutes. This rating takes into account not only the raw fiscal state, but also non-financial factors such as the current leadership and factors like the Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students initiative and the Rensselaer Plan. RPI is currently rated at an A3 rating, which is just one step above becoming a rating that has qualities of a speculative investment prospect, which would mean that the Institute will have qualities of an unstable or unsafe investment that will likely have a varying stock value. Among 30 similarly endowed universities, RPI is actually only one of two universities with such a low credit rating.
The cost of tuition and the cost of attendance at RPI have increased by 36.8 and 33.4 percent respectively over the last 7 years, which is much larger than the inflation predicted by the Higher Education Pricing Index, a measure created to specifically track the rate of inflation with respect to higher education institutions.
According to RPI’s financial aid statistics, the financial aid distributed by the school fully meets the financial aid needs of only 33 percent of the student body. This means that 67 percent of the students determined by the Institute to need financial aid do not have that need met and must look into personal loans and other means for paying their bills from the Institute.
With a report consisting of many financial facts, there were also facts along this vein that did not have a financial bent to them. The report also codifies the feelings of the student senate on things like faculty interactions and empowerment, CLASS, the Rensselaer Plan, school rankings, and the decision making process. A group of about two-thirds of the members of the senate met this Monday and as Anasha Cummings ’12 put it, “[A] decent majority felt, given this information and interactions with Dr. Jackson … there are significant concerns with the direction of the Institute given her leadership style.”
Thus, a bill was authored with the intent of detailing the Student Senate’s exact position on the state of the Institute and Jackson. The bills put forward the idea that most of the issues being encountered are due, wholly or in part, to the top-down leadership style of Jackson. From that conclusion, the bill suggested either a change be made to Jackson’s leadership style or a change be made to who is the president of RPI.
There was a significant amount of dissent on this topic, however. Many senators expressed opinions in opposition of the bill, specifically the part of the resolution which calls for either a change in leadership style on the part of Jackson or her removal. Senator opinions ran from the resolution being inappropriate, Jackson not being a root cause of the issues being seen, Institute Chief Financial Officer Virginia Gregg not being called out, and the recent economic downturn causing the financial situation. Many other concerns were raised such as the Senate’s conclusions possibly being wrong or appearing too radical, Jackson reacting badly to the resolution, whether the board of trustees would listen to the opinion of the Senate, and concerns over rendering future generations of the senate impotent through angering Jackson.
These concerns became the basis for the debate that lasted for the rest of the six-hour-long Senate meeting. Proponents of the resolution cited things like poor lines of communication existing between the Office of the President and the student body, in addition to poor communication between the administration at large and the student body. They also cited inefficiencies in the Office of the President, where proposals and initiatives on the part of the Senate have sat for significant periods of times, sometimes over a year, before receiving any kind of word back. Finally, they cited interactions with Jackson herself, which some characterized as being both few and strained.
Opponents of the resolution cited making the problems worse by irrevocably offending Jackson and the resolution’s conclusion being grossly inappropriate. They noted that Jackson may not be aware of the severity of the issues perceived by the Student Senate, and the depth and breadth of sentiments against her.
An initial motion was put forward towards the mid-point of the meeting to simply postpone the issue pending further analysis and further debate. This failed 6-13. Later, a motion was put forward to simply remove the phrase regarding asking for the removal of Jackson; this motion failed narrowly by a vote of 9-10. After several more hours of debate, no solid conclusion was met and the Senate voted unanimously to postpone the bill until the next meeting of the Senate.