Jackson addresses RPI community at Fall Town Meeting

On Wednesday, President Shirley Ann Jackson hosted the annual Fall Town Meeting at Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. As Jackson explained, the point of the meeting was to discuss “the achievements at Rensselaer, the direction in which the Institute is heading, and its options for the future.” A question and answer period followed Jackson’s presentation.

However, before the meeting began, Professor of Cognitive Science Bill Puka took it upon himself to suggest that this question and answer period occur at the beginning of the meeting rather than the end, commenting that members of the audience would be “too tired” to effectively and accurately make their concerns known otherwise. Members of the administration attempted to quiet him, stating that this was “not [his] meeting” and that they would follow their schedule as had already been determined. Puka, though, continued by trying to engage the audience with questions such as, “You want to hear what I have to say, right?” Although a few attendees gave their agreement, the general opinion of the suggestion seemed to be indifference. Puka eventually quieted himself enough for the proceedings to begin.

Once the meeting had commenced, Jackson introduced the members of her cabinet, other administrators, and many of the deans. She placed particular emphasis on three of the new deans:

Laurie Leshin, dean of the School of Science; Mary Simoni, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; and Thomas Begley, dean of the Lally School of Management & Technology.

Jackson then went on to explain the circumstances surrounding her rise to the president’s office, explaining that she was charged with bringing “holistic and comprehensive” change to RPI Jackson added. This desire for change resulted in the creation of The Rensselaer Plan. The Plan, she claimed, was influenced by Amos Eaton’s original vision for the Institute. This includes the concept of “applying science to the common purposes of life.”

Referring to one of her main duties as president, Jackson mentioned that she is steering the Institute in such a way that involves managing expenses “very carefully.” This requires balancing funds primarily between research, faculty, and financial aid. The “start-up cost” for a professor, Jackson claimed, is anywhere from $500,000 to $2 million, meaning that hiring high-quality faculty requires “significant funding.” Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer Virginia Gregg added that with the current economic recession, credit markets have suffered, making it more difficult to acquire loans and that the endowment still has not recovered; it is currently at 70–80 percent of what it had been before the downturn. And, Jackson states that the current research budget for the Institute is set to around $90 million.

In order to fund these areas of interest, Jackson has begun a focused fundraising campaign that the administration expects will collect at least $150 million over the next two or three years. Jackson also stressed the importance of RPI alumni and the donations they provide for Rensselaer. Later in the meeting, she also mentioned that she is going on a trip to California in the very near future with a few staff members. The main goal of this trip is to encourage potential donors to contribute significant amounts of funds to the Institute. The funding acquired through these various sources will be used to hire new faculty, “significantly increase financial aid” for students, and increase the current research budget.

Jackson went on to discuss the improvements in the athletics department. She cited the accomplishments of Erica Hollot, Tim Landis, John Lynch, Amber Maisonet, and Jon Satkowski, the head coaches of women’s tennis, football, cross country, softball, and men’s tennis, respectively. Jackson also mentioned the fact that, “for 20 consecutive semesters,” the GPA of athletes has been higher than the GPA of the average Rensselaer student.

Throughout her address, Jackson brought attention to RPI’s staff members, saying that the Institute would not be able to function without them. Particularly, she mentioned the new Vice President for Student Life Timothy Sams and the new Director of the Union Joseph Cassidy. The president was also proud to announce that Associate Athletic Director for Communications and Compliance Kevin Beattie had been awarded the Pillar of Rensselaer award—the “most prestigious award” given at RPI.

After Jackson’s presentation, the question and answer period began with a concern brought up by a Rensselaer student. She wanted to know why there was “very little communication” between the president and the student body and suggested that Jackson engage in more informal interactions with students, such as the former Pizza with the President. Jackson’s response to this concern was that she “used to do those things.” However, as time has gone on, things have become “more complex,” and she is now unable to interact with students as much as she would like. Jackson also said that she “tries to fit students into her schedule,” but she cannot be around as much as other members of the administration. Therefore, Jackson stated, it is important for students and administrators to communicate. Sams added to this, mentioning that the Office of Student Life has been discussing a plan to place representatives around campus, and that students will “see a difference next semester.” Jackson concluded her answer by mentioning that “most presidents [at other institutions] do less.”

Members of the Rensselaer Pride Alliance announced concern regarding non-discrimination policies for LGBT students and the lack of support for transgender students as well as the physically disabled. Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel Charles Carletta stated that there is already a non-discrimination policy, although he admitted it should be made more clear in writing. Jackson, commenting on the lack of support, claimed that RPI is further ahead than it had been when she first became president, although she conceded that the Institute still “has some catching up to do.” Sams also acknowledged the issue, stating that there has been much discussion. He said that the traditional model may need to be changed from “multicultural” to “intercultural.” The difference is primarily in how students will be supported from an educational standpoint. Regarding the lack of physical support, Vice President for Administration Claude Rounds mentioned that RPI is doing what it can, although the “topography and weather” can make things difficult. He also urges all students with complaints to notify members of the administration, as work is primarily done on an individual basis.

Another student mentioned that students and faculty alike are reluctant to bring issues to the attention of the administration and in particular to the president. Jackson’s response was that she would like to know why many are afraid to bring up issues and that the various deans can be a channel of confidential communication. Provost Robert Palazzo and Vice President for Human Resources Curtis Powell both advocated the idea that these fears are “unnecessary” and that all members of the RPI community should be “confident of fairness.”

An alumnus and faculty member also raised concerns about the “time frame to respond to issues” and that it was “far too long.” The example used was the proposed constitution by which a reinstated Faculty Senate would have to conduct itself—Jackson mentioned the document in her presentation, saying she would bring it before the board of trustees in December, emphasizing that “it is important to be careful.”

Another attendee asked about the link between the Institute and the city of Troy and what was being done about it. Jackson mentioned that, as part of the Capital Region Economic Development Council, she is pushing for plans to revitalize urban areas like Troy.

The last question came from a graduate student who wished to know what RPI was doing to improve graduate life. Jackson handed the question off to Palazzo, who primarily spoke about “four-year guaranteed support for students seeking their Ph.D’s.” Rounds also commented, citing the College Suites at City Station as an example of what the Institute was doing physically.

Jackson ended the meeting by making a final comment regarding her presidential duties—a comment which may have been made to address unvoiced concerns about her performance—stating, “I get tired of traveling, but we do what we must do.”