On Tuesday, RPI’s Student Senate hosted its semesterly Pizza with the Cabinet. The event used to be known as Pizza with the President, until President Shirley Ann Jackson decided that the cabinet members would be more qualified to answer the specific questions of students. Jackson frequently uses the event as an example of the various communication channels available. Unfortunately, the only cabinet member to make an appearance was Vice President of Student Life Timothy Sams. In addition, the Dean of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Mary Simoni accompanied him.
Russell Brown ’14, chair of the Senate Communications Group, explained that fifteen administrative staff members had confirmed they would attend the event. This included all of the deans and all but one of the vice presidents. Most of those that failed to appear communicated previously with the Senate to indicate that they would be attending. Additionally, one of the vice presidents called to confirm the time of the event. Brown added that last year’s Pizza with the Cabinet had resulted in high attendance, both from students and from cabinet members. Commenting on the atmosphere of previous occasions, he said that they were “usually big events and productive.” Many of the students who attended, including members of the Senate, mentioned that the lack of presence by cabinet members was decidedly unusual.
One such student, Dan Zollman ’12, speculated that the occurrence either had “nothing to do with the resolution [passed by the Senate last night]” or that it was specifically due to the motion, and he suspected that the latter was more likely. He stated, regardless of the reason the Cabinet members were absent, the “students still need to hear from them at some point.”
Sams confirmed that Zollman’s guess was indeed the case. He stated that the cabinet members and particularly the vice presidents “viewed the resolution as not only being against Dr. Jackson but also as a commentary on the cabinet.” As such, the “cabinet members decided, on their own … that they did not want to appear.” The cabinet, he added, was “hurt” by the resolution, both because it “did not involve talking to them” and that it “caused them to question their work.” Sams was adamant when he claimed the actions taken by the Institute, although commonly attributed to Jackson, were not just by her decision, and that the cabinet, as well as RPI’s administration, has a great deal of influence in the direction taken by Rensselaer.
On November 15, Grand Marshal Lee Sharma ’12 sent a letter to Jackson on behalf of the Senate. The main purpose of this letter, Sharma stated, was “to give the opportunity to members of the administration, if they choose, [to] have an opportunity to respond to [the issues associated with the motion] prior to the meeting.” Sharma sent the letter partially to avoid any direct insult toward the cabinet. Also, the Senate made pains to avoid directing overt criticism to the vice presidents and deans; in the motion, they made clear that they wished to “empower the vice presidents.”
When The Polytechnic contacted Provost Robert Palazzo after Pizza with the Cabinet, he admitted that, despite having not read the resolution, he decided not to attend the event due to “the controversy surrounding the resolution and the fact that [he] will shortly be leaving the Institute.”
The Polytechnic attempted to contact the other members of the cabinet; a few confirmed Sams’ official statement but did not elaborate further on the issue.
Sams was quick to mention that the absence of the cabinet at the event was not the beginning of a “grudge.” It should, on the other hand, be “interpreted as a message that respect is important,” he claims. “They,” Sams added, “feel that there are appropriate ways to go about things, and they do not believe the action taken by the Senate was appropriate.” Sams himself admitted that he, personally, felt hurt by the resolution and that it was concerning that “eleven students felt authorized to make a decision” that was not the result of a general consensus among the student body—referring to the Senate’s resolution. When asked about whether he believed the Senate should have presented the motion to students for public approval, he would have surveyed the student body prior to proposing the motion entirely. Sams also insisted that there is a significant difference between interviews of several dozen students, such as those conducted by the Senate, and a general survey of the entire student body.
Regarding the cabinet’s statement, Sams said that the members are currently “in a mode” focused on the “hurt” that he mentioned previously. He explains that, because of these feelings, the cabinet is not currently focusing as heavily on communication; however, in a week or so, the cabinet will most likely return the relationship between itself and the Senate to its typical, professional dynamic.
Despite the action taken by the cabinet, Sams emphasized that “the message that the cabinet will increase their communication channels as a result of the resolution is crystal clear.”