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Senate outlines concerns over Institute’s state

The Student Senate, in the past month, has been looking into the current state of the Institute as it pertains to the student experience. This process involved in-depth data collection and analysis, many meetings with various stakeholders at Rensselaer (including a personal meeting with President Shirley Ann Jackson), communication of student concerns in public and private forums, and a letter sent to the leadership at Rensselaer outlining student concerns and requesting a response. The Senate has received very little in the way of official response to any of these efforts to reach out and collaborate; instead, more lines of communication have been closed, most recently demonstrated by the lack of attendance at Pizza with the Cabinet event Tuesday (even after positive RSVPs days before). In the past few weeks, we have also been given many more examples to illustrate the “culture of fear”-like environment at the highest levels of leadership. It is our preference in Senate to not “air our dirty laundry” and handle problems internally, but it’s been demonstrated repeatedly that private communication has not been successful.

Two weeks ago, I sent a letter to Jackson and other Institute figureheads outlining the Senate’s concerns. A shortened version of this is below:

1. Collaboration goes beyond communication: This concern has been brought up frequently in both public and private forums, yet it remains unanswered at its core in favor of more superficial questions such as “Why doesn’t everyone meet with the president?” or “How do we impact the specific budgetary or investment decisions in the Institute?” Students and (from our investigation) faculty and staff are as a whole not inspired or empowered by the vision of the Institute and The Rensselaer Plan, and this lack of inspiration or empowerment leads to many programs falling short of their goals. This lack of support is puzzling to the Senate; we strongly believe in RPI’s vision and goal of becoming a technological university with global reach and global impact. We feel that it is part of the role of a leader, especially one focused on transforming a community, to seek and achieve a measure of buy-in from that community.

2. Over-compartmentalization and top-down leadership: While the students appreciate that every individual in an organization should have their own role, students worry that it has been taken to an extreme at Rensselaer. This is also a function of the apparent decision-making process, in which a large portion of initiatives (including some that should arguably be handled at lower levels) must pass by Jackson’s desk for a thorough review before being approved. Due to the thoroughness of the review, as well as the other constraints on the president’s time, it’s not unusual for a ready-for-action program or initiative to take six months to a year before even being discussed. Affecting change through the Performance Planning process is similarly slow and difficult. This strongly hampers action and progress originating from sources outside of the president. This sentiment is also stated by other stakeholders at the Institute up to the highest levels, although this is rarely discussed outside of private meetings.

3. Culture of fear: When speaking to many faculty and staff members during our investigation, the overwhelming response was fear about retribution. Students have heard rumors of yelling matches, threats, and frequent firings and un-firings occurring within the Troy building. This has seemingly created a culture where a staff or non-tenured faculty member is more focused on pleasing the leadership than doing the best that they can at their job. From our extensive meetings with employees at all levels, it’s clear that this culture is pervasive even at the highest levels of leadership. This feeling has trickled down to the students as well— Senate has heard many complaints about students fearing retribution for stating an opinion or joining a group like Alliance for Responsible Governance, and that is very worrying to the Senate. We feel that it creates a non-optimal learning environment to have paranoid students and angry faculty members as well as a non-optimal work environment for staff members who can’t focus on doing their job.

4. General financial concerns: As stated previously by the administration, many of our perceived shortcomings—low faculty-student ratio, supporting current programs, adding new programs, etc.—can either be attributed to or solved with money. Most senators agree fully with this—the Senate’s financial findings show that in universities with huge endowments (and thus much larger revenue) there’s much more freedom to operate and to take necessary risks without the associated fear of economic collapse. I would like to make clear that neither I, nor any other senator that I have spoken to, believes that it is the role of the students to co-govern the university or help dictate very specific financial decisions; however, we feel that it is impossible to have a comprehensive view of the future without looking at the financial aspect.

Our credit rating, by all major agencies cited by the Senate, is the equivalent of a Moody’s A3 stable rating. Out of our 11 self-selected schools for comparison on Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, none other had a rating below A2 (the rating above ours). The next score below ours on the Moody’s scale, BBB, is considered to have some “speculative qualities” which is a worrying phrase to be near as an institution of higher education. As we do aim high, the Senate also compared our credit rating to the 30 universities with most similar endowment values for a fairer look: The average score was Aa3, with only one other university receiving an A3—this puts us two standard deviations worse than the average score among our similarly endowed peers. Moody’s was fairly clear that it was a comprehensive analysis that took into account qualitative as well as quantitative factors and that The Rensselaer Plan was included into our rating. Many of the reasons cited focused on the consistent practice of spending money we don’t have on hand—heavy endowment draws, low liquid assets during certain points of the year, relying heavily on lines of credit, and needing to take out loans for anticipated expenditures such as the Defined Benefit Pension Plan. For students, this boils down to this: We are concerned about our trend of spending money we don’t have.

If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to contact me at