On March 16, 2016, William Spelman Executive Search posted a job opening on multiple executive search sites for a new position in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Division of Student Life: the Executive Director of Student Activities. Under the leadership of Vice President of Student Life Dr. Frank E. Ross III, the new position is one of many changes in his ambitious restructuring of the Student Life department. This restructuring is aimed to further the Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students mission and the Rensselaer Plan 2024.
The content of the job description immediately sparked widespread distress among students, alumni, and faculty. The position is outlined to have a broad oversight over many facets of the Student Life portfolio including the “Student Union, Student Government, and Campus Recreation.” The Executive Director of Student Activities would report to the Assistant Vice President/Dean of Students within the Student Life department.
The move comes out-of-the-blue for students and some Rensselaer Union staff alike, neither of whom were informed of the new position and its oversight of the Union prior to the job posting. The Department of Student Life did not reach out to students for any type of input for the position despite the controversial nature of the changes to Student Life.
The lack of communication has been a common theme this year between the administration and student leaders as many concerns have been raised. The most recent issue put on display is the recent Athletics budget changes which are detailed at poly.news/s/4jonn.
The release of the job posting and the rise of student-led dissent has highlighted the RPI administration woes when communicating with students. The Institute has been criticized several times in their handling of changes to the Union. Howard Lien ’12, a former employee of the Rensselaer Union, expressed his disappointment in the lack of communication shown in the past, explaining, “it seemed that the administration did not see students as capable of making such decisions, and would go to the Director instead whenever possible, thinking the Director would be able to get the results they wanted. Without a Director, there were no channels of communication for this decision.”
Former Grand Marshal Kyle Keraga ’15 revealed that at the end of his term the past year, he and former President of the Union Erin Amarello ’15 met with President Shirley Ann Jackson during which Dr. Jackson gave them an explicit agreement to reinstate communication between her and the student body, including the reinstatement of the semester meeting between the GM, PU and the president. Keraga expressed his extreme disappointment that Dr. Jackson “did not uphold that agreement and that the administration continues to advance drastic changes to students and student life without consulting students at a Town Hall meeting or elsewhere.”
The Student Union at RPI is absolutely unique in its structure and autonomy and is one of the greatest sources of pride at the Institute, recognized as incredibly valuable by students, alumni, and outside analysts. The Middle State Accreditation Board in 2006 described the Union as “run entirely by students, the Union is a justifiable source of pride for the Institute.”
Students and alumni have been active in the outcry against the position, fearing the loss of the autonomy and independence of the Union as a result of the new position. As a job position outside of the Union purview charged with the oversight of the student-run organization, many students feel as though the Institute administration is attempting to wrest control from the members of the Union. Lien noted that during his tenure, “what changed over the years was that as more policies were being established, direct communication with the student leaders of the Union declined, and the Director [of the Union] was charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the student leaders comply.”
After the sudden departure of the former Director of the Union Joe Cassidy in late January of this year, the Union has remained without a head official that is selected by staff and students and approved by the Union Executive Board. As of the publishing of this article, the search for a new Director has not commenced and is slated to begin later in the spring semester. Ross stated that “the Director of the Union has always been hired by the Institute, with the students’ important input and participation; this has not changed and they will be included in the process, as has been the case in the past.”
In the week following the job posting, GM Marcus Flowers ’16 and PU Nick Dvorak ’16 sought to meet with Ross and other administration to request information and clarification on the posting as it was not brought up to them during their monthly meeting with the vice president the week before the posting went live.
Flowers and Dvorak were able to set up a meeting with Ross, the Student Senate, and E-Board at 4 pm on Friday, March 25, to address concerns and give him an opportunity to provide information regarding the position and intent behind it.
According to notes provided by Dvorak on the meeting, Ross explained that the changes to the structure of student life are meant to better improve communication and collaboration between the various departments. He also expressed his opinion that the Director of the Union position was overloaded with duties and may be too much work for a single individual. Ross explained that the new Executive Director position would be a position that would help him look to expand on services provided by the Union and that it was a position that he hoped student leaders would work closely with. He emphasized that the new Student Life listing is under no circumstance a replacement for the Director of the Union. Ross explained that “the addition of an Executive Director of Student Activities to the Student Life team will provide additional support to Union and Student Government activities, not less.”
In the Friday meeting, Ross also mentioned his goal to focus on new areas that have not received attention, in ways to enhance support for students, including services for veteran students. The Division Division of Student Life currently offers services for students with disabilities, but is looking to expand it and also add Veteran affairs and multiculturalism. The Vice President of Student Life also hoped to create more cooperation between the Director of the Union and the Director of the Mueller Center, stating that he believed the two should be a team. In addition to the meeting with E-Board and Senate, Ross held a forum from 1:30–3 pm on Tuesday, March 29.
Despite various meetings and the forum, many members of the RPI community remain unsure of the “broad oversight” the new position would have over such encompassing areas as campus recreation and student activities. The Interfraternity and Panhellenic Councils expressed their concern for the change, noting their concern is “mostly due to the ambiguity regarding [the Executive Director of Student Life’s] oversight of Greek Life; at this time, we do not wish to support or oppose this new Executive Director position, but we plan to take steps to learn more details about its impact on Greek Life.”
In response to the unveiling of the positions, students have sprung forward to cite their support for the student-run Union. A student-led protest request was brought to the Acting Dean of Students Cary Dresher, but was denied under reason that it would “disrupt the normal operation of the Institute” as outlined in the Rensselaer Handbook of Student Rights and Responsibilities. A petition on the government website change.org titled “Retain Student Control Over the Rensselaer Union” was made and has garnered over 2,000 signatures as of the publishing of this article. Another petition for RPI students was created on the RPI Petitions site titled “Preserve the Student Union” and earned the required 250 signatures for a response from the Student Senate in under a day.
Other support for the students has come from the President of the Faculty Senate Professor Antoinette Maniatty, as well as media coverage from the Times Union, Troy Record and 90.3 WAMC in regards to the protests planned to coincide with the Spring Town Hall Meeting in Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, March 30.
Ross issued the following statement to The Poly in regards to his plans for changes to Student Life: “The Rensselaer Union provides important opportunities for student involvement and leadership. Any future changes within Student Life will not take away from that. The students’ ability to recommend student fees and the allocation of fees to Union clubs remains the same. No changes have been made to the spending authority that the Union E-Board has, and no changes have been made as to which clubs and activities the Union E-Board supports.”
As more information becomes available, The Poly will be updating the community on our website.