On March 30, 2016, the annual Spring Town Meeting was held in the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center Theater. President Shirley Ann Jackson diverged from her prepared speech to speak directly on the topic of the Rensselaer Union and the state of the Institute’s finances. She opened the meeting with an affirmation of her “great respect for the history and functions of the Rensselaer Union.”
She went on to say, “the Board of Trustees does have the ultimate authority for the Union, as it does for the university as a whole. And, therefore, it is appropriate for the trustees to, in fact, look at the Union Constitution and to decide what ‘independence’ and ‘autonomy’ mean.”
While the Board of Trustees is discussing the Union Constitution and considering any necessary amendments, the search for an individual to fill the position of Executive Director of Student Activities and the Director of the Union was suspended. Subsequently, the meeting was opened up for questions from the audience.
The first question posed of the afternoon: “You mentioned that you think that the Union was an important part of our history. But you specifically didn’t say the future. Where do you think the Union lies in our future as an Institution?”
Jackson gave her stance by stating that she has “no intention of having the Union go away,” and that the idea of which has been exaggerated. She went on to declare that the Union plays a role on campus; however, the question of autonomy is what really needed to be addressed. She reiterated the need for autonomy to be defined and clarified by the Board of Trustees. Finishing off her answer, she declared the the Union is “very important” and that she “respect[s] the tradition and what we need to keep doing as an Institute.”
The next individual to pose a question expressed less concern over the creation of the position of Executive Director of Student Activities. Rather that “it seems as though the Institute looked at what did the students need[ed] and it was more on the side of our activities.” The questioner went on to clarify that in fact the majority of students were more interested in the revamping of facilities and reevaluation of dining meal plans.
Jackson cited instances in the past when student concerns were brought forward and fixed, one such example was the increased space in Russell Sage Dining Hall. For, as she states, “I cannot fix what I do not know of,” alluding to the broken communication between administration and students.
Jackson continued to explain, “fairly early in my tenure here, I used to walk the campus. I used to walk it from Burdett Avenue to 8th Street at night. And that was long before the Student Union and so on started walking the campus. And I would take the Vice President for Administration and Public Safety and even students to walk the routes that students would walk and look at where it seemed dark, where people would get nervous, and because of that we changed the whole lighting scheme, on the campus, you know, you could argue about whether we need more or whatever, as well as putting more emergency call boxes.”
Grand Marshal Marcus Flowers ’16 posed a question about two-way communication to Jackson, asking if Jackson would “be interested in quarterly meetings with the student leaders so that way [they] can hopefully bridge these gaps in communication and move forward together.” She replied, “Don’t vilify me at the press and then say you want to come and talk to me. Ok, don’t sign on to, you know, nasty emails and say you want to come talk to me. Don’t start the whole protest with misleading information about where I stand on the Student Union and then say you want the communication. I’m happy to talk to you Marcus, anytime. But I will talk with people when they bring suggestions and when they’re respectful.”
Another question touched on the claims that Rensselaer is subject to a culture of fear. She said in response to the questions on a culture of fear, “Now, you know, if there are people who’ve left Rensselaer, who’ve lost their jobs, or left for whatever reason—they have an advantage, which is that we’re not going to talk about personnel matters. And we don’t talk about student matters. So people can say and tell things the way they wish.”
With contributions from Vice President for Administration Claude Rounds, Jackson concluded with a detailed analysis of the Institute’s financial standing and current debt situation. “The basic point is that Rensselaer’s finances are fundamentally sound. Do we have the $754 million in debt? Yes. The defined benefit pension plan was here when I got here. And so, we’re working to keep it funded, where it needs to be funded. So we put $134 million of borrowed money into that plan, but that meant that we’ve spent over $70 million otherwise, most of it coming through cash flow through the university to put the money into that plan. “
After the meeting concluded, Jackson went outside to interact with the students partaking in the special class session held by Professor Bill Puka. A video of the entire meeting can be found on RPI TV at http://poly.news/s/jtlyl/.