On Monday, April 25, the visiting committee from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education held an open forum with members of the Rensselaer community.
After a brief introduction from Georgetown University President Jack DeGioia, who chaired the committee, regarding the MSCHE process, the floor was opened up to questions.
Michael Gardner ’17 referenced a paragraph in Chapter 3 of the Self Study Report, which discussed athletic compliance at RPI. “In 2011-12, Alden Associates (independent NCAA approved auditors) audited compliance and overall management of Division I and III sports at Rensselaer. The Institute was assessed as being highly compliant and praised for its efforts in being diligent in this area. The general observation section of the written report from the auditor reads, ‘Individuals directly responsible for structuring Rensselaer’s compliance program have worked hard to improve its program over the last several years. Staff changes in numerous areas have facilitated this improvement. The Consultant believes that a ‘culture of compliance’ has been established at Rensselaer.’”
The question connected this excerpt to the February athletic budgeting change, where the Rensselaer Union Executive Board was notified of the planned separation of intercollegiate athletic budgeting from Union budgeting processes. Previously, a portion of ICA funding had been provided by the Rensselaer Union Student Activity Fee and, as such, was budgeted by the Union.
DeGioia explained that he had a chance to meet with student government leaders, along with the administrative leader for student leaders, to understand the situation. He said that he could not attest to whether or not MSCHE would weigh in on the matter of athletics, as it does not relate to compliance with any of the MSCHE’s 14 standards. He went on to explain that he served on an NCAA committee for Division I athletics in the 1980s, and the committee had a focus on “institutional control,” which dealt with the question of whether or not the president or chancellor of a university had appropriate institutional control over varsity athletics.
Graduate student Joseph Wiegartner asked if the committee was aware of recent developments regarding the governance of the Union and the related student protests.
DeGioia met with President of the Union Chip Kirchner ’17, Grand Marshal Paul Ilori ’17, former President of the Union Nick Dvorak ’16, and former Grand Marshal Marcus Flowers ’16, where he received “a very thorough briefing of what has unfolded.” However, he continued in saying that the process of accreditation is generally longer than the emerging issues at the time.
Professor Bill Puka noted that one of the standards that the committee looks for is “ethics and integrity.” He wondered how the committee goes to investigate that particular standard, and also noted the culture of fear that was discussed during the most recent spring Town Hall Meeting.
DeGioia, responsible for that particular standard, told Puka that he looked at policies in handbooks and guidelines with staff, and was given a “pretty clear sense that academic freedom is a respected, protected, and deeply held value.”
Puka pressed further, asking specifically about implementation: “I know there are statements made in a book, but you said you looked at implementations, which is the only level that matters.”
DeGioia said that the three-day stay was not enough time to fully explore implementation, but that he did have a conversation about a recent Poly article regarding the culture of fear. DeGioia described the situation as “complex,” but he did not come away sensing a culture of fear.
The 126th President of the Union Nick Dvorak ’16 asked what stood out to the committee members while visiting Rensselaer.
Compliments of the Institute included the extensive planning processes that move the Institute toward goals, the collegiality with students, faculty, and administrators, and the sense of pride at the rigor of the academics that the students have.
The issue of diversity came up as the committee was asked what steps the Institute could take to improve the diversity amongst the student body.
The committee noted that Rensselaer has seen an improvement in its gender diversity, but needs to work on improving minority representation. Dr. Lorraine Fleming said that it was important to first define diversity, as it could pertain to gender, race, geography, or something else. She said that it is important for the environment to be comfortable for everyone; that people bring “baggage” to RPI, and that instead of “checking bags at the door,” the community should aim to blend the cultures together.
Emily Phillips ’17, on the topic of diversity, asked about the Preferred Names Petition that reached the Student Senate last year, and how the administration has failed to follow through on the subject, despite the work the Senate has done. Adding on, another student asked if the LGBT issue came up as a concern in discussions. DeGioia said that those topics had not come up, but was something they could look into.