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Town Meeting

Many questions for Jackson, cabinet

President Shirley Ann Jackson “dispense[d] with a formal presentation” at the annual Fall Town Meeting on November 2. She took barely over 10 minutes to speak and show a short video that was also played at the capital campaign launch event before opening up to questions.

Jackson reiterated the three pillars of the capital campaign. She also explained that she has been conducting, and is almost finished with, a “listening tour,” which will include visiting every department in every school. The purpose has been to “find out how [departments] see themselves positioned” and to figure out “what they really feel they want to be known for,” while also trying to “identify gaps.”

Jackson ended her speaking portion, and microphones were then brought around the concert hall so that members of the audience could ask questions.  “As you know, the director of the Union is funded by the students through a self-imposed tax—” began one audience member. Jackson interjected, “It’s funded by the university. Any money that is charged to matriculating students is money the university is charging them. That’s the legal thing. So, and when they have their proposed fees, those fees are reviewed through the finance office, so they go through a review and approval process, like the budgets for all other parts of the university. So, I think it’s very important that you understand that.”

The student thanked Jackson for clarification, and continued, “Why do the students not have a say in the job description in the performance management tool for the director of the Union position, and why aren’t students formally involved in the process of performance reviews?” Jackson referred to statements made in the question as “patently false” and then deferred to Vice President for Human Resources Curtis Powell for explanation.

“The Union’s just like a reality show, and I feel like I’m a part of it,” began Powell. He affirmed that the president of the Union has worked on the performance management tool, or PMT, and that president of the Union and the grand marshal have been involved in the process for finding a director of the Union. “In fact, we had 10 really viable candidates. Because of the press behind this, we’ve lost eight candidates,” explained Powell, before an audience member stated that was not true. Powell ignored the interruption, and stated that the Union Executive Board is involved in the process and will be interviewing the two remaining candidates when they are brought back to campus.

Bryan Johns ’19, a member of the Human Resources Interview Committee, then expressed that the committee was only presented with two candidates, and that those eight candidates dropped out before students were involved in the process. Johns was also part of the group that reviewed the PMT, and “to [his] understanding, all of the reviews that students made were actually rejected.”

Powell denied that statement, and called on President of the Union Matthew Rand ’19 for verification. Rand expressed that suggestions to the PMT were made, and “not all of the edits [they] suggested were accepted, but a number of them were.”

When The Poly inquired about the changes that required the increased security measures for the event, Jackson attributed them to “very vile, focused, threatening emails that [she’s] gotten because of the Union issue.”

“In 2014, [RPI’s Standard and Poor’s bond rating] fell to an A-, and in 2017, it fell to a BBB+. S&P has specifically cited the institute’s high debt burden and low available resources as the reason for this. What is RPI doing to improve its bond rating, and what in general is the plan going forward with that?” asked Johns.

Jackson said that there is more than one bond rating, and the one that determines what borrowing costs are is from Moody’s Investor Service, where RPI holds an A3 credit rating. This A3 rating is the seventh highest rating Moody’s provides; their rating symbols and definitions are outlined at poly.rpi.edu/s/t0vhr. It indicates that RPI is in the lower end of the A rank, which is judged to be upper-medium grade subject to low credit risk. Jackson attributed RPI’s decrease to S&P’s changing its factors for calculating ratings.

“It is true that Rensselaer has a fair amount of debt, but that debt occurs in two ways, and I think it’s something that people fully need to understand,” stated Jackson. The first is debt incurred for carrying out the Rensselaer Plan, which was supplemented by a previous capital campaign. “We’ve spent over $1.3 billion to upgrade the campus, to hire faculty, to make any number of changes. But that being said, we borrowed for Rensselaer Plan initiatives, for upgrades that needed to be made to the campus, and so on. But, about a $150 plus million of the debt relates to funding of a legacy defined-benefit pension plan that a number of people depend upon,” she explained. “Prior to the time I came to Rensselaer, for a decade before I came, no payments were made into that plan.”

Since Jackson has been at Rensselaer, over $215 million has been put into that payment plan. “So certainly, we have borrowed for that,” she said. “So, if you subtract that from our actual debt, long-term debt, what’s left is actually less than the endowment. So, if we didn’t have that additional debt, there would not—this probably would never have come up.” She claimed that RPI is on the path to the “cross-over,” where the long-term debt and the endowment will meet, and cross, each other.

“During Reunion & Homecoming Weekend, a wall was erected around a large portion of the academic campus. Students and alumni have stated that the administration’s intent was to prevent student protesters from being visible to potential donors. The administration has claimed it was an event barrier for fireworks safety. If this was in fact the case, would you please explain why [the Division of Strategic Communications and External Relations] had previously advertised the lawn adjacent to the [Voorhees Computing Center] as the best viewing location and announced that student groups would line a transformative walkway to the event, both of which were changed? I would also like to add that classes within this fenced-in barrier had to be cancelled after 2 pm on Friday,” inquired Mary Clare Crochiere ’19.

“There are things that we do whenever there are major events and when things happen, in a certain venue, so this is no different than that. To my knowledge, it was not a wall.” responded Jackson. She did not address the Strategic Communications advertisement, transformative walkway, or class cancellations specifically.

“Many people I know, and myself, and 5,363 members, specifically members of the RPI community and counting, have signed a petition in support of student-run Union. For a university that can’t even get that many Twitter followers, or that many people to show up to Reunion & Homecoming in any given year, isn’t that clearly indicating something the RPI community feels very strongly about supporting?” asked one audience member.

“Well, that reaffirms our support for the Union,” responded Jackson. “If you look today and ask how the Union runs versus how the Union ran two years ago or five years ago, nothing has changed. And so, the Union has always been a part of Rensselaer, and the director of the Union has always been an employee of Rensselaer.” She later expanded on how she expects the director to be an “advocate, a supporter, a coach, [and] a mentor.”

“A student group does not have the legal authority to hire an employee of the university. And so, you know, we go through the processes we’ve discussed, and we do these things because we are very supportive of the Union. And so, the Union’s not about to disappear, and it’s not about to disappear as a student-run entity,” she explained.

Graduate student Michael Gardner expressed concern to Jackson about the hiring of a director of the Union, particularly the case where there is a candidate to which the “students say no, and then you say yes.” Gardner then elaborated, “And to follow that, students asked, you said of course, you’re responsible, I always believe in the students, I would never go—”

“No, I said I would take very seriously the student input.” interrupted Jackson.

Gardner asked Jackson that, if she takes student input so seriously, what prevents her from having, in writing, her commitment to agreeing with students unless there is some “grave error.” Jackson said that she planned on leaving it to the judgment of those who “have the responsibility for hiring,” as these people have experience in this regard that students do not. Additionally, creating such a document would create inconsistencies between the Union’s and other hiring processes that take place on campus.

An audience member referred to CLASS as “a program created with good intent” that can often help students form communities, but expressed the concern that “lately it’s being used in such a fashion, perhaps unintentionally, to dismantle organically formed communities.” The speaker specified Ground Zero and the Rensselaer Science Fiction and Anime Association, also known as ARDA. Both of these organizations have recently been moved to new locations.

Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students Travis Apgar responded by saying that “we probably are giving those two organizations more support than maybe we have in the past,” including as a new space in a newer building for Ground Zero, and ARDA’s move to Blitman Residence Commons. “There’s maybe a perception of we’ve moved these folks, but yes we have. But, we’ve actually given them better spaces than they had previously and we continue to support them,” continued Apgar.

“Do you think if I asked members of those organizations, they would agree that it’s better? Because what I understand is that they’ve now moved to more outskirts locations on campus, and they were centralized in Warren and Nugent, now Blitman and I’m not sure.” responded the audience member.

Jackson stepped in and added that, “At any time that there’s a change, and people are accustomed to being in a certain space, it’s always difficult for people to contemplate moving.” She gave an example with the creation of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, and expressed that “the answer can’t be that one space stays what it is forever and ever.”

Dean of Student Living & Learning Cary Dresher expanded on how the move to Blitman has given ARDA more space for showing their films and having meetings, and that conversion of a jacket room has also given them a larger, nicer library. “We’ve actually only received positive comments from them,” expressed Dresher. The comments on Ground Zero were similar; Dresher said that he meets with them about twice a month and has received positive feedback.

Apgar then added that interests on campus fluctuate, and that they are working with the Student Life Committee of the Student Senate and the Resident Student Association to send out surveys to determine what students would like to see. “It’s not to say that we don’t support those groups that have been here, but we also wanna make sure that we’re paying attention to what students today and students tomorrow are looking for.”

The audience member that posed the question responded, “What I want to see is actually less of that, and more of you letting students build their own space.” She elaborated more on this, and Apgar clarified that “students are telling us that this is what they’re looking for, so we’re supporting them in that search. So we’re trying to do exactly what you’re describing.”

Vice President for Administration Claude Rounds added, “There’s a great effort that goes on, working with the student communities and student clubs to provide space. And it’s true that students sometimes like to build their own space, but in the particular case of Ground Zero, what’s not being discussed here is that Ground Zero was in the basement of Nugent, and the space that the students had built for themselves became a significant concern from a safety and security perspective.” He continued by saying that safety was the primary reason the space was vacated.

Another question was asked by Steven Sperazza ’18, on behalf of his mother, about Rensselaer being in the news regarding the recent Foundation for Individual Rights in Education articles—most notably regarding the “red-light” rating given to RPI. Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel Craig Cook responded to this, explaining that two policies were given the “red-light” rating. According to Cook, the first was part of the sexual misconduct policy, which has “prohibitions on harassing, intimidating, sexual innuendo—those sorts of things.”

Cook explained that “[FIRE’s] view, if you look at it carefully, is that that’s something that goes beyond protected—that should be protected speech.” He elaborated on the importance of these policies, and that RPI stands “very firmly behind” them in order to protect students. The other policy concerned cyber security, which states that people “cannot use RPI assets to harass or intimidate.” Cook then reaffirmed the commitment to protecting students, and explained that he doesn’t “put a lot of faith in their quote ratings of those policies in terms of protected speech.”

After Cook’s response, Gardner attempted to clarify the previous question. “I think his mother is probably referring to more of the recent articles about the protests being denied in the past couple years, and then I understand that the Dean of Students Office has their reasons for that, but the optics are bad. And I think his mother was also probably looking for a comment about that, as well as just my mother.”

Apgar responded and reiterated the focus on safety in the process of considering an application for a peaceful demonstration. With the most recent application, they “determined early on, weeks before, that [they] were going to be very hard pressed to be able to do any other large event, including a demonstration.” That particular demonstration was denied for its “very specific time period.” According to Apgar, the applicant was invited to talk about alternatives, and “that person refused to do that.”

“We do a lot to try to allow our students to have that freedom of speech and be able to demonstrate.” Apgar then briefly elaborated on RPI’s policies, comparing them to the restrictions many campuses, including some public universities, place on freedom of speech locations. “So when you look at our policy and our practices overall, I would say that we’re actually very flexible. I do understand some of the feedback we’ve received, but again—invited folks in to have a conversation about what alternatives may happen, and didn’t have any opportunity to interact with those folks based on their choices.” he continued.

Johns, the applicant referenced by Apgar, then introduced himself and provided his perspective. “I told [your secretary] that because there were to be no demonstrations at all that weekend, that I would no longer be pursuing my application, and she told me that you wished to meet with me regardless. I did not know why you still wanted to meet if I was not following with the application, so I asked her and she told me that you didn’t tell her and that she didn’t know. I stated to her that I would be happy to come in some other time, but that I am busy today; I have some commitments. She wished me a good weekend and I never heard back.”

“Well, thanks. I appreciate that. That’s not exactly what I had in terms of the response that you gave to her. Too bad we didn’t connect. But, it’s nice to finally meet you face-to-face. I did also kind of put it out there publicly that I would be happy to meet with anybody who’s interested. The only person who showed up was a recent alum, and actually did not even bring a proposal for an alternative. So, hopefully in the future, what I would suggest is that anybody who is interested, please do follow up,” responded Apgar.

“One of the pillars of the new capital campaign is to bring Rensselaer into the third century,” began an audience member. “I think a lot of parts of campus are still struggling to be in the second century, and I think ECAV doesn’t really need expanding when parts of campus are missing air conditioning, or, more importantly, accessibility access,” she later continued.

Jackson responded, stating that whenever major upgrades and renovations occur, they do also provide handicap accessibility. “I personally walk around campus to look for where there are opportunities to strengthen handicap accessibility,” she added. After elaborating on accessibility changes to the website and the “huge change” that has occurred since she got to Rensselaer, she deferred to Rounds.

Rounds spoke about how, over the next few years, “several million dollars” will be invested in preparing classrooms and dorms for the Arch, which will include air conditioning. According to Rounds, about $58 million has been spent on deferred maintenance, about $16 million has been spent on classrooms, and $500,000 to $1 million are spent per year to address accessibility requirements. In the past two years, $2 to $3 million a year have been spent on classroom upgrades to accommodate the expansion in enrollment, and this will continue as part of the “capital plan.”

One audience member addressed how Rensselaer decided not to participate in the Excelsior Scholarship—which provides a tuition-free college education to New York residents—while one of the pillars of the capital campaign is to bridge the gap of student need.

“Well, it turns out that, you know, we looked at that, and there are a lot of, you know, interesting things about the Excelsior Scholarships that most people don’t understand,” Jackson responded. They determined that the requirements attached to the program would not be beneficial to Rensselaer as a whole, and that they would rather better their financial aid independently of the scholarship. Jackson expanded on these efforts, stating that approximately $20 to $25 million has been added to the financial aid pool over the years, and that 95 percent of current students receive financial aid.

In response to a question about the lack of scholarship opportunities for international students, Jackson said that international undergraduate students aren’t given much financial aid because RPI doesn’t get much support from international alumni. However, the entire graduate population, of which about half are international students, gets support from Rensselaer in some way, she added.

A full recording of the event is available from RPI TV at poly.rpi.edu/s/t1lcc.