TOWN MEETING

Takeaways from the Fall Town Meeting

PRESIDENT SHIRLEY ANN JACKSON GIVES a presentation on the issues the world faces during her annual town meeting.

Students and faculty filled the Concert Hall of the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center for President Shirley Ann Jackson’s Fall Town Meeting on October 31.

Jackson’s presentation addressed the Institute’s “sound financial status,” acknowledged the Greek Life Task Force’s progress, and announced the appointment of Director of the Union Charlie Potts.

Jackson also commented on the recent “spade of unfortunate and tragic incidents,” including the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue and the mail bombs sent to various political figures. She stressed that expressions of bigotry, hatred, and harassment “must not be tolerated” and that it is critical that people treat each other with respect, empathy, and civility; she then asked the audience for a moment of silence.

Then the meeting opened up to questions from the audience, which covered a range of topics. Here are some key takeaways.

A member of the president’s cabinet considers the director of the Union issue to be “over;” the grand marshal worries the “breakdown of communication” could affect other aspects of student life

During the Q&A, The Polytechnic asked: “We recognize that the president can ultimately make any personnel hiring or firing decisions at RPI, but you still could allow a vote from the Executive Board. So why did you appoint Dr. Potts without the E-Board vote?”

In response, Jackson stated that there had been some “confusion about that process” and immediately deferred to Vice President for Human Resources Curtis Powell and Interim Vice President for Student Life LeNorman Strong. They detailed the extent to which students and members of the E-Board were involved in the hiring process, and then Jackson moved on to the next question.

Later in the meeting, Grand Marshal Stef Warner ’19 asked a follow-up to The Polytechnic’s question about the lack of an approval vote. She elaborated on the “breakdown of communication” that prevented her and President of the Union Justin Etzine ’19 from being fully involved in the hiring process.

“Where is Dr. Lawrence?” asked Vice President for Human Resources Curtis Powell in response to Warner’s question. He was referencing an earlier discussion about the Counseling Center’s resources. He continued, “You know, I’m gonna have to get online and sign up for one of your counselors.”

This comment was met with laughter from the room, and Powell continued, “Let me just say this. We hired a director. It’s over. He’s right here. Charlie, would you stand up? Some people seem that they don’t know that. That’s Dr. Potts.” Director of the Union Charlie Potts then stood, and the audience applauded.

Powell later elaborated, addressing Warner, “You were invited. We didn’t invite you initially. We didn’t have your email address—we didn’t have that information. Once we got it, we sent it out and we invited you. So, we do make mistakes. We made a mistake. We didn’t invite you, but we did. I don’t know what more you want.”

Warner explained that there were flaws in the hiring process and that she wanted to know what was being done to prevent similar issues from happening again in the future. Powell responded, and said that he was pleased with how the search went. Strong followed up on Powell’s response, expressing his desire to regularly meet with student leadership to ensure better communication in the future.

Jackson is looking to help minority students who feel unsupported, along with those who are unhappy with the instances of “white nationalism” on campus

“You stated in the beginning of your presentation that all the students are thriving here at Rensselaer, but I don’t believe that the underrepresented students are actually thriving,” expressed one student. “So I would like to know how you have been measuring this success, and also what is going to be done to make sure that the students are actually—socially and culturally—having a successful experience at this institution.”

Jackson responded, saying that they have hired both a dean of multicultural affairs as well as a dean for underrepresented minority students, and are implementing more educational training. “Success here is a two-way street, in terms of what we do as an institution—and I’m saying there is more that we can and should do—but it also depends on students and also their reaching out and how they let us know how we can help them,” she elaborated.  

“I don’t understand how there can be so much white nationalist sentiment in a community that prides itself on multicultural sophistication,” commented Ben Blake ’19, on the issue of multiple white nationalist posters being placed around campus. He expressed discontent that people who would do this were even allowed into Rensselaer, and that this is not being prevented. Other students echoed similar sentiments about the posters, and were concerned that it took so long for them to be taken down. Jackson and Director of Public Safety Vadim Thomas expressed that it’s hard to prevent these events from happening; however, if students say something about these events, that can help Jackson and the Department of Public Safety in their investigations.

“I’ve been subject to a lot of denigration, vitriol, profanity, people putting my head on dictators, racist memes—but you know, I have to keep calm and keep moving, and I don’t intend for people to get away with things that are harassing and intimidating to anybody here,”  assured Jackson later in the meeting. “That includes African-American students. Look at me, you know what I am.” She also explained that she is meeting with the African-American leadership on campus, and that they’re trying to walk through and figure out how to solve all of these issues.

“When I went to college, I went at a time when there were five African Americans in my class, and 43 women out of 900. So what happened to me there? People wouldn’t sit next to me in class. If I came first, they wouldn’t sit in front of me. White students formed their study groups, I was left out. I was even told to go away when I asked to join a group,” explained Jackson. She later said, “My real message is that I had to decide—was I going to let this wear me down, or was I was going to move ahead? Was I going to carry bitterness with me through my career, or was I going to try and judge people as individuals?”

Some students are concerned that strict Arch requirements are set in place for money, but Jackson insists they are for growth and development

“So, you said that us having to live on campus is for clustering and programming needs, but then why are we also having to pay for an extra meal plan?” asked a freshman, who was referring to an earlier answer given by Jackson; she had explained that Arch participants were not allowed to live in Greek houses due to their low occupancy rates. The student later elaborated that he didn’t know he would have to live on campus and pay for a summer meal plan during the Arch until he arrived on campus in August. “From our point of view as students, these requirements make it seem like the Arch is more for money than for our personal growth,” he continued.

“If certain things weren’t communicated to you, then we need to fix that,” replied Jackson. She also stressed that this is not being done for money, but for growth and development.

The Institute has reached its financial “crossover”

During her presentation, Jackson expressed that “the institute as a whole is in sound financial condition” for many reasons, including the “tight fiscal management, that some people reacted to” and “expert performance planning and budgeting.”

According to Jackson, because of the strong 2018 fiscal year, the promise of reaching the “crossover,” which is the equalization of the endowment and long-term debt, was met a year earlier than anticipated, on June 30, 2018.

The Counseling Center is currently understaffed and is looking to add three new counselors in the coming months

One student asked if there were plans to allow online scheduling for follow-up appointments through the Counseling Center, and commented on the amount of time it takes to get an appointment. Executive Director of the Health Center Leslie Lawrence responded, and expressed that they are currently searching for three new counselors—two of which are to replace retirees, and one to help with the increase in demand that accompanies the larger incoming classes.