Letter To The Editor

An open letter to the Board of Regents

By Joseph RR Templin '94 October 3, 2018

Dear Chancellor Rosa,

This letter will illuminate a series of matters of grave concern among students, faculty, and alumni at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which for almost two centuries has been a beacon to students around the world and particularly in New York State as a leader in applying science, engineering, and technology to improve the world. Yet the bright light on the hill is fading. RPI was unique among higher education institutions around the country, its Union Constitution granting a wide-range of significant power sharing between Institute administrators and student union leadership. For example, the Student Union once facilitated contributions and management of the Athletics and Clubs budgets; this has since been ripped from the purview of the Union and Students, a violative and unilateral decision in direct confrontation with the principles of tradition and the Constitution.

As a scholarly institution of pride in New York State, a decade plus of egregious and hostile actions by an autocratic and insulated, top-down and ethically flawed Administration at Rensselaer now place the standing and prestige of this historic Institute in jeopardy, and by extension, the entire educational mandate of the State University system administered by your office. You must act before the light of RPI fades from view.

Recent events begin with the Student Union’s Executive Board being completely severed and removed from consideration of its own previously student chosen Director of the Union. Breaking over a century old tradition, a highly minimized role was extended to student government members in the hiring and selection process. Underpinning the Administration’s ineptitude and complete disconnect from the student body it serves, only six students were permitted to participate in the process of choosing their next Director. An email from Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students Travis Apgar paints a rosy picture of informative collaboration and transparent communication. Lived experience among the student body tells a very different story. And this is not the first instance of Dean Apgar directly lying to students, nor the last. Documenting Dean Apgar’s litany of lies is beyond the scope of this letter and will be addressed separately in the future.

The Grand Marshal of the Student Union was excluded from invitations to interview new Student Union Director candidates. Further, news then broke of clandestine meet and greet events regarding the selection process for a new Director, one date identified as June 13, 2017. Bad faith and highly unprofessional attempts of the Administration to smooth over the controversy is illustrated by incorrect listings of invitees; last minute changes and cancellation to meet and greet events; and a failure to quantify “Did Not Attend” with pre-notified conflicts (final exams) that were intentionally scheduled to eliminate student input. This is an alarming turn of events in an educational setting and implicitly demonstrates a culture of hostility to students and basic concepts of institutional governance, as evidenced by FIRE giving RPI its worst rating and the negative attention from the ACLU and local press. The recent unilateral decisions regarding the Greek System has stoked the ire of dozens more national organizations and the two-faced actions of Dr. Jackson and her hand-picked disseminators of misinformation should be the tipping point for the ivory tower of lies to be torn down before they extinguish the student lamp of excellence at RPI forever.

Alumni and former faculty/staff of RPI have founded Renew Rensselaer as an independent receptacle of collected information concerning the school, with a goal to refresh and recharge the mission of this once prestigious university. I am not associated with the group, but have vetted their information (available at www.renewrensselaer.org) and I suggest your office review the collected information, from public sources, concerning the fall of RPI into dictatorship.

Finance, Academics, and Governance are the three key areas Renew Rensselaer identified as areas requiring substantial improvement and at this point State-level intervention. As an imperialistic attitude extends its hold over the levers of decision and power at all levels of the university, virtually every metric one can measure the success of educational missions with is either barely stable or trending downward. The following paragraphs will inform the Board of Regents of how grim the picture truly is outside the dictations and half-truths of RPI’s Administration, and trace the trajectory of impending downfall at the current rate of events.

I. Finance

From a financial perspective, RPI’s stated goal in The Rensselaer Plan 2000 (revised in The Rensselaer Plan 2024) to raise research to $250 million per annum have fallen far short of stated goals. Instead, research expenditures peaked at a dismal $98.5 million in 2013, and in 2017, a further decline to just $74.4 million. As disappointing is the revelation that the percentage of total revenue derived from research-related activities in 2017 is lower than it was in 2000 (18% vs 18.4%); the percentages themselves reflect a fairly flat trend overall. Carnegie Classification rankings, which include Title IV eligible, degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States and represented in the National Center for Education Statistics IPEDS system have declined from R1 to R2. President Jackson’s stated goal of making RPI the premiere research Institute in the country is further away than when she began her tenure nearly twenty years ago, and is getting more and more unlikely to happen given the systematic dismantling of graduate programs and sky rocketing overhead costs that have lead to turnover among faculty and research declines. RPI is demonstrably worse as a research center over her tenure.

Rounding out concerns of RPI-affiliated alumni and the embattled Student Union are an array of equally-disappointing measures of the Institution’s success thresholds, including but not limited to:

  1. a lowered long-term debt rating by Moody’s and Standard & Poors
  2. a skyrocketing debt ratio of 400% compared to an asset increase of just 28%
  3. reduced capital spending
  4. 68% funding (or a shortfall of $125 million) of the legacy-defined benefit pension plan that was closed to new participants in 1993
  5. 5. and finally, the mandated posting of a $4 million bank letter of credit by the U.S. Department of Education.

This is not only embarrassing, but a sad state of affairs at such a venerable Institution within your office’s purview. Any Chief Executive in the business world would be removed for only one or two of these negative indicators, the breadth and scope of Rensselaer’s financial troubles as Dr. Jackson remains among the most highly compensated Presidents in the country crosses the line into financial malfeasance.

II. Academic Rankings

RPI’s Academic metrics reflect a decline in the yield of accepted students: just 30% of an incoming cohort that is accepted actually enroll. Further reflective of the stale nature of learning at RPI finds only 17 new full-time faculty members for new roles have been hired since 1999. Administration-promulgated statistics put the number as high as 300, which is objectively false and not borne out by the data. Instead, in a rather clumsy statistically-manipulative political move, the 300 faculty the administration claims to have hired in the same time period were just personnel used to fill vacant positions, not create new ones as stipulated in The Rensselaer Plan of 2000 and 2024. Clearly, the administration is misleading the student body, alumni, trustees, faculty, and State leadership and attempting to obscure what it knows to be a compromising position it would rather not face. Fraud is another word that comes to mind.

In rankings, RPI sits at 49th as of 2018, never having risen above 39th in 2016’s U.S. News and World Report. The Wall Street Journal conveys an even more dismal number: RPI ranks 87th in 2017, down from 77th in 2016. These numbers place the Institute far behind peers. This is unequivocally embarrassing for the State of New York, and the RPI community: its students, its alumni such as myself, and its educational mandate. A decline in enrollment and ranking of RPI’s prized undergraduate engineering program (combined with the elimination of profitable part time Graduate students and a truncated PhD time allotment) rounds out the Renew Rensselaer group’s concerns with declining Academics at the school.

III. Governance

Concluding with Governance issues, the current RPI administration has severed 125+ years of an unique hybrid relationship between governance responsibilities and departmental budget oversight between the Student Union and the Administration and Trustees. This is a clear shot across the bow of reason, logic, and honorable management of educational services to RPI students and faculty. Solidifying the Administration’s no-going-back-now mentality exemplified in this letter thus far, the Chair of the Board of Trustees of RPI stated in a memo that the powers of the President supersede the legally ratified Union Constitution, upending over a century of governance tradition that was functioning better than the Institute as a whole. The statement that The President is above the Law should shake you to your core as it does the RPI community. The State should endeavor to preserve this unique type of governing structure at RPI, incomparable elsewhere among institutions of higher learning. Alumni complaints include an egregious lack of transparency of annual and consolidated financial statements and reports in addition to blatant mis-statements of allocations of funds that again raise the specter of fraud. Major organizations, both corporations and governments, have been brought to their knees for similar misleading practices.

Do not allow a palace-mystique oriented Administration to bring the education and futures of young scholars to their knees in the same way. The cult of personality of Dr. Jackson, that ignores third party vetted facts in favor of outlandish rhetoric and half-truths in an effort to control money and minds, must stop.

I implore you and the powers conferred to your office to initiate a thorough investigation into the recent actions conducted and carried out by the RPI Administration; seek the input of students, faculty, staff, and alumni; and intervene on The Rensselaer Plan 2024 in light of described systematic failures of Administration to carry out the Plan’s mission. Before Dr. Jackson’s control extinguishes all light in that once great Institute on the hill.

Joseph RR Templin, 1994
Ethics Instructor
Unique Minds Consulting Group LLC