Special Faculty Senate Meeting
April 1, 2016
In attendance: Atsushi Akera , Michael Amitay, Jeff Banks, Audrey Bennett, Jonas Braasch, Erica Braunschweig (student), Keegan Caraway (student), Nick Dvorak (student), Marcus Flowers (student), Mike Fortun, Michael Gardiner (student), Virginia Gregg, Ernesto Gutierez-Miravete, Prabhat Hajela, Ekaterina Haskins, Amir Hirsa, Deb Kaminski, Pawel Keblinski, John Kolb, Dan Lewis, Antoinette Maniatty, Matt Oehlschlaeger, Lois Peters, Kevin Rose, Frank Ross, Greg Sowiak (student), John Tichy.
Regrets: Chris Bystroff, Diana Borca-Tasciuc, Joel Giedt, Chulsung Bae, Murali Chari, Frank Wright, and Jen Monger.
Introductions were made.
The President of the Faculty Senate, Antoinette Maniatty, opened the meeting at 8:11 by stating that the purpose was an opportunity for open discussion. There are two topics of note to discuss: first is the recent events concerning the Student Union and the second would be a discussion on the financial state of the Institute.
Professor Maniatty asked the President of the Union, Mr. Nick Dvorak, to give the main points concerning the Student Union from student’s perspective. Mr. Dvorak began by stating that the students feel that there have been recent movements that have overstepped a standing relationship with the Union and the Institute. Specifically, the restructuring of the Student Life portfolio by Vice President for Student Life, Dr. Frank Ross and the position posting for an Executive Director of Student Activities whose duties include oversight of Union activities and broad oversight of a wide array of co-curricular activities. The interpretation is that this position overlaps with Director of Union, a position that has provided leadership and continuity for the Union. Students have been reaching out to better understand the restructure to understand how to improve communications. Over the years, the lines have eroded and they would like to reestablish understanding and communication and to be critical friends with the administration. Students are looking for ways to work together and to have their voices heard. Mr. Dvorak would like to dispel the rumor that he, as President of the Union and the Grand Marshal, Mr. Marcus Flowers have organized protests, and have encouraged alumni not to donate. Mr. Dvorak states this rumor is false.
Mr. Flowers reemphasized that the Grand Marshal and President of the Union have not been orchestrating the protests, and they are open at any time to answer questions or have a conversation. He welcomed open communication.
Professor Maniatty asked Vice President for Student Life, Dr. Ross to comment. Dr. Ross thanked Mr. Dvorak and Mr. Flowers for their work all year on behalf of the students. Dr. Ross indicated that the leadership is in conversation with students from the Rensselaer Union, meeting individually and collectively with student leadership. An open forum was held on Tuesday, March 29, on a wide variety of topics. Questions were asked on the financial status of the Institute, the facilities, Summer Arch, among others. Students took opportunity to get clarity on these topics. The President held a Town Hall meeting on March 30. Dr. Ross commented on the number of students in attendance. He emphasized that it is important to continue these conversations to get clarity.
Professor Maniatty opened the floor up for discussion.
Professor Dan Lewis commented that what he heard from the Grand Marshal and the President of the Union is that they are concerned about how the job description of the Executive Director of the Union appears to encroach on liberties within the Union. He asked Dr. Ross if he was responsible for the job posting. Dr. Ross responded that he was responsible for the description while an outside search firm handles the posting. Professor Lewis then asked the President of the Union if it was a communication gap then. Mr. Dvorak answered that they had regular meetings and had met with Dr Ross the week before the posting and a short time before the posting he had received an email while he was traveling from Dr. Ross asking for a meeting, but was unaware at that time of the new position. He then saw a text message with a link to the job posting.
Professor Lois Peters asked why there was a need for the restructure. Dr. Ross answered that he is guided by the Rensselaer Plan 2024 and the goals within for CLASS. Structural changes are necessary to support students and the goals for CLASS. Some services are not provided for students that should be provided. Dr. Ross also stated that he wanted to provide clarity that Executive Director is not the same as Director of the Union. The Director of the Union is not being replaced with this new position. The Executive Director would have broad oversight as outlined in the job description over many areas of Student Life. It won’t take away anything from student leaders in the way they run, organize, and fund their clubs and activities. It was not designed to take away anything students currently do.
Professor Maniatty commented that she has the same concerns students have. She has read the Rensselaer Union Constitution and Director of the Union position description. Professor Maniatty quoted from the Union Constitution that the Vice President of Student Life advises the Director of the Union. She then noted that the job posting for the Executive Director of Student Activities states the position reports to the Assistant Vice President of Student life. The job description of this position seems to conflict with Director of the Union reporting structure where the Vice President of Student Life is in an advising versus a reporting role and she shares student concerns over this. Professor Maniatty stated that posting the position without consulting or informing students was unacceptable.
Mr. Michael Gardiner, a student in attendance, asked Dr. Ross what additional services are being provided that are currently not. Dr. Ross answered that there is not currently a multicultural affairs office on campus. This is a critical support structure to provide. The Rensselaer Plan 2024 states that advancing diversity and inclusion is an important goal. Rensselaer currently does not have services for these groups of students. Veterans and military affairs services are also planned.
Professor Atushi Akera stated that it is important to get at the core issues. The Faculty Senate needs to decide how to best support the students, and work with students and administration. In order to do that, there needs to be an understanding of the core issues. It is clear that communication is an issue. There is not routine communication among the groups. Rensselaer is not a corporate organization and therefore it is important to have conversations across the constituencies. The Institute cannot set policies without thinking about communication. Working with students is vital to the Institute especially when considering that the image projected to alumni and donors. Moving forward without cohesiveness is damaging. There is talk about a culture of fear but students are too afraid to say what the examples of fear are. Professor Akera implored the administrators to work with faculty. The faculty want to contribute to the Rensselaer Plan 2024 and are working in the spirt of those goals. He also states that the Vice President of Student Life needs to have sound communication with students. Doing things without student consultation disrupts activities.
Vice President for Finance, Ms. Virginia Gregg commented that donations were up last year. There is a new Vice President for Institute Advancement and an organization in place to continue the growth, but there is concern about the impact of dissension.
Professor Amir Hirsa asked for clarification on how much donations were up. Ms. Gregg did not have specific figures but stated that donations were higher than they have been over the last 5 year period. One of our credit rating agencies noted that donations were up in the latest credit report. The administration is also getting the apparatus in place to manage philanthropy more effectively.
Mr. Gardiner asked where the donations increased from. Ms. Gregg answered that it was in the high 20s low 30s (million) five years ago while the past year was roughly 60M in total gifts. Professor Maniatty asked for a return to the topic at hand
Professor Maniatty asked each Senator to make a statement.
Professor Ekaterina Haskins stated that she was curious about how the restructuring will affect the Poly (student newspaper) and its function and authority. Dr. Ross answered that there were no plans to change the organization, the way they function, and the way they choose to fund or not fund the clubs. Professor Haskins commented that Dr. Jackson said Board of Trustees would review and define what autonomy is as written in the Rensselaer Union Constitution. She is concerned about losing the key values that have sustained the Union for over 100 years.
Professor Dan Lewis commented that the student leadership at the Town Hall did a good job in formulating and stating their opinions and questions. He encouraged the students in attendance at this meeting to encourage other students to do the same. The tone of some of the questions by some of the students did not help get the message across. The students will need to have a well thought out dialogue when decision are being made by the Board of Trustees and being reactionary will not help. He encouraged student leaders to have well thought plan.
Professor Deborah Kaminski stated that she doesn’t have a clear understanding of why restricting student autonomy is beneficial. Dr. Ross answered that he is not looking to change anything students are currently doing. That is not the intended goal.
Mr. Flowers noted that he could understand why having some more organizational structure within Student Life makes sense due to the large portfolio. His main concern was that the Executive Director position had direct oversight of the Union and also that the position would reporting to an assistant vice president and not directly to the Vice President for Student Life, creating additional layers. The leaders of the Student Union should be able to communicate directly with the Vice President. Mr. Flowers noted that his second concern was with the precedent that was set with the denial of the protest. The Student Handbook has specific language about protesting and the reason for the denial of the protest was against the intent of the language in the Handbook.
Mr. Dvorak stated that he sees the value of adding to the different areas of Student Life. They have been working in some of the same areas, such as establishing safe spaces for the LGBQT community. The Rensselaer Union currently touches all 5 new clusters for Student Life and are concerned with additional oversight. They see the value in the areas but they want to understand. Mr. Dvorak noted that former Vice President for Student Life, Dr. Eddie Knowles, shared organizational charts and plans prior to the CLASS structure. He also noted the open communication former Vice President for Student Life, Dr. Tim Sams, had with students about new programs and policies. Student leadership is hoping for the same from the current administration – the “why” before the “what”.
Professor Lois Peters applauded the students for their efforts. The issue is the pattern that exists - Broader discussion should have happened before the job posting. She suggested including more of the key members of campus before coming to these decisions. Previous discussion might have informed Student Life administration that students were already working on many of the same goals. She questioned what the barrier is, why does it keep happening.
Professor Amir Hirsa stated that he has heard from a number of students and a major reason they came to Rensselaer was the opportunity to be involved in student governance. The structure of the Union, and the autonomy of students appealed to them and now they are feeling betrayed. Students are here to grow and student leadership is a growth opportunity.
Professor Akera had 2 points to make. First, the administration has a right to create support activities for students separate from what the students are already doing. They have a tremendous responsibility. Student Union leaders should not be telling administration how to do its work, just as students leaders do not want the administration telling them how they should do their work. It is Dr. Ross’ right to create whatever structure he needs to support goals of CLASS. He questioned what autonomy the students were actually going to lose. Dr. Ross said that nothing that nothing currently in place will change about the way the Union organizes, and fund their clubs and activities. Professor Akera commented that that the Union does more than just fund clubs and that student seem to value the fact that Union is their own business and that’s what they value. If the change makes an impact on their ability to be autonomous then what the autonomy is needs to be defined and respected. His second point was the concern is that the decision has been handed to the Board of Trustees. Ultimately, they have the authority. However, the problem is that normally the board at institutions do not set policies. They review what comes up through administration. The power to review a constitution and to direct change puts responsibility and action in the hands of the Board when it should be a conversation on campus. Professor Akera asked Professor Maniatty to convey at an upcoming meeting with Board members that this should be an issue for the campus to deliberate on and pass up through the proper channels. The Board reviewing the Student Union Constitution is circumventing the process. (Dr. Akera notes these are his opinions expressed as an individual and a faculty member and not necessarily opinions of the Executive Committee).
Professor Jonas Braasch noted that dialogue is essential. Student, faculty and the administration all share the same goals but maybe different methods. He asked why protest was not approved. Dr. Ross answered that two students submitted an application, but there is a requirement that a peaceful demonstration cannot interfere with regular Institute operations. The Acting Dean of Students determined that a campus wide event (the scheduled Town Hall meeting) could be interrupted by a demonstration at same time and place. Dr. Ross noted that any student who submits an application meets with administration for discussion. The students were asked if there were other dates/times/locations that could be considered and the students answered that there were not.
Professor Braasch stated that the Union is a platform where students can learn leadership which is very important for long term success. He agreed that there has to be oversight by administration. Everyone is subject to oversight. There does need to be a shared dialogue within which students can define their own leadership, with support. There are many examples of where people have benefitted from these types leadership roles.
Professor Audrey Bennett asked the student leadership what the precedence is for communication between student leaders and the administration. If the administration sees an issue that is emerging, how would they communicate that to the students? Mr. Dvorak answered that in the past, a student was on each Board of Trustees Committee, students had monthly meetings with Dr. Jackson, and quarterly meetings with members of the Board of Trustees. Professor Bennett asked if this has changed. Mr. Dvorak answered that this has changed but also noted that Dr. Jackson did initiate the monthly meetings, and because of actions of by previous student leaders, she opted to decrease and eventually end meetings. Going forward, both sides are working to reopen lines of communication and have discussions so students aren’t reactionary but proactive.
Professor Mike Fortun stated that as a historian he was very impressed by what the students have done. He mentioned that one could say it was unprecedented. The students acted thoughtfully and respectfully. They did it for many reasons, and documented a history and a context and addressed many issues. They appear to have done it out of love for the Institute and not out of personal animosity. He was impressed with how they engaged thoughtfully. Professor Fortun also discussed the protest policy and when it was originally enacted. He expressed the opinion that if the administration hadn’t turned down the application, twice, and the demonstration went on, it may have not been as unprecedented as it was. Professor Fortun also commented that the larger pattern is really the concern. He is nervous of the review of the Rensselaer Union Constitution, because the last time the Board of Trustees reviewed a constitution, that of the Rensselaer Faculty Senate, it caused a national academic scandal. Professor Fortun would like to see statement of support from the Faculty Senate that recognizes the students for their organization, care, and concern.
Professor Ekaterina Haskins commented that she also though the students were thoughtful, organized, and ethical in their actions.
Professor Amir Hirsa stated that he is very concerned about finances. The growth of vice presidents and mid-level administrators is happening along the same lines of national trends. Professor Maniatty noted that discussion of the finances was coming up next but there was one more comment on the current topic.
Mr. Mike Gardiner stated that he is not in a core student leadership position, but he is passionate and an advocate of what is going on with the student body. He understood that it is necessary to cooperate to continue the legacy and tradition. What students would like is an open dialogue. He commented that even though Dr. Jackson said there is no culture of fear, he hears it from students who come who are afraid to speak out. Mr. Gardiner stated that students don’t want anyone to resign or be terminated – what they would like is recent alumni representation on the Board of Trustees. He also commented that students weren’t brought in to the Summer Arch discussion, they were just told that it was happening. Being told that things are happening without discussion is concerning.
Professor Maniatty announced that the Faculty Senate would like to address the financial status of the Institute. There have been concern about finances as long as she has been here. Rensselaer does very well and competes with institutions with much greater financial strength. However, the most recent Washington Post article has heightened concerns. Alumni, faculty, and retirees are all concerned. Professor Maniatty noted that there are positive things – she appreciates the commitment President Jackson has to the tenured faculty and the faculty should not take that support for granted. Dr. Jackson is also committed to the research enterprise and infrastructure. At the same time, Rensselaer faces a lot of challenges. One is low endowment compared to the institutions Rensselaer tries to compete against. There were difficult financial situations across the nation that were unpredictable and the faculty do not want to be part of the problem, they want to be part of the solution. Rensselaer needs a change of direction. Professor Maniatty stated that she was appalled that we were one of the schools on the list requiring a letter of credit and that it brings Rensselaer into public disrepute.
Vice President for Finance and CFO, Ms. Virginia Gregg stated that she thinks in terms of where the Institute has been and where it is going. Finances have been an issue historically. Dr. Jackson has tried to change the fortunes during difficult times. Managing the pension is very challenging. The Board of Trustees and the President are continuing to honor the pension as a commitment. Ms. Gregg, in speaking specifically about the Department of Education situation, stated that the report from the DOE has nothing to do with financial condition of the Institute but has to do with financial responsibility rules that were put into place in the 1990s. Accounting rules have changed since those rules and the DOE practices have not followed those changes. As an example, DOE treats pension liability as current debt, while accounting practices consider it a long-term liability. Current practices also provide for more flexibility in spending endowment while the DOE considers that a part of the endowment does not belong to the Institute. These are not just the view of Rensselaer, but the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) as well as Congress has also criticized these rules. Rensselaer has been caught within these misinterpretations and has been arguing with the DOE for 2 years. However, in order to protect the students who have federal financial aid, Rensselaer posted the letter of credit while Rensselaer continues to argue with the DOE. Rensselaer’s composite scores haven’t been posted for 2 years while the argument continues and yet the list came out with Rensselaer on it.
Professor Amir Hirsa asked about what is going to be different in the coming years. This is the same argument as the Carnegie classification change and so the question becomes what is Rensselaer going to do different.
Ms. Gregg answered that broadening revenue sources is a main priority. Part of that broadening is Summer Arch and growing philanthropy. While the endowment is low compared to Rensselaer’s competitors, so is our fundraising. The administration is working to grow the Advancement portfolio. Rensselaer is also making responsible investments for good return. Another strategy is to grow corporate sponsors to make up for decrease in federal research support. Rensselaer has always been good at managing expenses. The first priority is always faculty hiring. If expenses are managed, the only thing left is to increase revenue.
Mr. Keegan Caraway stated that he was part of the group that went to Dartmouth to benchmark the Summer Arch program against Dartmouth’s version and understood that it cost more money than it made to run the program at Dartmouth. Ms. Gregg stated that it will up front but enrollment will grow which will increase revenue. Mr. Carraway noted that his understanding was that the program at Dartmouth has been running 20-30 years and they have never made money. Ms. Gregg indicated that this was not her understanding. Professor Maniatty stated that she shares students concern on whether the Summer Arch will be revenue generating.
Ms. Gregg asked the Faculty Senate members for ideas on revenue growth.
Professor Hirsa commented that it is a culture. Replacing faculty is expensive while retaining them is cheaper. A change in culture would change the relationship with students and faculty.
Provost Prabhat Hajela stated that Rensselaer tries to retain faculty to the best of our abilities but there are limited resources and we must use the resources that we have. Rensselaer’s turnover rates are not out the norm of national average. Rensselaer needs to build an institution for the future and it is important to replenish the stock of faculty.
Professor Haskins noted that the point about the culture is important in terms of morale and for the financial health. Pragmatically, the image of the culture both inside and out would only help with revenue in terms of philanthropy and enrollment. If the perception is negative both are affected.
Professor Maniatty commented that a real concern is that it will be difficult to raise revenue given the press. People want to invest in winners and if they think giving money to Rensselaer does not pay off, they will no. This is very concerning. Rensselaer needs to project that there is a major change in direction.
Ms. Virginia Gregg stated that the question is with the Faculty Senate – what do they think should be done?
Professor Maniatty stated that the Planning and Resources Committee has the charge to discuss this.
Professor Peters stated that a focus on research from an academic view is important. Corporate sponsors won’t be a major source or at a magnitude to really help. Being innovative is the key.
Provost Hajela commented that the model would have to change. Some universities are very successful at corporate sponsorship.
Professor Hirsa stated that the professional masters programs were beneficial.
Ms. Gregg responded that she and the Provost are proponents. Dr. Jackson’s concern is to ensure that faculty are not stretched too thin.
Professor Hirsa response that the faculty should make that decision. They are practitioners. There needs to be better listening.
Provost Hajela made the point that the administration does listen. As an example, he commented on how the proposal about graduate stipends was brought forward and it was acted on.
Professor John Tichy stated that it is disheartening that we are even close to being on the list. Despite the technicalities, it should not have even been an issue.
Mr. Gardiner asked for clarification about the score of financial responsibility test not being public. Ms. Gregg clarified that the last published score was 2012. Rensselaer has been in dispute since 2013, and that is the reason why Rensselaer believes that the 2013 and 2014 scores were not published.
ACTION ITEM: Professor Lewis asked that it be put on the agenda of the next Faculty Senate meeting to draft a resolution in regards to the Rensselaer Student Union.
Professor Haskins asked the students to update the Faculty Senate after they meet with Board members, so the Senate can prepare for the resolution.
Professor Tichy made an announcement regarding elections – senators need to respond to his email.
Meeting adjourned at 9:31.
(Approved at 5/12/16 Senate meeting)