A Student Response to Dr. Jackson's Town Hall Meeting
During the Spring 2016 Town Hall event (transcript here), which followed a student protest on the unilateral actions undermining student governance on campus, Dr. Jackson commented on a variety of topics in areas touched upon by the protestors. Many of these statements missed the point, were misleading, or were simply incorrect. We seek to set the record straight.
The Union Constitution
Nonsensical press statement by the President
During the Town Hall, the President put out a statement which reads in part, "…it is appropriate for the Trustees to look at the Constitution and decide what independence and autonomy mean." Is it? To begin, those words are never used in the Constitution. But this statement would have you think that the Trustees endowed with the expertise to examine those concepts past their commonly-understood or dictionary meanings. Or is this just a very high-handed way of saying “if Student Life can't have a piece of the Union's pie, the Trustees will smash it on the ground?”
The statement goes on to say, "I have asked the Board, through its Executive Committee, to review the Union Constitution and decide whether any changes are warranted." While this statement sounds more concrete, vague language again hides the President's purpose. It isn't clear if the Board plans to evaluate the document and ask for amendments, if they will they make changes they think are warranted unilaterally, or if are they evaluating the overall picture of failed Student Life policies in light of the document. Regardless, such ill-defined language on the administration's part doesn't inspire confidence in fair and democratic governance.
Throwing out the rules
Dr. Jackson suggests that the Board of Trustees' unilateral "review" of the Union Constitution is a reasonable step. It is not. It is an action that betrays good governance and shows a refusal to take responsibility for prior administrative actions towards students. Dr. Jackson, while on one hand saying that communication problems are what plague campus, effectively ends any kind of discussion by deferring to a higher authority where she is sure to have her way.
The Trustees likely have the power to do as she suggests, since they seem to be able to override their own rules agreed upon with the student body (such as Article XII and Article VII, 3B, which govern amendment and interpretation of the Constitution). But like any ultimate authority, their power should be used in concert with past actions and precedent, to support the procedures they approved just one year ago for amendments, rather than used to bless illegitimate actions after the fact in the face of wide opposition from the community.
Need for new positions
The prior Director of the Union and the Vice President for Student Life found themselves overwhelmed because they are trying to run the Student Union unilaterally without the students in any matter of consequence. The Director in particular is solely Union-focused and is an advocate for students, not a political player in the Student Life Division. The Union is designed and staffed at levels that require student involvement. If the Union is allowed to operate as its rules dictate, the need for new positions to supplant student authority would disappear.
The President, in this Town Hall and many prior ones, regretfully speaks of the lack of communication on campus. But her refusal to address the protest meaningfully and instead pass the issue of the Constitution directly to the Trustees with no substantial communication belies these statements.
For a few minutes, she lambasts the Grand Marshal, the student body representative, to the applause of her cabinet. Aside from being another example of administrators acting against their own rules regarding conduct towards students (See Faculty/Staff Handbooks), it's even more inappropriate when that person was elected by a 7,000-person student body. The Grand Marshal gets to meet with the President not to "kiss the ring" or as a student respectfully making inquiries, but at the students' rightfully-elected representative. If he and the President can remain polite, so much the better. But it's not the Grand Marshal's wish to communicate with the President; it happens to be his job.
While not a part of the Town Hall itself, it is worth noting that the Institute's and President's responses to students' concerns has damaged the Institute and its governance nearly as much as the actions which provoked those concerns.
Students were illegitimately denied the right to protest (a decision being appealed). Media were given bluntly conflicting messages as to their access to campus and students. Students were mocked, cut off, and told off by the Institute's President. The authority of the Board of Trustees was dragged into a debate that had quite a lot more to be said in it, which will likely destroy their reputation in the community as neutral arbiters, no matter what action they may take.
During the Town Hall, Dr. Jackson repeatedly dismissed a sentiment that a "culture of fear" has emerged and thrived under her administration. Dr. Jackson responded with a variety of dismissals, stating she didn't know where “the root of the culture of fear” is, and that it may simply be a repetitive assertion and “…a repetitive assertion does not make something true.”
The Institute's poor record in this realm tells the story. In the past, when the Faculty Senate expressed discontent with the administration, it was suspended for five years. Furthermore, a particularly vocal faculty member who spoke out against the administration had his RPI email privileges revoked. Currently, students and alumni speaking out against the administration on social media sites have been surreptitiously investigated by Institute employees. Fearing retribution, faculty were frightened to appear at a recent Faculty Senate meeting called specifically to show support for students in the fight to preserve an autonomous Student Union.