Save the Union

A Student Response to Dr. Jackson's Town Meeting

Fall 2017

During the 2017 Town Meeting (summary here), Dr. Jackson answered student questions on a variety of topics regarding the Rensselaer Union and Capital Campaign. Many of these statements evaded the question, were misleading, or were simply incorrect. We seek to set the record straight.

Director of the Union

Several questions revolved around the current Director of the Union search and hiring process. Jackson claimed the Union is just the same as it was five years ago. This is blatantly untrue, as student governance has been eroding for some time now. The current issue aside, this erosion includes the Student Senate no longer having the right to approve the Student Handbook, loss of control in many areas of the judicial system, student leaders no longer participating in the review of the Student Life Performance Plan, and loss of student representation on the Trustees' Finance and Student Life committees, among other things. The only way her statement could have be true is if she never considered the Union to be student-run in the first place, in which case the decades her administration referring to the Rensselaer Union as “student-run” and one of the last-remaining Unions of its kind in the nation would amount to nothing more than bold-faced lies and misrepresentations. Based on the Jackson Administration’s history of disdain for open and honest discourse, this very well may be the case.

Student Activity Fee

Before a student could finish asking a question about the Director of the Union, which he described as a position funded by students through a self-imposed tax otherwise known as the Student Activity Fee, 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.” She ended her interruption with “so I think it’s very important that you understand that.” What we would like Jackson and her administration to be reminded of and understand is that students first opted to charge themselves the Activity Fee in 1912 to fund the bookstore, and it was the foresight of later students in 1958 to choose raise the Activity Fee for many years, resulting in funds to cover construction costs for the Union’s current home. Regardless of the “legal thing,” the Activity Fee has historically been approved by student representatives and the funds have been allocated toward student activities based upon students’ wishes.

Hiring Process

When the same student inquired as to why students have no say over the director’s job description and no formal input in annual performance reviews, Jackson responded claiming these statements were “patently false” before quickly deflecting to Vice President for Human Resources Curtis Powell. Powell, who—after mocking the controversy with the Union and belittling informed students who had done their research into RPI's finances and arrived at the Town Hall prepared with written questions—said, “lemme answer your question directly,” and claimed that ten viable candidates were presented to students for selection, yet members of the student hiring committee present in the audience refuted this claim, stating that they only interviewed two. Furthermore, HR representatives—including Powell—have previously advertised that Dean of Students Travis Apgar and Interim Vice President for Student Life LeNorman Strong narrowed the pool of fifty candidates down to five for video interviews. Based upon these statements and the contents of the leaked student Human Resources Interview Committee memo, a more accurate portrayal would have been that forty-eight of the fifty candidates dropped out due to the administration rejecting them.

Performance Management Tool (PMT)

The PMT, an HR document used to measure the performance objectives of the director position, was also addressed as a result of this question. Powell alleged “we made the corrections” to the PMT and that the President of the Union (PU) would confirm this version of events. When asked, however, the PU replied he had met with HR regarding the PMT, but “not all of the edits that we suggested were accepted.” While Powell is correct in that some job description edits were accepted, he failed to point out that many were not, particularly changes increasing administrative control of and within the Union. Finally, Jackson and Powell completely ignored the question regarding annual performance reviews despite the fact that the Grand Marshal (GM) and PU have been integral to this process in the past. Therefore, Jackson’s reply that “those things are patently false statements” when a student inquired as to why students do not have a say in the job description and the PMT of the Director of the Union position during the Town Hall makes her a liar, as the student was completely correct. Moreover, if the phrase “approve the hiring and continuance” in the Rensselaer Union Constitution is to be anything more than ceremonious, student representatives must be active participants in the performance review process to ensure administrative staff continue to act on behalf of students and in the best interest of students’ rights.

On a side note, this is where paying careful attention to Powell’s choice of words paid off. He announced, “we have the PU in here somewhere,” knowing there was one student leader present whom he could call upon to corroborate his story despite having several members of the student Human Resources Hiring Committee present—most of whom would have gladly speak to the student perspective on this issue. Powell went on to repeat “we have the PU right there,” gesturing to the PU while giving him a look that it was time for the student to step up and confirm Powell’s account of events. At no time during the Town Hall did Powell or any member of the administration mention wondering if the GM, who is the student body president, was in the room so they could have asked him to speak to his experiences with the Director of the Union hiring process and changes (or lack thereof) to the PMT. This is worth noting as the GM has been vocal in representing the student voice, which seems to be widely in favor of a student-run Union and therefore is fundamentally at odds with Jackson and her administration, and last month he spoke out about receiving thinly-veiled threats of expulsion from several administrators in addition to recently being the victim of a series of administrative “oversights” or outright exclusions from events and meetings, at times without any explanation. To our knowledge, the PU has not experienced the same level of bullying from the administration as he has remained out of the spotlight, choosing instead to voice his support for the GM and the Student Senate and expressing that they are the governing body of the Rensselaer Union.

Executive Board Approval Vote

The only explanation that Jackson offered with regards to her stance on the Executive Board’s approval vote—which is basically that she will allow it to occur, but it’s only a pretense for student input as opposed to a meaningful action—before hiring Union staff was essentially to prevent discrimination from occurring in the hiring process. “You can have a situation where there’s a discriminatory act, where there’s something that happens, and so we can’t anticipate all the possible, uh, circumstances,” Jackson espoused in response to a question about the approval vote during the Town Hall. The presumption that students—responsible adults and citizens—would not know whether or how to comply with the law is egregious in a collegiate setting. Although Jackson has encouraged the Executive Board to hold a vote when the time comes, she is well aware that it would only be for show. This detrimental change in the importance of the approval vote alarmingly calls into question Jackson’s statement during the Town Hall and elsewhere that “nothing has changed” with regards to the Union. If nothing has truly changed, why is the Executive Board’s vote more one of endorsement of a candidate rather than approval of a candidate?

Rensselaer Union’s Status and Petition

As expected, many other questions involved the controversial issue of the Rensselaer Union, and the recent loss of its student-run status. Jackson was uncharacteristically outspoken and repetitive in her support of the Union at the end of the Town Meeting, but her inconsistent statements and opinions left us wondering, again, if she ever really considered it student-run in the first place; this coupled with her assertions that nothing has changed (the PMT and job description alterations as well as the lack of significance with the approval vote are important, tangible aspects that have visibly changed). When asked about the circulating petition in staunch support of a student-run Rensselaer Union that 5,363 students, alumni, and members of the RPI community and counting had signed to date, Jackson again dodged answering the question directly. Instead, she quipped, “Well, that reaffirms our support for the Union and the fact that the Union is very strongly part of Rensselaer,” rather than face and respond to the concerns that thousands of members of the RPI community have about the current status and future of the Union.

When responding to the petition, Jackson also added, “I think 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.” This is fallacious on its front. In just the past few years, the Union has lost a large portion of its budget and input into varsity athletic matters, approval of crucial policies in the Student Handbook, and student representation in many aspects of Institute, to name just a few. Campus administrators took these away with little or no input and often under false pretenses. The Union as an institution will have great difficulty recovering from these blows, designed to weaken students as a constituency on campus, in much the same way the faculty has been. The most disturbing change, however, can easily be viewed within the last five years, as the Director of the Union job description has morphed from a position of advisement in 2011 to one of ultimate authority and direction over the Union and its clubs, organizations, events, and activities in 2017.


Response to FIRE

When asked about the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)’s recent articles and letter to Jackson regarding RPI’s free speech violations, she immediately deferred to General Counsel Craig Cook. He was quick to change the topic of discussion from protests and free speech to FIRE’s views on RPI’s sexual assault and cybersecurity policies, eventually meandering to the general conclusion that he has little to no faith in FIRE’s rating system. Cook’s conclusion is completely irrelevant with regards to the protest and free speech violations, and most people who attended the protest agree with FIRE’s conclusion. The most telling comment by Cook was the proclamation, “We’re a private university. We have a little more leeway than some of the public universities, but we do believe in free expression.” It’s interesting Cook pointed out that RPI has “more leeway...but believe[s] in free expression” anyway, as though he was openly admitting the RPI administration is well-aware they possess more legal ground for squashing the free speech and free expression of their students as RPI is a private university. This was all but confirmed by Apgar’s response, as he mentioned, “public universities...are grant freedom of speech as a constitutional right” during his explanation that “we had determined early-on...weeks before” that the Jackson Administration would deny all protest applications for the capital campaign launch weekend. Once again, Apgar confirmed that the administration strongly suspected the Jackson's latest move to take over of the Union would not be received well by the student body, so they made a conscious decision well in advance to block students' expression of free speech in front of the very audience they aimed to reach: RPI alumni.

As we can attest, the free speech violations and attempts to silence all voices in opposition to the administration’s agenda extended beyond the protest denial to things like constantly removing our posters that were in full compliance with the university’s sign policy. A student leader uninvolved with our movement but whom spoke out in favor of a student-run Union was bullied and intimidated by the administration with thinly-veiled threats of expulsion, students and alumni who commented on our social media regardless of their involvement with our movement reported having their profiles cyberstalked by multiple RPI employees (including administrators) on LinkedIn, and the administration has been moving to exclude alumni more and more, be it from attending events like the Town Meeting to participating in protests on campus. One must ask how long Jackson's administration has been planning this hostile takeover of the Union and just how far they're willing to go to carry-out her plan.

The Wall

The final question during the Town Hall addressed the now-infamous “wall” that was hastily erected by Jackson during Reunion & Homecoming and was accompanied by the closure of buildings on main campus in addition to the sudden and surprising canceling of classes after 2:00 pm within the walled-in perimeter, as pointed out by the student asking the question, on the day of the peaceful demonstration and capital campaign launch (October 13th, 2017). Jackson asserted actions such as constructing a fence around campus were commonplace for “certain special events,” referencing commencement as an example. She elaborated, “things that might otherwise go on in the East Campus Athletic Village (ECAV) will not go on and so, uh, this is no different…” We beg to differ. Last we checked, ECAV didn’t have research happening around the clock, and it does not host classes, recitation sessions, office hours, etc.; in fact, to compare the activities and ongoings of ECAV—especially during commencement, when the spring semester has already concluded—to main campus during midterms, is utterly preposterous. Additionally, commencement is an event that draws thousands of people; we highly doubt the campaign launch drew even a fraction of the attendance given the photos showing many empty seats at dinner in the Folsom Library, as well as the empty rows of seats in the EMPAC Concert Hall for the orchestra performance and speeches that followed.

Capital Campaign

The $400 Million Dollar Question

The Institute has retorted that Save the Union creates negative public relations for RPI, hurting fellow students by encouraging alumni to withhold donations until the Union issue is resolved. We find this view to be extremely disingenuous, as there is no guarantee that donations toward Transformative: Campaign for Global Change will actually go toward the stated purposes; furthermore, massive, unrestricted gifts to RPI in the past have been channeled toward buildings such as EMPAC, rather than scholarships for students or desperately-needed upgrades to campus. As a matter of fact, Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations Richie Hunter commented in a Troy Record article that the capital campaign "will aggressively grow our financial resources and alumni participation" and "as a result, debt will decrease and the ratio of assets to indebtedness will improve." Studying RPI’s filings to the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board reveals that Jackson’s claim to have raised over $400 million to date would require counting all gifts and bequests beginning in 2008 toward that goal. When questioned, Jackson confirmed that the advertised fundraising total involved a “reach-back” and includes all gifts and bequests to RPI, not only donations specifically earmarked for the campaign. Jackson asserted she would provide the exact date the gifts began to count toward the campaign total, and the student has already followed up requesting additional information.

Bond Rating and Institute Debt

When asked what RPI is doing to improve its bond rating and the general plan regarding the Institute’s tremendous debt going forward, Jackson again downplayed the issue and sought to diffuse the seriousness of it by stating there was “more than one bond rating” and that the main bond rating is Moody’s and RPI has a bond credit rating of A3 them, and that S&P changed their factors for how they calculated bond ratings. But she followed her response with, “It is true that Rensselaer, uh, uh, has a fair amount of debt…” She went on to admit, “in fact, we’ve spent over $1.3 billion to, uh, upgrade the campus, to hire faculty, to make any number of changes” to “carry out the plan” and that the money from the prior capital campaign is still flowing in over time. Vice President of Finance, Virginia “Ginny” Gregg, seemed foreboding in her explanation as she expounded “trends go up and down” with multi-year versus single-year pledges and cash gifts and that there are “acceptable differences” in what counts for the current capital campaign versus regular giving. We are are already interested to see what next year’s financial report will reveal, as unrestricted gifts to the Institute have decreased significantly since this issue began in the spring of 2016.

A major focus of Jackson’s response was on the “legacy-defined benefit pension” that accounts for $150 million of the total debt. Despite it having been only a fraction of the debt from the start, Jackson dedicated a significant portion of her answer to explaining its involvement and vindicating what would have been a slightly lower debt had the Institute not had to borrow to pay into that pension plan. Our review of the financial documents in the year prior to Jackson’s arrival as RPI president indicates that the pension plan in question was actually slightly over-funded, making this another one of her lies. Notably, Jackson addressed a simple fact we have been publicizing to put in perspective how colossal the debt is without anyone having mentioned in a question: that RPI’s debt (~$733 million) is greater than its endowment (~$696 million). In pointing out that approximately $150 million of the debt relates to the funding of “a legacy-defined benefit pension plan that a number of people depend on,” Jackson used this figure to justify that the debt would be lower than the endowment had RPI not needed to borrow for it. This may be true, but the fact is it remains a small portion of liabilities (which was a staggering $1.06 billion at one point, if you’ll recall) and regardless, the Institute had to borrow the money for it, and the debt remains greater than the endowment, so it’s a moot point.