Division at RPI

April 28, 2006

It would be hard to beat Shirley Ann Jackson's résumé: First black woman to receive a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a physicist who led impressive research teams at Rutgers University and AT&T Bell Laboratories, chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and -- since 1999 -- president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

When national commissions or universities want an expert on science and especially on diversifying the research work force (a topic on many minds since a certain university president managed to offend women nationwide with his thoughts on the topic), Jackson is the person to call. She publishes papers and captivates conferences.

Back in Troy, however, it turns out a lot of people are less than impressed. The faculty held a no confidence vote this week and while Jackson in some sense won the vote, the margin was quite narrow: 155 to 149 in her favor.

According to critics, Jackson has favored new professors over more senior scholars, allowed the engineering programs to decline, squelched criticism, and enjoyed too many perks in office. Professors say that her national reputation has hidden the anger at home, which has been growing for years. "She talks a good story, but she doesn't know how to run a university," says E. Bruce Nauman, a professor of chemical engineering who recently finished a term leading the Faculty Senate.

As the faculty opposition has come to a head -- in part over discussion of possible cuts in RPI's contribution to the faculty pension plan -- student anger at the administration has also grown, but over a completely different issue. Students are up in arms over administration plans to curb alcohol in fraternities and sororities and hundreds backing the Save RPI Greeks movement say they would have left the institution, but for the houses that they say Jackson's administration is about to destroy.

While the quality of RPI engineering and the quality of frat parties are obviously very different issues, there may be a common thread. "Aside from what the policy is, we weren't talked to about it -- we feel stepped upon," said one student leader who asked not to be identified and who said he finds that his professors share that feeling.

While Jackson is not talking, the board at RPI has given her strong support, with the chair, Samuel Heffner, releasing a statement praising Jackson, and saying that while "circumstances of dramatic change create challenges for all engaged," the board "stands firmly" behind the president.

In the debate about Jackson, critics and supporters can't agree on the relevant numbers or priorities. Critics say that graduate enrollments are falling rapidly; supporters say that reforms of graduate education gave Ph.D. totals a false spike a few years ago, so that the real numbers are better. Critics -- citing U.S. News rankings, which are viewed as educationally dubious by many, although they are used by many applicants -- say that RPI is no longer the engineering powerhouse it once was. Supporters say Jackson has pushed interdisciplinary work and made progress in newer areas like biotechnology. Critics respond that she has failed to attract faculty talent in some of the fields that she is building, while letting historic strengths erode.

Some of the tensions at RPI are not unique to the institute. Institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology have greatly broadened their areas of expertise in the last generation away from the traditional base in the physical sciences and engineering to include much more of an emphasis on the biological sciences. The shift reflects where much of the hot science is taking place these days. But critics at RPI say that places like MIT and Caltech pulled off the broadening without hurting their base, and in a more collaborative way.

As at many institutions, money is a factor, but here too, the question is which numbers count. Jackson's supporters say that average faculty salaries increased by about 16 percent in the last four years. But her critics say that many faculty members who have devoted their careers to RPI have been getting raises in the 1-2 percent range, falling behind inflation, with the institute using the funds saved to pay top dollar to new faculty members. The institution has also been paying top dollar to Jackson, whose compensation topped $900,000 two years ago (the last year for which data are available).

Nauman said that because of his outside business interests, his take-home pay from RPI doesn't have a big impact on his standard of living. But he said that when Jackson favors unequal raises "she divides the faculty into old and new and is persecuting the old." There are ways to recruit good talent, he said, that don't have the impact of destroying faculty morale. The gaps are large enough, he said, that many professors are afraid of speaking out (and he points to a survey conducted by RPI that backs up his claim.)

But other professors -- especially those who are recent arrivals -- are quite happy with the institution and with Jackson's leadership. Linda B. McGown, chair of the chemistry and chemical biology department, was recruited to RPI two years ago, after 17 years at Duke University. McGown said that there aren't many science departments that recruit external candidates who are women to become chairs, so she was surprised and pleased when RPI came after her.

Since being recruited, McGown said she's been impressed with the commitment to interdisciplinary work, which she said has created an environment "in which I could really revitalize my work." She considers RPI an exciting place to be a scientist, where people feel "caught up in a sense of being at a place on an upward trajectory."

As for salaries, McGown said that RPI is hardly unique in giving more money to new recruits. She said she had her best raises at Duke when she had other offers. "That's the nature of academia," she said.

Both McGown and Nauman took pains to say that they didn't view the situation at RPI as strictly a case of new vs. old, with McGown noting the quality of talent there for a long time and Nauman the talent that is arriving.

But whatever the nature of the divide, Nauman said it was significant to see how divided the campus is. Throughout Jackson's tenure, one constant from her supporters has been to characterize critics as a disgruntled few, and the fear of speaking out has meant that -- in public, at least -- the numbers may have been small, he said.

"But that supposed few is essentially half the faculty," Nauman said, and needs to be listened to.

Already this year, Harvard University's president quit after losing one no confidence vote and expecting another, and the president of Case Western Reserve University quit two weeks after losing a vote.

Although she won hers, Jackson has invited faculty members to meet her today to talk about campus issues.

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