Presidential 'Pabulum' and a Professor's Punishment

August 11, 2008

The e-mail messages wouldn't have won Donald Steiner any dinner invitations to the president's home.

In one e-mail to a faculty discussion group at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Steiner -- a research professor -- responded to a recent message from President Shirley Jackson to the faculty by writing: "Sadly, I found more of the same subterfuge and insulting pabulum."

And in an e-mail to Provost Robert Palazzo, copied to the faculty discussion group, Steiner wrote: "Should not a 'provost' be the advocate for the rights of all faculty? You have not done so. Therefore you are not a 'provost.' Should not a 'provost' uphold the Faculty Handbook procedures? You have no done so. Therefore, you are not a 'provost.' Should not a 'provost' be truthful in dealing with the faculty? You have not done so. Therefore you are not a 'provost.'"

For these e-mails, RPI took away Steiner's access to the institute's e-mail system. In a letter sent to Steiner by Curtis N. Powell, vice president for human resources, citing only those e-mail messages, Powell said that the e-mails had violated two RPI rules. One states that "all members of the campus have the right not to be harassed by others." The other states that as a member of the campus community, responsibilities include "respect of the rights of privacy for all, respect for the diversity of the population and opinion in the community, ethical behavior, and compliance with all legal and institute restrictions regarding the use of information that belongs to others."

The letter sent to Steiner has been circulating at RPI, and some faculty members sent it to Inside Higher Ed. Faculty leaders say that Steiner's criticisms, while strongly worded, are tough dissent, not harassment. They note that in an era when some faculty critics attack presidents in anonymous blogs full of four-letter words, Steiner offered his critiques without hiding and without getting vile. Further, they note that in the context of intense debate over governance at RPI, kicking a critic off the RPI e-mail system reinforced the view that the administration won't tolerate dissent.

Over the last year, RPI's administration has replaced the Faculty Senate when its members voted to give voting rights to those off the tenure track, and kicked off campus a controversial video art exhibit that upset College Republicans. And those decisions followed a debate over President Jackson that resulted in her narrowly avoiding a vote of no confidence.

Steiner -- who has since become emeritus, a status that typically would qualify him for e-mail -- said in an interview that he had been a strong supporter of the RPI administration, and noted that he had served at the university's request as chair of its last committee to prepare for an institutional accreditation review. But he said that when the university unilaterally eliminated faculty governance, "I felt compelled to express my concerns both as a faculty member and as the chair of the Middle States steering committee."

He added that he views the administration's action as "an act of retribution for my open criticism of their policies. I can also tell you that many senior faculty who disagree with the administration's actions fear retaliation and therefore will not express their concerns publicly."

William N. Walker, vice president for strategic communications and external relations at RPI, said in an e-mail that some of the e-mail messages in question "were offensive to other members of the university community," and noted that RPI's policies state that "all members of the campus have the right not to be harassed by others," or to be intimidated by others.

"As is written into our policies, Rensselaer supports free inquiry and expression by the users of its computer systems and networks. Rensselaer, however, reserves the right to take action against or deny access to its facilities to those whose use is not consonant with the purposes of the university or infringes on the rights of others," Walker added.

On the question of academic freedom, he said: "Academic freedom is among the most important values held by the Rensselaer community. Academic freedom goes beyond protecting the right of professors to speak freely in the university community. It also means that university administrators, students, and faculty are protected from harassment for expressing their own ideas."

Bruce Nauman, president of the Faculty Senate that the administration no longer recognizes, said that Steiner's criticisms were "quite lucid and not insulting or harassing."

What the incident shows, Nauman said, is that "our administration is certainly not upholding the traditional standards of academic freedom where dissent is not only allowed, but expected."

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