The Renew Rensselaer team has researched financial, academic, and student admissions data over many years to understand why RPI’s financial condition and academic program rankings have weakened. The more we investigated, the more problems we discovered. Analyzing data from the late 1990s to today has provided us with the opportunity to generate a “report card” on the Institute’s progress under The Rensselaer Plan, originally approved on May 12, 2000, and the updated version, released in December 2012: The Rensselaer Plan 2024.
Presented below–and in the accompanying spreadsheets, files, and web links–are what we consider to be the most important data, facts, and findings, separated into three sections: Finance, Academics, and Governance. They reveal a history, as well as a present condition, inconsistent with what is often communicated to alumni by the Institute. Since uncovering this “Untold Story,” the Renew Rensselaer team has met and corresponded with officers of the Board of Trustees to address these findings and our concerns. Topics include RPI’s deteriorating financial condition, underperformance in research, and declining academic rankings, as well as the school’s poor financial transparency, low morale among faculty and staff, divisive confrontations with students, and questionable governance practices.
We presented the Board with our findings, analysis, and recommendations for improvements in governance via multiple written documents and two lengthy face-to-face meetings. We offered our services as fundraising volunteers for the Capital Campaign–and reiterated this offer as recently as September 2020–provided the Board expressed a commitment to reform several aspects of RPI’s governance practices, as described in our Platform. To date, there has been no indication from the Board that it supports our initiatives.
Consequently, we continue to reach out to RPI’s base of more than 103,000 alumni and relate this untold story. The decision to disclose our data, facts, and findings in a public manner was not an easy one. In the end, we determined it was in the long-term best interest of the Institute to do so, outweighing any potential short-term effects. By pressing forward, we hope to gain increased alumni support for our platform of recommended changes to Renew Rensselaer.
1. RESEARCH EXPENDITURES AND REVENUES
The primary strategy of both the original Rensselaer Plan and updated Rensselaer Plan 2024 is to grow research activity in order to achieve greater prestige for the Institute, draw higher quality students, improve the university’s rankings, and attract greater financial resources. In dollar terms, the declared goal of The Rensselaer Plan was to increase research expenditures to $100 million by fiscal year 2005. The Rensselaer Plan 2024 targets annual research expenditures of $250 million by fiscal year 2024.
According to RPI reports and National Science Foundation data, research expenditures first reached the $100 million level in fiscal year 2014 and have since plateaued near that level. After showing initial strong growth from $48.5 million in 2000, research revenue peaked at $98.5 million in 2013, slowly declined to $74.7 million in 2017, and then rebounded to $111.4 million in 2020. Between fiscal years 2000 and 2020, research revenue has grown at a compounded rate of only 4.2% (including inflation) from $48.5 million to $111.4 million. As a percentage of total revenue, research revenue in 2020 climbed back to 22.8% due to a one-time state grant of approximately $30 million for the new AiMOS super computer. While this grant is primarily for equipment, it should help RPI with sourcing research and other contracts requiring high level computing power, Therefore, we have treated it as research revenue. The following chart displays research as a percentage of total revenue from fiscal years 1998 to 2020 (see Historical Revenue, Balance Sheet, and Selected Data):
The most revealing data are RPI’s annual research revenues (from external sources), annual research expenditures, and the difference between them (see charts below). Federal funding for scientific research began to decline sharply during the 2012-2014 time period, in large part due to the expiration of The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 “stimulus plan” (ARRA) and the “Sequester Agreement” for limiting overall federal spending. Accordingly, these shifts in spending negatively impacted the dollar amount of new federal research grants and contracts being awarded. In 2014, RPI’s research revenues began to decline, however, RPI’s research expenditures did not contract proportionately with revenues, leading to large funding gaps in the six-year period from 2014-2019. It appears RPI has bridged these gaps from internal sources of funds. Furthermore, the outlook for federal funding of STEM research, which is the source of roughly 80% of RPI’s research funding, continues to be weak (for more perspective on the ARRA, the Sequester, and the outlook for federal funding of research, see the Boston University research article entitled “Who Picks up the Tab for Science?”).
2. LONG-TERM DEBT RATINGS DOWNGRADED MULTIPLE TIMES BY BOTH MOODY’S AND STANDARD & POOR’S
In fiscal year 2000, Moody’s rated RPI’s long-term debt A1; Standard & Poor’s (S&P) rated it A+. Since then, Moody’s has lowered the rating twice (from A1 to A2 in 2005, and then from A2 to A3 in 2009) and S&P has downgraded the rating three times (from A+ to A, followed by A to A- in 2011, and most recently, from A- to BBB+ in 2017). In April 2020, S&P lowered its “Credit Outlook” for RPI from “Stable” to “Negative” due to financial risks related to the coronavirus pandemic. Below is a table comparing RPI’s long-term credit ratings to those of some of its peers:
|University||Moody's||Standard & Poor's|
3. HIGH DEBT LOAD, HEAVY INTEREST BURDEN, AND WEAK LIQUIDITY
In S&P’s 2017 press release announcing the downgrading of RPI’s rating to BBB+, it cited RPI’s high debt burden and low financial resources as primary reasons. In Moody’s 2018 credit opinion, it cited RPI’s high debt burden, high debt service costs, and thin liquidity as the key credit challenges for the Institute. Following are some historical comparisons and related financial data:
- Total liabilities have risen from $203.7 million in 2000 to $1.08 billion in 2020, a 428% increase. In that span, total assets have only risen from $1.15 billion to $1.60 billion, an increase of about 40%.
- Total liabilities, as a percent of total assets, have increased from 18% in 2000 to 67% in 2020.
- Total debt (for borrowed money) has risen from $115.5 million in 2000 to $732.3 million in 2020 (this includes bonds, bank borrowings, notes payable, and money owed under capital leases, but excludes borrowings under federal student loan programs which are offset by student obligations). There are an additional $25.9 million of right-of-use liabilities on the balance sheet reflecting various lease agreements for equipment.
- Interest expense has increased from $7 million to $33 million over the same time period.
- With the right-of-use lease payments added to interest, total debt service expense for 2020 was estimated to be $40.3 million.
- The Institute’s annual endowment draw (typically 5% of assets) has not covered the annual debt service expense in the seven-year period from 2013-2020.
- In recent years, RPI’s high debt service, research funding gaps, and growing pension liabilities have consumed a high proportion of its cash flow from operations.
- In turn, RPI has reduced capital spending to levels far below the depreciation of its facilities. Depreciation has exceeded capital spending every year during the eight-year period from 2012-2019. That streak was broken in 2020 because of the nearly $30 million expenditure for the new supercomputer. Despite this, from 2012 through 2020, the cumulative depreciation of $270.5 million has exceeded capital spending of $191.3 million by a factor of 1.4 times (see Historical Revenue, Balance Sheet, and Selected Data).
The following chart displays the Institute’s total assets and total liabilities from 2000 to 2020:
4. LEGACY DEFINED BENEFIT PENSION PLAN’S GROWTH IN LIABILITIES
RPI maintains a legacy defined benefit pension plan that covers faculty and staff, which was closed to new participants in 1993. At the end of fiscal year 1999, the plan was 97% funded. By the end of fiscal year 2001, the plan’s funding ratio was 82%, having been impacted by the large stock market declines of that year. A funding ratio of 80% is generally thought to be the minimum level for a plan to be considered adequately funded.
At the end of fiscal year 2008, after several years of strong market returns and just months prior to the 2008-09 financial crisis, the funding ratio remained at only 83%. By the end of fiscal year 2009, just after the start of the financial crisis and associated market bottom, the funding ratio stood at a mere 67%.
Since 2009, the actuarially-computed obligations of the plan have grown significantly. The calculations have been negatively impacted by both persistent low bond yields–used as the discount rate for valuing the obligations–and updated actuarial tables reflecting increased life expectancies.
To partially offset these growing obligations, RPI contributed $158.5 million in cash to the plan over a eleven-year period from 2010-2020. Approximately $77 million of the contributions were funded through the issuance of private long-term notes, with the balance effectively sourced from operating cash flow and the endowment. At the end of fiscal year 2020, the plan’s funding ratio stood at 64%, and RPI had a long-term unfunded pension liability of $132.8 million on its balance sheet (see Defined Benefit Pension Plan Data).
5. SIGNIFICANT COST OVERRUNS FOR THE CONSTRUCTION OF EMPAC
The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) opened on October 3, 2008 (first half of fiscal year 2009). The project was expected to cost $50 million; however, figures published by RPI indicate the final cost, including equipment, well exceeded $221 million. The primary reason for the cost overruns was the selection of the building site (a steep clay slope), coupled with an inadequately-planned foundation, one that was not suited for the soil conditions and slope. When the initial concrete foundation was fully poured, it began to slide down the steep hillside.
Construction was halted and holes were drilled in the up-slope wall of the foundation to allow for tunneling to bedrock, in which anchors were sunk to tether the foundation with steel cables. This was costly work for redesign and construction. But the largest costs were likely incurred due to the resulting delays with the remainder of the building’s construction. We believe it is likely, but cannot confirm with certainty, that the cost overruns were funded through a combination of a special donor gift, additional bond proceeds, and draws from the endowment, diverting precious capital away from other uses.
6. PARTICIPATION RATE OF ALUMNI DONORS HAS DECLINED SINCE 2000
According to Council for Aid to Education (CAE) Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) data, the RPI alumni donor participation rate fell from 16.6% in 2001 to 8.6% in 2012, a decline of 48.6%. An average for five comparable schools showed a decline of 31.4%. The 8.6% rate for 2012 was 41% below those same comparable schools’ average of 14.5%.
Current data shows RPI’s alumni participation rate declined from 17.0% in 2000 to 7.4% in 2017. The following chart displays the CAE data for RPI’s alumni participation rate:
7. RISE AND FALL OF GIFTS
Despite the downward trend in the alumni donor participation rate displayed above, Gifts and Bequests in dollar terms rose from 2000-2006. After 2006, they flattened out before sharply declining through the Great Recession. Since 2013, there has been a modest recovery.
Below is a chart of annual Gifts and Bequests, adjusted to 2020 constant-dollar values. Due to the normal fluctuation in gift-giving year-over-year, a three-year trailing average is also presented. While it is impossible to precisely associate cause and effect, it would appear The Rensselaer Plan was initially well-supported by alumni donations. We attribute some portion of the decline in gifts from 2006-2012 to the economic impacts of the Great Recession. It appears the long-term declining trend in gifts, which began in 2006, reflects not only the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and subsequent modest recovery, but also includes a mix of other factors, such as the high turnover of staff and leadership within the Office of Institute Advancement, cost of EMPAC, 2006 no confidence vote taken by the faculty, 2011 no confidence vote taken by the students, deterioration of shared governance practices on campus, and controversy surrounding administrative takeover of the Student Union.
RPI’s total of Gifts and Bequests for 2020 was $30.1 million. Over the past 11 years, Gifts and Bequests have averaged $40.4 million per year, on a constant 2020 dollar basis. During the prior ten-year period (2000-2009), the per annum average was $64.2 million. Of similar concern is the downward trend in the portion of Gifts and Bequests classified as “unrestricted,” particularly since 2015. The absence of a restriction on a gift or bequest is highly desired because it affords the Board of Trustees maximum flexibility with respect to spending decisions, thus adding to readily available financial resources. A long-term declining trend in the amount of unrestricted gifts reduces liquidity and is a negative indicator for credit ratings.
8. ENDOWMENT VALUE AND GROWTH IS SUBSTANTIALLY EXCEEDED BY COMPARABLE SCHOOLS
During the twenty-year period ending in 2019, the value of RPI’s endowment grew by only 43%, to $740 million.
The following table shows endowment gains, as reported to the National Association of College and University Business Officers, by comparable STEM schools over the same twenty-year period:
When viewed on an endowment-per-student basis, RPI’s endowment of $739.6 million is low. With recent increases in undergraduate enrollment, its 2019 endowment per full-time equivalent (FTE) student is $92,897 (based on total enrollment) and approximately $108,765 (based on undergraduate enrollment). By comparison, Union College has a 2019 endowment of $212,084 per FTE undergraduate student. MIT, at the very high end, has a 2019 endowment-per-FTE student in excess of $1.5 million (based on total enrollment) and $3.9 million (based on undergraduate enrollment).
There are three annual flows for an endowment: investment returns, draws for spending, and new gifts/bequests. Without more detailed information, it is impossible to discern the extent to which weakness in each of these flows is responsible for RPI’s poor relative endowment growth. What is certain is that no progress has been made in achieving The Rensselaer Plan’s stated goal to grow the share of the annual operating budget provided by the endowment from 10% to 20%, which would have required a 100% or greater increase in the endowment. As the table above indicates, some peer institutions have been successful in achieving such growth in their endowments over the past 20 years. For RPI, the share of the annual operating revenue contributed by its endowment has actually fallen below 10%, in recent years. In fiscal year 2019, RPI’s endowment draw of $30.9 million represented only 6.6% of operating revenue.
As previously mentioned, the most concerning trend has been the steady decline in the amount of “unrestricted” endowment assets, from $485 million in 2008 to $189 million in 2019. This further reflects the extent to which RPI’s liquid financial resources have been diminished (see Unrestricted Endowment Assets).
9. RPI RECEIVES FINANCIAL GRADE OF C- FROM FORBES
In Forbes’ most recent financial rating report for colleges and universities, published in November 2019, RPI received a rating of C- based on its composite numerical score (“Financial GPA”) of 1.59. The highest score awarded was 4.5, which earned an A+ rating.
Forbes evaluates schools using nine financial metrics applied on a weighted basis (see Forbes’ 2019 College Financial Health Grades: How Fit Is Your School? for a description of their methodology).
10. BOND REFINANCING AND GROWTH IN UNDERGRADUATE ENROLLMENT
In April 2010, RPI publicly issued $205 million of taxable bonds, all of which were scheduled to mature in 2020. The prospect of that refinancing took on added importance as research revenues declined and credit metrics began to weaken following fiscal year 2013.
We believe RPI’s response to the decline in research revenues and credit metrics was to significantly expand undergraduate enrollment. Since 2013, total undergraduate enrollment has grown by over 1,200 students, with 6,203 enrolled for Fall 2019 (see Student Enrollment Components), and another large class of freshmen expected (1,665 students). Aggregate total enrollment is approximately 6,800 students, including any juniors participating in their mandatory “away semester.” It is noteworthy that both The Rensselaer Plan and The Rensselaer Plan 2024 originally targeted an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 5,000 students. Since 2013, growth in revenue from undergraduates has helped to offset the decline in research revenues and stabilize RPI’s operating performance. Related to growth in undergraduate enrollment is The Arch, which we discuss in a section under Academics.
In December 2018, after the first fiscal year of strong total revenue growth since 2012, RPI refinanced $200 million of the 2010 taxable bonds and repaid the remaining $5 million. Interestingly, only $135 million of the new financing was obtained in the public bond market, for which pricing and terms are disclosed. The remaining $65 million balance was obtained through a private placement with institutional investors, who typically require financial covenants.
1. ADMISSIONS DATA (2001-2018) IN LINE WITH PEER AVERAGES
The administration and Board of Trustees frequently tout RPI’s significant increases in application volume and average combined SAT scores as evidence of The Rensselaer Plan’s effectiveness. We performed an analysis of the change–from 2001 to 2018–in admissions data for RPI and a peer group of 15 STEM universities (see Admissions Data).
Over the 17-year period, RPI’s application count increased by 268%, as compared to the peer average of 205%. Its selectivity improved (i.e. lower acceptance rate) by 24.6 percentage points, versus the peer average of 19.0 points, while its yield fell by 9.4 percentage points, as compared to an increase of 0.2 points for the peer average. RPI’s average combined SAT score rose by 100 points, as compared to the rise in the peer average of 88 points.
RPI’s data is roughly in line with peer averages, and therefore suggests the growth in application volume was likely due to exogenous factors, such as the demographic bulge of the millennial generation reaching college age from 1999 through 2010, the heightened competitiveness and application frenzy that ensued, and the post-2008 “boom” in demand for undergraduate STEM degrees (especially for engineering, which showed a 57% increase), rather than the success of The Rensselaer Plan (see the College Board Research Brief entitled “Supply and Demand in the Higher Education Market: College Admission and College Choice” and Inside Higher Ed article entitled “The STEM Enrollment Boom”).
The preceding data indicates RPI has merely maintained its peer position, neither outperforming its peer group nor becoming a top-choice destination for a greater share of high school seniors, as was the hope when The Rensselaer Plan was launched. Lastly, it is important to note the trend of annual growth in applications was broken for the freshman class entering in Fall 2019. During that cycle, applications fell 8.7% to 18,635 and the acceptance rate of applicants increased from 43.0% to 47.4%.
2. DECLINE IN “YIELD” FROM ACCEPTED STUDENTS
In 2001, 29.7% of students accepted by RPI decided to enroll. By 2020 that percentage–also known as enrollment yield–had fallen to 16.2%. In contrast, top, aspirant peer schools for RPI, which include CalTech, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Lehigh, and MIT all experienced increases in their yields during the 17-year period of our analysis (see Admissions Data).
Yield is the single best indicator of the extent to which a college or university is a first choice school for students within the applicant pool. Having a low yield raises the question of whether RPI is now perceived as a second or third choice school by a significant portion of its applicants–not the first choice, as The Rensselaer Plan envisioned.
3. STABLE TO DECLINING STUDENT-TO-FACULTY RATIO
The Rensselaer Plan 2024 aims to “build the tenured and tenure-track faculty size to 500.” Publications from RPI indicate the Institute is well on its way to achieving that goal, advertising the hiring of more than 360 tenured and tenure-track faculty members since Fall 1999. However, based on data RPI reports to the U.S. Department of Education, the total number of tenured and tenure-track faculty has actually decreased by 17 faculty members between Fall 1999 and 2018. The annual tenured and tenure-track faculty size between Fall 1999 and 2019 is shown below:
Additionally, a magazine article in the MIT Technology Review that was distributed to alumni by RPI staff cited an improvement in student-to-faculty ratio from 18:1 to 13:1 between Fall 1999 and 2017. This has been distorted, as RPI changed the way it reports student-to-faculty ratio the year prior, shifting from the traditional method of using the equivalent total number of full-time students (undergraduate and graduate) to a new method in which only full-time, degree-seeking, undergraduate students are included. In reality, the student-to-faculty ratio has only improved from 18:1 to 17:1 between the Fall 1999 and 2020 using the traditional method, and has remained the same (14:1) using the new method between Fall 1998 and 2020. When the method of calculation is applied consistently, the implementation of The Rensselaer Plan has affected little to no improvement in the student-to-faculty ratio between its implementation and Fall 2020.
We found RPI’s student-to-faculty ratio is significantly higher than that of its peer institutions. The student-to-faculty ratios, computed using both all students and only undergraduates, for RPI and several peer institutions are shown below:
4. RISE AND FALL OF OVERALL RANKINGS
RPI’s overall ranking among national universities by US News and World Report initially improved from 49th place in 2001 to 42nd place in 2007. Since then, the ranking has fluctuated from a low of 50th place in 2012 to a high of 39th place in 2017, only to fall to an all-time low of 53rd place in 2021. The following chart shows RPI’s US News & World Report rankings from 2001 to 2021:
In the 2020 Wall Street Journal rankings, RPI fell to 122nd place from 77th in 2016. Comparable schools ranking higher than RPI in 2020 include MIT (2nd), CalTech (5th), Carnegie Mellon (25th), Georgia Tech (68th), and Case Western (52nd).
5. FALL IN RANKING OF GRADUATE ENGINEERING PROGRAM
The Rensselaer Plan cited RPI’s strong graduate engineering program, with a national ranking of 19th, and further stated that RPI would maintain its position of leadership in areas of traditional strength. In its 2021 ranking, US News & World Report dropped RPI’s graduate engineering program to 43rd.
6. GRADUATE SCHOOL ENROLLMENTS FALL SHORT OF GOALS
The Rensselaer Plan states, “Rensselaer will grow its research enterprise dramatically…and greatly expand doctoral programs.” RPI enrolled 805 PhD students in 2000, and by 2015, enrollment had reached 831, a gain of only 26 PhD students over 15 years. The Rensselaer Plan 2024 set a target PhD enrollment of 1,600 students.
Students pursuing a Masters degree totaled 1,073 in 2000, and by 2015, enrollment had fallen to 278. Much of this dramatic decline is due to the termination of the Distance Learning Program and a general reduction in emphasis on the Hartford programs, both of which were part-time programs. Yet the data for full-time students in RPI graduate programs–both PhD and Masters–has also shown a sharp decline. In fiscal year 2019, full-time graduate enrollment stood at 1,185 students, down from 1,500 students in 2000. The Rensselaer Plan 2024 set a target resident graduate population of 2,500 students. (Note: Since 2015, RPI has not reported separate enrollment figures for Masters and PhD programs.)
In the summer of 2018, RPI announced it would again offer online continuing education courses. Based on the reported enrollment figures, we estimate roughly 500 continuing education students signed-up to take an online course from RPI during fiscal years 2019 and 2020.
7. DROP IN RANKING FOR RPI’S UNDERGRADUATE ENGINEERING PROGRAM
Just prior to the release of The Rensselaer Plan, RPI’s undergraduate engineering program ranked in the top 25 nationally, as stated in a bond offering document. We found an article from Vice News referencing a program rank of 14th in the year 2000. The 2021 US News and World Report rankings rate the undergraduate engineering program at 32nd.
8. THE ARCH
In September 2015, the administration announced a plan for restructuring the academic calendar, requiring the rising junior class to complete an academic semester during the summer, immediately following their sophomore year. The program commenced in Summer 2017, on a volunteer basis, with further ramping up scheduled for 2018 and the full requirement for 2019. Following their summer term, the juniors would then spend a semester away, either in the following fall or spring term, on a co-op assignment or engaged in other enrichment activities.
The Arch program is expected to have far-reaching implications for student life at RPI while providing a potential boost to RPI’s financial operations, since it will allow for an increase in undergraduate enrollment of roughly 800 students (equating to roughly 200 students per class year). The administration has made on-campus dormitory residency a requirement during the Arch summer semester, claiming the program is aimed at building affinity among students, their peers, and the Institute.
There have been several criticisms of the program from the RPI community, as follows:
- Its conception was primarily financially motivated;
- Summer semesters are too short for a full course load (six or 12 weeks vs. normal 14 weeks), creating high stress for students and faculty;
- It may create student scheduling problems for core course requirements;
- Too many students will require exemptions from the program, especially athletes;
- The absence of half the junior class during the fall and spring terms will create issues for student clubs and organizations, such as a leadership vacuum for said clubs and organizations;
- It creates housing problems for off-campus leasing of apartments and for Greek houses;
- Half of the junior class will be required to endure four consecutive academic terms;
- Mandatory participation may be a deterrent in application and enrollment decisions.
1. ADMINISTRATION’S RESTRUCTURING OF THE STUDENT UNION
RPI students had run and managed the Rensselaer Union for over 127 years; RPI was one of the few private universities in the country for which students had such responsibility and for such an extended period of time. In recent years, the administration has made several unilateral changes with regards to the Union, including reducing the scope of activities managed by the Union and shifting the reporting line and job description for the Director of the Union, a position which has traditionally reported to a board of student representatives.
Students pay an activity fee that carries with it Union membership privileges. The activity fee originated in 1912 as a self-imposed tax by students to support student organizations, activities, events, and athletics. A 36% portion of the Union’s overall annual budget funded intercollegiate athletics; however, in February 2016, the RPI administration removed the athletics budget from Union control.
In March 2016, over 1,000 students, faculty, and alumni protested after students discovered the administration had added a new administrative position with broad oversight of the Union. The Institute responded by abandoning plans for the new position, but ultimately shifted the controversial responsibilities and broad oversight of the Union to the Dean of Students.
In September 2017, the Chairman of RPI’s Board of Trustees issued a memorandum stating that the powers of the president superseded the Union Constitution, the document which has governed the Union since it was adopted by the Board in 1970. The opposition to these changes within the student body has been strong, resulting in another massive campus demonstration, also supported by alumni, during Reunion & Homecoming Weekend in October 2017.
More than 5,500 alumni and student supporters have signed a petition addressed to the Board of Trustees opposing these changes.
For details and numerous newspaper articles related to this issue, see the student movement’s website, savetheunion.xyz. Save the Union has also made available a full timeline of the history of the Student Union events.
2. FACULTY AND STAFF MORALE IMPACTED BY INSTITUTE LEADERSHIP
Since 2000, RPI has seen a clear shift toward a top-down corporate governance model and away from a typical university shared governance model. In 2006, the Faculty Senate held a “No Confidence” vote on the president, which nearly passed. Within a week of the vote, a stern letter was issued to the RPI Community by the Board Chairman effectively telling faculty to support the president and her plans, or make alternate career plans.
Shortly thereafter, the Faculty Senate was dissolved by the administration, ostensibly over the issue of eliminating participation by non-tenure track faculty. The Faculty Senate was not reconstituted until nearly half a decade later, and with revisions to its constitution which excluded non-tenure track faculty from membership.
3. CAMPUS CLIMATE AND CULTURE OF FEAR
Many students and alumni have lamented to us the existence of a “culture of fear” on RPI’s campus, stemming from the words and actions of the current administration. Student leaders have recounted incidences of being threatened and intimidated by multiple administrators simply for doing their jobs and acting as a voice of the students. Students–and at times, even alumni–have expressed concern over being cyberstalked by RPI administrators and staff on social media and professional accounts. Posted signs critical of the administration and/or in support of a student-run Rensselaer Union have repeatedly been targeted by the administration and selectively-removed from campus, especially when prospective students and alumni are visiting, despite full adherence with the Institute’s Sign Policy. Additionally, students distributing informational flyers in support of a student-run, student-managed Union faced disciplinary action when they were charged with “operating a business” on campus. When submitting applications to peacefully protest, students have been routinely denied. Furthermore, certain students who then engaged in peaceful protest were confronted with intimidating requests for interviews and/or judicial action. During the summer of 2019, the Student Handbook was unilaterally amended by the administration, requiring distribution of any written materials by students on campus to be pre-approved by the administration. Organizations which routinely defend civil liberties, including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the New York Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), have criticized RPI’s administration for its treatment of students, specifically with regard to infringing on students’ rights to free speech.
4. LOW FINANCIAL TRANSPARENCY AND MINIMAL ACCOUNTABILITY
RPI makes it difficult for alumni donors to access its “public” Annual Reports and Consolidated Financial Statements. Many major universities make their financial statements and annual reports available on their websites. RPI does not make these reports easily accessible, nor will it even provide them to alumni upon request.
While it should be noted that RPI does comply with both SEC and IRS rules for filing its reports, their limited accessibility diminishes transparency. The Association of Fundraising Professionals’ “Donor Bill of Rights,” states donors have a right to an organization’s most recent financial statements.
5. LEADERSHIP ISSUES WITHIN OFFICE OF INSTITUTE ADVANCEMENT
In August 2017, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article about the shift in the management focus and sales culture of RPI’s Office of Institute Advancement, as well as the overall leadership style of RPI’s president. According to the article, which cited fifteen former employees of the Advancement Office as anonymous sources, the president’s “toxic” leadership style and direction have shifted the focus away from one of building long-term financial relationships with alumni toward a transactional sales approach emphasizing raising money “right now.” The article also noted there have been four different vice presidents heading the Advancement Office over the last decade and cited an employee turnover rate in excess of 50% in the three years prior to publication.
6. EFFECTS ON STUDENTS
Students have been well aware of the deterioration in RPI’s financial condition in addition to the uncomfortable campus climate and poor communications with the administration. In 2011, the Student Senate published its report on the “State of the Institute” and passed a “vote of no confidence” recommending that the Board of Trustees make significant changes to the governance structure of the Institute. The Grand Marshal also published a “Letter of Student Concerns.” In March 2015, the editorial board of The Polytechnic spoke out about how debt levels had tripled and unrestricted net assets decreased (see The Polytechnic’s article entitled “Uncovering Rensselaer’s Finances”). In January 2017, the Student Senate published a report on the controversy surrounding the Rensselaer Union, and recommended three areas for improvement: an active voice in the Board of Trustees, improved communication from the administration, and a student-driven hiring process for the Director of the Union.
7. PERPETUAL SUCCESSION METHOD FOR SELECTION OF TRUSTEES
In accordance with its Act of Incorporation, RPI’s Trustees are selected through a process of perpetual succession. It is a method often used by non-profit corporations, though not required. Under this method, individual sitting Trustees screen, recruit, and invite candidates to join the Board, with a majority vote of the Board required to approve them. Typically, in order to be considered for the role of Trustee, a candidate is expected first to have made significant donations, or irrevocable financial pledges to the organization.
Over time, there is a risk that boards selected in this manner may become isolated, insular, and like-minded, as trustees with minority opinions become ostracized, frustrated, disinterested, and–eventually–resign. We have spoken with several former RPI Trustees who resigned from RPI’s Board and explained their resignations in these exact terms. What’s more, we spoke with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) and learned that over 40% of private colleges and universities that use the perpetual succession method also employ mechanisms by which one or more Trustees are directly elected by the alumni. The best example of this is Dartmouth College for which alumni elect one-third of its Trustees. Dartmouth also boasts an alumni donor participation rate greater than 40%.
During RPI’s long history, there has been little or no voice on the Board for the vast majority of alumni in the small and mid-sized donor classes which, in aggregate, contribute millions of dollars each year. Nor do the many dedicated fundraising volunteers and officers of the Rensselaer Alumni Association (RAA) have any input into the nomination or selection of Trustees of the Institute. We believe the composition of the Board of Trustees should reflect a commitment to principles of shared governance. A good example of this exists at nearby Union College in Schenectady, NY, where students, faculty, and alumni all have a voice and representation on the board (see The Trustees of Union College).