Faculty Senate Meeting

9/22/2004

 

Present: Debbie Kaminski, Pat Search, Ron Eglash, Joel Plawsky, Bruce Nauman, Achille Messac, Mary Anne Waltz, Ning Xiang, Bill St. John, Jeff Durgee, Bob Block, Tamar Gordon, J. Keith Nelson, Sandy Sternstein, Bob Degeneff, Shekhar Garde

 

Not present: Chjan Lim, Cheryl Geisler, Rena Bizios

 

Guests: Bud Peterson, Tom Willemain, Cheng Hsu, Lester Rubenfeld, Edwin Rogers, William Randolph Franklin, Christoph Steinbruchel, Henry Scarton, Gary Adams

 

Agenda

Approval of the Minutes from the 9/8/2004 Faculty Senate Meeting

Pension Plan Modification Discussion

            Bruce Nauman, President of the Faculty Senate

            Debbie Kaminski, Secretary of the Senate

Economic Talking Points

Outcomes Statements

 

Approval of the Minutes from the 9/8/2004 Faculty Senate Meeting

With minor revisions, the Minutes were approved:  11 in favor, 0 opposed, 0 abstentions.

 

Pension Plan Modification Discussion

Bruce Nauman, President of the Faculty Senate

President Bruce Nauman began discussion on the pension plan modification.  He stated that no decisions will be made during the meeting but he would like to discuss whether or not the proposed change to the plan is reasonable and what other options there might be.  Bruce made the Faculty Senate aware of the proposed plan that Vice President for Human Resources, Curtis Powell, and Rensselaer’s new actuarial firm presented at a Faculty Senate Executive Committee meeting.   The financial details of the plan could not be verified by the current actuaries since they were hired as of July 1, 2004 and did not have time to assess the proposed changes.  C. Powell and the actuaries agree on a concept for setting pension values.  The monthly pension benefit depends on whether faculty select the fixed- or variable-rate option.  The value of the benefit is calculated by the actuaries so that it will have the same actuarial cost to the Institute regardless of which option is chosen.  Thus, when it comes to setting aside and buying an annuity, the concept is that the annuities represent equal costs to the Institute.  Regarding the variable plan, Curtis Powell told the Executive Committee that the cost to the Institute is disparate because the cost of buying the annuity for that plan is higher.  Curtis’s plan for an 85% reduction in the initial benefit is one way in which equality can be achieved.  This is the principle with which Human Resources is working and is referred to as “equal actuarial cost”.  One option developed during the discussion with the Executive Committee, which Curtis found interesting, makes the process of fixing the benefit clearer.  Curtis proposes to use the existing formula and cut the initial benefit of the variable plan to 85% of that of the fixed plan.  Bruce suggests there is another, equivalent formula: keep the initial benefit at 100% and modify the set point of the variable plan to 8%.  The actuaries have to study this to determine if indeed it is equivalent.  The idea behind Bruce’s suggestion is if two people retire at the same time and both have $1000 in benefits and one takes fixed and one variable, they both would get $1000 in the first year but the following years’ benefits for the variable plan would increase only if the stock market rises at a rate greater than 8%.  If the market increase is less than 8%, those in the variable plan would receive less than their initial $1000 benefit. Mr. Powell will be attending a future Faculty Senate Meeting to discuss the proposed plan changes and alternatives.

 

Debbie Kaminski, Secretary of the Senate

Debbie stated that under the current plan, upon retirement, a person can elect to take their benefit either 100 % fixed and no variable, 100% variable and no fixed or selected combinations in between.  The variable portion returns a benefit that tracks the S&P 500 and benefits would depend on the performance of the stock market.  If a faculty member chooses 100% fixed, the stock market performance does not affect their benefit.  Faculty take the risk of which way the stock market will go.

 

The basic problem with the variable plan (according to Human Resources) is that the stock market has returned more than the 5.64% break-even (set) point that was established when the plan was started.  The actuarial cost of the variable plan is therefore significantly higher than the fixed plan.  If someone can tolerate the risk to take the variable option, the likelihood that those faculty will benefit is high.  Since that likelihood does exist, there is an increased burden on the Institute to fund the plan.  The argument made by Curtis Powell is that few faculty elect the variable option and not many at 100%. Therefore, to fund the plan, the Institute makes a disproportionately large investment to benefit a small number of people.

 

The proposed change is that the variable portion be discounted by 85% initially.  The variable portion is the greater of:

a) (Benefit at retirement date) x (variable election %) x 85%.  The claim is that this would bring the actuarial value of the two elections more in line.  OR

b) (Benefit on June 30, 2004) x (variable election %)

 

Under this new plan, the fixed election and the variable election will have the same actuarial cost to the Institute and Rensselaer will save $5 million in the short term and $200,000 per year in the long term.  The FSXC explored and suggested an alternate proposal and received some feedback from Curtis Powell suggesting that it might be viable.  It was suggested that the set point be changed to a more realistic value such as 8%.  The 5.64% set point was selected several years ago by a financial person from Rensselaer using unknown criteria and has produced an imbalance between the two options.  With this alternate proposal, the variable portion of the benefit is not reduced initially and it has the same characteristics as the original plan in that both the fixed and variable options have the same actuarial cost to the Institute.  Slides from Debbie’s presentation will be amended to the minutes.

 

Debbie stated that whatever is decided upon, the principle of equal actuarial cost to the Institute is fair.  On the other hand, Rensselaer needs to fund the pension plan adequately.  By choosing either option mentioned above for changing the variable plan, Rensselaer does put less money in the plan.  Under the changes proposed by Curtis Powell, people retiring in the next 5 years who planned to use the variable option would receive a smaller, initial benefit. 

 

Les Rubenfeld, Director, CIPCE/Prof, Mathematical Sciences suggested that the faculty needs some guidance from someone who is well-versed in pension plans to translate how the changes will affect the faculty.  He thinks the independent expert(s) should be invited to the meeting where Curtis will be presenting the proposed changes.  Debbie agreed that the faculty need professional help to understand the changes.  Randolph Franklin, ECSE, believes that the information presented so far only shows the plan from the Institute’s point of view.  He suggested the faculty hire their own experts and that the numbers provided by the Institute cannot be relied upon.

 

Vice President Achille Messac stated that the faculty can advise, suggest, and comment on the plan, but have no power to accept or reject the plan.  Randolph thinks that by going along with the proposal, the faculty are tacitly accepting it.  He does not think the faculty have to acquiesce quietly.  Achille stated that when he saw the proposal last year, he was not pleased either.  He also emphasized that his comments above are simply pertinent factual information that are germane to the discussion at hand and do not express any particular view.  During several meetings, he has tried to review the changes on their merits, and he does see merits to each side.  He understands why people may be against it.  As for the Faculty Senate, there is the issue of not having influence and power, but Achille hopes to win back senate influence in a constructive way.  Today’s presentation is to bring the issue of changes to the variable plan to the Faculty’s attention.  If the Senate decides to go forward with further discussion, it needs to be done in a calm and reasoned way.

 

Senator Bill St. John asked if anyone on the Faculty Senate Executive Committee had received a copy of the actuarial report.  Debbie stated she does not have one and that she is merely presenting information from the recent meeting with Curtis.  Bill suggested a request be made for reports from the last 5 years.  He also asked what the annual contribution to the retirement plan is.  Bruce stated that it varies significantly from year to year. Provost Peterson agreed that it does vary year by year but since Curtis will be making a presentation on the plan, he suggested that Curtis be asked to provide those details.

 

Edwin Rogers stated that because there was a great deal of stress over the retirement plan in the past, he was appointed to the retirement committee.  He agreed it is important to have a copy of the actuarial reports as well as to enlist someone with expertise to interpret the reports.  The variable portion of the plan came into existence in 1988 when the retirement plan was in upheaval due to faculty concerns over the Institute’s funding of the plan.  In 1988, it was seen that Rensselaer had not contributed to the plan for some years.  Moreover those who had retired were not seeing an improvement, i.e. a cost of living adjustment (COLA), in their retirement benefit.  The variable option was introduced in part as an alternative to COLAs.  By letting people have a portion of their benefits rise and fall with the state of the economy, there would be some protection against inflation and no need for cost of living adjustments.  As of 2004, for those on the fixed plan, there has not been a cost of living adjustment for 13 years though there has been a 33% or more increase in the cost of living as measured by the consumer price index (CPI).  It is important to build into the pension plan some kind of COLA that would be reviewed on a periodic basis.  At this point, there is no provision for a COLA in the plan although certain cost of living adjustments have been made, the last one being in 1991. Edwin Rogers reported that those who chose the variable option have done fairly well over this same time period though for those who chose the variable option just a few years ago; their pension has diminished by 20%. Debbie suggested that the Senate devise a plan that provides for equal actuarial cost to the Institute to those who choose the fixed or variable plan while at the same time, incorporating some systematic way to allow for regular cost of living increases.

 

Les stated that we are not arguing over the particulars of the plan, but more about the process used to implement changes to the plan, and what is best for the faculty.  He feels that although the faculty may have no legal influence on plan changes, the faculty need their own expert to offer advice on the plan.  He feels it is the responsibility of the Faculty Senate to represent the faculty.  He added that all the facts need to be presented.  He would like Curtis to bring to the next meeting on this topic, the demographics for the defined benefit and defined contribution plans and the numbers of faculty and staff who are presently enrolled in, or eligible for, the variable plan.

 

Provost Peterson asked that during deliberations the Faculty Senate look not only at what is best for the Faculty, but also what is best for Rensselaer’s future.  Bruce stated that his role as President of the Faculty Senate is to represent the faculty.  The Provost suggested that faculty forward their questions to Bruce so that Curtis will be prepared to provide the information at the next meeting. In response to sentiment that the Faculty Senate has no influence, Bruce indicated that as a result of feedback received from the faculty and the Faculty Senate, the decision to alter the variable plan was delayed so there could be additional discussion.  This cost the Institute is $5 million in short-term savings.  The Provost thinks that soliciting faculty input is what Curtis’s intention is when he attends the Faculty Senate meeting. 

 

Christoph said it seems that the main issue is how to determine actuarial equivalency and no one knows how to do it.  He gets the sense that the people in the room feel that RPI can do whatever it wants.  He asked if the Senate has tried to obtain legal advice on how much RPI can change the plan and how much of the plan is a contract between RPI and faculty when those faculty are hired.  When he was hired at RPI, he was under the assumption that the pension plan was a contract.  Edwin stated that if one were to review the Plan, Rensselaer does have the option to alter the terms of the plan.  There are constraints imposed by government regulations.  He added that the faculty does have influence. 

 

Les feels that this is not an issue of numbers, but of principle.  There are many in this room who do not feel capable of interacting with C. Powell or the actuaries who represent RPI.  He would feel more comfortable having someone in the room who understands all the ramifications to the faculty of changes in the language of the Plan.  He is even unsure of what questions the faculty should ask.  Les stated that there is a proposal on the table that the Faculty Senate endorse and support the need to have an independent expert who represents the interests of the faculty and can interpret the conversation for the faculty.   Bruce suggested that it be addressed as New Business.

 

Economic Talking Points

Bruce provided Economic Talking Points to the Faculty Senate in a recent email and asked that they be read into the Minutes without objection and to be treated as read.

 

Provost Peterson had several comments and additional information to present regarding the talking points.  He thanked the Senate for allowing time for his comments and hopes to have more discussion on the topic in the future.  The Provost’s document is available as an attachment.

 

Outcomes Statements

The Faculty Senate put forth a proposal for an outcomes statement.  The statement was to assert what the faculty’s goals are in regard to educating our undergraduate students. The proposal from the curriculum committee consisted of 22 points.  Initially, the faculty was to vote on each point separately but at the Spring General Faculty Meeting, it was voted to put forth the document as a whole.  The document was voted on as such, and did not pass.  Therefore, there is no outcomes statement.  The Curriculum Committee did their best and is now unsure how to proceed, so they have asked the Faculty Senate to assume responsibility for the outcomes statement.  Bruce asked the Senate as a whole to determine what statements are needed, what the faculty wants to do, and what is acceptable. 

 

Les suggested that a small subcommittee of the Faculty Senate determine how best to proceed.  He thinks there were multiple issues that were brought forth that were disturbing and that it is important to know what happened.  Bruce asked what the faculty would like to achieve rather than just why the document failed.  Curriculum Committee Member, Christoph Steinbruchel, said the main objection he heard is that people felt that these outcomes were too specific that they told the faculty what to do.  That perception is incorrect and the true meaning of the proposed outcomes did not come through during the discussions.  The outcomes were to be viewed as general goals and the schools and departments were to have latitude in how to implement the outcomes.  Achille added that a potential reason for the statement not passing is there was no indication of how much general control faculty would have and once passed, would faculty have any control in how the outcomes would be implemented.

 

Bruce stated that the current mode of operation was to put forth goals and then measure them.  One concern is that the outcomes were too specific and that no one knew how they would be accepted or measured.  The other concern was how the assessments would be made.  Les stated that for a mathematics goal, once the objective is set, it is the responsibility of the department to specify how it will be achieved and how it will be measured.  The outcomes (for math) should not be to set specific mathematical content but to define what it means to be a mathematician or an engineer.

 

Achille asked Christoph if his committee would find additional information helpful and that the Faculty Senate would provide additional guidance for the committee to continue their work.  Christoph said that perhaps they would.  He thinks the committee did not make their point clear enough.  For an example, one of the outcomes which the committee thought was very specific was that students should know what an algorithm is.  For students in Computer Science and Engineering it may mean they have to write a program, but for a student in H&SS, it may be something different.  But after the process, the students have a sense of what an algorithm is.  The other issue is who the assessor would be for the math goal in H&SS, Engineering or Architecture.

 

Jeff Durgee, Senator from Management recalled that there were only a few of the 22 objectives that were debated.  Provost Peterson agreed that in the discussion and on the Faculty Senate website, there were some objectives that were well received and some that were not.  He believes one of the big discussions was if this document passed, what did it mean, what is the process by which the outcomes will be incorporated into the curriculum, and who will be responsible for monitoring?  The Middle States Accreditation visit that will occur in spring 2006 requires that the Institute have outcomes and that they have a mechanism by which the outcomes can be assessed.  The Curriculum Committee tried to come up with global statements of what they felt all students should have in terms fundamental knowledge.  The process was never defined and Christoph thinks that is what caused the angst.  He feels it is the responsibility of the Committee to address what the process is by which the objectives will be measured and monitored, and that process be incorporated. 

 

Christoph said he realized what was put forth was lacking in the process of how they would be assessed.  Therefore, people did not know what it would mean for them.  However, if the committee had been asked to define a process, people would view it as being told what to do.  He thinks the outcomes process should be like what the School of Engineering is doing for ABET accreditation: each department has formulated goals and knows how to assess whether they have been met.  If an outcome is that all students at RPI should have some fundamental knowledge of life science, then faculty in Architecture knows what they will do and it can be verified, for a different department, it would be a different plan.  The Provost agreed.  If the faculty knows what they should do, the department would determine what they have to do and how to assess it.  He feels the Curriculum Committee should be able to say if they do not think what a department is doing meets the requirement.  The department would state the outcomes and the Faculty Senate Curriculum Committee can determine if it is appropriate.

 

Debbie Kaminski believes there were too many objectives and it would be difficult to assess each one individually to determine if they met the requirements.  Both Debbie and Tamar suggested reducing and consolidating the number of objectives to only 7 or 8.

 

Keith Nelson thinks it is healthy for engineers to have knowledge of biology.  However, unless the number of credit hours needed for graduation is increased or the number of H&SS credits is cut, if Engineers are to also know biology, something will have to be cut.  Bob Degeneff said it is important for Engineers to be able to listen, write, and speak, but was unsure what to get rid of to also incorporate biology. Debbie agreed with Keith and suggested that biology is important but asked where the credits would come from.  She asked whether total credits should be increased to allow for it, or the H&SS core requirement be decreased to expand the science core. 

 

Tamar said that in her recent conversations, there is a sense that the methodologies of sciences and engineering are overrepresented and the humanistic approaches are underrepresented.  It came up in recent conversations that there are competing notions of what every student needs to have across the board.  However, students should be media literate.

 

Bruce stated that a number of people think 120 credit hours are too little.  The Curriculum Committee or Faculty Senate could suggest an increase of 4 hours or return to the 3-hour course. Tamar suggested getting rid of the 4x4.  Bill St. John asked the Provost how difficult it would be to revert back to the schedule before 4x4.  The Provost said he did not get the sense that the change to 4x4 was done easily. 

 

Bruce suggests that the Curriculum Committee use the guidance that 22 objectives are too many and to reduce them to 7 as well as address and satisfy the items that can be assessed.  Christoph said he will report to the committee that there is some more guidance and see if they are willing to address the outcomes issue again.  He said the committee spent a great deal of time on this issue and on plus/minus grading.  Bruce suggested that additional members could be added or a subcommittee could be formed.  Debbie said that it would be helpful to have an alternate proposal and feels it will be difficult to pass accreditation without an outcomes statement.

 

The Provost commented on the 128 credit hours, which is the Institute cap.  There exists a pseudo limit of 128 credit hours.  By just looking at the requirements, he thinks the two issues are being mixed and feels one cannot be solved without the other.  He has stated that he is not prepared to automatically increase the number of credit hours to 132.  Some of the departments in the school of Engineering have incorporated additional courses in their curriculum.  He thinks it would be a mistake to just automatically add 4 credit hours in order to add a course.

Lester stated that as educators, the faculty are confronted with depth vs. breadth philosophical issues.  4x4 was created to provide an in-depth experience by increasing the number of credits per course but decreasing the number of courses.  This group is trying to do both which he thinks is virtually impossible.  The alternative is to go to a Brown University concept and let the students take whatever they want.  He thinks a compromise exists without imposing additional requirements for biology or entrepreneurship. 

 

Tom Willemain said that he is always frustrated with students and thinks something is not right.  He feels the root of this frustration is that it seems that students are not engaged in their learning.  He finds more and more students working outside campus and that these outside activities erode their sense that their full time job is to be a student and receive an education.  He stated that at other schools, students are excited about being in school.  At RPI, students do not come in to learn things on their own.  The faculty are trying to channel them into something to be interested in, but they are not biting.  He would like the students to believe in themselves and believe that their future matters.  Les agrees that if there is real excitement and engagement between students and educators, students will not want to leave.  He thinks there is something missing in the core culture of the Institute.  There are many who are engaged.  The Institute is seeing a manifestation of a core issue that will not be solved in 4x4 or 2x2.

 

Henry said he did not learn in the same way as the students learn now.  They have TVs, a clicker mentality, they flip from one thing to the next, and the faculty continue to teach the same way though the students are learning differently.  He thinks the faculty have to adjust and that they need to stay current with laptops, etc.  Cheng Hsu agrees that the faculty are a part of the problem.  He confines himself to the core curriculum issue and the notion of the core curriculum, but at other schools, more emphasis is put on making the core work. Rensselaer tried to do it on the cheap.  If Rensselaer is serious about the curriculum and life science for everyone, the curriculum needs to be looked at globally, from the Institute-wide perspective. 

 

The Provost thinks there can be no single issue that is more important to the Institute and for the Faculty Senate and faculty to be involved in, than to determine how to facilitate learning and to get the students to be more engaged.  When thinking of outcomes, the 22 were too specific but they should focus on issues for students that are engaged.  He is pleased that the Faculty Senate is having a discussion on what is to be done and how to ensure that the students are more engaged.

 

Les stated that the Provost made the point about the issue of culture and engagement of the students.  He thinks it is important for the Faculty Senate to address it, and if it isn’t, they are remiss in their responsibilities.  He feels the Faculty Senate will have support from the Provost if a campus-wide way to discuss the issue of engagement is structured.  He said it is different than curriculum, but the two are linked.  President Nauman said it requires some discussion and it should be discussed as a topic for a future meeting.  The agendas for future meetings have not been determined and he requested suggested topics are emailed to him.