Faculty Senate Meeting



Present:  Achille Messac, Bruce Nauman, Christoph Steinbruchel, Mike Fortun, Debbie Kaminski, Cheng Hsu, Edward Woodhouse, Chjan Lim, Jeanne Keefe, Roger Grice, Paul Hohenberg, Bob Degeneff, William Randolph Franklin, Keith Nelson, Peter Persans, Patricia Search, Sandy Sternstein, Larry Kagan, Dan Berg, Amir Hirsa


Absent: Jim Napolitano, Ning Xiang, Lou Gingerella


Guests: Barbara Shipley, Steve Naru, John Harrington, G.P. Peterson, T.R. Willemain, Lester Gerhardt, Prabhat Hajela, Don Steiner, Heinrich Medicus, Pamela Theroux



Approval of Minutes from the 12/7/2005 Faculty Senate Meeting and 12/14/2005 General Faculty Meeting

Communication Consultant - Ms. Barbara Shipley, Ruder Finn

Senate Action/Discussion on Communication Consultant

Parliamentary Procedures

Middle States Reaccreditation Update

Student Senate/Faculty Senate Joint Committee on Advising - Professor Deborah Kaminski

Mid-Term Assessment - Professor Amir Hirsa

Health Care for Retirees - Professor Bruce Nauman

Library Resources

Approval of Minutes from the 12/7/05 Faculty Senate Meeting and

12/14/05 General Faculty Meeting

The minutes from the 12/7/05 Faculty Senate Meeting were approved with revisions.  The 12/14/2005 General Faculty Meeting minutes were approved. 


Communication Consultant – Ms. Barbara Shipley, Ruder Finn

Barbara Shipley, from communications firm Ruder Finn, was contacted by the Board of Trustees Chairman, Sam Heffner, and President Shirley Jackson to examine and understand communications within the Rensselaer community.  Chairman Heffner and President Jackson told her that the purpose of the project is to improve communications.  The project, which is a work in progress, includes faculty, staff and administration.  Staff were added midway into the process.    


Barbara Shipley reported that issues of communications typically happen when organizations are going through change or are in a certain part of their life cycle.  The project is about the tools colleagues have, the processes and the procedures, what is and isn’t working and what could be done better.  She noted that the number one factor in good communications is good listening.  She will use her findings to develop recommendations.  Recent focus group meetings were used to expand on information gathered during the one-on-one interviews.  Both the focus group meetings and one-on-one interviews have yielded information that will help determine tangible items for improvement.


She reported that many of the discussions focused on the top of the organization: the Cabinet, the administration, and President Jackson, but all levels of leadership will need to be included to ensure progress.  She added that some current tools that Rensselaer is using need to be realigned to better deliver their intended purpose. 


Most of the information was gathered from one-on-one interviews or “discussions” with 59 people; most were face to face.  Random phone calls were made using the directory to make appointments with various faculty and staff at Troy and Hartford.  A script was used to ensure consistency so that everyone had the same understanding of the purpose.  Although a framework for conversation was used, participants could speak freely about any subject.  Some guidance was provided by the administration as to who would be interviewed. 


She asked participants to characterize internal communications, how communication did or did not function, to comment on standard delivery channels as well as how they received information.  The results were varied; from communication being good and working to communication being poor, dysfunctional and all top-down.  Comments regarding communication within their own school were driven by communication with their chair and ranged from participants being involved in well-run meetings and good communication to chairs that were not available, didn’t return phone calls or didn’t pass along information.


During the project, she determined the importance of staff in the flow of information.  She spoke with people with varying lengths of service, which created the strongest trends.  For people who had been at RPI for many years, their perception and perspective was based on seeing many changes in the organization and having a variety of leadership structures.  For those who were new to RPI and teaching, their viewpoints were very different.  For most new faculty, they suggested the need for more orientation, more attention and focus so that they could better understand campus functions and procedures.


In discussing delivery channels that exist, the main objective was to identify the tools that work and the ones that need to be refined.  Town Hall Meetings were brought up by many participants.  She found it interesting that there were vastly different perceptions in how effective the meetings were.  They are least effective if the expectation is to engage in dialogue and raise a question.  Other discussions included the dinners with the President, Dean’s council meetings, meetings with the Provost, small group meetings with their Chair, Faculty Senate Meetings and General Faculty Meetings.  Dinner with the President was a positive setting for most faculty who attended since it gave them the opportunity to hear from the President, which they believe is the best source for information. Many said that Deans and Chairs also provide information, but it depended on the Dean or Chair.  She reported that the Deans and Chairs play a pivotal role in communications and are a good source for information.


In considering the most effective tools, most participants said that face-to-face communications are most effective if the objective is to share information and engage in dialogue.  She reported that many people get their information from informal sources or “water cooler talk”.  This establishes an absence of communication and is supported by evidence of people not being aware of policies or procedures. 


There was a lot of discussion about using email as a communication tool.  There were many pros and cons.  Using email is a great tool for pushing information but not for having interactive dialogue and constructive discussion.  She heard comments about Renserv and thinks that making it work better and more efficiently will be a tangible outcome of the project.


Discussions were had on the feedback loop and the top-down mentality.  She thinks a better job could be done by creating a more effective feedback loop to provide input and ideas.  She determined that there is a lot going on in the organization that people don’t know about.


Although many people think the initiative is to improve communication between the administration and the faculty, there are communication gaps among faculty.


For the people who talked about the Faculty Senate, few felt that they were being represented by that body.  She suggests that it is an opportunity for the Faculty Senate to probe and find out more about what that means. 


Faculty Senate President Achille Messac commented on her findings regarding the Faculty Senate.  He felt that her results were materially different from those of the recent Chain of Command Satisfaction Survey. She stated that she was not aware of that survey. President Messac was surprised to hear that, since the senate survey way instrumental in pointing to some shared governance issues, which lead to her being retained.  He also commented that of the 5 full professors interviewed who were not deans or Department Chairs, one was himself and one was known to be an administrator leaving only 3 full professors out of the 55 sample. He added that he is disappointed that she declined the requests that she leave her slides from her presentation, so her findings could be better presented to the faculty. She firmly stated that she would not leave her presentation, since her findings are preliminary. She further stated that she would send him some information within two weeks. Unfortunately, as of this writing two weeks later, no information has been received. As a result, her limited preliminary findings could not be studied by the senate.


H&SS Senator Edward Woodhouse asked for her insight on faculty to administration communication.  Ms. Shipley stated that that is what started the bottom-up feedback discussion.  Most faculty don’t know how it works or if it works.  In some cases, a faculty member provided an idea or concern and he did not know if it left the desk of their Chair.  In other cases, their concerns never materialized, or they did materialize in a lesser form.  These types of scenarios cause faculty frustration.  If the level of engagement is increased to help communication, the faculty will know what the process is and that their concerns have been heard.


Senator Sandy Sternstein commented on the recent downgrading of the RPI bonds and that the Chair of the Planning and Resources Committee never knew about it until reading the Chronicle on Higher Education.  He feels that it is an indication of a communication problem.


Secretary of the Senate Mike Fortun asked how Ms. Shipley’s recommendations will differ depending on the kinds of information communicated; whether it is financial information or policy.  Ms. Shipley answered yes.  He asked if she will make any differentiation among specific groups, such as people coming in from the outside.  She answered yes.  When asked if she will compare the findings to any other educational institutions, she responded “probably not”. 


Library Senate Jeanne Keefe asked if there was any consideration to talk to people who do not work under the Dean of a school such as those in the libraries or the computer center.  Ms. Shipley said that the genesis was to focus on the schools and that staff participants were added midway through the project.


Senator Keith Nelson commented that many of her findings are very generic and asked whether she has any specific recommendations.  Ms. Shipley responded that she does have some, but they are still being formulated.  President Messac stated that, since this effort started approximately eight months ago, he was strongly hoping that tangible recommendations would have been forthcoming at this point. He clarified that his time frame for change was more in line with the term of his presidency. The last interview was to have been completed in the first week of August, according to the memo August 5th from the provost to him. 


Engineering Senator Cheng Hsu asked if she has gained any insight from her research about the quality of information or communication.  She responded that it is inconsistent.  She thinks there is some room for additional focus on communication around decision and policy.  Professor Hsu added that he does not go to Town Hall Meetings due to his lack of confidence in the information provided.  Ms. Shipley said that some participants said that, too and would try to verify data provided.  Most felt that information was pushed at them and they did not have the opportunity to interact. 


Senator Edward Woodhouse understands that the Chairman of the Board and President Jackson were interested in improving communication, but he asked her if she got a sense that they were interested in hearing better from the faculty.  Ms. Shipley responded that she thinks that is one of the reasons the initiative began.  Chair of the Faculty Bruce Nauman commented that both Provost Peterson and Chairman Heffner have stated that there is no absence in communication, rather a disagreement in goals.


Senator-at-Large Peter Persans believes that a change in behavior will be necessary and then asked if Ms. Shipley will be holding training workshops.  Provost Peterson responded that training will be provided for some segments of the people involved in communication, but it is difficult to be more specific until the formal recommendations come from the project. 


President Messac said that from a Faculty Senate perspective, communication between the Senate and the administration is less than what it should be.  He asked what could be done to address that situation.  Steve Naru, Interim Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations, responded that President Jackson and the Chairman of the Board creating the new portfolio is a big step in the right direction.  President Messac asked if he sees the problem more as an issue of communication than one of willingness to give and take.  Mr. Naru suggested that things will not be status quo and that things will improve.  He added that he looks forward to meeting with the Faculty Senate again to discuss their particular concerns.


Senate Action/Discussion on Communication Consultant Presentation

In the beginning of this academic year, the President cancelled the regular meetings with the Faculty Senate Executive Committee (FSEC). President Messac stated that the Faculty Senate Executive Committee has not asked for a meeting with President Jackson, nor has she asked for one.  He is concerned that no headway has been made in communications with the President, but he would like to explore any useful constructive and positive avenues. 


H&SS Senator Edward Woodhouse commented that one of the most telling elements of the presentation was the language: leverage, portfolio, strategic communication, cabinet, maximize opportunity, participation, engagement, model and input.   These terms are foreign to him and he believes them to be clichéd. 


Retired Senator Paul Hohenberg was concerned with the newspaper reference and it being an explanation for the administration attitude and their concern with public relations and what information gets shared outside of the institute.  Professor Peter Persans said that many items from the presentation worried him, but the one he was most concerned with was the statement that “few faculty feel that the Faculty Senate ‘represent me’”.   He believes that “represent me” needs to be defined.  He added that it could be interpreted by the Board of Trustees as a way to dismiss Faculty Senate concerns.  Chair of the Faculty, Bruce Nauman, added that it needs to be determined whether the Faculty Senate is advocating what the faculty want advocated and whether the Faculty Senate is successful in that advocacy. 


President Messac stated that the comments from the Chain of Command Satisfaction Survey did offer insight into the concerns with the senate. The anonymous survey included 180 faculty members, while the consultant in-person survey included 45 faculty members, roughly half of the latter being Chairs and Deans. President Messac stated that those who had concerns with the senate effectiveness generally felt that the senate was doing its best, but that it was being ignored by the administration. He also stated that others also felt that the senate was not focusing on some important issues.


President Messac expressed some concerns with the usefulness and credibility of some of the preliminary findings. In particular, he stated that the senate survey of 180 faculty members brought to the surface concerns with the Board of Trustees, the President, the Provost, and the Senate (roughly in that order); while it pointed to relative satisfaction with the Department Chairs. Yet, her findings pointed only to concerns with the senate (from the above list), as well as with the Chairs – which is at variance with the anonymous senate survey. He also expressed concern that the preliminary and limited nature of her current findings may convey the wrong message to the academic leadership groups to which she is currently making presentations.


Engineering Senator Cheng Hsu thinks that in a university, it is about direct democracy not representative democracy.  Rensselaer has a two-track system:  Every faculty expects to be represented only by himself fundamentally therefore the Faculty Senate is issue-based.  The Faculty Senate advocate issues when there are issues. 


Chair Bruce Nauman, who consults a great deal, said there are two jobs a consultant has.  The first one is to get invited back, which Ms. Shipley has suggested that she return to conduct focus groups.  The second is to tell your employers what they want to hear. 


Senator at Large William Randolph Franklin commented on the desire to keep negative information about the school from becoming public. Yet, others commented that Harvard is open about campus issues.  If items are hidden, rumors end up circulating.  He asked why the bond rating reduction was not announced, rather people read about it from another source.  Senator Chjan Lim asked what the extra interest will have to be paid as a result of the $70 million loan.  There was some discussion on what it would be, but Professor Berg is trying to find out prior to the next Planning and Resources Committee meeting. 


Recording Secretary Christoph Steinbruchel thought the presentation was focused too much on process of the channels.  In his opinion what counts is the outcome of what flows up and down and to determine if what has flowed has actually made a difference. 


Parliamentary Procedures

President Achille Messac provided explanation in Parliamentary procedures when someone “calls the question”.  He explained that if someone makes the motion to close debate, 2/3 must vote to terminate discussion of the motion.  This procedural vote would then be followed by a vote on the primary motion under consideration.


Middle States Reaccreditation Update

President Messac stated that the Faculty Senate Executive Committee reviewed the Middle State Self-Study that was presented on the web and found it necessary to request that some changes be made to more accurately reflect the status of the interaction between the senate and the administration.  A memo that was written to the Provost was forwarded to the Middle States Steering Committee.  At their recent meeting, the proposed changes were reviewed and the Committee substantively accepted the submitted changes.  Professor Peter Persans added that the consensus of the meeting was that these changes needed to be included in the document.


Professor Don Steiner, Chair of the Steering Committee, anticipates seeing the final version during the week or the following week.  Once he reviews the document, he will confirm with President Messac that the changes were incorporated. 


Student Senate/Faculty Senate Joint Committee on Advising –

Professor Deborah Kaminski

At the Faculty Senate Meeting on December 7, 2005, Professor Kaminski presented 3 proposed motions that were crafted by the Student Senate/Faculty Senate Joint Committee on Advising.  The committee has not met since but plan to meet soon to discuss the motions again.  Professor Mike Hanna has been named the Associate Dean for Academic Advising, Assessment and Special Programs and has communicated with the advising committee that he wants to be part of the effort. 


President Messac asked if there is any interim tangible progress to report.  Professor Kaminski anticipates presenting the three motions at a future Faculty Senate meeting.  President Messac questioned how and when the general faculty should be informed of the progress.  He wants to ensure faculty support of the motions that will eventually be brought to the Faculty Senate.  Professor Persans proposed that the Faculty Senate wait to make any decision until after the committee has met with the students. 


Once the committee meets again, Professor Kaminski will provide a revised draft of the motions.  Professor Larry Kagan suggested that the motions be presented to their faculty by the Chairs to get the faculty involved and allow them the opportunity to provide feedback. 


Mid-Term Assessment – Professor Amir Hirsa

Professor Amir Hirsa, Chair of the Faculty Senate Curriculum Committee reported that a subcommittee of faculty and students was formed to evaluate mid-term grading.  One item that evolved from the committee was a change in the initiative to mid-term assessment.  Some of the issues under debate are mandatory assessment or an optional system.  Initially the students wanted a mandatory system but now some students see the value of an optional system. 


Some issues pertain to individual courses since there are some that currently give letter grades throughout the course.  The difficult aspect is that some engineering and science courses do give out numeric grades.  Professor Hirsa suggests that students receive their total up to their mid-semester grades.  The spreadsheet normally put together at the end of the semester ought to report what the total points available through mid-semester are.  The other thing proposed is to provide the median for the course so that students can determine where they stand. 


President Messac again suggested that faculty be allowed the opportunity early in the process to provide their feedback.  He believes the more involved faculty are, the more likely it is that any proposal will be embraced by the faculty.  Professor Hirsa feels comfortable in providing information to the faculty in order for them to comment.  He will provide a short outline for distribution to the faculty. 


Retired Senator Paul Hohenberg is concerned about having it be an optional system.  He believes that in most cases, the faculty where it is most necessary to provide the information will be least likely to provide it.  He asked Professor Hirsa why he likes the optional system rather than a mandatory system.  Professor Hirsa does not want to advocate a mandatory system and has gotten feedback from faculty on the committee that supports an optional system. 


Senator Sandy Sternstein suggested that faculty simply provide a letter grade on their mid-semester exam.  Senator-at-Large Keith Nelson suggested mandating that faculty provide some form of mid-term assessment.  Chair of the Faculty Bruce Nauman cautioned the senate to not endorse any proposal without feedback from the faculty. 


Health Care for Retirees – Professor Bruce Nauman

Chair of the Faculty, Bruce Nauman, reported that the Rensselaer Health Plan is prohibitively expensive and that the plan is not structured to incorporate Medicare benefits.  He made the following motion:


Whereas The Rensselaer Health Plan for is of high quality and provides good benefits to employees  and continuation of this plan is extremely expensive for retirees (e.g. ~$12,000 per year for a couple over 65), to the point that it becomes an inappropriate disincentive to retirement and a burden to those who have retired, the Faculty Senate requests the Administration to develop an alternative plan that provides a similar level of benefits, including drug and dental coverage, but that takes economic advantage of Medicare benefits available to persons over 65.  The Faculty Senate has no inherent objection to this plan being applied to employees who are 65 or older as well as to retirees. 


The motion has been sent to Curtis Powell, Vice President for Human Resources.  Provost Peterson suggested, that prior to acting on this motion, that Curtis Powell or Lou Padula present an overview at an upcoming meeting which would also allow for answers to any questions.  He also suggested submitting a list of questions beforehand so that the HR representative could clarify the issues. 


Senator Edward Woodhouse suggested that the Faculty Senate Executive Committee review the matter first and then if necessary, invite Curtis Powell to report to the Faculty Senate.  President Messac will invite Curtis Powell and a few retirees to a Faculty Senate Executive Committee meeting.  A report will then be made to the Faculty Senate on the best way to move forward on the item.


President Messac mentioned that there is still no designated faculty representative on the Retirement Committee.  The Faculty Senate Executive Committee submitted three names for the committee.  Although it did not satisfy the distribution of length of service, the Faculty Senate Executive Committee confirmed that they did not want to send the names of any junior faculty for consideration on the committee. 


Vice President Curtis Powell was also asked if he took the faculty feedback requesting that the $1,500 tuition assistance be updated.  Since that $1,500 amount was set in 1978, the faculty had requested reconsideration of the assistance amount.  His response was that “there has been no change to Rensselaer’s tuition reimbursement policy.”


Library Resources

Senator Edward Woodhouse asked if there was any update on the library resource crisis discussed at a recent Senate meeting.  Provost Peterson noted that the Planning and Resources Committee had forwarded a memo to President Jackson and Faculty Senate President Achille Messac with some recommendations.  The Provost will bring the motion that was approved at the 12/7/2005 Faculty Senate meeting to the attention of President Jackson.   The motion was: “To achieve the goal of being a world class university, the library budget should be increased substantially.”


Meeting adjourned at 4:00pm.