The Demise of Shared Governance at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

By Nancy D. Campbell and Jane F. Koretz

In early August 2007, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s newly appointed provost, Robert Palazzo, summarily suspended the university’s Faculty Senate. He claimed that the Rensselaer Faculty Senate (RFS) had failed to amend its constitution according to a directive from the university’s Board of Trustees. At the heart of debate were the disenfranchisement of nearly 200 faculty, and contention over who should be voting members of the Faculty Senate. In fall 2007, the Rensselaer faculty voted overwhelmingly for reinstatement of the Senate. The Board of Trustees, President Shirley Jackson, and the provost ignored this referendum despite AAUP concerns and negative national publicity. Until this impasse, the Faculty Senate had played an advisory role to the Office of the Provost and had participated in the governance and direction of scholarly activities and instruction at Rensselaer, a model of shared governance typical of many universities across the country. However, notions of governance are changing on campuses that have adopted a business model with corporate-style management. The rise of this administrative governance model, while ostensibly premised on notions of faculty rights and freedoms, actually produces structures and policies hostile to shared governance, detrimental to faculty empowerment, and undermining of faculty unity and morale. This article analyzes the demise of shared governance at Rensselaer and the imposition of a form of governance in which the administration dominates all decision-making processes. A chronology is appended that supplies the background and timeline of the unfolding events on campus, and chronicles the increasing chasm between faculty, administration, and the board of trustees.

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Nancy D. Campbell, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is a historian of science and policy who specializes in the history of drug addiction research, treatment, and policy in the 20th century United States. Her most recent books were Discovering Addiction: The Science and Politics of Substance Abuse Research (2007) and, with co-authors JP Olsen and Luke Walden, The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts (2008). She was elected Recording Secretary of the Rensselaer Faculty Senate in April 2007.

Jane F. Koretz is a Professor in the Department of Biology, and the Biochemistry and Biophysics Program. She received her PhD in Biophysics from the University of Chicago, and was a MDAA Post-Doctoral Fellow at the MRC Biophysics Unit, King’s College, London, before joining the faculty at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She has been awarded a Fulbright to the University of Oxford and a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award from NIH for her work on the human focusing process and the development of presbyopia. She was a member of the Palazzo/Kagan Committee, and is active in the New York State AAUP conference as a member of the state Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and co- chair of Committee T on Governance.

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