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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at Greek Life Forum

August, 2018
Heffner Alumni House

Greek Life Forum

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Thank you all for coming and for participating in this important event. Clearly, we are devoting two days to this conversation about Greek Life at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute because we recognize its importance in our history, and in the lives of our students.

Before we begin, please allow me to tell you about my personal experience with the Greek system.

As an undergraduate student at MIT, it was hard to find my place on campus. When I joined the New England-wide chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., which was founded to encourage excellence and service in African-American collegiate women, I found comfort and strength in the greater Greek community.

I treasure the experiences and associations I established, first as a member, and then as president of my chapter. By joining Delta Sigma Theta, I gained a circle of friends who supported and encouraged me, and who faced some of the same challenges I did.

The mission of Delta Sigma Theta includes a vigorous commitment to public service. So, in addition to friendships, I also acquired experiences that laid the groundwork for many of my future accomplishments.

It was in my volunteer roles that I learned some of the greatest lessons of my life. For example, I joined other members of my sorority in tutoring high school students at the YMCA in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. This ignited in me a passion for teaching, and later motivated me to become a professor, and led me to accept the presidency of Rensselaer, after my government service.

I am tremendously thankful for my experiences as a member of Delta Sigma Theta. And I know many, if not all of you, here today have gained the same sense of purpose and meaning through your involvement in the Greek community here at Rensselaer.

The Greek system has been an important part of Rensselaer for 165 years. Founded in 1853, ours is one of the oldest Greek systems on a university campus in the United States. When our Greek system supports academic achievement, community service, and leadership development—it imbues young men and women with strength of character—who have, in true Rensselaer fashion, changed the world.

When our Greek organizations fulfill their intended purpose, they also create deep friendships, provide members a support network, and aid in the personal development of students.

For a number of our students, Greek Life is an essential part of their experience at Rensselaer, which is why it is important to have an open and candid conversation about how to strengthen Greek Life and its vitality at Rensselaer.

As I said in my message to our campus community in June—nationally, the Greek system is under public, legal, and legislative scrutiny. Dozens of universities and colleges have suspended, and in some cases banned, Greek organizations because of incidents related to alcohol abuse, illegal drug use, hazing, sexual misconduct, sexual assault, and acts of racial discrimination and bigotry. Rensselaer has not been immune to comparable incidents and behaviors.

Some of our Greek houses have been suspended due to similar behaviors. Just recently, within our Greek system, we have experienced drug-related tragedies, alcohol abuse, sexual misconduct, and instances of hazing.

These are not just isolated incidents—and we have documented that they are increasing in number.

This is antithetical to our responsibility for the health, safety, and wellbeing of our community members.

It is antithetical to the purpose and mission of the Greek community here at Rensselaer.

And, it is antithetical to everything Rensselaer stands for and aspires to—which is about learning and growing in collaboration with others, in order to impact lives for the better, and to transform the world.

If we wish to have Greek Life be strong and vital at Rensselaer—which we do—we must be honest with ourselves about the issues here, and we must address these issues. So, I have appointed a Greek Life Review Committee to formally assess the current state of Greek Life at Rensselaer, and to consider the best path forward.

The Committee comprises student leaders—both Greek and non-Greek, alumni and alumnae—Greek and non-Greek—parents, faculty, administrators, and representatives from the national offices of Greek organizations of which Rensselaer chapters are members.

The Review Committee includes the Greek Life Task Force, led by Vice President and Chief Information Officer John Kolb ’79, which is charged with assessing the Greek system, and identifying what is necessary to enact a long-term, sustainable, and comprehensive culture change—so that the Greek system can continue to help our students to thrive on campus, and to find their place in the world.

The Review Committee includes an Executive Sponsor Group of my Cabinet Members, chaired by Interim Vice President for Student Life LeNorman Strong, and including, in addition to Vice President Kolb,

  • Mr. Craig Cook, General Counsel and Secretary of the Institute;
  • Mr. Graig Eastin, Vice President for Institute Advancement;
  • Mr. Curtis Powell, Vice President for Human Resources; and
  • Mr. Claude Rounds, Vice President for Administration.

The Greek Life Review Committee also includes a diverse group of Greek Life Discussion Panelists, who have agreed to help us, as a community, to think through the issues.

While we will be relying on the Greek Life Review Committee to produce a set of actionable recommendations, we recognize that it is important to hear from every member of the Rensselaer family who wishes to contribute. We especially want to hear from the Rensselaer Greek community. Mr. Strong has already met with the Rensselaer Alumni Inter-Greek Council, Greek chapter advisers, and student leadership from our Greek Life system, including the presidents of the Panhellenic Council and the Interfraternity Council, and presidents from a number of our Greek Life chapters.

However, we recognize that in order to be truly effective, we must reach out even further. So, the Greek Life Review Committee will sponsor a number of community panel discussions with that purpose in mind.

I would like to recognize those who will be participating in the work of the Committee who are with us today, in addition to the members of my Cabinet that I previously introduced:

  • Travis Apgar, Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students;
  • Jack Conlin ’20;
  • Susan Gilbert, Professor and Head of Biological Sciences;
  • Jacqueline Farmer, Telecommunications Analyst, Division of the Chief Information Officer;
  • Vishrudh Gopalakrishnan ’20;
  • Bryan Johns ’19;
  • Bryan Jones ’09;
  • Emily Lockwood ’20;
  • Michell Tollinchi-Michel, Assistant Vice President for Student Transitions;
  • Roger Mike ’70;
  • Aditya Mitra ’19;
  • Brigitte Obermeyer ’20;
  • Norris Pearson, Operations Manager, Houston Field House;
  • Johnson Samuel, Associate Professor, Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering;

All of you have been invited to join this two-day forum because of your leadership roles within the Rensselaer community; and I thank you for your time and participation in this important conversation. What you discuss here will be important input to the launch of the overall Greek system review.

I also want to thank Mr. LeNorman Strong for his leadership on this issue—and commend him for his responsiveness to student concerns.

We ask you for your thoughts—from this Forum, and during the more comprehensive Greek Life Review process. We in Rensselaer leadership are ready to support you and your organizations through this time of change. There is an aggressive schedule in place for this process: The Task Force will be submitting draft recommendations to our campus leadership by November 15, 2018.

It will, no doubt, be a challenge to move this through the process. But this is a critical exercise, and we recognize that our Greek organizations cannot thrive in the midst of uncertainty. We are committed to building the foundation for a stronger future for Greek Life on our campus.

Just as it served an essential role in my own education, the Greek system has been an important part of our Rensselaer community for a long time. It must evolve with the times, however. The work that all of us are doing will lay the foundation for what we hope will be another 165 years of contributions. It depends upon you. It depends upon all of us.

Thank you for participating in this vital effort, and thank you for your commitment to the larger Rensselaer community.