Rensselaer Student Union (Troy, NY). Used with permission.

A Letter for my RPI Friends

Friends have asked my why I’ve taken an interest in present events at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) or what I think of it all, so I’ve put to writing what I’ve been in large part repeating.

But first, for those who are just happening by, let me explain. From 2004–2009, I was deeply involved with the Student Union at my alma mater in Troy, NY. I spent a lot of my time working to improve campus with projects of technology and governance. But like many universities, mine has a nasty authoritarian streak, and it was pretty clear that faculty and students had little part in the larger plans for the place. Recently, a Vice President moved in an especially brazen way against student interests while lying flagrantly enough to make headlines doing so. Students, seeing the writing on the wall, moved to save their Union by any means necessary.

It’s been well over 7 years since I left RPI and I’ve had no involvement of any substance in that time. And it’s not because I wasn’t aware of the decline in student governance overall and in the Union in particular. It had been going that way since before my tenure, and my colleagues’ best efforts proved ineffective at more than briefly arresting that decline. But I saw it as being a long-term decline to be handled by students and staff with a bit of grace and honesty, notwithstanding the blood sport that is RPI politics. And certainly not a matter for me any longer.

But when students reached out to me, and the documents made clear how poorly students and their Union has been treated in losing their prerogatives and how quickly an all-but-in-name dissolution was coming, I felt compelled to do what I could. At RPI, the Union is the one thing I find to embody values and ideals much more important than RPI itself — ideals of self-government, self-taxation, and a milieu for people to innovate free from those who believe they “know better.” The Union is worth fighting for.

During my years in student government, RPI spent a lot of resources on bizarre “pivots,” failed attempts to dictate research directions, or simply vanity projects to attract attention. But for most, it was four years of waiting for the next crazy Handbook change to come at us in the night, the next Greek Initiatives war to be fought, or the next destructively “transformative” student life plan. Protecting my small group’s freedom to innovate and tinker with technology for student benefit from being crushed took up a good portion of my and the staff’s time. Years after being gone, the vehemence with which staff at a technological university opposed student operation of technology, entrepreneurial student projects, or any activity outside of approved channels sticks in my mind.

One interesting narrative about present events I received was actually from RPI’s alumni staff. It suggests that all of the present brouhaha is owing to bad communications and misconstrued intentions and that all involved will do better next time, following a thorough inquiry. I’ll leave it to those who haven’t been gone as long as I to dismantle that claim, but I’m quite sure it’s as much a misdirection now as in 2004. Certainly, a lot is up to personalities and how departments are run. In the facilities division, staff from top to bottom fell over themselves to be helpful when I pursued student interests with them. The ironically-named Student Life division, however, was, and apparently still is, secretive, arrogant, and dismissive of student interests or involvement.

But it should not be up to the chances of people in positions of authority being reasonable. Universities must be governed jointly in the interests of all stakeholders, not ruled as though the faculty, students, and the rest of the community are subjects to be dictated to. RPI’s political system has always been set up such that those in power can act without accountability or respect to those under them. When that changes, communication will follow, by necessity.

The Union has been the only serious hub of student life at RPI. In the past few years, RPI has spent money and staff-hours to emulate the top-tier residential models popular in high-end colleges. But unlike the universities whose student-life paradigm they have tried to emulate, they cannot offer the physical infrastructure, money, freedom to experiment, or the governance role in Institute affairs that would make such a paradigm function.

Students at colleges with decrepit facilities left to their own devices to govern and experiment have done great things. Students put up in 4-star facilities with no freedoms or governance have put their heads down and done just fine. But students with no facilities of their own, no ability to innovate, and no freedom from being ruled arbitrarily can never have a positive experience.

Moreover, with very little in store for Institute finances except paying debt service on vanity projects, such initiatives are all the more improbable. The Union is the only sustainable way forward for quality student activities on campus, given the situation the Institute’s managers have put it in. Thus, seeing the Union being subsumed by these misguided plans that cannot work with RPI’s present governance model, finances, or facilities is particularly maddening.

If the staff at RPI and their benefactors cannot see that a student-run Rensselaer Union is an organization with the potential for unique contributions to student activities, student innovation, and university governance, they should step aside in favor of those who can.

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