Dear media organization:
Thank you for your interest in the current state of affairs at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, particularly those regarding the administrative takeover of the student-run Rensselaer Union, student rights and freedom, and the financial state of the Institute. We have prepared a list of talking points to aid in the development of your story.
Students and alumni are for the second time in as many years being moved to drastic action because the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Board of Trustees and President Shirley Ann Jackson recently announced the end of the 127-year-old student-run Rensselaer Union in all-but-name. The manner in which the Union operated was extremely rare for a university in this country; it was controlled entirely by students who manage its finances, employees, and sub-organizations. There are only a handful of other student unions in the country that are run in such a way. Below is a summary of some of the events that led to our student movement and the events impacting it since.
In late March 2016, the RPI administration posted a job listing for an “Executive Director of Student Activities” with a very similar job description to the Director of the Union, a position of which students had controlled the employment per the Union Constitution since the founding in 1890. The position included the direction of the Rensselaer Union and its student government, as well as control of Greek Life, campus recreation, and more; in the past, the position entailed more of an advisory role. Until recently, this was the last remaining student-run union in the nation at a private university.
In March 2016, students wanting to protest what they perceived to be the beginning of the takeover of the Union by the administration and financial mismanagement of the Institute submitted an application to stage a peaceful demonstration and were twice denied on the grounds that it would “disrupt the normal operation of the Institute.” This decision, along with the Institute’s practice of silencing the free speech of students, was condemned by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. With the help of RPI Professor Bill Puka, the protest occurred under the “one of his classes”. It condemned the administrative actions and ongoing prevalence of a “culture of fear”; on campus, drawing support from over one-thousand students, faculty, and even alumni. It took place during Dr. Jackson’s Spring Town Meeting on March 30, 2016, whereby she denounced the very existence of a “culture of fear” on campus and called upon students to strengthen communication with the administration before resorting to drastic measures such as staging a protest or contacting the media.
As a result of the protest, the administration abandoned their plans for the “Executive Director” position and expressed their willingness to better communicate with students. In a letter penned to the RPI community following the protest, Dr. Jackson openly pledged that both she and the Board of Trustees “want to hear from all the members of our community to ensure that any decisions we make reflect their interests, and the greater good of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.” However, the administration instead quietly shifted the controversial duties and responsibilities of the now defunct Executive Director role to an updated version of the existing “Dean of Students” role—retitled the “Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students.” Upon students’ discovery of this bait-and-switch and their subsequent outrage, the RPI administration responded, calling the reports “misinformation.” The administration went on tout their inclusion of student feedback in changing the position’s title, ignoring the fact that it was the responsibilities and not the name that caused the outcry.
When the administration finally decided it was time to fill the vacant Director of the Union role—a position which has reported to students throughout the Union’s history—they posted the job to William Spelman Executive Search without first informing student leaders or requesting student input. The job description had changed significantly from the last time it was posted (in 2011), and now described the position as to “direct” student government, student activities and organizations, and the Union budget, whereas in the past the position had strictly an “advisory” role—a stark contrast in wording. In 2011, more specifically, the job stipulated the position “provides administrative support for student activities” and “advises student government.”
Furthermore, no student input was solicited this year until the very final steps of the interview process and even then, students on the interview committee were burdened with heavy administrative oversight including but not limited to initially being provided with a list of pre-approved questions they were allowed to ask (rather than developing their own), multiple representatives from human resources not only monitoring each interview session, but controlling the line of questioning and topics of conversation, and denying students’ requests to spend more time with each candidate, despite the student interview committee conveying it was necessary as they had many unanswered questions. However, most concerning to students on the committee was the issue of the Director of the Union job description and responsibilities; they felt the administration had been disingenuous when asking for student input the previous semester, and despite repeated attempts to adjust this description during the course of the interview process to reflect the position as reporting to the Executive Board and not the administration, they were ultimately unsuccessful. One committee member lamented that as members they were “just props”, with the Human Resources Committee Interim Chairman completing that thought by summarizing they were, “...a means to an end to allow HR to tout student involvement was included in the process.” Most recently, students on the committee discovered that the administration had given one of the Director of the Union candidates the interview questions before the interview. When the students confronted Vice President for Human Resources Curtis Powell, he denied the allegation despite multiple eyewitnesses and fabricated several narratives the students knew to be false.
Notably, the Institute also recently moved to restrict and remove student input for RPI Athletics funding under false pretenses, wresting roughly 40% of the Union’s budget from students, all of which is derived from students’ self-taxation. Assistant coaches’ salaries and athletic travel expenses are currently budgeted by the student Executive Board. In addition, many consumables (e.g. baseballs for the baseball team) are budgeted for by students. Because of the size of the athletics program at RPI, these small figures added up to a significant total: $1.6 million in FY15.
Additionally, students have been systematically stripped of their authority over the operations of their Student Union building, approval over the Student Handbook rules that govern them, approval of administrative personnel, and a variety of other rights they had enjoyed under Trustee-ratified enactments.
On April 9, 2016, RPI Public Safety officers stopped several groups of students representing the “Save the Union” movement from postering on campus, informing them that the act of postering would be considered off-limits and the Rensselaer Handbook of Student Rights & Responsibilities had been suspended and was “not valid” due to the presence of guests on campus for Accepted Students Day. Public Safety has since stated that they have “no comment” regarding this situation, but willingly acknowledged “the administration” provided these orders, while the then Vice President of Student Life, Dr. Frank Ross, told students he does not know anything about this. Audio recordings and transcripts of the students’ encounters with Public Safety officers may be found in this Reddit post.
On September 28, 2017 student organizers submitted an application for a peaceful demonstration to be held outside the Institute's upcoming capital campaign launch on October 13, 2017. The peaceful demonstration was denied by Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students Travis Apgar on the grounds that it had been proposed for a time and location in conflict with the launch of the capital campaign as well as a the limited availability of Public Safety officers on that date and time due to other commitments. Organizers contest these reasons and have once again called for an academic class to be held instead—this time, in honor of Chair of the Board of Trustees Arthur Golden’s patronizing comparison of the once student-run Union to a “lab course.” “Lab Safety Class: A Peaceful Demonstration” wias held in the protest’s place on Friday, October 13, 2017 outside Jackson's black-tie launch of RPI's new capital campaign. Attracting about one thousand students, faculty, staff, and alumni, the deomonstration proved successful despite the Jackson Administration's efforts to prevent its happening, including the fencing off of a considerable portion of academic campus in an effort to keep the student body hidden from alumni donors.
At present, there are three key objectives that the student movement hopes to achieve in the process of negotiating with the Institute. These objectives are largely from the Student Senate's Rensselaer Union Report, as passed on January 30, 2017. They are as follows:
- The Rensselaer Union as a true auxiliary service of the Division of Student Life. This language, which students want included in The Rensselaer Plan 2024, RPI’s long-term strategic plan, would formally define the Union as part of the Institute, but would also carefully re-affirm the Union’s autonomous and independent status within the RPI community.
- A Board of Trustee resolution confirming the approval of the Rensselaer Union Constitution in its current form, stipulating the need for an affirmative vote of the Rensselaer Union Executive Board to approve the hire and continuance of Union administrative personnel, and reverting the reporting structure of the Director of the Union to take direction from the Executive Board.
- Recent alumni as members of the RPI Board of Trustees, to be voted on by each graduating class and serve a two-year term exempt from fundraising requirements. Initial documentation from students notes that this is not an unprecedented move; Skidmore, Dickinson, and Union Colleges all have this in place, and it is considered a “best practice” by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
A History of Overreach
RPI Trustees and administrators are no strangers to overreach, either in their construction endeavors or in their insatiable desire to control all activity and discourse on campus. Following a decade-long building spree involving high-end performing arts and athletic facilities, the Institute’s finances are in a precarious state. The student-run newspaper at RPI, The Polytechnic, spent over four months researching and putting together an extensive report on the situation. It is available here and was picked up by Politico New York and the Albany Business Review, among other news outlets. Additionally, RPI’s bond rating dropped from A-1 to A- in 2014, then fell even further to BBB+ in 2017, with S&P citing the Institute’s “high debt burden and low available resources".
The overall theme of student displeasure at RPI seems to stem from poor management at the administrative level. RPI’s president, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, has instilled a “culture of fear” in her fellow administrators, as mentioned in two Chronicle of Higher Education articles found here and here. This culture also extends to the student body, as the Grand Marshal (student body president) recently stated that the administration has used “thinly-veiled threats of retribution and expulsion” due to his representation of the student voice throughout the situation with their Union.
The Board of Trustees and administration have earned a reputation for aggressively and routinely silencing any and all opposition to the Institute president’s position. This may be seen with five prominent incidents:
- The Rensselaer Faculty Senate was formally suspended and disbanded by the RPI Provost by order of the President after holding a vote of no-confidence that narrowly failed. The faculty were upset about pay gaps, pension plans, composition of their membership, and their overall treatment as members of the RPI community. The Faculty Senate was suspended for 5 years in spite of criticism from the AAUP as well as a faculty vote in the same year that was overwhelmingly in favor of reinstating the Faculty Senate.
- The Board of Trustees passed a resolution essentially nullifying the Rensselaer Union Constitution and ending a tradition of 127-years of student governance on campus. No student input was sought prior to the discussion and vote on this resolution, and the Grand Marshal (student body president) and President of the Union were only informed of its existence just hours prior to the public announcement that was made to the RPI community.
- On several occasions during the course of the past several years, students following Institute procedures for organizing a public demonstration were denied the right to protest on a campus lawn. Despite taking all necessary precautions and measures to ensure that classes and other campus events organized for the same day would not be interrupted, the students’ applications were denied on grounds of potential disruption to guests walking past.
- The Institute initiated formal judicial action against students allegedly behind the 2017 peaceful demonstration, accusing the students of trespassing, violating Institute rules, and failure to comply. These actions were taken less than a week after these students questioned the Jackson Administration’s tactics and brought attention to RPI’s dire financial situation.
- Public Safety officers prohibited students from distributing literature on a public sidewalk, claiming the administration had control over the area due to eminent domain.
Please do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for additional information, clarification, or to be put in contact with students and/or alumni who may provide comments and additional insight. Additionally, we have cultivated a fairly active online presence via our website and social media.