Save the Union

Alumnus Letter to Dr. Ross Condemning the Union Dissolution

by August Fietkau ’09

Dear Dr. Ross,

I’m August Fietkau, an alumnus of the class of 2009 (CSCI/MGMT). During my time at RPI, I was deeply involved with the Student Senate and a variety of Union organizations, all of which defined my college years and professional life. Having been away from Troy for more than a few years and being only dimly aware of campus goings-on, I write now only because I believe that some of the fundamental underpinnings of my alma mater are at stake and that a string of administrative actions serving to undermine the Student Union are bringing about a break in relations with young alumni from which RPI cannot recover. I am writing to condemn the prospective hiring of an official to effectively supplant the Director of the Union as well as all of the actions taken recently to undermine the Union, which have destroyed my faith in the ability of RPI and its Trustees to uphold the sacred trusts placed in their care.

As you may know, RPI had one of the few student-run Student Unions in our country. Taking its present form after the student protest movements of the 1960’s, our Union was a model for responsible student governance that empowered students and prepared them for their professional lives. The Student Senate and Executive Board presided over a multi-million dollar budget and over a hundred clubs, operating a modern student-centric building with a minimal and remarkably capable staff. Questions of budget, policy, operations, technology, and ideals were tackled within the Union and student government played a key role in the larger context of University governance, offering crucial inputs and perspectives not from “customers,” but from engaged and capable scientists, engineers, and managers.

The Union was an entity that students taxed themselves to create and maintain. They financed it, operated it, hired its staff, and directed that staff both as the policy and practice. Most alumni who have participated in the Union-related aspects of student life cite it as their most important life experience at college. In an era when students are often censored, coerced, and coddled in equal measure by overzealous professionals, the Union represented career training, community engagement, and personal agency in a lively and comfortable atmosphere.

Over 20 years after RPI took the modest step of assuming responsibility for the Union’s electrical and cleaning services, the piecemeal and patronizing takeover that many students had feared has come to pass. The foundational document of the Union Constitution and repeated Trustee and Institute commitments made since have proven to be worthless.

The previous director, hired contrary to the Union Constitution, and terminated just as unaccountably, dishonored both his position and his obligations to the student Union. But his appointment and termination have been merely the penultimate acts in a long string of usurpations aimed at bringing an end to RPI’s student-run Union. I won’t recount that history here, but suffice it to say that when students contacted me and my colleagues, we knew well of what they spoke. The deception, the dissembling, and the delays were the hallmarks of our dealings with RPI’s administration over several decades.

At a school where technically correct is the best kind of correct, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the recent actions of RPI officials that have undermined the Union have all been taken in direct contravention of Trustee-ratified enactments (not least the Union Constitution), the fiduciary duties of the former Director to the students that employed him, and the obligations in law and regulation RPI and its Trustees have to ensure shared governance (what the NYS Education law calls “the bedrock of higher education”). And that is to say nothing of the ethical obligations the administrators of a university have to their students to govern student affairs equitably, respect past commitments, and act in an accountable fashion befitting an American institution.

Should you take this as something of a personal condemnation, know that the destruction of shared governance and the hyper-centralization of control over every aspect of students’ lives is hardly an RPI phenomenon. Students from Cooper Union to NYU and SUNY Albany, and indeed all over the nation are experiencing the demise of shared governance that RPI professor Nancy Campbell laid out in her 2010 academic paper with Jane Koretz, “The Demise of Shared Governance at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.” Certainly, events at RPI compelled me to write my state senator (citing this letter) asking what New York is doing to prevent this sort of institutional misfeasance that erodes student institutions and makes a laughingstock of the state’s oversight of universities in accordance with basic ethical and legal values.

Whatever the bigger trends may be, however, both of us are obligated to act. I must act because I have civic duty to intervene when the Union, emblematic of American ideals of self-taxation, self-governance, and the agency of people to govern their own lives, is systematically robbed of its agency by illegitimate and ill-conceived edicts. You must act because your duty is clear. The Trustee enactments you are bound to uphold, the interests of the Institute, and the best outcome for students all lay along the same path.

To the greatest extent possible, the latest string of unfortunate events that began several years ago with a Director being hired without students driving the decision must be remedied. Certainly, recent developments such as the bookstore revenues being usurped, responsibility for athletics funding being commandeered, and students being deprived of their authority to hire Union administrators must be amended as soon as reasonably possible. Neither you nor your colleagues are empowered to hire Union staff, lay claim to the students’ tax money, or direct the Union staff. Only students, with the operational support and guidance of the Institute, may do that. You must meet with the students’ chief elected representatives and seek a way forward that at once restores, preserves, and reaffirms the Trustees’ obligations to an independent Student Union.

Very sincerely yours,

[Signed, sealed, and posted 28 March 2016]

August Fietkau

Used with permission of the author.