Polytechnical Difficulties

Edit 3/30, 4:15PM: this post inaccurately stated that Dr. Jackson disbanded the Faculty Senate. This is untrue; the Board of Trustees was responsible. The post has been updated to reflect this.

Let me tell you a bit about my school.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is old. It's as old as anything else from the year 1824 but for the most part it smells better. It is a technical college, as you might expect; it's the oldest, in fact, in the nation, which in itself is not too big a deal. Being first makes you unique but not fantastically so. What does differentiate RPI is the fact that it's one of the few remaining US universities that has an almost entirely student-run and student-operated Student Union. Keep that in mind. It's a source of pride among a lot of students, and in all honesty, it is pretty cool.

Perhaps as a result of having an almost entirely student-run union, this school also has a tendency to spark debate and controversy with impressive frequency. It seems like every month there arises an issue regarding the interactions between the student-led Union administration and the administration of RPI as a whole. It's been rather well documented (trigger warning, third link's a VICE article) that our president is a very highly paid individual who demands a massive amount of respect. Whether that demand is valid is the subject of hot debate; spend a day around campus and you'll hear the number of "Shirley" jokes and references that float about openly as part of the student vernacular.

Here's an example of how those references go over when made in the subject's presence.

In recent years programs and policy choices have sparked the ire of the student body. During the '14-'15 school year, many changes were enacted with regards to students' access to campus housing buildings. These changes were promptly ridiculed by seemingly every student I knew, considered ineffective and misguided, and are in fact currently under review and being considered for repeal. Just within this past school year, RPI announced the Summer Arch program, which was almost immediately met with skepticism and cynicism as merely another way to extract more housing money from students.

I started writing this post a couple months ago about an unrelated incident but never really developed it past this point. So here's why I'm picking it up now.

A few days ago someone discovered a job posting from RPI for an "Executive Director of Student Activities", the description of which includes providing "leadership for a broad portfolio of co-curricular programs including the Student Union, Student Government, and Campus Recreation".

Didja catch that? Administration-based leadership for the Student Union. Sound at all contradictory to something I mentioned earlier about RPI?

Several things then happened in rather quick succession. A regular RPI town hall meeting in our performing arts center which was scheduled for March 30th (that's today) before the position was discovered (including a Q&A with Dr. Jackson herself) understandably garnered a little more attention than usual town hall meetings. Students requested a peaceful protest outside the center at the same time, which was denied on dubious grounds. Twice, in fact. So, of course, a professor (who is rightfully well-known for standing up for the rights and voices of students) did the logical thing and is holding his annual Democracy and Ethics Spring Serenade in the same place at the same time as the protest request.

But perhaps you're wondering what my place in all this is, and more specifically, why I'm choosing to write about it when many who are far more capable than I have already done so in the RPI community. That's fine, because to be honest, I'm wondering the same thing. My place in all this is:

...not really of much importance, actually.

The only real relation I have to the Union, by which I mean the organized Union, i.e. clubs, funding, etc., is through Sheer Idiocy, RPI's improv troupe (stunningly shameless plug here, come to our shows and watch our shows). I'm the troupe's webmaster, which means I'm technically a club officer, but in the same way Edward Norton is who people think of when they see the Hulk. The biggest link I have to actual Union organization comes in the form of regular and frequent emails informing me about training sessions on driving vans, which would probably be useful if I ever wanted to just try driving a van for a day, I guess. Essentially, the most formal relationship I have with the RPI Union is standing on a stage once a month and screwing around in the hopes of making people laugh. On top of that, I'm a junior, and I'm not sticking around for grad school, which means that in just over a year I'm going to be out of here. I'm not even sure the Union being under administrative control would make a massive difference. So why would I care about what's going on beyond pure entertainment value? Why should I care?

It should be noted that at this point, I stopped and stared at my screen for a bit with a blank mind, thinking 'oh f*ck, why am I writing this post?'

In all honesty, I'm not sure why I care. And normally I don't. I'm not the type of person that loves getting into extended political debates, nor do I take my self so seriously as to think that my input in those situations would be at all useful. I usually think it's better to keep my head down or deflect actual questions with a snarky remark. But something feels different about this time. Maybe it's that so many students and alumni have come out in support of keeping the Union independent from the rest of the administration, or maybe it feels like it's the last straw of something that's been building for a while.

I don't care as strongly as some of my friends do about this issue, but I also care more than some of my friends about this issue. I'm not going to tell someone whether they should or shouldn't care*. But to me, the most crucial part is at least taking the time to investigate and determine whether you care or not. If you're at RPI or anywhere else where debate-worthy questions are being raised, the apathy of not even knowing what's going on around you is worse than being on the wrong side of a debate.

Unfortunately, there are several reasons why it's pretty easy to be apathetic.

The first is money. I receive financial aid from RPI; without it, there's probably no way I could attend the school. I'm incredibly glad to have this aid, because despite anything that goes on in administration, I do feel like I've gotten a great education here, and I wouldn't trade the friends I've made for anything else. But with that aid comes a question. Do I have the right to criticize what's going on at an institution that's helping provide for my education? Initially I'd say no. It's never a smart idea to bite the hand that's helping you stay not-homeless, right? But the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that you have every right to question your school even if you're getting a full-ride, housing-provided, textbooks-included scholarship. Financial aid shouldn't be a bribe in return for staying silent out of fear of having it withdrawn or withheld.

Which brings me to the second reason, which is not only the one about which I care the most but is also the one currently rearing its head at RPI: fear. A few years back one of the leaders of student government was questionably expelled after she stuck her neck out in defense of the student body. Our Board of Trustees unceremoniously and swiftly disbanded the Faculty Senate after they expressed dissatisfaction with her. And that's not cool. Maybe I've got a slightly biased view here, but I feel like you shouldn't be afraid to criticize an institution which 1) has essentially only one goal, to help broaden your perspectives and ready you for adult life, and 2) you're most likely paying money to attend.

As I'm typing this out at two in the morning, the eve of the Serenade, I have friends who are legitimately afraid that, now that they have spoken out to students, alumni, and media outlets, they will be forced out in the near future from the school by questionable means that are not without precedent. And this is unacceptable at a modern institution of higher education. We do not attend school so that we can feel terror at the prospect of pushing for improvement. We attend school so that we can develop as mature, rational people who are not hesitant to participate in earnest debate and discussion. RPI is a business--if you examine our president's finances, that becomes oh so painfully clear--and we are the customers.

The next few days--and the next few weeks, probably--are, as I said, going to be interesting. We'll see what happens. Perhaps things will blow over and sink back into obscurity; perhaps things will boil over and changes will be made. Either way, I'm glad this is happening while I'm at school, because it's happening at the school about which, for some reason I don't fully understand, I care so dearly.

*Now that I reread it, I'm almost certainly going to break this promise.

Many thanks to Alina Williams for awesome editing advice and pointing out the many places I sounded dumb.