Rensselaer’s Plan for Disunion

I attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) for both undergraduate and my graduate education graduating in 2005 and 2007 with my BS and MS respectively. What I found interesting was, at the time, the power which the students had at the university. For starters, they had a powerful student run union.

The Student Union at RPI was not merely a building, but an actual union with codified rules set forth in a student established Constitution. While technically a subdivision of the Division of Student Life, the Union has retained its independence as a student run organization for 125 years. This Union included a bicameral legislature – the Executive Board and Student Senate, with two directly elected executives managing each legislative body. The Executive Board interacted with the Union building itself, set up contracts with vendors, and established the overall budget for the Student Union. This budget included individual club budgets as well as an overall budget for the operation of the building itself. They were the people who the staff of the Student Union building served and their contracts, salaries, etc were established by these student run bodies. The final budget of the Executive Board had to be approved by the Student Senate who would deliberate other student issues and whose members sat on various boards voicing student concerns about the Institute. Additionally, the Executive Board and Senate established what was called an “Activity Fee” for the year. In essence, the students established a tax rate for the student body for all students who chose to participate in the Student Union. This tax was used to fund the union for the year. The Student Union, this student run entity, had been in effect for 125 years and has in its run mostly remained in the black the entire time with its current $4 million annual budget. Now, the University wants to change this rich history of student self-governance.

RPI recently put out an advertisement for an Executive Director for Student Activities. This position would be a person put in charge of the Student Union and report directly to the Dean of Students. This position also overlaps in apparently duties of the current Director of the Union, which is an open position currently which the students themselves select and interview. This new position would be above the student run organizations, above the Director of the Union, and in many ways be directly in charge of the Student Union. While the position is not yet filled and its full duties are not known, the overlap and authority appears to contradict the current status quo and current student authority over the union. Students are, understandably, upset. While President Shirley Ann Jackson continues to deny that this will impact the way the Student Union will be run will not diminish from student authority over their own activities, one has many reasons to doubt.

RPI is currently $1 billion in debt according to a recent Washington Post article and has been deficit spending on construction/expansion for quite some time. Much of this time has been under the tenure of Shirley Ann Jackson, who has presided over the university since 2000 and has annual compensation of $2 million (with a maximum in 2012 of $7 million). This itself raises questions about both the validity of creating a superfluous new position in the administration and in the genuine reason behind this new push for a new position above the Student Union. Also, the recent sudden limitations placed on the student run RPI TV to cover events involving this raises even more questions.

As an alumni, I plan to withhold all my potential donations to the university until this is hashed out and students are ensured their autonomy will be maintained under any changes by the administration. I recommend other alumni look at the facts and consider the same. You can learn more here.

About the Author

Matthew Newman
Matthew Newman is a Christian environmental engineer (Professionally licensed in Maryland). He’s also a husband, beard aficionado, Dad of four beautiful children, blogger, and all around geeky guy from Baltimore County. When he’s not chasing his kids or working, he’s probably asleep.

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