Nearly a year ago now, I decided to take a leap of faith and join the Student Senate after avoiding membership for the first three years of my academic career here at RPI, I was motivated to join because I saw this time as a critical juncture in RPI’s history. We knew we would have to help the new director of the Rensselaer Union and vice president of Student Life acclimate the new hires to RPI. Beyond this, there had been a continued trickle of information which led myself and others to believe that there were serious problems with the current state and direction of the Institute. I saw Lee Sharma as exactly the kind of Grand Marshal that could lead us towards uncovering the problems, finding solutions, and ensuring the future of our institution.
I had watched Sharma as a senator for a couple of years, and nobody was more respected by students, faculty, and administrators. She had great relationships with most of the vice presidents, and from them, she had begun to form a very clear picture of the challenges this Institute faced. Already, then, we had begun to understand that there were serious problems with President Shirley Ann Jackson’s leadership, the financial situation, and our current staffing, but we hoped that they might be resolved through collaboration and communication.
As we started last semester, we were thrilled with the strength and potential of the Senate and set out to build it up such that it could help fill in the cracks appearing in the Institute we saw crumbling around us. As the semester progressed and more facts and issues started to come to light, our view began to change from an Institute with some cracks and issues, to one shaking itself apart. We realized we had to act on the knowledge we had accumulated, and we saw the board of trustees as the last resort. It is, after all, their fiduciary duty to protect the Institute’s future.
The Senate then pooled our knowledge and skills together to focus on investigating the issues and exposing them to the board of trustees. Of course, Jackson was not pleased when we came back to say that, while she had done great things for the Institute, her leadership was a large part of what was driving us down. I was shocked, however, (as I believe many were) when the board of trustees completely ignored our warnings and voiced their full support of Jackson and “her vision, leadership, pathways, and actions she has brought in the past, brings in the present, and will bring in the future.” Beyond this, from internal reports about the board meetings, many members were concerned about the lack of opportunity to discuss the issues we raised. It is clear to me that even amongst the board of trustees, there is a culture of, at best, negligence and blind faith in Jackson, and, at worst, fear. The fact that the very board which is supposed to oversee her does not have the will or courage to address this issue should be cause for concern amongst all members of the RPI community. Despite all of the personal attacks, dismissals, and carefully worded statements by RPI administrators, we have yet to see any refutation of the facts which were brought to light last semester.
Recently, however, it got far more personal, when the duly elected Grand Marshal was not allowed to return to school for the spring semester. In the interest of her privacy, I won’t go into the details surrounding this action. What is quite clear is that Sharma was targeted because, as GM, she took her leadership role seriously and spoke out candidly and critically about Jackson’s leadership. The fact that this made her a target undermines the very idea of a university—a place in which, above all, the free exchange of ideas, even when we disagree, is not only tolerated, but welcomed as the coin of the realm. To see yet another leader—this time a student—being shown the door after criticizing the president does not bode well for the future of this Institute.
This situation also leaves me with very little faith in the Senate’s continued ability to serve as a balance and a voice of clarity for the students. I have no doubt that they will continue to help develop programs and support the student experience, but they will not be the powerful and critical organization I ran to support.
It is, therefore, with sadness that I am announcing my resignation from the RPI Student Senate. I will, rather, be focusing my time and energy on continuing to build a better relationship with Troy, finishing my studies, and supporting the Alliance for Responsible Governance and similar groups that may have use for my contacts, knowledge, and tenacity to expose the critical problems RPI faces and to defend our Alma Mater.
To the Alumni around the world, the faculty who recently regained their voice, the staff who devote themselves day and night to holding this school together, the administrators who live in fear and are constantly set up for failure, and the students who have been continuously trampled on for the advancement of a private agenda, now is your time. Sharma is only the latest leader who took risks on the behalf of many other constituents, and she is now facing the consequences. If her experience proves anything, it is that we need more fearlessness in every part of the Institute. If Jackson is to learn that she cannot simply fire administrators and force out faculty and students who do not bow to her will, it will take more voices and courage, not less.
Jackson has proven time and again that there is no line she will not cross to force this great Institute into accepting her authoritarian style, but that is not how an institute turns true vision into reality. We must change by our collective will, by drawing on our collective merits, and through being inspired to collaborate towards a common goal.