Top Hat

Communicate, make changes happen

If you’ve reached my column, I’m sure that you’ve already read the news regarding the former Chief of Staff and Associate Vice President of Policy and Planning Laban Coblentz. Coblentz had the reputation as an advocate for students, faculty, staff, and the university on the highest level. I think that his departure is important for us as students to think about not only because of his status as an advocate, but also for what it represents in the context of the University. If you want to read more about this subject, I recommend that you read the relevant pieces in today’s Poly, the articles published by the Times Union and Chronicle of Higher Education in the past few days, and the ongoing conversation about this on Reddit. I’m not going to dwell right now on the situations surrounding Laban’s departure or how it ties into everything else happening at Rensselaer, as I’m sure there are at least two articles in The Poly today that cover those very topics. However, I think that now is a good time to reflect on the different ways that students, staff, and faculty can communicate to the administration and make change happen on campus.

It’s being recognized more and more that the most successful companies and organizations are not the ones who tightly manage their people, but the ones who allow change to come from the bottom, as the worker on the ground sees how things really are. Rensselaer has recognized this, and for years we have employed a strategy of welcoming infrastructure and programmatic change from faculty, staff, and, especially, students. Traditionally, the pathway for this change has been fairly clear-cut—the students go to the Student Senate and the director of the Union, their more permanent tie to Rensselaer’s leadership; the faculty go to the Faculty Senate and the provost; and the staff work on either joint committees with students or faculty or push an idea up through their department at RPI. With the implementation of the Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students Initiative, these channels have become even more important, as living-learning environments require constant leadership and adaptation by the faculty, staff, and students involved in order to be successful.

In the past few years, however, these pathways have reached a critical point. With the suspension of the Faculty Senate in 2007, the faculty lost their main outlet for bringing organizational change to RPI. While there are still some faculty members involved in new initiatives through Institute-wide committees, Student Senate and other student groups, and friendships within the staff and administration, the involvement has declined significantly and there is no nexus of faculty advocacy. I wrote about this briefly in one of my previous columns, as I believe that the issue of faculty enfranchisement has strong implications for not just the faculty, but also the rest of the Rensselaer community. I’m very excited, though, for the future of this area. The hurdle set before the faculty before they could reform the Faculty Senate was a constitutional reform, and, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the faculty voted overwhelmingly in favor of a revised constitution at the end of last semester (the document is now awaiting approval on the highest levels). I am very excited to see this collaboration between the faculty leaders, the provost, and the president, and I look forward to seeing the Faculty Senate in action soon.

The student body is in a similarly confused situation. While the Student Senate has been and will continue to advocate and lead initiatives on behalf of the student body, many students considered Rick Hartt ’70, the previous director of the Union, their primary advisor for action on campus. Whether a student wanted to start a club or launch an institute-wide sustainability campaign, Hartt had the benefit of understanding the history of RPI and being able to provide a very knowledgeable perspective on potential projects. Similarly, since his entry into RPI in 2008 (and especially after Hartt’s retirement), Coblentz has been seen by many students as an advisor and an advocate on the president’s cabinet. Especially in the area of sustainability, many campus organizations and individuals had begun to rely on him very heavily. As both of these slots are now empty, many students are at a loss for how to make their visions for campus a reality. I encourage all students to use the resources on campus now. The Student Senate is tasked with representing the student body to, among others, the administration, and the Union Executive Board manages the Union and can provide fantastic guidance in the area of club activities and operations. Additionally, the new director of the Union, Joseph Cassidy, will be arriving on campus on October 24, less than 20 days from now. Once he settles in, he too will be a fantastic resource and advisor for making change on campus.

In conclusion, Rensselaer offers much more than the traditional classroom education. We learn through not only notes and booklearning, but also experiences and practice. Our focus is developing technological leaders, and, as Anthony Jay states well, “The only real training for leadership is leadership.” Even given recent setbacks, it’s important to remember that this is why we’re here and that there are other avenues to making change at RPI. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to e-mail me at, and good luck on your first round of tests!