My View

My first days, first impressions, next steps

As the newly appointed vice president for student life, in effort to familiarize myself with the campus, I have spent the first three months of my tenure talking with various segments of our Rensselaer community. In these conversations with undergraduate and graduate students, student leaders, and alumni, I have met people who hold a clear passion for our school, and for addressing human needs both locally and globally.

Rensselaer is a diverse community of dreamers and doers who share several characteristics. They are drawn to the sciences and technology, and to disciplines ranging from architecture and the humanities to business and literature. On any given day, I see students tackling complex problems, self-challenging, and earnestly seeking to improve conditions on campus, in the local community, and around the world. A recent example of this was evident by the many volunteers who spent weekends providing relief to those devastated by tropical storms Irene and Lee. For much of this semester, faculty, staff, alumni, student organizations, fraternities, and community members rolled up their sleeves to assist in a series of clean-up efforts in Schoharie, Prattsville, Middleburgh, and Poestenkill. This is how I have come to know Rensselaer.

I have also come to know Rensselaer through the many conversations with others about the transformation of the Institute. Alumni, trustees, faculty, and students alike, have expressed their delight in seeing the metamorphosis of the campus that are the results of The Rensselaer Plan. Most have commented on how the campus facilities, like student residences and Academy Hall, have vastly improved, while others, like the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, East Campus Athletic Village, and the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center make them feel as though they are truly at a world-class university. Folks have also commented on how Rensselaer has become a much improved research institute with more world-class faculty, stronger instruction and laboratory experiences, deeper support for athletes, improved relations with greeks, and stronger academic and co-educational support for students. Almost every person has said that The Rensselaer Plan is enabling the Institute to reach its inherent potential. This is how I have come to know Rensselaer.

Of course, I have heard from some student leaders about how The Rensselaer Plan, and especially the Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students initiative, have presented challenges. I have heard about how changes in sophomore residency, RA appointments, and the initial work on the Greek Life Commons Agreement, presented rough patches in student’s experiences. However, many students are quick to point out that they are settled with the changes yet struggled with our execution, a point that has not been lost on me. More broadly, I have spoken with students and other community members regarding their concerns about diversity, our support for our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning students, underrepresented “minorities,” and students with disabilities. And I have had a number of conversations about our student retention rates. This, too, is how I have come to know Rensselaer.

The past three months have allowed me to learn about our tremendous accomplishments as well as our challenges ahead. We in student life will be celebrating those accomplishments even more and focusing on challenges that relate to our ongoing commitment to providing a world-class, co-educational experience for both undergraduate and graduate students. Toward this end, we are seeking to enhance our communication and outreach strategies with students. This commitment will be witnessed immediately in the establishment of student advisory groups for each department, and you will see more student life staff circulating, around campus, looking to connect students with CLASS-based resources or to simply hear what is going on. This high level of connection is what you will come to know as a Rensselaer or CLASS trademark.

I was drawn to Rensselaer because of the impressive accomplishments and the challenges that I mention above. But I must admit that the recent resolution by our Student Senate has struck me as being inconsistent with our goal of building connections and a stronger community. As a new community member, in such a key role, I am trying to understand how 11 student leaders, without demonstrated student consensus, are allowed to make such strong and personal statements against any president, and especially one who is responsible for the transformational changes that I spoke of earlier? I have always encouraged student engagement with the express goal of building stronger and even more complex campus communities. However, the resolution by our Student Senate moved to a personal level that works against this notion, and because I found offense in it, I venture to guess that it hurt more than just President Shirley Ann Jackson. I refuse to come to know Rensselaer in this manner.

I believe that we are better than personal attacks, especially against those who work tirelessly to build one of the best universities in the U.S. The Rensselaer that is so respected by its peers is the direct result of Jackson’s unwavering commitment to Rensselaer’s highest ideals and her love for every member of the community. Sure, making change, while often unpopular, is sometimes fraught with emotion and even disappointment, but in an intentional community we expect all members to demonstrate a degree of respect for each other and especially our leaders.

Finally, one may believe that the vice president of student life should not challenge our student leaders in this manner. I obviously believe that this is exactly what a vice president for student life must do. We in student life must prepare our students for the next levels of their lives. It is important that we approach this responsibility with honesty and with our best sensibilities, which include making difficult statements. It is both responsible and caring to say to our students, and especially our student leaders, that you should have taken better care in crafting your resolution and that there are even better ways of building a community that don’t include tearing someone down. This is the type of community that I want to be part of.

Timothy Sams

Vice President for Student Life