Letter to the Editor

Take a breath, talk over coffee

To the Editor:

Recently, I attended a memorial service for Sterling Olmstead, who in the 1960s, chaired what was then called the Department of Language and Literature. Olmstead was a Quaker, and the service was conducted “according to the manner of Friends,” meaning that much of the time was spent in sitting silently, waiting for the spirit to move someone to speak, and listening closely to both the silence and what was said.

One person recalled Olmstead saying that, in a situation of conflict, much can be accomplished over a cup of coffee. His belief that sitting together over coffee can help to resolve conflicts seems of a piece with the Friends’ practice of sitting silently, waiting for someone to be moved by a spirit within, and of listening closely both to what is said and to the silence out of which words are spoken.

I thought of Olmstead when I read The Polytechnic story about the recent “Pizza with the Cabinet” meeting that almost wasn’t, because all but one member of the cabinet chose not to attend. There are, undeniably, conflicts between students and the administration, conflicts that won’t be fully resolved over a few gallons of coffee or a few dozen pizzas. But, as Olmstead knew, something can be accomplished if people of differing opinions will just sit down together and listen carefully to each other. Nothing useful will be accomplished if people refuse even to meet.

The Poly quotes Vice President for Student Life Timothy Sams as saying that the reason so many members of the cabinet chose not to attend Pizza with the Cabinet was that they were “hurt” by the resolution recently adopted by the Senate. I hope his meaning was somehow garbled. One can disagree with the resolution, in whole or in part. It is strongly worded, and it makes claims that are debatable. And I can understand why some members of the administration might take offense at some of what the resolution has to say. But they stayed away because they were “hurt”? Does a responsible administrator renege on a promise to meet with students because her or his feelings have been hurt?

Olmstead held administrative positions here at RPI and elsewhere during turbulent times. He dealt with strongly held conflicting opinions, and I have no doubt that he endured his share of anger, intemperate language, and even insult. But he believed in the simple act of sitting down with friends and opponents alike, allowing them to have their say, and listening carefully. This practice is not unique to Quakers; it’s what members of an academic community are supposed to do. RPI needs to resume following the practice of Olmstead and thousands of other successful academic administrators.

Michael Halloran ’73

Professor Emeritus

Department of Language, Literature, and Communication