Looking for answers from the Spring Town Protest

Rensselaer found its voice between gritted teeth and posterboard signs, and there’s something to be said for an act of solidarity that gives a group of people the ability to be heard.

For years, students have held silent discontent for the Rensselaer administration. On Wednesday, March 30, students exercised their ability to assemble. This is something to be proud of—it was a demonstration in forcing change on this campus, and we did it collectively with a sense of respect, dignity, and pride. There was no violence, and no threat to the safety of others, just representation of the students’ opinion. This protest easily could have turned for the worse, yet our community—students, faculty, and alumni—remained peaceful in their demonstration. The Poly Editorial Board would like to extend a sincere thank you to everyone who found the time to make the protest as powerful as it was.

One cannot discount the fact that President Shirley Ann Jackson intentionally moved away from her intended speech at the beginning of the Spring Town Meeting to directly address student concerns. Opening up the meeting to nearly an hour of questions is the opportunity for dialogue that we want to have on a regular basis. However, we feel it would be a stretch to describe last Wednesday’s events as fruitful. Despite making our questions and concerns as clear as possible during the meeting, the administration again answered us with rebuttals and challenges rather than answers. This time around, Dr. Jackson went as far as to say the communication between students and administration will never be the same as it once was, due, in part, to the fact that the students have condemned her for her alleged actions. As she stated during her address, “don’t vilify me in the press and then come and ask to talk to me.”

This defensive stance goes directly against the responsibilities of someone chosen to be the leader of our university. When prompted by Grand Marshal Marcus Flowers ’16 to start regular meetings between Student Government officials and the president, Dr. Jackson responded cautiously: “I’m not going to promise that I’m going to go back to a specific periodicity that we had before.” As the president, it is her duty to communicate with students in a way that allows her to represent the community’s interests on a larger scale, regardless of perceived vilification or possible allegations. Quite simply, this is her job, and her refusal to acknowledge her function within the Institute represents just how far we have to go. Frankly, it is disappointing that a meeting of such magnitude could be met again by the same attempts at conflict resolution.

Our president has rationalized her stance over the Executive Director of Student Activities position by stating quite simply that “it is appropriate for the Trustees to, in fact, look at the Rensselaer Union Constitution and decide what independence and autonomy mean.” In effect, the Board of Trustees has been given “ultimate authority” over the runnings of the Union. It is this principle that has caused uproar. It needs to be understood that we, as a community, should not have been an afterthought in the creation of something that so fundamentally impacts us as students. Dr. Jackson has stated that she would prefer students not approach her with issues “after the fact,” but there’s a degree of hypocrisy in the fact that the administration routinely does not extend the same courtesy to the student body.

Dr. Jackson went as far as to deny the concerns voiced by faculty about the “culture of fear”—the idea that we might refrain from voicing their opinions for fear of facing repercussions from the administration. Despite nearly 1,000 students, faculty, and alumni plastering the grounds outside of the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center with posters detailing concern with the administration’s approach to freedom of speech, Dr. Jackson stated that she “[doesn’t] see it.” It is the outright dismissal of the student voice from all levels of authority at RPI that has caused administration-student relations to degrade to the point that they have reached today, and it’s infuriating to think that all our concentrated efforts have done nothing to change the blindness of our administration.

To see a change, we must come to an understanding that stems from our mutual respect. It cannot be denied that over the course of Dr. Jackson’s tenure at Rensselaer, the Institute has made it to the forefront of higher education, earning her respect as president. It cannot be denied that her personal achievements earn her the utmost respect as an individual. But respect, like communication, is a two-way street. For students to respect the president, the president must respect the students. Dr. Jackson, you have heard your students come in droves and cry out. We hope that you will hear our message and listen to us as you have before. And students, we implore you to see Dr. Jackson and the administration as humans, not as tyrants in ivory towers.