Dear Rensselaer Community,
I only wish I had discussed this sooner, that I had put more time into addressing this topic and not leaving it untouched as many others have. The topic I refer to is what has been titled the “culture of fear.” This past weekend, some student leaders (myself included) had the opportunity to meet with members of the Board of Trustees, and they asked us about this “culture of fear” they were now hearing about. Like any good STEM student, I believe that we can learn more about this by breaking it down into smaller elements.
“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.”
Current students, we attend a university where the high level of academic rigor, in an almost masochistic fashion, is one of our points of pride. We legitimately brag about our inability to excel in the classroom at times, because at least the world acknowledges that we are held to that high standard.That being said, we impose upon ourselves the penchant for success, and carry the burden of a stressful academic setting. That stress is compounded by the knowledge that this university is a large financial investment for students, putting a greater emphasis on the value of their education. The thought of failing this opportunity, for ourselves, our families, and our friends, is a stress that contributes to the fear we may feel.
The environment of a student in the modern world requires a continual engagement, on behalf of their basic human needs, their academics, and their social hierarchy. Changes around the students are an inevitability, and an opportunity for young minds to learn how to adapt. Be that as it may, a large change to the central aspects of a student’s life may leave him or her disillusioned, and require time to adjust. To combat this, there needs to be a level of communication such that the student can rationalize the changes happening, feel that he or she is a factor in the decisions being made, and move forward. However, to have students undergo a rapid series of changes, and repeatedly telling students when the time for critical input has passed, only worsens the situation. Low levels of communication creates within students the cold sense that they are only used as a source of revenue and potential marketing. Students feel that once they are no longer valuable to the university, they will be cut off and left adrift.
At the town hall this past Wednesday, the president made a statement to the effect of “repeating something does not make it true.” While I am inclined to agree to this on matters of fact and the physical world, perception and culture are different beasts entirely. When a student hears from a classmate, faculty, or staff “don’t say that you disagree; bad things can happen,” it may mean nothing the first time, taken as a joke, ignored, etc. However, I promise you it will have an effect every time afterward. Akin to the horrors in The Turn of the Screw, the fear then arises from the ambiguity of the danger. Extra graduation requirements, reduced financial aid, being fired or expelled, getting shut down in career endeavors—all of these are fears that people have firmly held onto, and they are the product of the negative mantra we, as a community, repeat to ourselves, even when evidence fails to support it.
Further, continual changes to the fundamentals of student life on campus leaves students feeling that their right to a voice is continually challenged, and subsequently ignored. When a voice is repeatedly denied, the natural response is to question whether or not the voice is important to begin with, along with the rights it aims to express.
All of this culminates in a negative experience for the student, independent of any career success they may find. With that in mind, it is hard to see those with negative experiences donating back to the university. Until the problem is addressed, we are actively creating disillusioned alumni communities, and they have a vital influence on the students currently attending. Until the problem is addressed, we are hurting the future of Rensselaer many years down the line, when these students will have the opportunity to donate significantly.
Now, I do not claim for these factors to be comprehensive, but I say that their impact on our community must be acknowledged. These are no small obstacles, but by identifying them, we can begin to move towards a solution in addressing them.