Protesting for bigger things

“Why did you protest?”

My answer was originally two parts: first, to fight for the student-run status of the Rensselaer Union, second, to make my voice heard as a student on campus at a time when the RPI administration seems hell-bent on silencing it. But it wasn’t until Reunion & Homecoming weekend that other reasons were realized.

We hear the word “misinformation” frequently from the administration, yet when I had the opportunity to speak with countless alumni during Reunion this past weekend—including those who chanted and cheered alongside me during the peaceful demonstration—I learned that they were victims of misinformation. Most had no idea the school was even in debt, much less that the debt outweighed the endowment. Others were shocked that students view campus morale as low, fueled by the very culture of fear that has gripped this campus under an authoritarian regime for decades; causing freshman and sophomores to be afraid to speak their minds. In speaking with alumni, I truly empathized; students have been misinformed time and time again by the administration, while attempts to clarify situations, provide student input, or even express constructive discontent were met with doublespeak, bait-and-switches, and censorship.

The RPI administration carefully chooses their words, claiming they never had, nor will have, plans to “do away with the Union.” This is partially true, as they plan to keep the building and semblance of student leadership; however, the Union is more than just a building, and student leaders once had real power, influence, and respect. The Union is a complex student organization of services, as well as student government, which represents students’ interests through legislation, taxation, and allocation of money toward activities, events, student-created student programming, and adjudicates civil cases as well as student judicial matters. Doing away with a student-run Union makes these experiences impossible for current and future students. This removes the opportunity for students to participate in any meaningful way, make memories, and learn.

Protesting and calling to withhold donations to our school are last resorts. “Money talks,” and it’s the only thing that seems to speak to the corrupt and unethical administration at this point, so I will withhold direct donations until this issue is resolved to the students’ satisfaction. I’ve spoken to several students who are concerned that scholarship funding will be hurt. While I recognize the good that donations can do for students directly, I must also recognize the Union’s substantial contributions when it was student-run—especially when so many alumni have regaled me with tales of how much their Union-related experiences helped in their careers, as well as acknowledging the spending habits of the Institute are ones that value lavish dinners and large mansions over refurbishing laboratories and constructing new dormitories with rooms bigger than broom closets.

So why did I protest? I protested because some things are worth fighting for; some things are bigger than me. Students of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute deserve to experience all the opportunities a student-run Union has to offer, because it is much more than just another building on campus. Hundreds of students and alumni supported this viewpoint as they protested with me on Friday evening, passionately shouting, “Save our Union!” I couldn’t agree more.

Michael J. Gardner II
CSE/CS ’17, TCE G’18