Students deserve respect, recognition

It is with great interest that I have followed the unfolding story of the “hostile takeover” of the Rensselaer Union by the administration, in particular the head of the administration. I can understand the desire for oversight by the university—after all, their name is on it and they may or may not have ultimate legal responsibility over what happens.

But that is oversight—not being a “helicopter parent,” or worse, one that tells the child exactly what to do. You might do that if the child is 10 or 12, not when they are 127. Not when they have demonstrated over that span of time an exceptionally high degree of responsibility and success. Not when they showed the ability to forego short term gain and instead tax themselves for years in order to be able to move to their own home and out of their parents’ house, now Lally Hall.

I, like many (if not all) alumni received an email from Arthur F. Golden ’66, chairman of the Board of Trustees. I have profound disagreements with many of the statements and assertions he makes on behalf of the Board of Trustees and President Shirley Ann Jackson.

He views the Union as an “exercise” for the students. I assert that the Union is no more an exercise to allow students to run a business than Rensselaer is an exercise to allow the Board of Trustees to run a university. There is grading involved, where a bad decision yields a “B” instead of an “A”—a bad decision has financial and possibly legal real-world consequences.

He states, “The goal is enhancing the educational development and business experience of the students—a kind of “lab course” in acquiring and applying business skills that I believe is offered nowhere else. ” I assert that Rensselaer students’ goal is not merely that, but to actually provide a service to their fellow students. The student union is a place to learn those skills and apply them, but it is hardly a “lab course”—it is real life. Again, the decisions they make don’t result in a pass/fail in a computer simulation—it results in real dollars and cents being made or lost.

He continues, “Dr. Jackson and I expect that to continue and we spend many hours discussing ideas (mainly her ideas) for continuing the broadening and improvement of the student experience. ” I assert: isn’t 127 years of mostly success a great block to build on and allow those who have been part of that building to continue unfettered until such time as they prove they cannot do it? Why not spend many hours discussing ideas for continuing the broadening and improvement of the student classroom educational experience—isn’t that essentially the mandate of the trustees and president of the university? Isn’t that where their expertise is supposed to lie? Aren’t the students themselves the best judges of how to improve the non-classroom educational experience, and haven’t they demonstrated their good judgement over these last 127 years?

“But today’s Union is a much different entity than it was 50 years ago, when I and others of my generation were students. ” I assert it isn’t at the fundamental level: the Union exists to improve student life outside the classroom. The scale may be different with respect to the money involved, but that is true anywhere. The Union budget has grown over the years—but so has Rensselaer’s in general. I would be more concerned if the leaders of the Union were still trying to do everything on a 1960s budget.

“With respect to the hiring (or firing) of the director of the Union—as is true for any important position at RPI—that is the ultimate responsibility of the President, and I and the Board want and expect Jackson to make that decision.” There is an important word missing in this sentence, and that word is student, as in student union. If you want Jackson to make that decision, then you are seizing control by making the decision. What is wrong with the idea of letting the students do the hiring and firing (a system that has worked well over the past 50 plus years) and, for just cause and with due process, allow Jackson and the Board of Trustees be able to review that decision?

“She and I have also discussed our shared desire for involvement of student leaders in that process to make sure their voice is heard. In that regard, Curtis Powell (our VP for Human Resources) has been key to this effort and proposed the innovative idea of involving student leaders in the interview process but first providing training to them in how to conduct such interviews—creating an educational event that will help them in their future careers.” My question is—is the current process broken? Does the Board of Trustees receive training in how to interview a potential new president? A new trustee? A new faculty member? A new buildings and grounds person?

Most disconcerting is that there is no promise that the students will continue to have any say in the running of the Union, just an “expectation” that it will happen. What is the trigger that will invoke full presidential takeover of the Union—a bad director of the Union hiring? Missing an income goal by 50 percent? 10 percent? 1 percent? Will the students even know ahead of time where that line is?

What it comes down to, in my opinion, is that the Board of Trustees and Jackson do not trust the students they have selected to have the privilege of attending Rensselaer to make well-informed, educated decisions, even though they tout each class as the “best of the best” and “better than any incoming class before. ” What does that say about their ability to make good assessments of people? What does that say about how they feel about the student body in general, and the respect and esteem they hold them in?

So I say to the Board of Trustees—stand with the students, show your faith in them and show that you respect all they have done over these last 127 years to build the Union into what it is today, and keep the Union run by students, for students.

Victor Vitek ’77