The administration’s offense to academics

Faculty members receive messages from RPI’s central administration each semester emphasizing the importance of academic integrity to the Institute. We are required to include testaments to academic honesty on our syllabi. This semester, I met with a member of the administration to note that these notices contain virtually nothing about such integrity, only what count as violations of it—cheating on exams or plagiarizing papers, for example. Last week’s Poly article regarding Save the Union, and three letters to the administration by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education may explain why.

The central administration simply does not have a firm foothold in integrity territory. At least its actions and policies show no firm grasp of the concept, not even its honesty component. But as students are being held accountable for freedom, and the responsibility to resist injustice of all things, where is the administration’s accountability? The outright lies told, the sneakiness, sleaziness of its attempts to take over the student union have been a disgrace to academic integrity. Their hypocritical violations of student rights, student freedom of speech and assembly, and academic freedom are an affront to integrity—not just lacking it, but spitting in its face. Perhaps it is they who should be before the Judicial Board.

Imagine restricting an area of the campus “to accommodate” events going on for donors on campus, actually canceling classes in the red zone for fundraising purposes, then charging students with trespassing for entering it—trespassing on their own campus? Are we to believe that current students are an uneducable predatory threat to past students—alumni donors? That this is what caused the “tense moments” Travis Apgar noted when he experienced the anxiety of “not knowing what would happen next” during the protest? Perhaps students would leap upon alumni from a grassy knoll, exsanguinating their corpses through the incisors?

The restrictive fences were put up to keep the protest out of sight and hearing of its intended audience. Does anyone believe otherwise? The president, with her obedient board in tow, is trying to effect the takeover of the Union. Does anyone doubt it? Is there any way to get an honest account of why from these people—to get the real reasons cleansed of disingenuous rationalization? I suspect not, considering that Assistant Vice President Apgar (there are assistant VPs?) lied to students about information he did not know they possessed. This is just as the central administration lied about selectively removing approved signage of Save the Union despite students and even a member of the Faculty Senate capturing it on video.

In my classes, students are asked to read my article in Liberal Education, the flagship journal of The American Association of Colleges and Universities in DC (https://poly.rpi.edu/s/gfx1y). Here I note what small offenses students commit to integrity by cheating compared to college administrations and faculty in their business as usual—in their lying commitments in the catalogue. It demonstrates aspirations to a higher, more thoughtful and importantly self-critical brand of integrity than RPI seems even to conceive. We at RPI are not the general public, but a devotedly studious community. We are expected to think better and aspire more highly to adequate, encompassing views. The students do, in my 36 years of experience here, and the administration does not.

As FIRE indicated, the right of student free speech is officially violated by RPI’s permit policy itself, not simply in the way administrators use it. Particularly offensive is the administration’s denial of protest for being potentially disruptive. The free speech of protest is disruption by nature. As a result of such repression, it is the students’ responsibility not to obey such policy lest they conspire in injustice. Those being charged to the judicial process are guilty of “cheerleading for justice” in MLK’s sense, no more. But as I was informed by the president’s cabinet members, RPI’s policy is to focus on some tangential rule one may have technically broken, rather than to confront the real issue in a case and its own wrongdoing. A student has been charged with soliciting attendance at the protest I am told—yikes, what a dorm crime.

Freedom of speech is a communicative act. It is a right to speak to a certain audience and be heard, not the right to talk to one’s bathroom mirror. Keeping protesters hundreds of feet away from RPI donors (behind a huge building that blocks their sight) violates that freedom, pure and simple. Urging fellow students to exercise their freedoms is an admirable practice.

Through all this, the administration has been proactive in its verbal support for “academic freedom,” which extends well beyond First Amendment freedoms. Academic freedom includes advocacy of diverse and conflicting viewpoints and for acting on them non-violently. How does requiring freedom to get a permit, denying it on false grounds, then fencing it in—requiring it to jump over—show support? Freedom does not require a permit. No one has the authority to permit or deny it—it’s self-authorized.

At the Union protest, I praised the Troy police to its assistant police chief for restraint—for letting protesters through its police line for example. His reply: “We don’t work for RPI or its policies. We’re here to prevent violence. Do you see any violence or threat of it? Students have as much freedom of speech as anyone.” Apparently the city police are clearer-eyed and more friendly to student activities than the students’ own dean and school.

I can not for the life of me understand what administrators can be thinking in all this—their degree of apparent ineptitude. Why, working with the Board, would the central administration provoke a student protest in the precise week that they are kicking off their major capital campaign? Why would they try “rounding up the leaders” of the protest, in its aftermath, and participants who wouldn’t “comply” with repressive orders? (Since I wore my “Not in Compliance” t-shirt to the protest, that judicial charge especially stood out for me.) Can the administration not foresee how students would react to these sorts of petty, recognizably authoritarian tactics? You’d think the administration would just want to put their shame behind them. Have they no sense of political strategy whatsoever? Do they give students any credit here?

Perhaps too much corporate experience has caused administrators to think that if you’re in command you just tell people what to do and they do it. Indeed, isn’t RPI itself a private corporation and our president its CEO? No. RPI is an institution of higher learning, which also is incorporated for tax purposes. That’s a very different thing. And in education, administration is simply not in command. It exists merely to facilitate the real business of teaching and research at our school.

The Board’s Union resolution letter praises the close collaboration between administrators and students in running the Union—also its importance in giving students excellent experience in leadership positions. Yet it questions student capacity to manage the Union’s increasingly large size and budget. If so, an obvious option is to have administration financial personnel step up, using their expertise to consult more availably for students running the show. Instead the Board proposes giving the president sole ultimate authority over a key Union function, other functions too, given RPI bylaws. The consultation option is not even hinted at though it would be the obvious alternative, the obvious way to accomplish all the goals the Board cites. This is an embarrassing oversight, either exhibiting incredible obtuseness or disingenuous commitment. Is there some reason to think RPI students lack the smarts to process and apply consultation from the RPI finance office? It seems the Board and administration doesn’t expect students to be competent, expect them to be responsible, peaceful. Do they have any respect for RPI students at all? We in the faculty do; we could help you.

Such inept and improper administration behaviors are an outrage and embarrassment to educators; their integrity-blindness a chief reason why. At least this is how my colleagues at places like Cornell, Stanford, Harvard, Tufts, alternate between the two reactions. The representatives of FIRE noted to me that they could not think of any other university in the country performing this badly on student rights. To see how we stack up relative to court decisions on the matter see: FIRE’s response to refusal of permission to protest, including a direct letter to RPI, FIRE’s article on November 8 on continued issues at RPI including videos of Public Safety removing posters in the dark of the night, and FIRE’s latest letter to RPI on November 10 that addresses legal issues with RPI’s actions.

It’s about time the administration came clean, don’t you think? About time to drop the stale Trumpian excuse of fake news—that every critic of RPI “has their facts wrong” and “just doesn’t understand us.” It’s unlikely that the Chronicle of Higher Education, the AAUP, Times Union, Troy Record, and RPI’s very bright, sharply investigative student leaders always get things wrong while administrators just can’t help being right. No one believes this, no one believes you—the RPI administration has lost its credibility, a loss well-earned by being caught outright lying on multiple occasions. Instead of piecemeal protests on this or that Union issue, the administration’s general lack of academic integrity may require a wholesale student siege against repressive policy and its application regarding student rights, status, and leadership at RPI. Perhaps the administration should come before a lie detector as well as the judicial process. Perhaps there should be a student town meeting having the president and Board ask questions.

Incidentally, I should note before closing that integrity involves being true to lush principles of mutual respect, fair-mindedness, and fairness in the treatment of others, unvarnished honesty, egalitarian policies and practices, the demonstration of cooperative goodwill and willingness to listen sincerely, negotiate, seek consensus with others, the humility to admit when you are wrong and have made mistakes, proactive efforts to compensate for it, an aversion to hypocrisy—that sort of thing. Academic integrity applies these notions to educational practices, its freedom letting a thousand flowers of free thought and inquiry bloom.

Bill Puka

Department of Cognitive Science