Letter To The Editor

Our Arch concerns have gone unheard

By Meagan Lettko and Advaith Narayan April 22, 2020

Dear fellow students,

On April 7, the community was informed that “instruction for the summer semester, including Arch classes, will be delivered remotely.” Since then, the Student Senate has seen two petitions and countless student concerns on various social media platforms regarding this mandatory summer semester. We have also addressed this topic as a Student Senate and have solicited opinions from every cohort of students. As the grand marshal and vice grand marshal, we spoke directly with administrators about these issues, and have proposed solutions after discussion with our peers.

Following the two petitions regarding summer Arch, the Student Senate met and discussed the Arch in its new online context. Student representatives across all cohorts (including graduate students and seniors who have no stake in the Arch) agreed that making the program mandatory this summer will be detrimental to the majority of students going through the program.

The issues identified and discussed surrounding the online Arch are outlined as follows:

Online instruction poses many challenges for students.

Many students may not have access to a quiet space at home to learn and study. In addition, students have vastly different learning styles and a virtual classroom is a huge detriment to some, especially if time zones prevent them from attending live lectures. We recognize the necessity of remote learning in order to stay on track with our degrees, but the high cost of a Rensselaer education is not justified with an entire semester of education delivered remotely.

There are many RPI resources that can only be accessed and utilized while on campus.

Though these resources are mostly physical spaces, student services are also affected. Although meeting rooms and study spaces cannot be used virtually, we want to ensure that certain essential services, like the counseling center, remain open and easily accessible for student use. However, students in different time zones, especially those on the other side of the world, are at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to utilizing campus services.

Lab courses are adversely affected by online education.

Students enrolled in lab courses are missing out on essential hands-on learning. This is one of the most valuable parts of an RPI education. As we have seen this semester, courses that involve wet laboratory experiments, or are design-focused, such as Introduction to Engineering Design and Senior Capstone, cannot be held online without a significant decrease in educational experience and quality.

There is no telling how the post-pandemic economy will affect the availability of away opportunities.

We know that summer internships are already being modified for a remote virtual experience. Companies who have sent internship offers prior to the pandemic and can afford to host interns remotely are continuing with their summer programs. However, these accommodations may not carry over to the fall and spring semesters and may not translate to all fields.

In our first meeting with Vice President of Student Life Peter Konwerski, we were told that making Arch optional for this summer would not be considered. As a result, the Senate discussed and outlined the following requests as possible solutions to the issues we have identified:

The cost of tuition for the Arch needs to be reduced.

It is not enough to say that the cost of tuition is justified because RPI professors are teaching the online classes. Many courses depend on the classroom environment.

Applications for Arch exemptions should be reopened; exemptions should be given more liberally given the current circumstances.

Exemptions should consider time zones, learning styles, and registration in lab courses. It should be the student’s decision to choose between taking classes online or waiting to take classes on campus, no matter if it affects their degree completion timeline.

The cost of services should be reduced for students who cannot access services during East Coast working hours.

Students in different time zones will not be able to take full advantage of ALAC, non-emergency counseling, the health center, or the CCPD, much the same way they may not be able to attend their classes in real-time.

Students participating in the Arch semester should be allowed to Pass/No Credit their courses after knowing their final grades in August.

Students will not have access to the library, study spaces, meeting rooms, club spaces, and many other physical resources. There is no way to compensate for this virtually. Students can not be expected to perform at their best academically given these limitations.

We brought these solutions to our meeting with Konwerski and the Vice Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Education Keith Moo-Young. Our goal was to push for compromise and leniency for the students going through the Arch program this summer under these circumstances.

Our efforts have yielded no results. In our experience, RPI administrators are adamantly defending a full implementation of the Arch this summer regardless of the negative consequences it will have on the students who are forced to participate in it.

Moo-Young and Konwerski made it clear that further exemptions will not be granted and tuition will not be reduced over the summer to account for the online education. They insisted that an online education was the same “quality RPI education” that we receive under regular circumstances. We find this to be grossly idealistic, completely disregarding the inherent barriers some students might face while trying to continue their education online from home (or wherever else they may be).

In the same vein, the Institute seemingly understood that students would be facing a financial burden, but felt that the hundred dollars saved by the activity fee would be adequate compensation for the thousands spent on tuition. The decision to reduce the Union activity fee by 50 percent for the summer was made unbeknownst to the president of the Union or the Union Executive Board, but the issue of the lack of a student-run union is a discussion for another time. It is, however, important to note that financial aid packages have been reduced despite the unchanged tuition cost.

In our meeting, Moo-Young insinuated that if students really cared about their education and classes, they’d be up at any time of the day to attend that class. Moo-Young said: “I don’t have much sympathy for students who can’t attend the lectures in real-time.” While expecting students to take initiative and be self-motivated to learn is understandable, it is frankly unacceptable to overlook the well-known negative effects of sleep deprivation and irregular sleep schedules on learning.

We do not know every student's situation, and the administration cannot claim to know this information either. It might simply not be possible for students to adjust their sleep schedules because of other responsibilities the student might have. Unfortunately, it was made clear that there will be no exemptions given due to time zones for the summer Arch semester.

We were also told that Pass/No Credit for the Arch summer will not be considered, as, according to Moo-Young, professors have enough time to adjust curriculum, and the Institute wants to “maintain the quality of the degree.”

We also want to mention our thoughts on how the Arch is being advertised. Referring to Independent Learning Experiences, the student-designed alternative to a co-op or internship, Moo-Young said “we had tremendous success with ILE’s during the first round of Arch,” but our interactions with the student body have overwhelmingly led us to believe otherwise.

The emphasis placed on the good experiences students have during Arch is disproportionate to the seemingly many more negative Arch experiences, which are often neglected. In order to improve the Arch program, every story needs to be heard, not just the ones that make the Arch look successful. We encourage all students who have gone through the Arch to share their experiences and ask the administration to listen to our concerns.

Our case becomes more powerful with every personal narrative that we, as a student body, can share with each other and arm ourselves with, whether it is through social media, an email to your class or cohort’s senator, the GM, or submitting a letter to the editor to The Polytechnic.

The RPI administration’s obstinate support for the Arch, showing their unwillingness to acknowledge and accommodate the circumstantial barriers faced by students, is truly disappointing and disheartening to us. We will not let this deter us from continuing our efforts in representing the student body to the best of our abilities.

Thank you for reading and please know that we would like to hear your thoughts. You can reach out by emailing gm@rpi.edu.

Warmest regards,

Advaith Narayan and Meagan Lettko