Sharing governance when administrators won’t
This week, I want to discuss shared governance, a practice that Rensselaer severely lacks at the institutional level, but one that is very important to me in terms of student governance.
The term “shared governance” is thrown around in the world of higher education quite a bit, often in the context of an administration-faculty relationship that works to guide the decisions of the institution. A quick online search yields numerous definitions, but as you distill all of those definitions down, it becomes clear that shared governance is really about balancing equity and accountability. In his article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Gary A. Olson denotes shared governance as two concepts: “giving various groups of people a share in key decision-making processes, often through elected representation; and allowing certain groups to exercise primary responsibility for specific areas of decision making.”
I feel that this definition sets a low bar for RPI administrators to clear, yet they still fail to do so. Meeting these two loosely defined criteria does not automatically make “shared governance” a reality; there is much more to it. Olson concludes the article by stating, “The key to genuine shared governance is broad and unending communication.” He continues, “When various groups of people are kept in the loop and understand what developments are occurring within the university, and when they are invited to participate as true partners, the institution prospers. That, after all, is our common goal.” While the Institute may believe—and tout—that they have achieved shared governance, they are still light-years away from restoring legitimate shared governance on campus. In fact, RPI’s leadership seems to be deliberately moving in the opposite direction, despite repeated pleas from students and faculty for better communication. The Institute seems to be almost opposed to this “broad and unending communication.”
This issue is not new to RPI; there are even published works outlining the extent to which RPI’s leadership has intentionally removed students, faculty, and staff from the conversation. For example, current and former RPI professors described the severity of the situation in the academic journal article, The Demise of Shared Governance at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Additionally, Benjamin Ginsberg discussed this issue in his novel Fall of the Faculty, which was released in 2013.
While the above examples discuss faculty-administration relations, students are equally mistreated by the administration’s gleeful disregard for stakeholder communication and involvement. Last week, a post on the Overheard at RPI Facebook page featured a screenshot of a group chat of Safe Ride drivers. The message, written by an assistant dean, was gauging the interest of student Safe Ride drivers to “drive the Safe Ride vehicle and observe off-campus behavior.”
There are many reasons why this is concerning, but the one that strikes me most is how reminiscent this is of last spring’s peace officer bill issue. Aside from the many issues with the content of the peace officer bill itself, students were livid because of the absurd lack of communication from administrators. The student body came to know about the bill after administrators spent tens of thousands of dollars—not to mention months of employees’ time—lobbying for this bill at the New York State Senate.
Even after student uproar emerged, administrators did not seem at all interested in communicating with the entire student body, despite several requests from the student government to do so. In fact, had students not found the bill and shared it to the RPI subreddit, I wonder if the administration would have informed students at all prior to its passage into law. The lack of communication to the student body from the administration with the planned Safe Ride espionage, the peace officer bill, and countless other incidents is inexcusable.
The RPI administration’s failure to honor Rensselaer’s motto of “knowledge and thoroughness” by dismantling shared governance does not have to extend to the relationship student government maintains with the student body. I want to use this opportunity, early in the Fall semester, to share with you how the Student Senate shares its governance with students. As your Grand Marshal, I hold myself and other student leaders in our Union to the highest standard. Given that we are governing the Student Union and representing the student body, we must ensure that we’re upholding the highest standard of shared governance with the students whom we serve. Regardless of the standards—or lack thereof—of shared governance within the Institute, student government actively prioritizes these principles in both our thought process and in practice. Here are some efforts your student leaders are taking to better serve you.
Firstly, we are not always experts in the issues we are working to improve. While I have appointed extremely knowledgeable and talented officers and committee chairs within the Senate, we often rely on students, like yourself, to help us understand the nuances of the issues that you may be experiencing firsthand. We invite you to share your experiences with us. Additionally, Senate meetings and committee meetings are always open to the public. The 51st Student Senate meets every Tuesday at 7 pm ET over Webex (the links are available at sg.rpi.edu/events). All students are welcome and invited to attend and participate!
We’re also committed to communicating with you as much as we can. Over the summer, you may have seen letters from both the President of the Union Anissa Choiniere ’21 and myself addressing a wide array of topics. We plan to continue these communications throughout the year, and we hope to instill the same openness in our successors. Furthermore, the student volunteers of the Student Government Communications Committee are working diligently to share our meeting information and general updates more extensively and regularly. We are exploring what the best methods are to share this information, and would love your help! Our committees are run through passionate and committed students like you. If you’re interested in helping us work towards “broad and unending communication,” we’d be happy to have you.
On a lighter note, I hope everyone’s first week of classes has gone well! Regardless of whether you are on campus, nearby, or far away, I promise to do my best to ensure you all feel included and part of the RPI student family. If you have any questions, comments, concerns, or ideas, please never hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org!