An open letter to Dean Apgar: Safeguard our hopes and dreams

By Yaseen M. Mahmoud December 8, 2020

[Editor’s Note]: The Polytechnic received permission from Mahmoud to publish this piece, which was originally published on Reddit and in the Overheard at RPI Facebook group.

Hi, everybody. In light of the Dean of Students Office’s recent revocation of remote-learning approvals for students, I would like to share this letter that I sent to Assistant VP and Dean of Students Travis Apgar. I have emailed Dean Apgar numerous times over the past several years; in those emails, I generally tried to be as political and non-inflammatory as possible. I did this because the prior issues I was concerned about did not risk the lives of students, faculty, staff, or families. In this case, Dean Apgar’s decisions directly endanger the lives of the members of my community, and as a result, I have written the following letter without intentional politicking.

As a New York State EMT, I have seen first-hand the impacts of disregarding health and safety guidelines. I have seen more sickness and death during this pandemic than I have during the rest of my time in EMS and as a firefighter combined. If I sound angry, it’s because I am; healthcare workers, including myself and other RPI students—not to mention many of our family members and friends—are working longer hours in unsafe working conditions in the name of public health, and the RPI administration seems to be doing everything in their power to undermine our work for the sake of the Institute’s financial bottom line.

I ask that you all share this post and your own opinions with your parents, other students, the administration, and prospective students. People deserve to see more than the “Transformative” campaign leaflets RPI has sent to our households. People deserve to see what RPI is really up to.


Good afternoon, Dean Apgar,

As we move towards the spring return to campus, the student body has been made aware of several alarming and irresponsible decisions made by your office. Numerous concerns have been raised by students in public and private forums alike. Since you were quick to seek praise for your statement to Overheard at RPI in March but have remained relatively silent to student concerns as of late, I figured it would be good to reach out directly. Reactions to these decisions have been varied, but I will attempt to summarize them for you.

First, there is still no scientific basis or evidence from the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New York State Department of Health, the World Health Organization, or any reputable medical journal in support of RPI’s requirement for a maximum 2:1 student-to-bathroom ratio. Despite this, the ratio requirement for off-campus housing has remained in place, while your team has chosen to exempt on-campus housing from the same rules. I see only two possible stances for these policies: first, if there is some legitimate justification for a ratio requirement, it should be enforced across all residences, regardless of location. Second, and conversely, if there is no legitimate justification, any such requirement should be removed for all residences. Irrespective of evidential backing (which, again, this policy lacks), the administration should not baselessly pick and choose where to enforce or relax their mandates. The SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads through droplets in the air, and air moves freely throughout an apartment or dormitory regardless of whether or not that apartment or dormitory is an RPI-owned property.

Second, your office has revoked remote learning requests for all students who had been previously approved. You dubiously claimed your office’s original approvals—which were sent out in the originally promised timelines and were seemingly manually delivered—were done so “by accident” and you have stated that there would only be “limited exceptions” with regard to housing waiver approvals. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Student Living and Learning stated that all such requests would be approved. Violating this promise erodes what little respect and trust the student body still has in your ability to fulfill the responsibilities of the office of Dean of Students.

Third, and in line with my second point, the decision to deny remote learning requests continues to needlessly force students and their families into financial hardships. Those students mandated to be on campus will be forced to travel during a global health crisis and undergo a nerve-wracking and mentally taxing quarantine period upon their arrival in New York. Sophomores who have signed leases in Troy or at home after being approved for remote learning will have to cover the costs associated with those leases as well as covering the costs of RPI-mandated room and board. Even if initial approvals were indeed an accident—which is a questionable assertion at best—pushing off the consequences of the administration’s incompetence onto the student body is morally bankrupt and adds unnecessary financial and mental strain on families already struggling to get by.

Fourth, and let me be perfectly clear here: if you deny even a single remote learning request, you are endangering the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and community members by forcing students to return to campus despite reservations they may have. In addition to this, many students have sick or immunocompromised family members or loved ones, and this decision needlessly risks their lives as well. No monetary gain—regardless of its bearing on the Institute’s admittedly precarious financial situation— is worth the death of even a single member of our great RPI community. This decision continues the administration's tradition of making decisions without communicating with or listening to the students, alumni, faculty, or staff.

As a healthcare provider, I implore you to approve all remote learning requests, regardless of the requested reason. I can personally attest that the Capital District is quickly spiking in cases; my EMS agency has been routinely understaffed, and even part-time workers are being asked to work 60-hour weeks simply to handle the vast call volume. There are personal protective equipment shortages at every service and healthcare facility, and hospitals are quickly reaching capacity. COVID-19 hospitalizations in Rensselaer County and the surrounding areas are at an all-time high. We all have a moral and ethical—not financial—obligation to do everything in our power to slow the spread of COVID-19, and you have the power to safeguard the lives of RPI students, faculty, and staff by allowing them to remain remote.

Last week I had the unfortunate duty of performing CPR on a young lady—a year younger than I am—who had suffered from complications caused by COVID-19. Despite our best efforts, we did not successfully resuscitate her. The wails and sobbing of her parents as we wheeled her to the ambulance is a sound I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, my experience is not novel or unique among my coworkers; Her life, like the lives of 280,000 other Americans and 1,520,000 people worldwide, was cut short. Cases are increasing nationally; every state in the United States is currently experiencing uncontrolled spread, and the CDC is forecasting this winter to be the United States’ darkest hour. To risk the lives of students and their families in the name of RPI's bottom line during this global health crisis is the most callous, amoral, and shortsighted decision the RPI administration has ever made. Quite frankly, I'm sickened to be associated with the administration, even as a student.

It isn’t too late: you are in a unique position as the Dean of Students to push the administration towards evidence-based health and safety practices. You have the power to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of our RPI community members. You have the power to stand up for what is right regardless of the financial impact on the Institute. Use your position to help, not harm, the RPI community. Or, years from now, you can shamefully remember the students and families you have killed.

I will end this letter by emphasizing that, on average, two people die from COVID-19 every minute. I will leave you with the names and ages of the 100 most recently reported COVID-19 deaths—about how many people died while I was drafting this letter. Wherever possible, I have included facts about these people and their hobbies to drive home the fact that these people are not meaningless numbers on a hastily written dashboard. They were human beings with families, hopes, dreams, and fears. By the time you read and respond to this letter, thousands more will have died. I can only hope that your decisions as Dean of Students do not cause the names of any RPI community members to be added to this list.

  • Honestie Hodges, 14. Caused police reform in Michigan after being handcuffed at 11 years old
  • Sakinah Kama, 44
  • David Rivera Jr., 23
  • Luis Rivera, 25
  • Danny Camacho, 45
  • Brian Keith Saddler, 60. EMT, paramedic, nurse. One of the first to arrive at the North Tower on 9/11.
  • Nick Cordero, 41
  • Tracey M. Murchison, 55
  • Samuel W. “Sam the Fence Man” Arbeeny, 70
  • Ajaz Mohammed Bashir, 54
  • Domingo Vega, 45
  • Judith Patocs, 91. Survived the German occupation of Hungary during WWII
  • Rafael Leonard Black, 71
  • Franky Gonzalez, 59
  • Linda Hansen, 78
  • Melody Reed, 78. Shared her love of photography on instagram @ enchanted_camera
  • Edward Paul McGuire, 85
  • Janine Soleil, 75. Juilliard-educated dancer
  • Michael Wallace Herron, 73
  • Melvin Rascoe, 57
  • Salvatore “Cappi” Capozucca, 65
  • John L. Ferri Jr., 59
  • Evelyn Ochoa-Celano, 63
  • John Patrick Whyte, 69. FDNY firefighter. Retired due to PTSD after 9/11
  • Gregory Andrews, 66
  • Mavis Charles, 63
  • Ronald Vincent Waite, 71
  • Manuel J. Guanaquiza, 59. Loved to cook for his grandchildren
  • Mohibur Rahman, 67
  • Harold James Blake, 91. First generation college graduate, Korean War Veteran
  • Scott Christian-Ragins, 42
  • Beverly Rubock Gray, 70
  • Leonard D. Imperio, 79
  • Lisa G. Mack, 61
  • Ajit Narain, 42
  • Marilu Lopez Santiago, 69
  • Robert “Bob” Zolnerack, 83
  • Loida Tobias, 62
  • Gerard Anderson Kirby DuVillier, 80
  • Richard T. Zaib, 83
  • Allen Y. Lew, 69
  • Melissa Marie Kruppa, 50
  • Robert Johnson, 81
  • Alejandro Hernández, 46
  • Dr. Stephen Kamholz, 72
  • Pik Chi Chan, 82. Worked as a boatswain until he had enough money to start a restaurant
  • William T. Morris, 61
  • Budlino Ramirez, 58
  • Anna Lyrist, 67
  • Daniel M. Garcia, 70
  • Richard G. Klein Sr., 86
  • Sylvia Nestel “Ginger Lief” Lief, 88
  • Theresa Estelle Morris, 92
  • Lawrence Nieuenkirk, 54
  • Arnela Juanico, 45
  • Dianna Russell, 50
  • Roberto S Tobias Sr., 72
  • William “Billy” Scanlan Jr.. 57. FDNY lieutenant, retired due to health issues caused by 9/11
  • Michelle Johnson, 59
  • Fareeda Beharry, 60. Became a home health aide to care for her mother in 2017
  • Scott Christian-Ragins, 42
  • Baruch Haviv, 82
  • Angela Marie Rooney, 103
  • Justo Calixto Andon, 53
  • Rev. Harry Dean Bigby, 82
  • María Elsa Centeno, 57
  • Chai Suthammanont, 68
  • Nevie Lacayo, 41
  • Martha Ortega, 51
  • Vanee Sykes, 53
  • John D. “Pop pop” Annetta, 92
  • Doris Kirkland, 56
  • Charles Kleinberg, 71
  • Marlyn M. Vinuya, 62
  • Dominick J Brancato, 69
  • Yakara Beauvoir, 58
  • Leibel Lederman, 70
  • John McCormack, 61
  • Wayne Steele, 60
  • Ana Ortiz, 82, Home Health Aide
  • Renee French, 54
  • Felicia Friedman, 94
  • Alain Walker, 54
  • William Frank “Willie” Felong, 80
  • Lottie Lucille Gladden, 68
  • Irving Hoppenwasser, 87
  • Joan S. Raines, 81
  • James C. “Jim, Jimmy, Mr. T, JT” Thompson, 75
  • Harriet “Hani” Grossman, 91
  • Joseph P. Murphy, 91
  • Antonio Pepenella, 82
  • John Walter, 80
  • Nita Pippins, 93
  • Dr. Dionysios S. Kotsonis, 89
  • Irene “Rene” Burgonio, 44
  • Anthony Graffigna, 60
  • Beatrice “Bea” Granberg, 79
  • Erwin "Tito" Lambrento, 59
  • Romarico “Ramon” Martinez, 45
  • Eileen O'Shea Cummings, 78


Yaseen M. Mahmoud

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 2022

BS Information Technology and Web Science

BS Mechanical Engineering

NYS Emergency Medical Technician

Pro Board Certified Interior Firefighter