Top Hat

The state of shared governance

By Cait Bennett November 9, 2022

Wow, things have changed in two years. We have seen a shift in leadership and we have emerged from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, to name a few. Personally, I can barely reconcile who I was in 2020 with who I am now. There’s something else: in September 2020, my predecessor Advaith Narayan ’21 wrote a Top Hat called “Sharing governance when administrators won’t.” Today, I believe we are seeing the resurgence of shared governance at Rensselaer and a thawing of the formerly icy relationship between students and administrators. It is an opportunity for student leaders to take on the responsibility and accountability they signed up for.

What is shared governance?

There are a few quotes from Advaith’s article that I feel define shared governance particularly well. In principle, shared governance is “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.” That is to say, shared governance takes the form of shared responsibility and accountability.

There is a difference between accountability and responsibility in leadership. Responsibility is action-oriented, whereas accountability is about the consequences of an action. For example, members of the Elections Commission are responsible for carrying out tasks to accomplish the election, but should they fail to carry out those tasks, the Elections Commission chairperson and the Grand Marshal would be held accountable.

Advaith also shared a methodology to achieve shared governance: “broad and unending communication.” Anyone who has ever held a leadership position can attest to this. I learned this lesson while planning the Grand Marshal/President of the Union Brunch held annually during Family Weekend. As the first one held since before COVID-19, President of the Union Colleen Corrigan ’22G and I took more responsibility for the event than my predecessors had. We planned catering, organized a program, ordered commemorative mugs, and sent out invitations.

While Colleen and I were responsible for the event, we shared accountability for the outcome with our administrative advisor. If the event didn’t happen, she would also be held accountable for that. We learned that “broad and unending communication” was crucial to provide security and support for all parties involved. The GM/PU Brunch ended up being a lovely example of what good can come from allowing students and administrators to share responsibility.

Today’s shared governance

We have established the two benchmarks of responsibility and accountability with one critical methodology: broad and unending communication. Then, the question becomes, how are we doing with these three concepts?

Students are regularly included in providing solutions for the hot-button issues of our student experience. The regular review of the Rensselaer Handbook for Student Rights and Responsibilities involves multiple students providing recommendations, some of whom are actively writing policies to be included. Some policies currently under review include the Alcohol and Other Drug Policy and the Judicial Process. Outside of the Handbook, students’ feedback on the Arch is being integrated into the program. Students are coming to the table with concrete solutions to the problems that the Arch creates, including scheduling shifts to prevent burnout and modifications to the preparation course.

In November 2021, the Student Senate reviewed the Student Life Performance Plan for the first time on record since 2014. The Student Life Performance Plan is the long term trajectory of the Student Life division, which is critical to the student experience. Last year, students provided feedback on how the Division of Student Life could best support financially struggling students, including providing complimentary toiletries in addition to support for food insecurity. Since students are actively living through these changes, they are the most reliable and creative source for solving long term problems.

We have also seen more regular communication between the GM and PU with the President of the Institute. Last year, I met with the president once each semester, an increase from previous years. This semester, I have approximately one meeting per month scheduled with President Martin Schmidt ’81. The President also attended the last student Senate General body meeting, an event that hasn’t occurred in at least six years. We intend to continue the tradition of student leaders connecting with the President on a monthly basis to ensure continued support for our students.

Finally, the GM and PU have had our permanent membership reinstated to the Board of Trustees Student Life Committee. The committee reviews high-level trends in the student experience across the Institute. This membership has been lacking for the five years I have been here and, based on our historical records, has been gone for over 10 years at this point. Our position on this committee will allow students to provide direct feedback on the high-level direction from RPI’s Board of Trustees.

Rensselaer Forward: the future of shared governance

Shared governance is built on constant communication, consistent accountability, and shared responsibility. The items I shared above are examples of these principles becoming a reality. We are making steady but tangible progress in the right direction and you can feel the results every day. We are less tense. We are laughing more. We are less preoccupied with control and more preoccupied with creativity. Things are getting better.

Spread the word and get involved with Senate and other organizations like Interfraternity Council, Black Graduate Student Association, class councils, etc.

I completely understand if you’re skeptical about these changes. While I urge you to be open-minded in the coming years as RPI eases into a new administration, a healthy dose of skepticism keeps our alma mater going in the right direction. I am always available for questions at and I am sure my successors will do the same. Share this with your friends, even the more skeptical. And lastly, keep faith in what RPI has been and what it can be.