RPI Students Plan Protest To 'Save The Union'

Mar 29, 2016

Students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are challenging a university decision impacting the 125-year-old Rensselaer Union.

Students are worried about the future of the student-run union, according to junior Mark McGivern, who says there's been a long history of administration-student body discord. A "The kind of spark that set this all ablaze was a recent article in the Washington Post saying that RPI's finances are so mismanaged they had to post an assurance to the U.S. government that they had four million cash on hand to pay loans."

The Post article says the school " is required to post a $4 million letter for flunking the department’s financial responsibility test. The research university is mired in debt, with nearly $1 billion in liabilities from issuing bonds to cover construction and years of operating at a deficit."

Also sparking concern:  A job posting was discovered over spring break with a plan to supplant student leadership. It entails dismantling the 125-year-old, student-run Rensselaer Union, currently controlled entirely by students who manage its finances, employees, and sub-organizations.  "Us students elect a board, the executive board, to disperse funds, and they are in charge of an over $4 million budget."

McGivern adds there are only a handful of other student unions in the country that are run in such a way. The students decided to mount a challenge. A protest kicks off Wednesday at 2 p.m. outside the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, where President Shirley Ann Jackson is scheduled to hold a town hall meeting at 3. RPI Professor Bill Puka  moved his class to coincidentally the same location and time: "This is a normal ethic class I hold outside every year called 'The Spring Ethics & Democracy Serenade." I'm holding it at EMPAC, the EMPAC building, because that's where the president's town hall is taking place, which is incidentally not a town hall but a kind of presidential state of the union."

Frank Ross, Vice President of Student Life, says the college values student opinion and input. "We live in a democracy now. We want students to use their voice and share their opinions. I think one of the greatest opportunities for that is attending the university-wide town-hall meeting tomorrow. Because it's for all members of the university community and we encourage folks to attend, and if they have questions they want to ask, that's the venue for that to happen, and President Jackson will be there to respond to the questions."

Puka says all RPI students are welcome to sit in on his outdoor class. He claims he was asked by the administration if he is trying to use his power as a professor to go against the decision to deny the protest.   "I actually don't believe in protests. But I do believe in teaching students ethically activist skills and democracy skill, and this is the perfect opportunity to do so."

And what about that protest? Again, Ross: "I honestly don't know anything about that. All I know is that we received an application from students. We reviewed the application and it was handled per institute policy, so, we have no student protest approved and scheduled for tomorrow."