Organizers: Protest will go on
Supporters of student-run union claim college taking extreme steps to silence them
TROY, N.Y. » Opponents of what they claim is an attempt by the administration at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to take control of the Rensselaer Union from its student leadership say their planned protest at a signature college event will go on despite what they claim are extreme steps to stop them from sharing their message with influential alumni.
When the peaceful demonstration sponsored by the group Save the Union kicks off at 4:30 p.m. Friday outside the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center and the Richard G. Folsom Library, the group will also have the support of a nonprofit group dedicated to defending civil liberties on campus.
The college administration has already denied permission for the group to protest outside a blacktie event for alumni only being hosted by college President Shirley Anne Jackson to kickoff a new capital campaign, but organizers circumvented that ruling — as it did for a similar protest in March 2016 — by enlisting the help of a professor who agreed to host a “lab class” at the same time and place as the planned protest. Now, Save the Union claims, the college is planning to encircle EMPAC, the Folsom Library and the surrounding area with a large fence to keep protesters out of view of partygoers while also looking to enlist security assistance from local police agencies.
Richie Hunter, the college’s vice presdeint for strategic communications and external relations, said by email Thursday that c ollege administrators were taking steps they deemed necessary “to ensure these events, and the pedestrain traffric accompanying them, are not disrupted.”
“Some of the safety concerns
include: fireworks, which require a specific perimeter to ensure safety; ensuring access and safety for those with mobility challenges; and maintaining the required egress for emergency vehicles,” Hunter explained.
Hunter also took issue with a letter sent to Jackson by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on Monday in which the nonprofit group called on the college to reverse a campuswide ban on demonstrations this weekend, which is RPI’s annual Reunion & Homecoming weekend.
“Rensselaer’s preplanned restraint on student and faculty dissent during homecoming, expressly imposed in order to devote all resources to activities promoting the institution, is an unacceptable encroachment on the free speech and assembly rights that RPI promises to its students,” reads the letter, which is signed by Adam Steenburgh, the group’s senior officer for its Individual Rights Defense Program. “Accordingly, FIRE asks that you adhere to your Student Bill of Rights by withdrawing the prohibition on student demonstrations during this period.”
The Philadelphia-based organization, founded in 1999 by Alan Charles Kors, a libertarian professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvey A. Silverglate, a civil-liberties lawyer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, specifically monitors how colleges from coast to
coast adhere to constitutional guarantees of free speech. The group offers individual ratings of colleges on its website, www.thefire.org, with RPI getting its worst rating, being proclaimed a “red light institution” because it has currently in effect “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
Among other Capital Region colleges and universities rated by the group, the University at Albany also scored a “red light” rating, while Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs earned a “yellow light” designation because it has “at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.”
Hunter responded, however, that the college had received just the one request to demonstrate this weekend and that the decision to deny permission was one based solely on campus safety concerns.
“Those with expertise in event management and security determined that a demonstration would pose significant disruption of already-planned events and raises concerns for the safety of attendees,” Hunter said, “therefore, after careful review, that specific request was denied.”
Hunter went on to say college officials had offered to sit down and discuss alternate dates and sites, but their requests had gone unanswered.
“There are a number of communication channels being utilized between students, student leaders and the administration [regarding the Rensselaer Union],”
she said. “There are highly productive communications with the Grand Marshal and President of the Union occurring on a daily basis. These conversations are focused on Student Union staff positions and overall concerns the students have conveyed around the continued student-run Union.”
Friday’s protest comes nearly two years after RPI administrators abruptly fired the student-hired union director, Joe Cassidy, in December 2015, setting in motion what Save the Union and its supporters believe is a plan to take control of the lucrative facility, which has been run by students since it was formed in 1890. Save the Union claims that move, followed by what it sees as several subsequent attempts to fill the position with a college appointee, is aimed at helping Jackson
to attain complete control over all aspects of the college, as well as to dip into the union’s revenue, which comes from student services such as a bookstore, meeting rooms and other spaces for clubs and other organizations to meet, as well as entertainment, performing arts and fitness facilities.
The college’s finances have been in question in recent years, with Standard & Poor’s, a leading credit rating agency, lowering RPI’s long-term bond rating at the beginning of 2017 from A- to BBB+, citing the college’s high debt burden and low available resources. BBB is the lowest score for which a bond would be considered investment-grade, according to S&P.
College officials denied permission for a March 30, 2016, protest outside EMPAC
during Jackson’s annual Spring Town Meeting, after students learned the college had included the duties of the union director in a new position of vice president of student services and dean of students. Just as he’s doing again Friday, however, Bill Puka, a tenured faculty member in the college’s Cognitive Science Department whose areas of teaching and research include moral-political philosophy and democracy and anarchism, scheduled a “lab class” that drew hundreds of students, faculty, staff and alumni who surrounded the walkway leading to EMPAC on March 30, 2016.
Friday’s protest will also target college trustees, who came out in support of Jackson’s most recent claim that she should have final authority over the hiring of a union director, issuing a memo Sept. 27 in which it said ultimate control over the Rensselaer Union should sit with Jackson and her administration. The letter also included a vote of confidence for Jackson, who has been the object of criticism by students, faculty, staff and alumni for what they claim is heavyhanded administrative tactics.
Supporters of the student-run Rensselaer Union at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute say college administrators ordered the installation of a fence around two campus buildings that will host a black-tie gala Friday night where protesters plan to picket against what they see as the administration’s attempt to wrest control of the union away from students for the first time in its 127-year history.