Or­ga­niz­ers: Protest will go on

Sup­port­ers of stu­dent-run union claim col­lege tak­ing ex­treme steps to si­lence them

The Record (Troy, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark Ro­barge mro­barge@troyrecord.com @Mark_Ro­barge on Twit­ter

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.

PHOTO PRO­VIDED

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.

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