Friday, June 22, 2018

Pushed Too Far

Let's not bury the lead: I will not be offering my services to men's hockey as a radio commentator in the coming school year. I will not participate in the annual golf outing. I will not be renewing my season tickets.

This has relatively little to do with the team itself (although not zero), and almost everything to do with the school. With apologies to Howard Beale, I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore.

There's a lot on my mind - so just click here if you just want to skip to the meat and potatoes.

During my first year at RPI, I was encouraged to run for class representative for the fall freshman elections by some friends of mine who knew my extended history with the Institute that went far beyond that of most of my classmates. I didn't really have a whole lot of interest in student government at the time, but I decided to go ahead and put my name forward to help my friends fill out a complete slate of candidates.

If I was going to run, I was going to try and win, so the challenge was to find a platform to run on - and I didn't have a whole lot to offer in terms of actual policy positions. It was OK, I was assured. Most freshmen didn't have much in the way of policy concerns, so a more generalized campaign could work.

I'm a "legacy" at RPI. My grandfather graduated in 1951, and my father graduated in 1979. My great uncle even got his master's at the Institute. To some extent, I grew up with RPI as part of my heritage. I went to hockey games. I tagged along at alumni occasions, and I even participated in youth-oriented seminars and events. When I chose RPI, it was as much because I was proud of my family's association with the school as it was for any of the other myriad reasons that the school rose to the top of my list. It was easy for that to translate into pride in my school.

That was what my friends and I decided on. "Proud to be RPI" was the slogan. It ended up on campaign posters and flyers. I emphasized it when I talked to classmates.

I lost in a landslide.

The loss slid off my shoulders fairly easily - I hadn't had any real interest in the position in the first place - but what really intrigued me afterwards was that, anecdotally, the campaign emphasizing school pride not only did not help me win, it probably actively helped me lose. "Nobody's proud of this school," I was told. "Half of us are still pissed that we didn't get into MIT." I got it, sort of. I didn't get into MIT, either.

That was my introduction to the idea that school pride at RPI wasn't anywhere near what it was at your average institute of higher learning. The alumni giving figures bore that out as well - even when I arrived on campus in 2000, the rate at which former students gave back to their alma mater was lower than the national average.

I didn't care. I was still proud to be there, and still proud of my school. That pride persisted for years after I graduated.

I was even long proud of the way the school operated. During my time at RPI and in the first few years as an alumnus, I had no complaints, and in fact thought things were being managed quite well. In the last couple of years, however, I have seen my pride battered and abused by an administration that has become hellbent on getting what it wants, when it wants, and has no time for dissension.

In February of 2016, control of the school athletics budget was unilaterally taken away from the Student Union. As chairman of the Union's Athletic Board for my junior and senior years - the subcommittee of the Executive Board that scrutinized each team's budget and ultimately submitted it for approval - I can honestly say that the move probably eliminated potential headaches down the road for athletics in general, whether from the NCAA or in limitations that the larger Institute would not have. But the Union had control of this aspect of student life for 124 years... and it was yanked without so much as a discussion, let alone input from elected student leaders. Complaints were summarily dismissed.

It was a blueprint for more daring usurpations to come.

From there came a more unfettered move to seize control of the Student Union in general, stopped after pushback in 2016 but only for a short time - a tactical retreat from the administration turned into a more forceful move to take over in 2017. That campaign featured aggressive measures meant to silence students, including the systematic removal of posters, a walling off of a sizable chunk of campus, and intimidation tactics used against protest leaders, adding to an already considerable culture of fear that has been nurtured in the last decade.

Alums took notice, and unbridled by that atmosphere, registered their own complaints at an inopportune time for the administration - right at the beginning of a capital campaign meant to raise $1 billion. The administration's response to this growing alumni dissatisfaction with news story after news story from Troy was to send out to all alums an internal letter from Professor Chris Bystroff laden with such slavish devotion to the administration that it bordered on the absurd, while at the same time lashing out at unhappy alums with brazen ad hominem attacks.

I took zero umbrage at Prof. Bystroff calling me and those like me a racist, a sexist, and... heightist, if that's a thing. Whether someone is a racist or not is objectively true or untrue, and I know I'm none of those things. I know most if not all of those who have been critical of the administration are similarly none of those things. His assertion to the contrary, as a matter of demonstrable fiction, simply made me laugh. (Unfortunately for Prof. Bystroff, whether or not someone's an asshole is completely subjective, and I have some bad news for him. But congrats on your grant, sir. Hope you can use it to change the world.)

That the Institute thought attacking their alumni would be a useful way to get them back in line and re-open the wallets is a testament to just how out of touch its administration has become. They may have cowed faculty, staff, and many students through intimidation, but alumni do not have their futures controlled by the school and are far less susceptible to such tactics.

Now, this administration has proposed a collective punishment for the Greek system that threatens to lay waste a crucial element of the school's social environment, and doing so during summer recess, a time during which pushback from students can be blunted until plans are advanced ahead of their return in August.

College is about more than just going to classes and receiving grades. It's about personal growth on many planes, not simply on the intellectual level. My fraternity played an integral and positive role in shaping the man that I became during my experience at the Institute - more important than any one class, professor, or advisor.

I'm not pollyannaish enough to claim that the Greek system is without flaws. I'm certain there are things that could be done to improve every single house on campus, including my own, and I've seen some of the truly awful things that have gone on around the nation. There are probably some houses on campus that require very serious structural changes. But not all of them. In all honesty, not most or even half of them.

It does not require essentially banning Greek life for the fall semester, as has been proposed. The ban on recruitment is especially odious. It could be a virtual death knell for some of the smaller houses on campus. All houses depend on certain expected recruitment levels in order to keep their books balanced, especially for those who have mortgage payments to make. Dropping this bomb without warning - and indeed, in a manner clearly meant to minimize student outrage - makes one believe that the idea of houses closing is a feature and not a bug in terms of the end result of this "Greek Life Task Force" in the eyes of the Institute.

It's another underhanded move by an administration that has engaged in far too many of them over the last few years. It's another move that has outraged stakeholders across the board, and the early reaction to that outrage is becoming familiar: the administration simply does not care. They know what they want to achieve and the anger is easily dismissable.

(TL;DR - I've long been proud of my school, but enough is enough.)

I first considered doing something along these lines a couple of years ago, when it first became apparent that the RPI administration was seeking to usurp student control of the Union. Feeling relatively helpless about the unfolding situation, I thought perhaps the school losing one of its more dedicated contributors for one of its more visible media elements might be a wake-up call.

I let it go at the time. Truth be told, I enjoyed it too much to let go of it and I felt a sense of obligation - many times, if I was unavailable for a broadcast, there might not have even been a broadcast, and I frequently took it personally if there was no broadcast, even if it was because of something more important, like my family. No broadcast means plenty of fans, alums, and parents who would need to seek an alternative option to listen to the game. (I settled on thanking the "independent, student run Rensselaer Union" before the start of periods as a quiet pushback.)

Loyalty was the touchstone.

But as outrage began to pile upon outrage, it has finally pushed me to the point where I would be utterly unable to reconcile a deep and growing concern with the actions of this administration and my own sense of right and wrong. The problems have mounted to a level that precludes my honest continued association.

This administration has actively attempted to undermine student-self governance at the Rensselaer Union, without cause.

This administration has presided over falling rankings in the engineering programs that made this school prominent, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

This administration has presided over a continuing decline in alumni giving - levels of which were well below the national average when I was a freshman, but also represented a high that has never again been reached 18 years later.

This administration has presided over a massive increase in institutional debt, a decline in the value of the endowment, and a decline in overall net asset value.

This administration has presided over declining metrics in general with relation to peer institutions.

This administration has presided over a decline in the Institute's bond rating to a position hovering just above junk status.

This administration has for years ignored serious concerns about adherence to nationally accepted standards for academic governance.

This administration has watched talented members of the school's faculty and staff depart in disgust for years, and it is extremely doubtful that this exodus is ending any time soon.

This administration has surrounded itself with a bloated bureaucracy that seems forbidden to offer courses of action that have not been pre-approved from above, and which refuses to engage in self-criticism.

Now, this administration has moved to decimate a vibrant Greek system that has long been a model for Greek life nationwide.

This administration, over the last three years, has done something remarkable. They've taken a person who had an uncanny and certainly unusual amount of pride in a school that rarely seems to engender such pride in its students and alums, and turned him into someone who is quite ashamed.

My nephew, who is about to graduate from high school, showed some interest in RPI during his junior year. I gave him a personal tour of campus, topped off with an evening at the Field House where we watched the Engineers play Dartmouth. The experience seemed to pique his interest.

But several months later, as he began his senior year and began preparing to apply to colleges, I had to tell him my true feelings. In the aftermath of the crackdown against student protesters at the capital campaign kickoff in October, I had to tell my nephew - with a lump in my throat - that I could not recommend my beloved alma mater, not given the way they were treating their students. He did not apply. He will be attending SUNY Geneseo in the fall.

I've shown my loyalty. This season, it was turning out to the Field House on a Saturday night, sick as a dog and unable to hold anything down, because no one else was available to call a home game against Princeton (be glad you couldn't see me on the radio or on RPITV). It was driving three hours through total white-out conditions and partially along roads that were closed in order to make sure there was a broadcast for Game 1 of the playoffs against Colgate - not because I had anything to gain, because expense reimbursement and free entry are the only perks. It was because I have been loyal to a fault despite having to endure watching four losses for every win in the last two seasons.

I know this decision comes at a time when walking away is "easier." If the Engineers had been on some kind of tear recently, or if this coming season were one filled with expectation and big dreams, I'm certain that it would have been more difficult for me to reach this conclusion.

This is not an indictment of those tough times, although I'd be lying if I said I didn't think the administration was playing an outsized role in creating them. Their blasé reaction to concerns lodged by prominent hockey alums in 2017 during the coaching change - including some of the most legendary names in a proud history - was shocking. The outright dismissal of criticism registered by Adam Oates in particular was enough to make one's jaw drop. But then again, when you compare it to everything else going on at the Institute at the present time, the downturn in results and the tin ear toward criticism fits right in with all of it.

After watching the administration's thuggish tactics against student dissent, it was easy to resolve not to participate in the Institute's capital campaign. You will imagine my shock, then, to receive a letter late last year thanking me for my $40 donation to that campaign. It was my wife who ultimately called to ask about the donation - I was far too angry to be able to make a rational inquiry. It was, she learned, the donation I had made to attend the end-of-season banquet in 2017, well before the capital campaign was even announced.

Enough is enough. I have been pushed too far. If a donation to the hockey program is now considered a gift to a campaign I have no intention of supporting for an administration that is completely out of control, I must consider what other contributions are in danger of bolstering this insanity. It is therefore with great reluctance that I must decline to enjoy the annual golf outing that has long been a highlight of my summer, and must relinquish my season tickets in Section 17. To the extent that this blog and its associated Twitter account was still active, that activity will now cease.

I know this screed has been long (even for those who skipped a bit), but I don't want anyone to feel as though this is some kind of exercise in self-indulgence. I don't harbor any delusions that I hold any sway whatsoever over anything at all, or that this action will be that kind of magic wake-up call I considered last year that will change anything at any level. This is about not feeling helpless, and it is a sincere apology for those who have come to enjoy my contributions. I do not want to do this, but I don't feel like I have any other choice.

I will continue to follow this team, and my heart still pumps the Cherry and White through my veins. I'm sure I'll drop in for a game or two. I wish Coach Smith and his charges nothing but success that I fervently hope that they achieve.

Let's go Red.

Jackson out.

Tom Reale '04

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article Tom. Sums up my feelings exactly, I just can't express them as eloquently.


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