To the RPI Community:
On Monday evening, RPI’s Vice President for Institute Advancement Graig Eastin sent an email to all RPI Alumni in response to a recent Albany Times Union article about Renew Rensselaer. The body of Eastin’s email contained a forwarded open letter from Professor Chris Bystroff to the RPI faculty, dated January 22, 2018.
Bystroff’s letter followed in the wake of the administration’s five page response to the launch of the Renew Rensselaer website, which was provided to the Times Union, and subsequently posted to its website. Sadly, both the administration’s five page response and Bystroff’s letter missed the mark, assuming they were intended to provide reasoned responses to Renew Rensselaer’s research findings, detailed in The Untold Story, and recommendations for improvement, outlined in our Platform. We continue to invite a diligent assessment of the facts we presented and steps for improvement.
As any good researcher knows, correlation does not equal causation. We provided data on our website for alumni giving rates at other schools that have also declined significantly, just not quite as much as at RPI. In his letter, Bystroff directed readers toward an article from Inside Philanthropy which argued quite convincingly that there are many societal shifts and changes influencing both alumni giving rates and the amount of dollars donated. Nonetheless, we have been in contact with many alumni who are interested in giving to the Institute, if they were to see evidence that the Board and the administration would implement necessary changes. Our overwhelming sense is that some straightforward and basic improvements to governance practices, as stated in the platform on our website, would greatly help to boost alumni financial support for RPI.
After reading the aforementioned article, one can conclude that the steep drop in RPI’s donor participation rate appears quite normal. Then, viewing the dollar amount of gifts and bequests to RPI over time, the question becomes: “why aren’t more ‘mega-donors’ coming forward?” We suggest that former senior advancement officers from RPI know the answer; they were the sources for last July’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Unfortunately, they felt compelled to remain anonymous as sources for that article. We believe the answer is clear: the approach that has been taken by the administration toward encouraging alumni giving, for many years now, has not been well received.
Several of our members met with RPI’s board chairman and other trustees on two occasions to both voice our concerns and offer constructive suggestions for improvements to governance based upon the research we conducted. Our offers of help were declined, and our concerns rebuffed. Yet we attempted to keep things in the “family,” as Bystroff suggested in his letter. We made a sincere effort to bring about necessary change, but were met with stiff resistance. So those of us at Renew Rensselaer began to reach out to fellow alumni, knowing they would listen and be perfectly capable of sorting fact from fiction to guide their personal decisions. If some RPI alumni decide to withhold participation in giving, there is a message they are sending that apparently is not being considered by the administration and board. And, if there is any shame to assign, as suggested by Bystroff, it lies with those who are finding it difficult to assess the facts presented on Renew Rensselaer’s website, renewrensselaer.org.
On the whole, Bystroff’s letter appears to be a mostly emotional response; surely disappointing to most alumni who live in a world where facts guide personal decisions. To be perfectly clear, Renew Rensselaer’s website was never intended to stir an emotional response, but rather, to present facts we uncovered that we believe are relevant to all RPI alumni.
It should be abundantly clear that the founders of Renew Rensselaer and the hundreds of alumni who support its platform are not interested in engaging in an emotional skirmish, nor do they have an ulterior motive. To subtly suggest otherwise is a tactic that will ultimately backfire as more and more alumni review the Renew Rensselaer website and realize there are no ad hominem attacks or even suggestions of such. Renew Rensselaer is committed to helping the Institute regain its former stature as RPI enters its third century. Our goal is to unite all of RPI’s constituencies and stimulate higher levels of alumni participation and financial support. But for that to happen, RPI’s alumni must be treated with respect and necessary changes in governance must be implemented.
We think it’s time for Bystroff and Eastin, and all Board of Trustee members, to diligently review the Renew Rensselaer website and determine for themselves if the facts presented are relevant and worth serious consideration; we are confident they will see what our many alumni supporters have already seen. After that review, perhaps a reasoned dialogue will ensue between Renew Rensselaer and the Board of Trustees regarding the platform we presented. We firmly believe that a dialogue based on facts is an essential first step for RPI to regain its rightful standing as one of this nation’s premier technological institutions.