Rensselaer Polytechnic Professor Attributes Plummeting Alumni Donations to Racism, Sexism

Group seeking reform says decline due to an unhealthy campus culture

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute / Wikimedia Commons
January 31, 2018

Alumni at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have expressed shock and anger after the New York university sent them a letter Monday, written by a professor, that attributed plummeting alumni donations to racism, sexism, and "heightism" against the university president.

In a letter originally sent to fellow faculty, Christopher Bystroff, a professor of biological sciences and computer science director of the bioinformatics program, reasoned that bias toward RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson, who is black and short, was underlying the steady decline in alumni donations that began in 2001, two years after Jackson began her tenure.

"Did you notice that the downturn in alumni donations began immediately after Dr. Jackson's installation? Not a sign of a well-reasoned response," wrote Bystroff in response to a local news piece that found an "increasingly autocratic leadership" as the motivation for alums directing their giving elsewhere.

"Did she become an autocrat on day one?" wrote Bystroff. "How long does it take to establish a reputation as a non-transparent autocrat?"

Bystroff continued, "What she did become on day one was the first woman of color who was elevated to the presidency of a major university. I can't help thinking that if she were white, male (and maybe a bit taller!), she would not be so quickly dismissed as an autocrat."

"Could it be that the residual racism and sexism (not to mention heightism) that sits in the backs of the minds of the white male majority of our alumni makes it just a bit easier to see Dr. Jackson as outside of her league ... out of her place?" he wrote. "Are we to fantasize that Martin Luther King successfully erased all traces of racism and there is nothing left to fight? Could it be that the microaggressions that happen when we fail to stop them aren't still happening between some of our alumni and the figurehead of our school? And aren't those microaggressions made 'macro' by the quantity of their donations? I'm talking about the Patroon level folks."

Annual Patroon Society donations begin at $2,500 and rise to six figures.

Annual alumni donations have steadily declined since the early aughts due to an unhealthy campus culture made poisonous by the poor leadership of an opaque administration, a flailing financial strategy, and a declining academic reputation, according to Renew Rensselaer, an alumni collective pursuing institutional reforms. Earlier this month, Renew Rennsselaer posted online the results of its two-year investigation into RPI financial and governance, and later spoke with the local Times Union about their findings.

Bystroff told the Washington Free Beacon the Times Union's "interpretation didn't match the time frames," as he believes the donor drop off started too quickly after Jackson's tenure for anyone to have been honestly responding to an assessment of her job performance.

"I'm not saying all the accusations [against the administration] aren't true, but there's more than one thing at play," he said. "And it's not fair to ignore something—race, gender—that may be a very substantial factor."

He noted that the comment on Jackson's height was meant to be a humorous aside, and that he was not accusing the alumni of being any more racist than the general population.

When asked what he believed the impact other factors might have had on the donor drop-off, Bystroff said he is neither a social scientist nor an economist, and was not the one to answer such questions.

Bystroff sent his email to the faculty on Jan. 22. Vice president of institute advancement Graig Eastin forwarded it to the alumni list on Monday.

"Because you are all ambassadors of the Institute, I wanted to make sure you received a copy of his email," wrote Eastin.

Bystroff said his email was shared without prior warning, but that he would have happily signed off had administrators asked.

"I stand by what I wrote," said Bystroff, though he noted that he might have altered the tone had the letter been addressed to alumni.

August Fietkau, a technical project manager at the Financial Times and 2009 RPI graduate, said he was "shocked and at a loss for words" by the email.

"Never have I ever seen something like this directed at alumni. At first I thought it was a hoax," said Fietkau.

While the RPI press office maintained in a statement that "Bystroff's views are his own," Fietkau said that RPI tacitly endorsed those views by sending out the letter on RPI letterhead, and with no disclaimer.

"A normal university response would be to fire the person responsible next day, and issue an explicit apology. We aren't getting that," said Fietkau.

Wade Abbott, a 1995 alum who works in communications and community organizing in the RPI area, called the email an insult to the very people the debt-strapped university must court for donations.

"I'm just getting to the place financially where I could donate, but I'm not giving a dime until I see significant management changes at multiple levels," said Abbott. "This is not just the president. It's a far bigger issue. Change needs to occur at the Board of Trustees level."

The campus culture is problematic not because it is racist, but because of a "culture of fear imposed by the administration against being critical of RPI," said Abbott, referring to disciplinary action taken against peaceful student protesters in the fall.

Fietkau and Abbott both said the Bystroff email points to a fissure between the administration and alumni that may be irreparable.

RPI said it "is extremely appreciative of the generosity of our alumni who do give and support the university. "