From the moment they enter the Institute, students are in control of nearly every aspect of campus life. They become automatic members of the Rensselaer Union a self-supporting and self-governing body that controls, finances, and organizes student activities and are responsible for its business operations, including the University Bookstore, a convenience food store, a post office substation, a full-service bank, and a number of other retail operations.
Each spring students elect new leaders from among their peers to help manage the student life experience at Rensselaer on their behalf. The president of the student body, the Grand Marshal, is chosen to fulfill a role similar to that of a CEO within the Union. The President of the Union is elected to act as the Union’s CFO, overseeing its $8.5 million budget with the assistance of the 12 appointed students on the Union Executive Board. Finally, senators are elected to the Student Senate, which operates as the student government’s chief legislative body.
The Union recognizes 164 service, media, religious, performing and visual arts, multicultural, and athletic clubs and organizations. Approximately 130 of those clubs are funded and receive an annual budget. Much like the other parts of the Union, the clubs are student-run, meaning participants are responsible for governing their organizations and recruiting new members, planning and running their own events, and managing their own funds.
“We’re one of only a handful of student-run Unions in the country, and the responsibility and control that we’ve been given to manage our own affairs allows us to support many people to do many different things,” says James Fisher, the 123rd President of the Union. “At most schools you would see students offered about 30 or 40 different clubs to choose to be involved in we’re fortunate to be able to maintain four times as many organizations.”
The high level of independence students are given allows them the freedom to take ownership of their clubs, and gives them the control to ensure that the organizations are appropriately structured to best suit their needs and interests, according to Fisher.
“It’s up to the students to make their own decisions in terms of what direction they want to see their group go, what events they want to hold, and what activities they want to do. It gives them a real sense of responsibility, accountability, and accomplishment,” says Union Director Rick Hartt ’70. “The Union staff is here to counsel students on the day-to-day questions or problems that come up, but I never see our role as being directors, or mandating what their activities or actions should be.”
Union Activities Coordinator Cameron McLean helps students manage their club budgets to keep them on the right financial track, showing students how to stretch out their dollars or cut from one program to make up for deficits.
“The students are essentially running a small business they write a budget, they have a set amount of money to pull from, and they have to manage it appropriately. These are practical applications that students will absolutely need in the real world,” says McLean. “It’s a really powerful way to show them that if they want something to be a success an event, a pizza party, a fundraiser they have to work at it and be responsible for it.”