Fascinating Student Column Focuses on ‘The Fine Print’ of College Life

Nathan Lichtenstein likes looking at the fine print.

Over the past year, the Rochester Institute of Technology junior has dived into the nitty gritty of policies, procedures and contracts impacting RIT students, faculty and staff. The related column he produces every other week — aptly named “The Fine Print” — runs in the student news outlet Reporter Magazine.

Through “The Fine Print,” Lichtenstein aims to dissect, interpret, question, critique and praise terms and conditions which cover everything from campus housing, professor tenure and parking tickets to intellectual property, course grades and student free speech.

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In past columns, he has pointed out especially interesting, vague and unenforceable policies, while also ensuring students know their rights to activities such as protesting on campus and having a “friend” stay in their dorm room overnight.

His work also serves as a larger call-to-arms to student media nationwide about the importance of looking more closely at the many school handbooks, manuals, rules and contracts which shape a student’s collegiate existence.

In the Q&A below, Lichtenstein, 20, from Montville, N.J., discusses the origins of his column and offers advice to students seeking to explore their own school’s fine print.

Nathan Lichtenstein is a staff writer at RIT's Reporter Magazine.

Nathan Lichtenstein is a staff writer at RIT’s Reporter Magazine.

What compelled you to start “The Fine Print”?

The short answer: I tend to write about things that bother me. In October 2013, the issue of bicycle riders and pedestrian safety on campus was bothering me, so I decided to write about it. I thought that the policy I was referencing … had a lot of interesting information that may not have been common knowledge to all students. At that point, I pitched the idea of “The Fine Print” column and I was off to the races.

What is an example of some fine print you found especially newsworthy or surprising?

Some of my favorite “Fine Print” articles are those that tie in to greater campus issues. My most recent policy was centered on a clause in an RIT housing contract. But the greater issue I discussed was the apparent lack of enforcement of — or the inability to enforce — certain policies.

One of the most surprising things I’ve discovered when writing a “Fine Print” is the elegant, almost poetic verbiage in RIT’s policy that addresses student demonstrations on campus. Though policies are the law of the land, they are still interesting and sometimes inspiring to read.

[A portion of the RIT governance policy on student demonstrations: “RIT firmly believes that among its goals and responsibilities are the free pursuit of truth and intellectual and moral development of its students. … Because the rights of free speech and lawful assembly are fundamental to the democratic process and the academic process, RIT supports the rights of all its members freely to express their views and to protest against actions and opinions with which they disagree, using peaceful and lawful means of dissent.”]

In a larger sense, as a society, we seem to be so turned off by the lengthy contracts and documents laid out for us that we sign or accept things without even bothering to read them. What’s your take on the fine print we’re so often saddled with?

I tend to think that as a society, we try to cover our butts as much as possible. A lot of the time this comes in the form of novel-like “End User License” agreements on software or policies you are binding yourself to as a student. I come from a family full of lawyers, so I understand the legal need for these documents and policies. I do believe, however — and this is generally conveyed through my writing in “The Fine Print” — that what you’re signing should have meaning. Clauses and caveats shouldn’t be included in a document or contract for the sake of being there.

Separately, what’s your advice for student journalists interested in following in your footsteps and taking a close look at the fine print related to their college or university?

Reporter Magazine recently adopted a new mission statement in which we state, “We [Reporter Magazine] provide peer level perspective in a publication while remaining editorially independent.” I take that statement to heart and objectively feel the need to report what is true. However, I don’t take this as my charge to purposefully dig around for controversial things that my college is dong wrong.

My take on “The Fine Print” is a mixed bag of positive and negative policies. I’m as likely to write about a policy I am in support of as one that I am not. If another student journalist was going to take one thing away from me, it would be to keep an open mind. Policies aren’t necessarily out to get you. They may be there to help and protect you.

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