[Full] Interview with Charles Carletta, Sr.

in Culture

In our most recent issue, we sat down with Charles Carletta, Sr., Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel, a member of Dr. Jackson’s Cabinet. Unfortunately we couldn’t print the full interview, but here it is in its entirety. Enjoy.

Statler & Waldorf: Your position at RPI is Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel. Could you explain a little bit more about what that position entails?

Carletta: The combined position of Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel covers different areas. One, it helps the President, at her direction, work with the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees has a specific role that is laid out in the corporate charter and the bylaws of the Institute. The General Counsel’s role is that of a resident lawyer in a corporate atmosphere. If you took out the students and the faculty, RPI would be like any other corporation. The General Counsel is responsible for reviewing the contracts that Rensselaer has, for reviewing and helping to design and implement all of the policies that govern the personnel and students at RPI, and for managing the insurance portfolio at RPI. What’s been added at Rensselaer is the export control portfolio, which is a compliance program that requires the community at RPI to be in compliance with United States regulations concerning the export of technology, which can be very complicated stuff. I am charged also with generally assisting all of the other portfolios accomplish their goals within our planning structure as defined in the Rensselaer Plan. Our strategies and outcomes are looked at annually in Performance Plans. The General Counsel supports all of that.

S&W: Tells us a little bit about what you did before you came to RPI.

Carletta: Before I came to RPI, I worked in and then helped manage a law firm in Troy that specialized in higher education law. It didn’t start out that way, but one of the early lawyers was RPI’S first Counsel and then became Russell Sage College’s first Counsel. And then when I came in, I expanded the list of clients to about a dozen different colleges and universities across the country. I developed policies for colleges with all of the new laws that came out, like FERPA, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act; Title IX, ensuring opportunities for women in higher education. Before I came into private practice in Troy, I was in the Air Force. I was a lawyer—it’s called a JAG, for Judge Advocate General. I prosecuted, and sometimes defended, criminal cases. I was also responsible for affirmative action on some bases in the Southeastern United States, and I was responsible for claims against Air Force hospitals at different points in my career. It was a great career for a young lawyer in the military.

S&W: I understand that you’ve lived in the Troy area all your life. What changes have you seen?

Carletta: I was born and raised in the Troy area. I went to grade school three blocks from my house and my high school a block away from that at La Salle Institute. It was a wonderful city in which to grow up; it was very vibrant. Walking the streets of Troy on a Friday night or Saturday was like being at a major mall today. It was that exciting. Everybody knew everybody—you never saw people you didn’t know. Troy was a small community of about fifty thousand. I grew up in the center of the city. There were elegant neighborhoods that we could ride our bicycles through. It was nothing for me at age ten to get on a bicycle and ride several miles for half a day. My parents didn’t think twice about it. It was a wonderful town.

Then I went away to go to college. I went to New York City and then came back to go to law school, and then went off into the Air Force. I came back to help my sister take care of my parents and she did a great job with that; I was just a bump on the log. I looked into this law firm that was a really good commercial firm and another that was a really good trial firm. I picked the commercial firm. That led to me eventually meeting Dr. Jackson and that’s how I became the in-house counsel. I actually became the first in-house general counsel that RPI ever had, which is interesting because my senior partner in my old law firm was the first outside Counsel they ever had.

Troy has been in an evolutionary period. Before my time, in the 1900’s, it was one of the wealthiest cities in America. I think it was the fourth wealthiest city in America. That was because of the canal that opened up the West from Troy. Then the railroads came up through Troy to go west. There was a lot of heavy industry, a lot of heavy iron industry; and then the fabric industry, which centered around shirts and collars. There were things invented in Troy that made it famous for its time. During the Industrial Revolution, Troy was a big deal. After the Second World War, the country began to expand, and industrial communities like Troy couldn’t keep up. Troy went into a decline. I didn’t see it, because I was born and raised just at the end of the Second World War, when Troy was still doing well. In the sixties and the seventies, the same thing happened in all industrial towns in the East.

Troy is on its way back dramatically. I saw it start to come back in the 80’s and then it reached a plateau, but now it’s accelerating again. The downtown area is coming back with a bang: lots of restaurants, things that young people want to own, operate, and live near. Lots of young professionals living in downtown Troy now, and developers are seizing on that and renovating buildings that had previously been lying fallow. That’s fun to watch for me because I remember when those buildings were pretty special.

RPI has also played a big role in all of that, and it’s fun for me to see the downtown become vibrant again. The problem is, as fast as the downtown becomes vibrant again, we’re losing the viability of some of the neighborhoods. We have the phenomenon where natives of Troy whose families lived in the buildings and raised their children have died off and their children have become successful and moved to suburbs. The buildings have been allowed to become rental properties where tenants don’t care about them. There’s a lot of that in Troy right now that is difficult to deal with. It puts a strain on the police department, on the fire department, and it’s hard to deal with.

The growth of the RPI community has been the most serious event that has benefited Troy: students living and working and playing in downtown is at a higher level than it has ever been. The students of RPI and Russell Sage bring a lot of vitality and economic strength to Troy. In fact, many of them stay.

S&W: In the four years I’ve been here, I’ve noticed that I go downtown and I see a lot of people who look like students. I know there are several fraternities down there; some students live downtown, too.

Carletta: They call it “gentrification”. They want people with expendable dollars to live in the downtown area in every city because that’s the core of what makes it happen. That’s what makes a city click. We’re seeing it in Troy.

S&W: What is your favorite restaurant in Troy?

Carletta: I don’t have one favorite; I have several favorites. Up in the north end of Troy, there’s a terrific restaurant called Verdile’s. I favor Italian food, so in the middle of Troy, La Porto’s is a very special place. I don’t know how you beat the barbecue at Dinosaur’s. I don’t know how you beat the Mexican food at Jose Malone’s. I’ve had fun with the menu at Finnbar’s Pub, which is in a building that has been a pub since the beginning of time. When I was a child, all the postal workers went there after work. There were no chairs in the place; you went in and you stood. So it’s fun for me to see that very bar—that very restaurant—morph into something that all of us can enjoy, and it has good food. I enjoy many of the new restaurants in Troy.

S&W: Which do you prefer: Famous or Bob’s?

Carletta: I prefer Famous Lunch hot dogs. The owner of the Famous Lunch is an RPI alum. His father or grandfather started that—and his daughter is currently a student here.

S&W: That’s crazy!

Carletta: Yes, and he, himself, is a successful engineer but has kept that little family business going. It’s legend in Troy.

S&W: You’ve been at RPI for quite a while, and I understand from others that you take great pride in RPI. What are you proudest of?

Carletta: The attitude of the students. Students at RPI care about each other, care about the place, and Dr. Jackson is largely responsible for that change. The students are fun to be with; they’re fun to listen to—and that’s what I’m proudest of. I know that’s what Dr. Jackson is proudest of, also. We’ve also put up new buildings, and we’ve instituted new programs, and we’ve made the RPI degree more valuable because we’ve made the reputation of RPI more visible. Since its founding, the reputation of RPI has always been stunning. It was known in the right circles, and in the old days, the right circles for RPI was civil engineering. Everybody knew what RPI was. They didn’t know a lot of other schools, but they knew what RPI was, because that’s where the best civil engineers in the country, possibly the world, came out of. RPI is known for much more than that now, and the students today knock your socks off. They are not only the brightest, with the highest scores, the highest number of valedictorians and salutatorians, the highest percentage of top ten in their class—but they’re leaders. They were team captains in high school, and there are a high percentage of political leaders and musicians and thespians coming out of high school and directly into RPI. If you look at what we’re really all about, we’re really all about offering opportunities to students, and the students that are here today are sensational. That’s not an accident; we all worked very hard at that, so it’s very easy to be proud of that.

S&W: Do you have a favorite building on campus?

Carletta: Probably CBIS [Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, aka “Biotech”], based on what I know about what goes on in there and how pleasant it is to be in that building. Dr. Jackson, our Board, and the architects did a great job on marrying the traditional appearance of 15th Street including the design of the Quad and making a wonderful atrium and labs. There are wonderful rooms—offices, meeting rooms, student areas, and, of course, the labs.

S&W: I actually started out in architecture, so I thought Biotech was cool. If you could join any club on campus, which club would you join?

Carletta: It would be one of the clubs that’s focused on automobiles. I’m a car guy. Right after that would be the model railroad club, because I grew up in the City of Troy that is depicted in that model railroad exhibit. It’s set around 1958, I think. I grew up on those streets, in those buildings—and I played in that train station. It would be those two things. I currently don’t make the time to do either one of them.

S&W: What advice would you give the average RPI student? Any kind of advice—career, staying out of trouble, life advice.

Carletta: I say it to everybody I meet—don’t rush this end of your life. Modern medicine and modern pharmacology have extended the life of your generation to a hundred years, easy. You all will be working until you’re eighty years old. You just will; you’ll be healthy, you’ll want to work, and you’re still going to have twenty years of retirement after that. When I was a child, you didn’t know anybody over 65. They didn’t make it. They worked at hard jobs; there were fatal accidents, there was nothing to protect you from heart disease, we didn’t understand cancer, and people just died. Now, with drugs and treatments, today you learn how to avoid heart disease. We took people off cigarettes. There is almost no tuberculosis and no polio. If you contracted pneumonia in the 1940’s and you couldn’t get penicillin, you died. The point—that I used too many words for—is enjoy your youth. Take your time. Find a career while you’re young that you really want to do. Do that before you get married—or, maybe not before you get married, but before you decide to raise a family. Get your career all set or at least lined up, so that you and your spouse, or significant other, are on a common path that you both agreed on. Then, you’ve got to work on keeping variety in your professional and family life because we’re all living longer.

If you look at the Ancient Greeks—the men lived to be about 30, 35—you didn’t reach 50. So they got married when they were 13, 14. You didn’t have to worry about variety, since you didn’t live that long. What you had to worry about was surviving, and starting a family and hoping they survived. That’s not the way it is any more. It’s about keeping yourself and your partner intellectually challenged, because we’re going to be around a long time. That’s the advice: get your professional life squared away, and then you and your partner can get a personal life squared away.

S&W: What is your favorite way to spend your free time?

Carletta: My free time…I hate to say this, because I’m an RPI junkie, but I love to learn. My free time—if I get a chance to learn anything, I’m in my glory. It doesn’t matter what it is. How do you learn to blow glass? How do they make that glass? I want to know. How does a steam locomotive work? I want to know. I’m insatiable. So that’s how I love to spend my free time. Sometimes it’s reading. Sometimes it’s watching—the family joke is that they’ve got to put me on a leash. When we go somewhere, you’ve got to put Dad on a leash because I get distracted by seeing somebody do something I don’t know how to do. I want to learn how to do it.

S&W: What is your favorite type of music?

Carletta: My favorite type of music is jazz and the era of the 40’s and the musicals of America: Gershwin, Irving Berlin; that is my favorite music. I also enjoy country music because when I lived in the South in the 70’s, I learned that the people who write country music are blue-collar poets. They’re the only musicians that write what Chaucer used to write: what are the issues of life and how do you live it? That’s what country musicians write about. Sometimes it’s upbeat; sometimes it’s morbid, but they’re always telling stories. And I’ve come to enjoy that. But my favorite is 40’s music and jazz.

S&W: What book has influenced you most in your life?

Carletta: You know, books that have influenced me pretty dramatically—what Christians call The Bible, the combination of the Old Testament and the New Testament—has had a pretty dramatic influence on me for as long as I can remember. I was given the opportunity to study the Old Testament and the New Testament pretty thoroughly. It was just good luck on my part. Recently, I’ve become a fan of Tom Friedman. He has helped America try to understand that the world has changed, and therefore, America’s role in the world has changed. There are others that have done that as well—Fareed Zakaria, for instance. I’ve also read and enjoyed parts of the Koran, because the Koran is built off of the Old Testament, and the New Testament, too.

S&W: If you were an animal, what animal would you be, and why?

Carletta: I don’t know what kind of animal I would be.

S&W: That’s the traditional S&W question! You have to answer it.

Carletta: You know, we have a dog at home. She actually owns the place; the rest of us are allowed to live there, but…I don’t think in those terms.