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As racial tensions on campus rise, Ithaca College looks for a way forward

A series of incidents this fall have prompted students and faculty to ask for the removal of president Tom Rochon

UPDATE: Ithaca College President Tom Rochon announced Jan. 13 that he would retire next year, in part because of the campus' lack of confidence in his leadership.

"I recognize that colleges evolve through eras defined by new opportunities and challenges. I believe it is best for IC to be led in the future by a president chosen by the board specifically to make a fresh start on these challenges, including those that became so apparent to us all last semester," he wrote in a statement. I look forward to working with the college community over the next 18 months in a constructive and collaborative way, making progress on issues of diversity and inclusion, shared governance, and decision making."


ITHACA, New York - Last month, in the fog and rain, about 1,000 students wove through the center of this liberal arts campus with poster board, bullhorns and hand-drawn signs, lying down on the wet pavement. The “die-in” served as protest for how their school has handled racial incidents on campus.

But the protest wasn’t staged on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore or Washington, D.C. It was at Ithaca College, where students say the climate on campus was tense and unwelcoming to students of color long before the protests at the University of Missouri took the national spotlight.

For a growing number of colleges and universities, dealing with race is something that doesn’t come easily. In the last seven years, more than 1,000 racial incidents have been reported to the Office for Civil Rights. Administrators and faculty have come under fire for their words, their policies and their actions — or lack thereof. 

Like at Missouri, students at Ithaca say the president, Tom Rochon, can’t move the campus forward. But unlike the embattled University of Missouri president, Rochon says he’s stepping up — not stepping down.

“There’s been a great focus on me. And whether I’ve been the leader that has created a sufficiently inclusive environment,” he told America Tonight in November. “And whether I can be the leader moving forward.”

In that, he sees a challenge in “helping the [campus] culture become a better culture and more inclusive culture.”

"Diversity and inclusion need to be an important part of conversation on campus going forward," Ithaca College President Tom Rochon says.
America Tonight

"No confidence"

Many students, led by the group People of Color at Ithaca College (POC at IC), don’t agree. They point specifically to a series of events on campus this fall, to which, they say, Rochon and the college did not adequately respond.

It started with a resident assistant training session by the Office of Campus Safety in August, during which two police officers allegedly said that racial profiling didn’t exist, and that they would shoot any student on campus with a BB gun. Many saw that as a reference to Tamir Rice, the black 12-year-old from Cleveland who was shot and killed by police last year while carrying a BB gun.

The officers remain employed by the college.

“To be insensitive in words or to not answer a question correctly, that’s not a question of whether you should still be employed or not,” says Rochon, adding that he’s since created a community review board, which as of January 2016 will be an independent way for students and faculty to lodge complaints against officer behavior.   

One fraternity, not officially affiliated with Ithaca College but comprised of its students, planned a party called “preps and crooks” in October.The racially charged event created such uproar on social media that the party had to be canceled.

The third strike, in the eyes of protestors: Comments made by a prominent alumnus at a round table discussion in Ocober in which the alumnus repeatedly called an African-American woman a “savage.”

Students allege Rochon was slow to respond because the alumnus in question was a large donor.

“In hindsight, I would have found a way to stand up at that event,” Rochon says. “… There’s no question about that. You hope and think, ‘Oh, I hope that someone will do something,’ and suddenly the moment has passed.”

The answer didn’t satisfy students, including Student Government Association President Dominick Recckio, who organized a student vote on confidence in Rochon. Of the 54 percent of the student population that participated in the vote, 71.75 percent of students said they had "no confidence" in Rochon, according to results released Monday night. In their own vote, nearly 78 percent of faculty said they felt the same way. The votes are symbolic, but they will force the board of trustees, which has the power to remove the president, to address the issues. 

A "hostile environment"

Representatives from POC at IC say the actions have helped contribute to a hostile environment on campus. The group, citing a policy against speaking with the media, declined America Tonight’s request for an interview. But many students of color that spoke with America Tonight say they feel marginalized and unheard.

“In the past, there have been implicit instances of racism and [these] past ones are more explicit and directed toward a certain group, and I think that’s prompted a lot of people to take action now,” sophomore Maya Howard said.

Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, the first black woman to hold tenure at the college, said some Ithaca College students “come here and they find they are degraded by the way campus police view them, they view them as a threat, they view them as suspicious.”

Faculty can feel unsafe too, she says. She recalled what happened when she made a late-night stop on campus to pick up papers on her way to a conference.

“I got into my vehicle and the police pulled up with sirens blaring,” she said. “I got confused and tried to jump out of the car … there were guns pointed at my head.” 

Making a difference will be a challenge for Rochon. Last month, he approved the creation of a chief diversity officer at the college, something Recckio says was first proposed by students several semesters ago.  Rochon has also created an action plan that includes working with the outside consulting firm Rankin and Associates Consulting to create and distribute a campus climate survey. But some students and alumni think it’s “too little too late.”

But for true change, many say there must be discourse between the disgruntled, marginalized students and the president. And now, talks have come to a grinding stop.

Rochon says he requested additional meetings with POC at IC, but he was turned down.

At this point, a resignation from Rochon would “allow this college and student body, and in many senses the faculty as well, to have a sense of healing,” Recckio says.

“I don’t think a loud voice should ever lead to a resignation,” said Rochon, who doesn’t think “things will ever go back to the way they were … Diversity and inclusion need to be an important part of conversation on campus going forward.”

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