ITHACA, N.Y. — Votes of no confidence. Open protest from dozens of faculty. Thousands of students attending demonstrations. Rumors of national news coverage.

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The Ithaca College campus is in turmoil as its president, Tom Rochon, faces increasing criticism for his handling of several racially-charged incidents, several students and faculty say in interviews.

“People come up to me and say, ‘I can’t walk through campus without hearing a conversation about this,” says Dominick Recckio, IC’s student body president.

“I think the feeling is unrest. It’s unrest, and it’s distrust … I’m a senior and I have never seen anything like this; I’ve never even heard of anything like this, and I’ve done a lot of studying of Ithaca College’s history. This level of unrest — and this level of student engagement — is just unprecedented.”

Donald Lifton, a professor at IC for 29 years, said that President Rochon has lost the trust of a large group of students and faculty — perhaps for good.

“A significant portion of the community is irretrievably beyond the president’s engagement,” said Lifton, pointing to a lack of trust particularly over challenges facing minorities at IC. “This campus is in serious, serious turmoil.”

Lifton, who stressed he was an “engaged follower” rather than a leader in the movement, said he had never seen the kind of unrest that had occurred on campus over the last few weeks.

“Through my 29 years, it’s never hit the fan like this. Never,” Lifton said.

“5,000 people showing up at a community meeting? 2,500 of them marching out later? A demonstration that takes control of the stage? Wow. … It’s dramatic stuff.”

4 major takeaways

Here are 4 major takeaways about the unrest at IC for those who are new to the story:

1 — ‘People of Color’ group demands change

A group of student activists, “POC at IC,” has been at the forefront of vocalizing much of the dissent with Rochon. The group has helped organize a series of protests on campus, with speakers at the events demanding “tangible action” from the Rochon administration, according to The Ithacan.

The group declined a request for an interview from the Ithaca Voice. The Ithacan reported that POC at IC has circulated a “Concerned Students’ List of Demands,” but the student newspaper has not detailed the nature of those demands.

Many faculty and students declined to comment on the protests, citing the importance of following the lead of POC.

On the group’s Facebook page, POC at IC issues several sharply critical statements of Rochon.

Among the grievances listed by members of the student government about Rochon include “unstable” leadership within the college’s administration, claims of student exclusion from the college’s development plans, and claims of racism, discrimination and lack of diversity at the college.

The POC group has also posted and circulated images of Rochon like this one:

In response to the protests, Ithaca College issued a statement on Thursday signed by Rochon and other campus leaders and administrators.

The statement said that IC would be putting several of Rochon’s top initiatives “on hold” as a result of the incidents. The statement appeared to recognize the validity of much of the protesters’ criticisms of the campus climate.

“Several incidents this fall have served as fresh and painful reminders of a longstanding problem on Ithaca College’s campus surrounding issues of racism and cultural bias,” the statement said.

“Recent events have magnified the feeling among members of Ithaca College’s African American, Latino/a, Asian, and Native American (ALANA) community that they are invalidated and disrespected. However, these incidents are not isolated events. They are, in fact, evidence of a persistent and far-reaching problem.”

2 — Faculty air criticisms, mull no confidence vote

Ithaca College faculty are widely rumored to be planning to hold a no-confidence vote in Rochon.

IC’s School of Humanities and Science has already voted (those attending a recent meeting broke 87% for; 3% against; 10% undecided) to ask the school’s Faculty Council to move forward with a vote of no confidence, according to a letter from Professor of English Claire Gleitman.

It remains unclear if other schools within IC will also call on the Faculty Council to take a no-confidence vote. The IC business school is expected to take up a similar motion soon, according to an adjunct at IC who would only speak on the condition of anonymity.

“The whole situation is extremely tense,” the adjunct said.

Photos of protests earlier this month posted on the Facebook page of POC at IC

The move toward a no-confidence vote follows the signing of a letter in The Ithacan by dozens of Ithaca College faculty criticizing the school’s administration for its handling of racially-charged comments made at a “Blue Sky” event previously covered by the Ithaca Voice.

“The event appeared to dismiss and even disparage the idea that a rich and valuable undergraduate education is critically tied to what happens in the classroom,” the faculty letter said.

Lifton, the IC professor of politics, said at one recent event that he thinks Rochon should step down and be replaced by a new president.

IC professor Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell added that IC is not alone in seeing increased campus activism.

“I think we have a national model to understand this: This is not just activism on Ithaca College campus; this is increased activism throughout the nation,” Bradwell said.

3 — Students seize stage, move toward no-confidence vote

There have been two particularly dramatic signs of students’ discontent with Rochon:

A) No confidence vote | The Ithaca College Student Government Association has unanimously voted to call for a vote of no confidence against Rochon. That vote will occur.

“There have been a ton of issues on campus this year that have gone, not entirely unaddressed, but unaddressed in the way students like and are comfortable with,” Recckio, the student body president, previously told the Ithaca Voice.

B ) Students takeover stage | Students also took over the stage while Rochon spoke at an event.

During the event, students overtook the stage while Rochon was speaking, leading to thousands of people walking out of arena in protest of Rochon’s leadership, according to social media posts by The Ithacan. 

Thousands were in attendance for the event, and some remained even after an estimated 2,000 left the event in protest.

Recckio said that those who remained — including those who hadn’t previously been involved in campus protests — could tell that a problem needed to be addressed.

“A couple of white male students said, I don’t understand these issues but I see there’s a serious problem that’s going unaddressed. Those are the students that are so hard to find but when they spoke up at that event it was particularly powerful.”

4 — Two events prove major catalysts for change

There have been “two main catalytic events” for the protests, according to Lifton, both of which we have previously covered.

Here are recaps:

A) ‘Preps & Crooks’ off-campus party | As previously reported by the Ithaca VoiceThe Ithacan’s Max Denning obtained and published a screenshot of an off-campus party being planned by a group of IC students, which was to be called the “Preps & Crooks” party. (The party was later canceled, Denning reported.)

Under the event description, “Preps” were required to wear a favored Polo shirt, boat shoes and backwards baseball cap; “Crooks” had to wear “a more 90’s thuggish style,” including a bandana, bling and baggy sweatpants.

Denning spoke to IC students who objected to the dress code; sophomore Sophie Conger told him, for instance, that she thought “there were a lot of racist, sexist undertones with the event.”

B) Racial comments at “Blue Sky” event | As previously reported by the Ithaca Voice: Ithaca College administrators apologized for purported racial slurs uttered at an Oct. 8 “Blue Sky Reimagining” event at the South Hill campus.

Tatiana Sy — who is of Afro-Cuban descent — described her undergraduate experience at IC. According to reporting by the student newspaper, TheIthacan‘s Ana Borruto, Sy said she had a “savage hunger” to make her professional career happen.

Two alumni panelists were later calling Sy a “savage.”

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President Rochon apologized for not interrupting the alumni panelists, but his handling of both incidents has drawn criticism from the POC group and members of the IC faculty.

“The tone of his response to that event the tone seemed to be spin — well, ‘we at Ithaca College are arms length distance from that activity and event,’” said Lifton, the IC professor.

“It seemed to many of us like the administration was washing its hands of it rather than being assertively engaged in figuring out a response.”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.