ITHACA, NY – On Wednesday, approximately 1,000 students, faculty and staff from Ithaca College walked out of their classes and staged a protest against college President Tom Rochon.
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Protesters furiously demanded that Rochon step down, blocked campus passageways and disrupted the heart of IC’s campus for several hours.
If you’re new to this story, you’re not alone.
We wanted to take a step back to explain the background and key events that led to this current state of turmoil.
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Complaints against Rochon came to the forefront in the wake of a couple of incidents of racial insensitivity which the campus community felt that he did not respond to appropriately.
While racial issues have been a focal point of the movement against Rochon, he has also received criticism for a number of aspects of his leadership. An open letter produced by the People of Color at Ithaca College (PoC @ IC) group claims and provides examples of how Rochon is “autocratic,” “incompetent,” and “disconnected from the campus community,” among other problems.
The complete list of grievances can be found in PoC @ IC’s open letter ‘The Case Against Tom Rochon,’ obtained by the Ithacan.
There are three primary events that served as flashpoints for the controversy.
A — “Preps and Crooks”
The first was an advertisement for party, to be hosted by an unaffiliated fraternity at an off-campus location. The party was to have a “Preps and Crooks” theme. The “crooks” were told to dress in a “more 90s, thuggish style” bringing accessories like a bandana or lots of “bling.” Many people took offense to the portrayal of “thugs,” and felt that Rochon’s administration did not take a strong enough stance against it. The party was ultimately canceled.
B — The Blue Sky Event
A second incident involved the “Blue Sky Event.” The event was meant to be a symposium for ideas to guide IC’s future. During the event, alumna panelist Tatiana Sy, a woman of color, spoke of her “savage hunger” for learning during her days at the college. Other panelists would later refer to her as “savage,” which was seen as insensitive and offensive. Again, many in the campus community felt Rochon’s apology was an insufficient response to this incident.
C – Racial insensitivity from public safety officers
The third incident involved racially insensitive comments made by two public safety officers during an RA training session, as reported by The Ithacan.
The sentiment against Rochon came to a head when the Student Government Association called for a “no confidence” vote against Rochon. Around the same time, a group of students took over the stage during Rochon’s speech at a conference for “Addressing Community Action on Racism and Cultural Bias.”
PoC @ IC is an acronym for “People of Color at Ithaca College.” The group have been among the most active and vocal opponents of Rochon’s presidency.
They feel that Rochon has not done enough to engender an inclusive, multi-cultural environment on campus, in addition to the other claims made against him.
A “no confidence” vote is a way for people in an organization to express their belief that the organization’s leadership is doing a poor job.
In most cases, on college campuses, such votes are initiated by faculty. At IC, it was actually the students leading the effort to declare “no confidence” in Rochon, which is a fairly unprecedented development. Many faculty also support a “no confidence” vote.
Note that, ultimately, a “no confidence” vote has no binding power. Only the Board of Trustees can remove Rochon, or Rochon can choose to resign.
However, PoC @ IC have pledged to continue protests until Rochon is no longer president.
No. Two votes are in progress. A vote put forth by the IC Student Government Association will poll all active students, with the results tallied on November 30th.
The Faculty Council has also initiated a referendum, although the exact details are unclear at the time of this writing. All active faculty, as well as some retired faculty, librarians and other related positions will be eligible to vote.
According to PoC @ IC, the primary goal of the event was to show solidarity with other schools that are currently undergoing similar crises, such as the University of Missouri, whose president resigned earlier this week.
It is not easy to see the IC community that I love going through such a difficult time—to see so many of our students recounting experiences that leave them feeling fear, pain, and alienation at a time in their lives when they should instead be feeling welcomed, supported, and inspired.I respect that many of our students and faculty are choosing to express their concerns about Ithaca College’s climate and direction though their public discussions and their votes. The board members and I remain committed, as always, to making decisions that take into consideration the input we receive from the college’s executive leadership, as well as the voices of faculty, students, staff, parents, and alumni.Tough times bring out the true character of a community. I hope that we will continue to see these conversations maintain the standard of mutual respect, a commitment to truth, and an assumption that human beings must seek connection and common ground in order to make a difference.The most vital role of the Board of Trustees is to ensure that Ithaca College has the best possible leadership and the strongest possible resources to ensure its short-term and long-term health. Board members and I are in contact on a daily basis with the president and other campus leaders about the issues that are taking place, and I am committed to helping the institution address its problems so that we may become the Ithaca College that we all know we can be.We understand that the issues are serious and significant, and we are listening. I am certain that Ithaca College will emerge from this chapter stronger and more resolute in its direction forward, and the board and I are actively partnering with Tom Rochon and other campus leaders to make sure that happens.
The next step is uncertain. If Rochon remains president, it is expected that he will continue to make overtures toward correcting the various issues that have been laid at his feet. In this scenario, it is likely that protests and other disruptive events will continue.
If Rochon steps down or is removed by the Board of Trustees, a new president will be selected. Members of IC’s Student Government and PoC @ IC have stated that they will push to have a bigger say in future hiring and policy decisions at Ithaca College.
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