ITHACA, NY – In the face of protests and no confidence votes, Ithaca College President Tom Rochon does not see a mandate to resign, but rather a “great leadership opportunity.”
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The embattled president seemed equal parts confident and contrite as he explained the path forward that he sees for Ithaca College. He was clear, however, that he would be leading the college down that path.
Rochon said, “In the last weeks, I’ve woken up every morning feeling that Ithaca College has an incredible opportunity to make a real change in the quality of the campus environment for inclusion and in the reduction of racial bias, specifically, on campus. I’m excited about the leadership opportunities that exist to take that potential and turn it into real change.”
People of Color at Ithaca College (PoC @ IC), the primary activists calling for the ousting of Rochon, have said they will continue to protest and take other action until Rochon steps down or is removed. Asked about his plans on dealing with future disruptions, Rochon declined to comment on the specifics.
Re-framing the question, he said, “I’ve shared with you where my thoughts are: I feel a deep commitment to this college and sense that we have an enormous leadership opportunity to address precisely the issues PoC @ IC has put on the table so powerfully and so movingly.”
Appointing a Chief Diversity Officer
One of the steps Rochon’s administration has taken is appointing a new interim Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Roger Richardson. Richardson was formerly the associate provost of diversity, inclusion and engagement. Rochon explained that the addition of the Chief Diversity Officer was vital because it created a senior officer position whose responsibilities spanned all departments and aspects of the college.
“There are just two positions in the entire college that span the entire college – mine, and the chief diversity officer,” he said.
He clarified that Dr. Richardson was granted an interim status so the college could perform a thorough, nationwide search for the best candidate in a way that was transparent and provided an opportunity for interested people on campus to contribute to the decision-making process.
“I wanted to get started right now, which is why we named the highest ranking person with diversity responsibility. But to name him a the permanent Chief Diversity Officer would’ve deprived the campus of that kind of input,” Rochon said.
Response to Wednesday’s Rally
Asked if he felt that the complaints against him were grounded, Rochon had this to say:
“What I heard at yesterday’s rally was approximately this: ‘There is a problem of racism in the country and on campuses elsewhere and at Ithaca College. There is a systemic problem. Rochon is part of the system. Therefore, Rochon must go.’ … If I take that sequence of statements literally, it means that I must go because I’m the president. Which is completely not a personal attack – it’s the opposite.”
Asked if the impending faculty “no confidence” vote would affect his course of action, Rochon said, “I won’t speculate on possible outcomes of a no confidence vote. I understand why they authorized that the vote be held, and we’ll just see where it goes.”
Rochon said that he is “deeply regretful” that he did not take stronger action in dealing with some of the racial incidents on campus. “There is a special leadership responsibility to intervene effectively when you see a bias-related incident or biased language… I did not stand up, because I did not know, in that moment, know how to get things back on track. That’s the only reason I didn’t stand up. I need to do better in the future. I will.”
He added that a training session will be held on campus next week designed to arm people with “Effective Intervention” tools to deal with similar situations.
Asked if he saw parallels between his situation and that of University of Missouri president Timothy Wolfe, Rochon said, “The one thing that I know from my leadership experience here is that there are always so many elements of context that are not publicly available. It’s impossible to make any real assessment of what went on.”
By way of example, he continued: “We don’t know where the board stood on the effectiveness of that presidency. We don’t know whether the president of the University of Missouri felt a belief that he could continue to lead effectively or whether he despaired of that.”
“It’s impossible for me to compare that situation and this situation. The core thing for me that I know is that I believe this is a great opportunity for Ithaca College and that I can be very effective in helping lead us through that opportunity. I’m fully aware that not everyone on campus agrees, but what I know is what I feel I can accomplish,” Rochon concluded.
What are the next steps to start to make a change at Ithaca College?
“The most important step is to start turning action steps and action plans into real life programs that are making a difference. One thing that PoC @ IC has said that has struck me as having a deep truth is that now is a time for action, not for dialogue. Now, I actually believe that now is a time for action and dialogue, but I focus on the first part of that. Now is a time for action,” Rochon said.
He added, “I think it will be a great moment for the vast majority of students staff and faculty to feel some tangible progress. To say to themselves, ‘We can do this. We can work together on this and we can do this.’”
But what does tangible progress actually look like?
“When I say tangible progress at this moment, I mean progress in implementing the action steps that will have impact on climate. I don’t think that one changes climate from this week to the next … the conversations that are being had right now are surely making many more people self-aware. That in itself is going to have an impact.”
As the interview drew to a close, Rochon had a final statement regarding online backlash against PoC @ IC, which featured anonymous hateful and racist language on the social media app Yik Yak.
“It is completely unacceptable to everything that we believe in. The only way to engage this issue is respectfully and with humility about something that we are all part of.”
He noted that the college would be investigating the sources of those statements and disciplining them according to campus code.
As he concluded, his voice dropped to an almost pained whisper: “I was so appalled at some of the things that I read.”
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