Race at Ithaca: Faculty Vote No Confidence in College President

The faculty at Ithaca College on December 14 cast overwhelming votes of no confidence in President Tom Rochon, a vote that came just weeks after students at the college expressed similar opposition to Ithaca’s leaders. paul_houle/Flickr

This article first appeared on the Daily Signal.

Weeks after the University of Missouri's president resigned in the wake of protests following racially charged events, the faculty and staff at New York's Ithaca College have expressed no confidence in its own president because of his response to a handful of race-related incidents.

The faculty at Ithaca College on Monday December 14 cast overwhelming votes of no confidence in President Tom Rochon, a vote that came just weeks after students at the college expressed similar opposition to Ithaca's leaders.

Of the 406 faculty members who voted, 316—nearly 78 percent—said they did not have confidence in Rochon, who has been criticized in recent months for his handling of racist incidents on campus, according to a tally of the votes a student provided to the Daily Signal.

"People feel strongly about these issues and decided to voice their opinion through this vote and show that they're not just going to protest," Kyle Stewart, vice president of communications for Ithaca College's Student Government Association, told the Daily Signal. "There's another side to it. There's voting—a governance method—to show they have no confidence in the president."

In a statement provided by a faculty group, called Faculty@IC, members said the vote shows the level of disapproval they have for Ithaca College's leader.

"These results are also remarkable because so many people voted, despite fears of retribution in this toxic environment, when we have the most dismal morale in recent history," said Nick Kowalczyk, an associate professor of writing.

Ithaca College's Student Government Association held a similar vote last month—which Stewart said effectively gave the faculty the go-ahead to cast their own votes of no confidence—and 72 percent of those who voted said they did not have confidence in Rochon, according to the campus newspaper, The Ithacan.

"The message that has come through to me in the form of the student and faculty votes has been a difficult one to hear, but I am listening," Rochon said in a statement. "I understand that many people on our campus are frustrated with the pace of change and with my own role in effecting it. I remain determined to improve Ithaca College's culture for the better, and that includes improving my own approach to collaborating with our faculty, staff, and students."

The Ithaca College Board of Trustees has the power to remove Rochon from his post and plans to discuss his future in the coming weeks.

"We know that in many respects this discussion has been difficult, yet we also believe that it demonstrates our community's strong dedication to building a better future for Ithaca College," Board of Trustees Chairman Tom Grape said in a statement. "As the discussion goes on, we ask that all of us in the IC community conduct it with respect for one another and with a commitment to the open exchange of different ideas and perspectives."

A 'Springboard'

Tensions among Rochon, the faculty and students have been brewing over the last few months, and disapproval of Rochon came to a head last month after a student-activist group called People of Color at Ithaca College, or POC at IC, perceived three separate events as racist.

The first involved public safety officers who allegedly made "racially insensitive" and "aggressive" statements during training sessions with Ithaca College resident assistants.

The second incident involved an off-campus party hosted by a fraternity unaffiliated with the college in October themed "Preps and Crooks." Students and alumni viewed the theme as "racially charged" and a "microaggression."

The last event occurred during a panel called "Blue Sky Reiminaging," during which an African-American alumna said she had a "savage hunger" to succeed professionally. A Caucasian Ithaca College alumnus also on the panel repeated the description and called the woman a "savage" several times.

In response to the events, People of Color at Ithaca College called on Rochon to address the incidents. The group disagrees with what they believe were inconsistent responses from the administration.

More than 1,000 students participated in a "walk-out" in further protest of Rochon on November 11 and People of Color at Ithaca College held another last week, where chants of "Tom Rochon: Resign" rang out, according to The Ithacan.

Rochon appeared at the protest and encouraged students to "engage in dialogue."

"Everything good on a college campus happens because of community," Rochon said at the event. "We get things done only by working together, and that includes looking candidly at our flaws and the ways in which we do not meet our aspirations."

After the event, Stewart, who attended, said Vice President for Finance and Administration Gerald Hector spoke with students for several hours and said the blame could not only be placed on Rochon.

"What I think what is happening is we're trying to deal with an issue of race, diversity, and inclusion, and we're projecting it all on one person because he's a leader," Hector said, according to the Ithacan. He continued:

"I'm a vice president of color, and I can tell you it's not just Tom.... You have to have a dialogue, even if you have hurt feelings. You're not going to get there by simply just protest, protest, protest."

Faculty, though, said his comments at the event further demonstrated his unwillingness to address students' concerns, and both Faculty@IC and People of Color at Ithaca College say Rochon should resign.

"The president's behavior at Friday's event was an excruciating public spectacle and the final unraveling of a moral authority that is unlikely to be rehabilitated by anything he does at this point," Asma Barlas, a professor in the Department of Politics, said in Faculty@IC's statement.

The faculty's vote of no confidence in Rochon occurred following their own public acts of discontent with Ithaca College's president. Last month, two dozen faculty members penned an open letter listing their complaints against Rochon and expressing no confidence in him.

The list included disapproval with his "top-down, out-of-touch leadership," "disregard for minority community members" and "blurred vision and misdirection," among other complaints.

Student-led protests at Ithaca College occurred alongside similar ones held at the University of Missouri and Yale University. Though many of the students' concerns echo those at the other schools, albeit with different racist incidents, Stewart said issues with Rochon began long before racial tensions exploded at the other two schools.

"There are a lot of campuses across the nation that are doing similar protests, and even though it's happened at the same times, ours was in the works before Mizzou," he said. "Once [Ithaca students] realized there were other protests on college campuses, it was a springboard."

Melissa Quinn is a news reporter for the Daily Signal .