June 26, 2016
Ithaca, NY

News

Update: Fallout continues from controversial Blue Sky kickoff

Blue-Skies-Panel_Jillian-FLint
  Jillian Flint/ The Ithacan
From left, Bob Kur '70, a former NBC news correspondent; J. Christopher Burch '76 CEO of Burch Creative Capital and co-founder of the Tory Burch women’s fashion label; and Tatiana Sy ’09, director of special events at the Downtown Ithaca Alliance speak at the Blue Sky Reimagining kick-off event Oct. 8.

After almost two weeks, fallout from the contentious Blue Sky Reimagining Kick-Off continues to reverberate throughout the Ithaca College community.

Ithaca College Faculty Council met Oct. 20 to talk about the Oct. 8 Blue Sky Reimagining Kick-Off event, which students and faculty members have called racially insensitive and exclusive. The kickoff has some faculty questioning the entire initiative.

The initiative is a ground-up revisioning of the institution’s goals and mission. The kickoff was the first event where the college community tried to answer the question, “If we could design an immersive learning community from scratch, one created specifically to provide the richest possible educational experience to our students, what would that look like?” Rochon announced the Blue Sky initiative in March.

The Faculty Council meeting was an executive session, which meant only council members could attend. An open session originally scheduled to follow the executive session was subsequently canceled. Faculty Council sent a letter Oct. 21 to President Tom Rochon and Benjamin Rifkin, provost and vice president of educational affairs, about the Blue Sky event, Peter Rothbart, chair of faculty council, said. Rothbart refused to discuss the content of the letter.

The kick-off was headlined by a panel of alumni, moderated by Bob Kur ’70, a former NBC News correspondent. The members of the panel were J. Christopher Burch ’76, CEO of Burch Creative Capital and co-founder of the Tory Burch women’s fashion label; Tatiana Sy ’09, director of special events at the Downtown Ithaca Alliance; and Will VanDyke ’05, director of digital accounts at Warner Music Group.

Near the beginning of the discussion, when describing her undergraduate experience, Sy said she had a “savage hunger” to make her professional career happen.

Shortly after Sy’s comment, Burch referred to her as “the savage” in the course of his remarks. Kur also referred to her using the phrase.

Near the end of the event, while Burch was talking about empathy in higher education, he referred to Sy as “the savage” a second time.

She interrupted him and said, “Alright, I mean,” before nervously laughing, adjusting in her seat and looking down.

Burch, noticing she was uncomfortable, quickly responded and said he was complimenting her.

“I think you’re an amazing young woman, or I wouldn’t give you that nickname,” Burch said.

Kur followed up with “She gave herself that nickname.”

“Right, right, right,” Sy said, while looking down at her hands.  

One Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word savage is “A person living in a wild state; a member of a people regarded as primitive and uncivilized.” A footnote to the definition states “Now usu[ally] avoided as offensive, except in historical reference to the language or attitudes of the past.” The dictionary contains no definition of the word savage as a noun that could be interpreted as positive. 

After the exchange, audience members began talking among themselves. Sy told The Ithacan she and some audience members were troubled by the repeated use of “the savage” in reference to her.  

“It was uncomfortable for everybody in the room,” Sy said. “It was awkward because anytime something completely gets pulled out of the context it was meant for, especially with language as sensitive as that, it was awkward for everyone.”

Sy said she thought the repeated comments were microaggressions. She also said she wouldn’t assume the comments were racially charged.

“I think that the actions will speak for themselves,” she said.  

 

“I think that the actions will speak for themselves.”  — Tatiana Sy

 

Of the approximately 200 members of the college community who attended the Blue Sky Reimagination event, about 30 were students. 

On Oct. 9, Dominick Recckio, Student Government Association president, sent an open letter to the college’s administration in which he said the event was “antithetical to the college’s mission.”

“I for one do not consent to the future of the Ithaca College experience being built on racist and exclusive events like the Blue Sky kickoff,” Recckio wrote in his letter. “This is a foundation that is utterly unacceptable, let’s look forward and create a better future that is true to a commitment to excellence.”

Recckio said he decided to send the letter because of how exclusive he felt the event was.  

“It just strikes me that their huge initiative is so exclusive,” he said. “The part that just throws it all off is the racist and sexist nature of the event. Calling Sy a savage was just completely unacceptable. It was clear that a lot of people in there were very uncomfortable. I know as student body president, it’s part of my responsibility to call out some of that stuff.”

Senior Imani Hall, who was at the event, said the use of the word made him uncomfortable.

“It shows a very limited critical and cultural understanding of history and oppression,” Hall said.

Cornell Woodson ’09, associate director for diversity and inclusion at the Cornell University School of Industrial Labor Relations, said the repeated use of the term made him upset.

“It really pissed me off that no one on that panel was smart enough to acknowledge how problematic it was that two white men were referring to a woman of color as a savage,” Woodson said.

 

“It really pissed me off that no one on that panel was smart enough to acknowledge how problematic it was that two white men were referring to a woman of color as a savage.”  — Cornell Woodson

 

Woodson said he didn’t think Burch or Kur understood that what they were saying was racially insensitive.

Burch’s office at Burch Creative Capital released a statement Oct. 12.  

“Mr. Burch is extraordinarily disheartened and saddened to learn that his comments at the October 8 panel discussion were interpreted as derogatory or offensive by some in the campus community,” the statement said. “He sincerely admires Tatiana Sy and her extraordinary achievements and has reached out today to apologize to her directly. In response to Ms. Sy describing her own ‘savage hunger’ to succeed, Mr. Burch applauded her as an example of someone who has a drive that propels her to success. He did not intend to be insensitive and could not be more apologetic if it was perceived as such by Ms. Sy or the community.

Jennifer Jolly, associate professor and chair in the Department of Art History, said Burch, while emphasizing the importance of empathy, was not being empathetic toward Sy when calling her “the savage.”

“While I very much respected that he made a place for empathy, it seemed to me that empathy is particularly important when it comes to being a privileged, white male, who seemed to be completely unable to understand why an African-American woman might object to being called ‘savage,’” Jolly said.

Claire Gleitman, professor in the Department of English, who attended the first hour of the event, said she thought someone should have stopped Burch and Kur from referring to Sy in such a way.

“Though it seems highly doubtful that they consciously intended this as a racial slur, surely they should have recognized that it came across as one, particularly when Ms. Sy showed evident discomfort,” she said. “When the slur was repeated not once but several times, I think someone should have gotten up and intervened.”

Sy also said she wishes someone would have intervened.  

Hall said he thought it was telling that no administrators intervened, and none of them said anything about it after the panel at the event.

Rochon and Benjamin Rifkin, provost and vice president for educational affairs, released a statement Oct. 12 apologizing for the comments. In the statement, Rochon said he apologized to the “alumna to whom the comments were addressed” immediately following the event.

“We regret that what was intended to be a visionary moment for our community was diminished by insensitive comments,” the statement said. “In general, the college cannot prevent the use of hurtful language on campus.Such language, intentional or unintentional, exists in the world and will seep into our community. We can’t promise that the college will never host a speaker who could say something racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or otherwise disrespectful. Even so, we reaffirm our commitment to making our campus an inclusive and respectful community.”

Kur declined a request to comment.  

Faculty criticize Blue Sky concept 

At the beginning of the event, Rochon emphasized that the initiative was meant to allow the college to reimagine everything.

“Unless we throw everything out first and develop that clarity of vision, we will be too self-limiting in our creativity,” he said during his opening remarks at the event.

Gleitman said she is confused and wonders what exactly the college needs to reimagine.

“I also remain puzzled by the task: to engage in Blue Sky reimagining, we are being asked to design an immersive community from scratch jettisoning everything we presently do.”

Gleitman said it was clear that Sy and VanDyke had good experiences at the college. She said she wished the college would have talked more about how to build on those positive experiences.

“While I recognize that this is essentially a thought-experiment, I’m struggling to see how it is intellectually meaningful, and the conversation at the Blue Sky event didn’t clarify that for me,” Gleitman said. “It would have been nice if there had been more discussion of how we can build upon what we already do, in order to ensure that engaged, impassioned learning experiences occur even more frequently for our students.”

During the event, Burch emphasized the importance of preparing students for work over book learning.  

“I think education needs to prepare people for the working world, and what are the core values that are going to come out of Ithaca College that are going to prepare these kids to be actually very happy, incredibly well adjusted, thoughtfully ready to be strategic, and understand the work environment?” Burch said.“It’s the opposite of book learning.”

Jolly said Burch’s comments made a case for why book learning is important.

“The racial discourse of primitivism that was at the heart of Mr. Chris Burch’s comments revealed to us what happens when you throw out that kind of critical perspective on why it is inappropriate to refer to an African-American woman as a ‘savage,’” Jolly said.

Gleitman said she wishes the speakers linked the classroom and outside experiences.

“I was also disheartened by the fact that the whole thrust of the conversation in that first hour seemed, if perhaps not intentionally, to devalue what happens in the classroom,” she said. “I wish there had been some attempt to encourage the speakers to think about the relationship between what happens in the classroom and what happens outside of it.”

Recckio said he thought Sy offered some good points and students could relate to her story.

“What she had to say was some of the most important, some of the most real and immersive experiences I ever heard of an Ithaca College student having,” he said. “So her voice was so key and so important to have up on stage.”

 

“It was symptomatic of a conversation that lacked intellectual substance or content, and for me, the event called into question the whole Blue Sky concept.” — Hugh Egan

 

English Professor Hugh Egan said he thought with Burch dominating the conversation, the idea of how one should reimagine learning was based off of his personal observations.

“The discussion was a series of more or less off-hand observations about the speed of change in the contemporary world, about the need for work and life balance  and other predictable remarks,” Egan said.

Burch also said no one talks about what they learned in college when working in business. Along with this, Jolly said another issue was that the main idea of the panel was real learning doesn’t happen in the classroom.

“I think that premise is fundamentally flawed,” she said. “I thoroughly agree that real learning happens in all sorts of different spaces, but I think classrooms are a part of that,” she said. “I think our students actually are wonderful in both engaging what they’re doing in the classroom and really engaging what they are doing outside of the classroom.”

Once the panel ended, students and faculty joined together in small groups and discussed answers to the following questions concerning immersion: what are the characteristics of an immersive learning community, what are the goals of an immersive learning community and what experiences will lead to these outcomes?

Sy said the comments made by Burch led to a “strange energy” in the room for the small-group discussions, but she said there were still good ideas brought up during the panel and in the small-group sessions.

Woodson said he thought the event was successful despite the negative reference to Sy.

“I think it was an extremely successful event with a very unfortunate component that didn’t need to happen,” he said.  

Egan said Burch’s comment toward Sy exemplified the overall issues with the event.

“It was symptomatic of a conversation that lacked intellectual substance or content, and for me, the event called into question the whole Blue Sky concept,” he said.  

Lack of student attendance

Recckio said he didn’t think there was adequate student attendance at the event.

“The whole time my head was on a swivel,” he said. “I was looking for students. I didn’t see enough of them there.”

Recckio said he thought that was due in part to the time of the event, 3–5 p.m., and he also said he didn’t believe the college effectively reached out to students to promote the event.  

“The Student Government Association is not a marketing agency or the administration’s only way to reach students, and I refuse to have us treated as such,” Recckio wrote in his letter.  

The college did post on Intercom about the event three times, but Recckio said not enough students read Intercom for it to be the administration’s primary method of communication.

In his letter, Recckio did charge students with becoming more engaged.  

“I am asking that the student body, all 6,000+ of us, become more critically engaged,” Recckio wrote in his letter. “The Blue Sky initiative was posted in Intercom for weeks, and as students we should all be critically engaging with the information given to us from the college as well as from each other. You can always voice your concern to student government.”

Recckio said he was asked by administration to notify students about the event.

“Having me invite students makes it exclusive as well,” Recckio said. “I don’t have a huge circle of students. I try to talk to as many students and try to represent as many as possible, but I was only able to get out requests to show up to Blue Sky to small groups, to only people who were my Facebook friends.”

Hall said he didn’t think the space was very inviting to students, nor did the administration make a concerted effort to get students to attend.

Both Hall and Recckio brought up that if more students had signed up for the event, it didn’t seem like there would have been enough space for them.

Hall said student voice is necessary for the initiative moving forward.

“If they’re talking about education and changing the educational dynamic at the college to make it more immersive, then how can faculty and staff members understand where it is now without getting a student voice?” Hall said.

Rifkin attended the SGA’s Oct. 12 meeting, but mostly declined to provide additional information despite questions from SGA members regarding Blue Skies.

“Contrary to what some people may believe, the leadership of this college consists of human beings who are trying to manage a lot of different things at the same time,” Rifkin said. “And things unfolded the way they unfolded, and I can’t go into more detail than that except to say that our hearts are in the right place.”

Related Links: Commentary: Insights on Immersive Learning from the Blue Sky Reimagining

Open Letter to the Board of Trustees: Alumnus demands action on campus racial issues

Open Letter: Faculty disappointed with Blue Sky kickoff

Open Letter: SGA president deems Blue Sky kick off ‘unacceptable’

Editorial: IC administration shows hypocrisy responding to racism

Max Denning also contributed reporting