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Ithaca College students seize the stage

By Rob Henry

Approximately 40 students, led by members of the POC at IC group, took the stage Oct. 27 during the college’s “Addressing Community Action on Racism and Cultural Bias” event and expressed “no confidence” in Ithaca College President Tom Rochon.

Following rallies about the racial climate on campus and protesters’ demands for “action” rather than “dialogue,” the leadership of the college created the event to lay out its planned actions in response to issues of racism and cultural bias.

Athletic Director Susan Bassett canceled afternoon practices for all fall varsity athletics, excluding men’s and women’s soccer that had a game the next day, so athletes could attend the event.

POC at IC stands for People of Color at Ithaca College, and emerged about a week ago after controversies about the college’s differing responses to a racially themed off-campus fraternity party and race-related comments made by an alumnus at one of its own panel discussions.

These events, coupled with a history of microaggressions and other negative experiences reported by African, Latino, Asian and Native American students at the college, have led to students calling for more administrative accountability. The students chanted, “Tom Rochon; no confidence,” as they got up from their seats in the audience and walked to the stage.

Two students came down the center aisle leading the chants with two small megaphones in hand.

After students jammed themselves onto the stage, sophomore Ava Bryan was the first member of the group to take the megaphone.

“We are here today to discuss an issue that we have been addressing time and time again,” Bryan said. “We keep having these conversations that have gotten us nowhere. The administration desires a timely sense of urgency to allow the ALANA voices to be heard through events like town hall meetings. We know all too well that these timely efforts have only consisted in the silencing of voices on this campus.”

Bryan urged students to vote “no” in the Student Government Association’s vote of no confidence. She then introduced members of POC at IC who gave reasons for why they would be voting no confidence.

Seven students — junior Paola Ayala, junior Tate Johnson, sophomore Gabby Malave, freshman Damiano Malvasio, junior Kimberly Nicolas, sophomore Marlena Candelario Romero and sophomore Denise Terrell — then passed around the microphone, each citing reasons why Rochon was no longer fit to be president of the college. They brought up the college’s responses to the Blue Sky event and the AEPi party description; the lack of response to an alum’s undergraduate research in 2011 into the racial climate at the college and how to fix it; a lack of response and the delay in releasing the results of the campus-climate survey administered in 2012; and a lack of accountability from Rochon surrounding race issues on campus.

All students ended their remarks with “because of that, we have no confidence in you.”

After concluding its comments, POC at IC said it would be holding its own meetings to discuss its demands. Students then said the meeting was over and invited audience members to walk out with them in solidarity. About half the audience of an estimated 3,000 people left, including faculty members, chanting the now ubiquitous “Tom Rochon; no confidence.”

After the group was out of the building, Rochon stood behind the microphone again.

“We have been given some great, vivid, powerful illustrations of why now is the time to act,” Rochon said.

Rochon and five other speakers — Chris Biehn, vice president of institutional advancement and communication; Dom Recckio, SGA president; Sean Reilley, chair of Staff Council; Benjamin Rifkin, provost and vice president for educational affairs; and Peter Rothbart, chair of Faculty Council — then laid out what Rochon called their “ambitious action agenda.”

Each speaker talked about the actions for his respective sections of the campus community. Reilley, Rothbart and Recckio all laid out plans for an increase in cross-cultural training for students, staff, faculty, volunteers and trustees. Rifkin announced the college will be expanding its efforts to recruit and retain diverse faculty, including expanding the School of Humanities and Sciences pre-doctoral Faculty Fellowship Program to all schools.

Rochon then took the podium and talked about changes to the Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management, including announcing the external review of the office in Spring 2016 and that body cameras will be implemented in Fall 2016.

Rochon ended his remarks by talking about accountability for the process, promising it would be transparent and stating the relevant vice presidents will conduct an annual review of outcomes for each of the goals.

Rochon then took questions from the audience, which lasted more than two hours.

Students, faculty and staff members posed questions ranging from asking about more specifics for each proposed program, to pointing out other marginalized groups that need addressing, to pointing out flaws in the college’s current plans.

Rochon said during the Q&A session that the plans were a draft and were not yet set in stone.

After a student told Rochon he should get input from more students of color in diversity training and pointed out that there were “six white dudes” on stage, Rothbart asked her if saying that was a microaggression.

The student responded “No,” and then said white people couldn’t be victims of racism.

Another student was then given the microphone and explained why white people couldn’t be the victims of racism. Specifically, she said racism is systematic and involves a majority group oppressing a minority.

Donald Lifton, associate professor in the School of Business, said he thought for the institution to move forward, Rochon needed to step down.

Near the end of the three-hour event, Gerald Hector, vice president of finance and administration, took the microphone and said he was worried about a number of parts of the movement.

Hector said he was worried the movement was morphing into an effort to get rid of Rochon, and he said the issue of racism was much larger than Rochon. Hector talked about his children’s experiences with racism in the Ithaca community as a whole. Hector then said having dialogues around these issues was crucial in trying to solve and understand them.

After Hector’s comments, the same student who explained the systemic nature of racism took the microphone again and said she felt that Hector disregarded the feelings of many students of color. She also said she doesn’t feel like the actions of the administration are sincere.

Hector then said his actions are “beyond sincere” and said his fellow administrators have been working to address this issue since the Resident Assistant–Public Safety rift in early September.

Hector ended his remarks by saying what this campus needs is heartfelt dialogue.

At the end of the event, Rochon said he believes there is a potential to make change.

“If we actually work on this together, as I believe we will, we’ll make a very big difference.”

Afterward, Rochon said the event tried to make clear that now is the time to make change at the college, echoing the sentiments of POC at IC.

He said the fact that half the room stayed after POC at IC led a number of students and faculty out of the event caused him to keep the event going.

“The fact that the meeting went for 2 1/2 hours or more after the exit shows that —  despite what the students said — that meeting was not over,” Rochon said. “It might have been over for some students, but it wasn’t over for the room.”

Carla Golden, a professor in the Department of Psychology, was one of the many professors who walked out of the meeting. She, along with the other professors, held up a “No” sign, representing the lack of confidence faculty have in Rochon.

Golden said she stands with the POC at IC students and that they’re leading a worthwhile cause.

“The faculty who are supporting these students feel that they have legitimate concerns,” Golden said.

Golden said she’s noticed ongoing racial problems on campus for a while, referring to the examples the protestors shared on stage of previous racial aggressions on campus.

“I’ve served under many presidents. … The campus climate has never been as bad as this,” Golden said.

Joslyn Brenton, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, also walked out of the forum to make a statement that she is expressing solidarity with the POC at IC.

“I deeply disagreed with the [comments made at the] Blue Sky event, and as a white person I didn’t get to take a stand. Now this is my opportunity,” Brenton said.

Students’ reactions to the event varied.

Sophomore Sarah Vengen, who stayed for the Q&A session, said she didn’t think Rochon was acting quickly enough.

“I’m glad that Rochon seems to be taking steps,” she said. “I don’t think they’re as immediate as they could be though.”

Senior Eli Gobrecht, who plays men’s lacrosse, said he thought the event alienated the athletic community.

“We wanted to hear what they had to say and what the president had to say and what the provost did, too,” Gobrecht said. “When they walked out, they said ‘As far as we’re concerned this meeting is over.’ We couldn’t walk out because we were there with our coaches and we were told to be there and we wanted to hear both sides of the issue. They basically left us more confused than we were in the first place, when all we went to do there was to get informed.”

Rochon said he would have preferred to have the entire room there for the whole meeting.

“I have no control over that and I’m not going to judge other people’s own judgments and actions,” he said.

Junior Michaela Yaw, who stayed for the Q&A session, said she hoped Rochon would apologize.

“The one thing I was incredibly disappointed to see was that there was no apology,” Yaw said. “This has been going on for so long, so you would think there would be one.”

Freshman Candace Cross said she left the event because she got what she needed from POC at IC.

“Honestly before going, I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “I went to get the history on the event. POC clarified things for me, so I left.”

Sophomore Alison Hartley said she thought the event was a good effort, but there were some things that she thought needed to be done differently.

“I thought it was a good idea that just things could have been done a little differently,” Hartley said. “I think everyone just needs to listen to each other. Because a conversation is a two-way street, and in order to be heard you have to listen also. I think this event definitely forced Tom Rochon and students to listen to what was going on on campus.”

Rochon said he was impressed by the Q&A session of the event.

“I was amazed at the conversation we just had and how many people stayed way past my own personal projected ending time of 6 to 6:30,” he said.

Rochon said he did not agree with sentiments that he needed to resign.

When asked about what steps he would take if students or faculty voted no confidence, Rochon refused to speculate.

“At this point, I’m just focused on my leadership responsibilities for Ithaca College,” Rochon said. “It’s speculative what the outcome of a vote would be, and I would assess at that time.”

Maura Aleardi, Elena Piech, Sophia Tulp, Kyle Arnold and Grace Elletson contributed reporting to this article. 

An earlier version of this article stated “She also said she doesn’t feel like the actions of the administration are insincere.” This has been corrected to: “She also said she doesn’t feel like the actions of the administration are sincere.”

An earlier version of this article also stated that approximately 1,000 people attended the event. This has been corrected to 3,000 people per an estimate from David Maley, senior associate director of media relations.

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Your donation will support The Ithacan's student journalists in their effort to keep the Ithaca College and wider Ithaca community informed. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

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