Tom Rochon has been president of Ithaca College since July 2008. His tenure has seen several campus initiatives, but it has also been marked by campus controversies and problems with the college’s racial climate.
This semester, major protests have erupted at the college regarding issues of race, diversity and inclusion at the college following several recent racially charged events. The demonstrations have been spearheaded by the group POC at IC, which stands for People of Color at Ithaca College.
The demonstrations have centered around improving the college’s racial climate and the removal of Rochon as a result of his handling of racial issues at the college and a perceived lack of inclusivity in decision–making, among other grievances. The demonstrators have used the rallying cry of “Tom Rochon: No Confidence,” and both a student and a faculty vote of no confidence in Rochon have been initiated.
Conflicts occurred early in Rochon’s tenure. IC View, the alumni magazine, came under fire in February 2009 after Emily McNeil ’08 wrote a piece titled “Final Word: The Violence Must End” about the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Some found McNeil’s article offensive because they viewed it as only telling the Palestinian side of the story.
Rochon responded to the piece, saying IC View failed to engage the topic of the conflict between Israel and Palestine in an unbiased way.
The then-editor of IC View Maura Stephens said she was forced to apologize for the article. She said the administration threatened to fire her and her original apology was edited by the administration.
“[Rochon] handled it very badly,” Stephens said. “First of all, he couldn’t speak to me personally, and that seemed very cowardly to me. And removing the heartfelt apology that I had agreed to write, an apology that I wanted to write and they agreed to do that, then editing it subsequently without my permission is highly unethical.”
A theme among current and former student leaders and some faculty members regarding Rochon is a perceived dictatorial, top-down leadership approach.
Cedrick-Michael Simmons ’14, the Student Government Association president during the 2013–14 academic year, said from the start of his SGA presidency, Rochon made it clear who had the power.
“In our first conversation, he pretty much told me that, I’m summarizing what he said … SGA can create a bill, with a recommendation, and he, if he wants to, can look at it and throw it right in the trash,” Simmons said.
An additional example of Rochon’s leadership style prompting friction was in September 2012 when he implemented a policy requiring student media outlets requesting an interview with college administrators to go through the college’s media relations department. The policy caused an uproar in the campus community, with students holding a sit-in protest. Rochon eventually gave in and revoked the policy.
An additional criticism of Rochon during his tenure has been a perceived lack of student input and engagement. Tariq Meyers ’14, the student trustee on the Ithaca College Board of Trustees from 2012–14, said he didn’t engage with Rochon as much as he expected to as student trustee.
Asma Barlas, a professor in the politics department and the former director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity, said Rochon does not make an effort to form relationships.
“He’s remote in terms of cultivating relationships with anyone, and to be perfectly frank, in all of the years that I’ve talked to people around him … I didn’t get the sense that people were actually very comfortable around him,” Barlas said.
Raj Subramaniam, a graduate chair and professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Physical Education, said he has no confidence in Rochon’s leadership.
“He doesn’t seem to be connected to the faculty or the students — he seems to be in his own world, so to speak,” Subramaniam said.
Subramaniam said Rochon is looking at the activities of the college through too much of a corporate lens.
Meyers said he often felt Rochon didn’t care about or respect students’ perspectives. He said before he was the student trustee, there was an opportunity for the student trustee to give a presentation to the board of trustees. However, Meyers said this time was taken away when he was the student trustee.
“His leadership failed the student body, and it’s been failing the student body,” he said.
John Rosenthal, professor in the Department of Mathematics, said he also thinks Rochon has a top-down approach.
“I would add that is not just an Ithaca College situation. From what I understand, that is a national trend,” Rosenthal said. “Many college presidents, I think, have become increasingly top-down in how they act.”
However, Rosenthal said he does have some confidence in Rochon’s leadership, although not total confidence. He said while he is not satisfied with everything Rochon has done, he doesn’t expect that he should be.
Warren Schlesinger, an associate professor of accounting, said he will not be voting no confidence in Rochon’s leadership. He said he interprets the vote of no confidence as a question of whether Rochon should be fired, and added that Rochon has been receptive to faculty and student demands this semester, except for the demand that he resign.
“I have yet to hear of a single demand that students or faculty are currently making that he has turned down in this area,” he said.
Protests regarding the issue of race have erupted this semester. But Crystal Kayiza ’15, the SGA president during the 2014–15 academic year, said these issues existed at the college previously. She said anyone who is surprised by the current protests hasn’t been paying attention and Rochon does share some of the responsibility for the events leading to the demonstrations.
A statement from the college was released by David Maley, senior associate director of media relations, regarding the college’s racial climate issues. It reads: “There is no question that the college, like the rest of our nation, has a great deal of work to do to make this happen, including the very urgent need to combat systemic and structural racism.”
The statement goes on to say the college won’t shy away from encouraging tough questions and concludes by saying issues of race and cultural bias are receiving Rochon’s full attention.
The acknowledgement of issues of race at the college has been a topic of conversation in the recent past, particularly with the campus-climate survey conducted in Fall 2012, which measured student, faculty and staff comfort levels on campus. Simmons said a large part of his year as SGA president was spent attempting to get the administration to release the results of the campus-climate survey. The survey, which was the subject of repeated delays in its release, was released in February 2015 and revealed stark perception gaps among different identity groups regarding inclusivity at the college.
As an explanation for the delay, Simmons said he was told the Office of Institutional Research didn’t have the capabilities to analyze the data. However, Simmons said at the end of the year, he found out Institutional Research had been asking for help in analyzing the data.
“It seemed as if for some reason the data, or the evidence, was being hidden, and once we looked at the data, it was very apparent that there were wide disparities with respect to race, with respect to status of disability, with respect to gender,” Simmons said.
Rochon declined to be interviewed for this story. However, he conducted an interview with The Ithacan Nov. 12 during which, among other topics, he addressed the delay in the release of the campus-climate survey. Rochon said he could have handled the survey differently.
Rochon said he was so focused on that goal he allowed the perfect to get in the way of the good. Most of the delay in the release of the survey was due to the college trying to figure out how to get that deeper analysis, Rochon said.
Senior Dominick Recckio, the current SGA president, said Rochon has contributed to the college’s racial climate issues and that systems at the college have marginalized students of color. He said even though over Rochon’s tenure, the percentage of African, Latino, Asian and Native American students at the college has increased to about 20 percent of the student body from 10.8 percent in Fall 2008, that is not enough to create a campus climate that is safe and supportive of students of color.
“What’s the faculty number that aligns with that?” Recckio said. “It better damn be 20 percent.”
Rochon acknowledged the gap between the number of ALANA students and ALANA faculty. He said fewer new faculty come into the college every year than new students, so it is natural that faculty diversity grows at a slower rate. However, he said he wished the college had initiated an increase in faculty diversity.
“Of course I wish that we had addressed that sooner,” Rochon said. “Though at the same time, I have to tell you that had I taken the initiative to point to that even two years ago, I’m not sure the campus was ready to hear that was an issue and was ready to embrace that as something we need to work on the way they are right now.”
Simmons said he predicted there would be demonstrations regarding racial issues at the college when he was SGA president. He said he sent a policy brief to the president and the provost about microaggressions and told them they should pay attention to racial issues before they saw resistance.
However, Benjamin Rifkin, current provost and vice president for educational affairs, defended Rochon’s actions during an interview with The Ithacan Nov. 11, saying he has confidence in Rochon’s leadership of the college.
“President Rochon has a record of extraordinary accomplishments on this campus, and while we have had a very difficult fall semester, he and his leadership team have put forward a plan of action in response to community suggestions, and he and the leadership of the college have continued to express their willingness to be flexible on adapting that plan of action and adding new ideas and projects,” Rifkin said.
Schlesinger said while Rochon has his shortcomings as a leader, including not taking student concerns about microaggressions and other racial issues seriously enough until students began to protest, he thinks he’s capable of addressing the issues with the campus climate.
“I think he’s capable of making really good progress on the issue of racism and cultural bias on campus,” he said.
Fundraising and cost-cutting initiatives
During his tenure, Rochon has begun a number of measures in an attempt to stem the increase in tuition and add money to the endowment.
Those fundraising initiatives include attempting to increase the number of donors and to increase donations to the annual fund and the college’s endowment.
Some of the cost-cutting initiatives the college is taking part in include zero-based budgeting, strategic workforce analysis — which includes the restructuring of a number of departments and cutting staff — and strategic sourcing, an effort led by Gerald Hector, vice president of finance and administration.
Chris Biehn, vice president for institutional advancement and communication, said Rochon works with him when interacting with the college’s top donors.
“He and I focus largely on our top donors,” Biehn said. “The top donors include the board of trustees and others who have the philanthropic capacity, but also likely the inclination — so they’re connected to the college already.”
Since the beginning of Rochon’s tenure, donations to the endowment have increased. In the 2015 fiscal year, there were almost $7.5 million donated to the college’s endowment, the highest since 2000.
According to records on the Park Foundation website, they made a $5 million donation to the college’s endowment in 2014.
During Rochon’s tenure, total yearly donations to the endowment have averaged $2.4 million. In the seven years prior, the average total yearly donation to the endowment was $969,209.
The annual fund has also slightly increased, topping $1.8 million in 2015 and averaging $1.1 million during Rochon’s tenure. In the seven fiscal years prior to Rochon’s arriving at the college, the annual fund averaged $1 million.
Donations to student financial aid have averaged $3.3 million. In the seven years prior, donations to student financial aid averaged $2.5 million.
Biehn said if the college — and Rochon — wasn’t focused on cutting costs and diversifying revenue, then students would be facing the costs. Biehn said Rochon has to be focused on raising funds.
“There has to be [that focus] from the president,” Biehn said. “The board hires the president. The board looks to the president for leadership. The president drives philanthropy at the highest level.”
Biehn credited Rochon for providing “active leadership” to the fundraising process since Biehn began at the college in April 2012. He brought up how Rochon has been instrumental in securing donations to create a number of multimillion-dollar scholarships.
“We’re starting to see those results, but we’re just starting to see those results,” Biehn said.
The college’s cost-cutting efforts have led the college to slowing the rate of tuition increases and slowing the rate of increase of the college’s expenses.
Tuition for the 2015–16 school year is $40,658, a 2.85 percent increase from the last year, the smallest in 50 years, according to the college.
In the seven years prior to Rochon, the college averaged an annual increase in tuition of 5.9 percent.
Hector said the college “would be in trouble” if Rochon and the college weren’t focused on the finances of the college.
The IC 20/20 features 10 programs, including diversity programming. It also includes the Integrative Core Curriculum, the general education requirements for students at the college. However, the ICC, which was approved in 2012, has received mixed reviews from students and faculty members.
Rochon called the ICC his biggest achievement as president, but stressed faculty were essential in the creation of it. He said it was implemented after Middle States Commission on Higher Education — the organization the college is accredited by — wanted the college to have a stronger general education requirement, and the college was given a two-year timeframe to do so in 2008.
Rochon said the curriculum enhances the educational experience of students at the college.
“It is actually, as far as I can tell, a unique curriculum around the country for helping students make connections between how you think like a scientist, how you think like a social scientist, how you think like a humanist and how you think like an artist,” Rochon said. “And that’s exciting.”
However, not everyone is as thrilled with the curriculum. Barlas said the ICC is a labyrinth and hard to navigate for both students and faculty. She also said the ICC took away the power faculty have to set the curriculum.
Rosenthal said he doesn’t think the ICC can be judged yet.
“We don’t have a single class that has gone through it yet, so it’s early to judge that and probably very hard to judge because we don’t have base data to compare things to,” he said.
Schlesinger said Rochon’s tenure has seen a multitude of accomplishments, including the establishment of the Academic Advising Center, the creation of the Institutional Budget and Effectiveness Committee with three faculty members on it, strong fiscal management of the college and a willingness to admit past mistakes, among other attributes.
Another of Rochon’s initiatives is the Blue Sky Reimagining, in which Rochon invited the campus community to rethink what the college could look like in the future. The Blue Sky Reimagining Kick-Off event was widely criticized for being exclusive, as only about 30 students were in attendance. Many faculty also felt the event devalued classroom learning. However, the biggest controversy came when panelist J. Christopher Burch ’76 and moderator Bob Kur ’70 referred to Tatiana Sy ’09, a woman of color, as “the savage” after she said she had a savage hunger to succeed.
Many felt the comments were racially insensitive and criticized the college for taking days to respond to the comments, as opposed to the mere hours it took the administration to respond to an unaffiliated fraternity party with a racially charged theme. The comments at the Blue Sky kickoff event helped spark the current protests regarding the college’s racial climate.
Rochon has said he regrets not intervening and stopping the racially charged remarks during the Blue Sky kickoff event.
Rochon has put new initiatives in IC 20/20, any additional Blue Sky activities and the strategic workforce analysis on hold in an effort to respond to the college’s racial climate issues.
Future at the college
With POC at IC’s calls for Rochon’s resignation and the student and faculty votes of no confidence initiated, questions have arisen whether Rochon will resign. However, Rochon has said he has not thought about leaving.
“Right now, I am giving no consideration to resigning,” Rochon said. “I am completely focused on doing what I consider to be a very important job at a crucial moment in Ithaca College history.”
“We understand that the issues are serious and significant, and we are listening,” Grape wrote. “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.”
Barlas said after years of Rochon’s leadership, enough is enough. She said Rochon should depart from the college.
“It’s pretty clear for me, at least from my perspective, that seven years of failed leadership is long enough,” Barlas said.
Sophia Tulp and Max Denning contributed reporting