Following major protests by student group POC at IC, students at Ithaca College have voted “no confidence” in President Tom Rochon. A faculty no confidence vote is in progress.
News Editor Aidan Quigley spoke with Tom Grape, chair of the Ithaca College Board of Trustees, and David Lissy, vice chair of the board of trustees, about the no confidence votes, how the board is responding to campus unrest, and Rochon’s tenure and future at the college.
Aidan Quigley: What is the board of trustees doing in regard to the recent issues on campus?
Tom Grape: We’ve been very closely following what’s been going on. We attended the protest rally in October when we were on campus. Dave and I met with the group of other students and staff who were interested in and concerned about the issue while we were here in October. Since then, we’ve been in regular and daily contact via email, following all of the media coverage, receiving hundreds of emails to the email@example.com email address from students and parents and alums and faculty and everybody. Dave and I were just on campus on Tuesday and Wednesday. We had 23 or 24 meetings or something like that with a range of folks, so the board is very actively engaged in following what’s been going on in regular touch with a variety of different folks to stay informed.
AQ: What are the two most important things that you’ve learned from your meetings this week?
David Lissy: I think that what the meetings helped us do this week is to reinforce how complex the issues are that we’re facing, and that the issues really have to do with some really important issues like the racial climate and diversity and inclusion challenges that we have on campus. Secondly, issues around leadership and feelings of connection or disconnection with respect to how decisions are made, how policies are made, things like that. And then lastly, a desire for more shared governance and collaborative process. The real value of our meetings was to hear directly from staff and from faculty and from students to reinforce that these three areas are really the areas where there are a range of concerns and the areas in which the board will continue to deliberate and ultimately act.
AQ: How would you evaluate the college’s current governance structure, and what could be done to possibly improve it?
DL: I think that there’s a really good opportunity that we have to foster better collaboration between people in the constituency groups that exist on campus: students, faculty, staff and administration. As a board, back at our October meeting, we passed a resolution that was designed to show our support to all constituency groups to collaborate and come up with a way to rethink the governance structure so that we can get to a place where people feel like there is better collaboration, there is better input. What we were pleased to see is that Provost Rifkin has taken that resolution we passed and he has put together a group of students and faculty and staff and people from the administration to take the first steps in trying to look at other models that exist out there in the higher education world that we can learn from with the goal of rethinking and reshaping the governance structure at IC for the future, which we think is a very positive step.
AQ: How do you interpret the results of the recent student vote of no confidence?
TG: We were encouraged by the turnout and the fact that a lot of students took the opportunity to express their views. I think the student vote is one important input, along with the faculty vote and all the other input that we’re getting that the board will be considering as we think about what the right next steps are. The student vote is important input.
AQ: Does the board of trustees have confidence in President Tom Rochon?
DL: I would say that we are in the process of trying to listen and gain influence from a variety of different sources, which we were just talking about before, and we are going to be continuing to talk about everything in regards to what I talked about earlier and think about ultimately, what are ways we can make IC strong for the future. So that’s our process at this point.
AQ: If that was a yes or no question, right now, what would the answer be?
TG: Right now, President Rochon is the president of Ithaca College, and we support the president of Ithaca College. The board’s long-term interest is the health of the institution, and that continues to be our primary focus objective.
AQ: Is there any electoral result from the faculty vote that would possibly lead to the board’s removing Rochon?
TG: I think the votes are important inputs, along with a lot of additional information, that the board will consider. The votes aren’t the only inputs, but the votes are obviously important inputs, and the board is going to be taking a holistic view to try and come up with an action plan that will address all of the things we’ve heard. As Dave said, it’s a complicated set of issues.
AQ: Why do you think the focus of the discussion has been on President Rochon?
DL: President Rochon, like any leader, is often a target when any issues are raised. As a person who is in charge and at top as president of the college, he’s an obvious target. We believe firmly the challenges which we’ve listened to and have heard are really owned by the entire campus community and that whatever solutions are thought through on these complicated subjects, it’s going to take collaboration between all members of the IC community to make progress and move forward.
AQ: With the protest group POC at IC refusing to engage in dialogue with President Rochon, do you think it is possible to move forward with him still at the helm?
DL: We’ve heard directly from many students of color who have shared with us many of the issues which they have continued to face, and I think that the college, at least initially, has re-prioritized other issues in favor of focus on diversity and inclusion, which is a good start. We believe ultimately that any solution that is going to be positive for IC is going to require the collaboration of every constituency on campus: all students, especially students of color, faculty, staff and the administration. Our view is if we are going to move forward, it’s going to be because people are willing to return to a civil discourse and be engaged in solutions.
AQ: Taking it to a different topic, President Rochon has another position as the chairman of the board of Tompkins County Finacial, a job for which he gets paid over $60,000 a year. Some faculty members have recently raised questions about how he can effectively do both, especially during this time of campus unrest.
TG: It’s very customary for college presidents to serve on outside corporate boards, and in fact the presidents of Ithaca College have all served on the Tompkins Financial Board of Directors for the last 40 years, so that’s not at all unusual. And I think our board’s understanding with any president is that the job of president of Ithaca College is their first and foremost priority. If we ever felt the other was interfering with their duties, that is a conversation we would bring to their attention. But it’s very common to happen. It’s happened at Ithaca College for the last 40 years, and we’re comfortable with it.
AQ: Do you know how he splits up his time between the two jobs?
TG: We don’t keep an exact calendar, but we’re comfortable the Tompkins role has been kept in an appropriate commitment level that allows the president to focus the time that’s needed on Ithaca College matters.
AQ: In the eyes of the board, what are some of President Rochon’s biggest accomplishments and biggest failures during his tenure so far as president?
DL: I think Ithaca College has made a lot of progress over the course of President Rochon’s tenure. It’s obviously true it’s very challenging economic times, but the college has improved its financial footing, has helped to raise money to invest in scholarships in unprecedented ways, and continues to focus on its goal to allow more students to attend Ithaca College through both raising money to support kids who can’t afford it, but also to improve the quality of the college and also to keep tuition at the lowest possible place as it relates to tuition increases, which I think have been pretty impressive relative to what past history has been on tuition increases.
I think President Rochon has shepherded the IC 20/20 plan in an overall — it’s been a big vision that he’s been able to obviously put that in place and help the faculty and work with the faculty toward implementing the Integrative Core Curriculum, which is a faculty accomplishment and something that is still in progress but is a big change from the way things had been. I think there’s a number of things positively that the college has experienced over the course of the past eight years, and what we’re engaged in now is trying to figure out how the issues it’s currently facing can — that we can find solutions for so we can put the college into the best possible place to succeed going forward.
AQ: Are there any concerns the current campus unrest is going to have an effect on enrollment next year or in the future?
TG: I think we’re interested in the potential implications of the campus unrest on all aspects of college life. Most notably, we want to get the college — it’s important that we get the college back to the basic business of educating students and not be in the position of needing to express … issues which make people feel uncomfortable that are not satisfactory. So we need to deal with the issues so everyone can get back to business as usual. Otherwise, we’re interested on the potential implications of this on all aspects of the college.
AQ: You were talking earlier about keeping all the possibilities open. Is one of those possibilities removing President Rochon?
TG: I think the board frankly always keeps all possibilities open on all fronts, so our discussions are going to be about what is in the best long-term interests of Ithaca College in a total and holistic way. In my mind, for the board, all possibilities are available at all times, but at the moment, whoever is in the role of president of the college — it’s our collective job to try and make that person successful.