Along with being the president of Ithaca College, Tom Rochon serves as chairman of the board of directors for Tompkins Financial Corporation. Questions have been raised over how Rochon spends his time and energy between the two jobs, given the current events regarding the racial climate at the college.
This trend of college presidents serving on corporate boards, for profit, is common nationwide.
In a study by the Association of Governing Boards titled Board Policies Regarding College and University CEOs Serving on Corporate Boards, out of 89 university and college presidents surveyed, 53.9 percent served on a corporate board while in office. Approximately 50 percent of the 89 surveyed reported having discussed it with their governing boards before taking on the role.
At the college, Rochon is the most recent president working for Tompkins County Financial in a legacy spanning the last 50 years.
In an interview with The Ithacan, Tom Grape, chairman of the Ithaca College Board of Trustees, responded to concerns about Rochon’s dual involvements.
“It’s very customary for college presidents to serve on outside corporate boards, and in fact, the presidents of Ithaca College have always served on the Tompkins Financial Board of Directors, so that’s not at all unusual,” he said. “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 … we’re comfortable with it.”
Before Rochon, former president Howard Dillingham served on the board from 1964–74, Ellis Phillips served from 1971–75, Peggy Ryan Williams from 1999–2009, with Rochon from 2009 to present. Susan Valenti, senior vice president of Tompkins Financial Corporation, said former president James J. Whalen served on the board for the First Bank at Ithaca during his tenure, and Thomas Salm, vice president of business affairs from 1981–2002, also served the corporation in “different board capacities.”
According to research by James Finkelstein, a professor in the George Mason School of Policy, Government and International Affairs at George Mason University and an expert on executive compensation in higher education and the role of university presidents serving on corporate boards, some companies in smaller college towns almost always ask the president of the university to serve on the board of their company because of the community tradition.
For Rochon’s involvement, he was compensated $60,589 in 2014, according to the Tompkins Financial Corporation Proxy Statement from April 2015.
According to the document, “a pro-rated annual retainer was paid in deferred stock to Thomas R. Rochon in 2014 … in the amount of $43,239. For his service from January through April, Dr. Rochon received … $17,350 in retainer, Board meeting and committee meeting fees.”
The document noted that effective Jan. 1, 2015, Rochon would receive an annual $79,500 fee.
It is unclear what duties Rochon performs in return for his compensation. Neither representatives Tompkins Financial Corporation nor Dave Maley, senior associate director of media relations at the college, were able to provide a description of the responsibilities of the chairman for the board of directors. Rochon did not make himself available for comment.
The board of trustees and Tompkins Trust were unable to say how much time Rochon spends on affairs for the corporation unrelated to the college.
Nick Kowalczyk, associate professor in the Department of Writing, raised questions about the time Rochon spends on his position of chair of Tompkins County Financial Trust Corporation.
“I would say that his chairmanship of the board of the Tompkins Trust is a curious issue,” Kowalczyk said. “I don’t have a problem with him being on a board. … I have no idea of the time commitments involved with chairing a board, but I do know what it’s like to be an academic working at this institution. And I don’t know how I would manage to do that work of chairing it — whatever that work is — plus the responsibilities he has now, which I presume are greater than my own.”
Kowalczyk cited the president’s putting on hold IC 20/20 and Blue Sky Initiatives to focus on “diversity and inclusion” at the college. Kowalczyk said to him, it indicated Rochon may not have time to devote to those initiatives in his presidency, causing him to questions how Rochon could have time for the Tompkins Trust position as well.
In Tompkins Financial Corporation’s 2014 annual report, they listed Rochon’s contributions in his first year as chairman as having “led the board and senior management through an in-depth strategic planning process that reinforced ongoing strategies … We completed a major rebranding of our Company, an effort that affected every office and every employee.”
According to Ithaca College’s Policy Manual on “Conflicts of Interest/Outside Employment,” “if outside employment causes a conflict of interest or impairs an employee’s effectiveness on the job,” the college would require faculty to “resolve” the problem. The section also stated that work hours would not be arranged to fit outside employment of the president.
In reference to the amount of time Rochon spends on affairs outside of the college, Grape said the board does not keep a calendar, however they are “comfortable the Tompkins role has been kept in an appropriate commitment level which allows the president to focus the time that’s needed on Ithaca College manners.”
Warren Schlesinger, associate professor in the Department of Accounting, countered beliefs that Rochon’s involvement in the corporation takes away time from his primary job as president of the college.
“You can’t complain about top-down management then complain that he is not available to do his job,” Schlesinger said. “If he is not available to do his job, then how is he able to exercise so much top-down management at Ithaca College? … It shows a lack of understanding about what boards of directors do.”
Schlesinger said chairmen for boards of directors typically review reports, give presentations and read documents. He said being chairman of the board “is not a day-to-day responsibility like a CEO.”
Commenting on their relationship with presidents at the college, Valenti said via email:
“Tompkins Financial is proud of its long standing relationship with Ithaca College; a relationship that dates back before any of our time. We’ve supported the College for generations, just as we have been an integral part of the greater Ithaca community we serve.”
Finkelstein said in his research, he has found the average university president serves on almost two corporate boards. Finkelstein said that works out to almost 20 days a year of working on non-university business. In most of the cases he’s studied, presidents are not taking vacation days to do this.
It is unclear whether or not this is the case at the college.
“There are circumstances under which serving on a single board could result in a president spending a lot of time that would take away from carrying out their responsibilities, but those would be unusual,” Finkelstein said. “In general, unless there is something special going on in the company, serving on one corporate board is probably not overly time consuming.”
In Finkelstein’s 15 years studying this subject, he said his personal belief is that for a private university, presidents’ serving on outside boards is a matter to be determined by the board of trustees. However, the involvement should be transparent and aspects disclosed.
“My personal belief, based on my research is … there should be a high degree of transparency,” Finkelstein said. “I believe that the amount of time that a president spends on corporate board service should be disclosed, and any resources that the university uses to support their service should also be disclosed.”