In Fall 2019, an Ithaca College interim lecturer asked students to write racial slurs on a whiteboard as part of a course exercise. After students raised complaints, the lecturer, Anne Hamilton, did not teach for the remainder of the semester. The college responded to the incident with promises of anti-racist training for faculty and staff and a revision to its diversity statement.
As the Ithaca College Department of Theatre Arts Black, Indigenous and People of Color (ICTA BIPOC) pointed out in its letter — which calls on the college to address a history of racist incidents perpetuated by faculty, students and staff in the Department of Theatre Arts and provides a list of demands targeting ways to end this behavior — this was not an isolated incident but, rather, a common experience for students of color at the college.
It is disappointing to see that it takes a high-profile incident or a public callout for the college to address these issues. Students and alumni should not have to be the ones to hold the institution accountable. The college must be more proactive in its anti-racist efforts.
As has been said time and time again, the college must address its lack of diversity among faculty. The college faculty was 82.1% white as of Fall 2019, according to the college. However, it is not enough for the college to simply hire more faculty of color. Once they are at the college, they must be provided with the resources they need to be supported and successfully proceed through the ranks. Representation of women and minorities decreases with increasing faculty rank, according to data from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. And while, with the recent promotion of Cynthia Henderson, the college has finally appointed its first African–American full professor, it is embarrassing that it took it over a century to do so.
The lack of diverse faculty puts students of color at a significant disadvantage. Not only do they have to navigate the daily struggles of being college students, but they must also juggle the intricacies of race politics and professors not understanding their backgrounds. Hiring more faculty of color would not solve the issue of racist incidents at the college but would be a step in the right direction.
President Shirley M. Collado recently wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “I was intentional about building a diverse senior leadership team, with the understanding that not only are students tired of attending institutions that do not affirm who they are — they are also exhausted from navigating systems that do not understand or support them. We must make a real commitment to equity and to better serving students from all walks of life.” While it is reassuring to see mostly first-generation college graduates, women and people of color in top leadership roles at the college, these are not the individuals students interact with every day. It’s time students see professors in the classroom who look like them and understand their experiences.
ICTA BIPOC is absolutely right in its intentions to call for “nondiscrimination policies and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) training and unconscious bias training for everyone in the department.” However, Dillingham Center does not exist in a vacuum. These same racist experiences students of color experience in the theater department undoubtedly occur elsewhere, both on and off campus.
The college should integrate an anti-racism curriculum throughout the college. Within almost every subject, race plays a part, however nuanced that role may be. This step alone is a way of actively dismantling the predominately white teachings that most of the curricula throughout the college rely on. A single class or a diversity requirement in the Integrative Core Curriculum is not enough. One of the small gems at the college is the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity. While it is great that the college is growing the program, it is a shame that one of the only departments that truly commits itself to anti-racist work is one of the smallest programs at the college.
The issue of racism within the Department of Theatre Arts and beyond will not be resolved overnight. Change is brought about by continuous and conscious efforts. If the college is serious about improving and aiding its students of color, it must implement policies to ensure that change occurs and do more than just acknowledge the issues ICTA BIPOC has brought forth.