Ithaca College is an institution in crisis, and addressing that crisis requires a fuller commitment than anyone is truly, publicly imagining or admitting.
In the past few years, we’ve seen interest in the college drop and acceptance rates increase, effectively demoting the college to the status of a “safety school.” Students and faculty frequently voice dissatisfaction and confusion with the Integrative Core Curriculum and other elements of the college’s academic vision, equating the requirements to boxes on an incoherent checklist. In the past two years, administrative turnover has been at an all-time high, leaving the college’s leadership in a consistent interim state. We have a campus climate of fear among staff, who largely refrain from voicing complaints for the sake of keeping their jobs; of frustration among faculty, who have been collecting a list of grievances against the bureaucratic leadership for eight years; and of inequity among students, whose perceptions of how they are treated differ drastically among different identity groups.
Where the college places recognizing these issues on its list of priorities is abundantly clear: the results of the Campus Climate Survey, administered in the Fall of 2012, remained a mystery for more than two years. These survey results contained the evidence of serious perception gaps among students, faculty and staff from various ethnic backgrounds on inclusivity at the college, and they sat idle for two years because the president of the college said he “wanted a high quality analysis” — a euphemistic way of saying he was unsure of the survey’s status for years.
Most importantly, the two central social issues in the country right now and the former hallmarks of our college, diversity and sustainability, have, up until this very moment, largely fallen by the wayside. Sustainability has toppled far down the college’s list of priorities, seeing that it has missed key emissions goals and essentially forgotten its own Climate Action Plan. IC 20/20 began to take precedence over sustainability initiatives when Rochon came to the presidency, despite one of the six ICC themes being dubbed “The Quest for a Sustainable Future.” This theme is also the smallest, both in terms of enrollment and the number of classes offered. In the words of Mark Darling, recently retired sustainability programs director, “We’ve plateaued.” The administration, at its exclusive all-college meeting, alluded to rumblings of a big sustainability announcement coming up, but it will take more than a single initiative to reverse the course of our diminishing priorities.
The only reason diversity is now being addressed with vigor is because of the action and participation of students, faculty and staff to place it high on the administration’s agenda — evidence of what happens when everyone participates. This is the first case in a long time where our campus community members dictated with passion and direct pressure what they want, and need, to be considered a priority on part of the administration. And by doing so, they’ve made it a priority among themselves. Darling said the same thing about moving forward with sustainability initiatives: “It’s everybody’s job.”
The problem is, it’s difficult for everybody to view it that way when the college functions as an “enlightened dictatorship,” as Darling called the bureaucracy. Faculty have long complained that President Tom Rochon has created a top-down decision-making structure, but the focus lately has been on booting him out as a means to a solution. The campus community desperately needs to transition to a mindset of participatory democracy, an institution that requires the full participation of every constituency. We cannot simply hire a new president and expect that person to change everything, to provide the new direction the college needs. The community must dictate what that direction is, what kind of president it wants. We need to solve our own identity crisis together.
College is supposed to be the four most formative years of students’ adult intellectual lives. When both Rochon and Peggy Ryan Williams stepped into the presidency, they each asked the question, “What does an Ithaca College education mean?” In other words, what is our education worth? What is the value of our degree if the college does not stand for anything, does not have a real direction or purpose? Almost 20 years later, that question remains unanswered.
It is our job, and not the next president’s, to answer it.