With the development of the anti-racist movement at Ithaca College, the administration has come under fire over their responses to racial tensions on campus.
News Editor Aidan Quigley spoke with Benjamin Rifkin, provost and vice president for educational affairs, to discuss Shared Governance, the Blue Sky Reimagining and the plans he has been working on and presented at the Oct. 27 meeting to address the racial climate.
Aidan Quigley: What has been your main focus this past month, and what are your main focuses for next month?
Benjamin Rifkin: My main focus for the past three months has been to work towards, in partnership with students, faculty and staff, the development of a plan to enhance inclusion and respect on our campus, and I anticipate that that will continue to be my main focus for the foreseeable future.
AQ: Have there been any developments of the plan since [the Oct. 27 meeting]?
BR: There has been, first of all, a number of suggestions that have come to the administration in the form of questions and comments raised at that meeting as well as in the notes written down on the 3-by-5 cards at that meeting as well as some other communications that have come to the president. All of those suggestions are being considered as we move forward towards implementing the steps that have been laid out. There are moments of periodic progress where we can make announcements, and at those times we will be making announcements. I sympathize with members of the community who are impatient. I’m impatient, too. Some of the issues related to the various projects or aspects of the plan are challenging. Just for example, to name one, we have agreed as a campus that we will be implementing body cams for our campus police. We are still working on looking at policies regarding the recordings that are generated from those body cams. This is an issue of student privacy. We’re committed to figuring this out in the timeframe that was promised in the plan. That’s an example of the complexity of moving forward on each item.
AQ: What role has student activism on campus played into the development of these plans?
BR: Well, a very significant role. I am proud that our students care deeply about the matter of equity and respect. I share those concerns, and I appreciate the eloquent and sophisticated analysis that has been offered by our student activists. I would appreciate more opportunities to engage with these and other students on these and other matters as we move forward to make our campus a better community in which everyone feels safe and respected. It has been a tremendous learning experience for me. I care deeply about our students and their education, and I am personally committed to doing all I can to ensure the quality of our education for every student. I am also committed to moving towards the systematization of the opportunity for student voice to be heard without it having to be in the form of a protest. In that context, I am looking to enhance our governance processes to include faculty, staff and students in conversations about many issues so that voices with different perspectives can be heard in the consideration of many questions.
AQ: Many faculty members are voicing their concerns regarding the Blue Sky issue. How would you respond to those concerns?
BR: I regret that. The purpose of Blue Sky was to vision a future 50 or 60 years from now, and the purpose was to unleash imagination. This is a point that I can speak on behalf of myself and of the president. It was not his or my intention to devalue the place of classroom learning, but rather to imagine how it might be contextualized with different experiences in the larger educational enterprise. I believe that I might be the one person on campus who walked around the room at the brainstorming session, and what I saw were tables of faculty, staff and students and some alumni very actively and creatively engaged in imagining an exciting future. At some point, we as a community may wish to consider the ideas that were suggested by community members at that brainstorming event. We can do that when we’re ready to have that conversation. It’s beyond unfortunate that the power and potential of those ideas are tarnished by the hurtful remarks that preceded the brainstorming session. I personally regret that I did not stand up at that time and say something. It is one of many indicators for me about the learning that stands before me.
AQ: How do you evaluate Rochon’s leadership?
BR: That is not a question I choose to answer. I just wanted to point out that you have asked me to evaluate the performance of my direct supervisor.
AQ: Do you have confidence in the leadership of President Tom Rochon?
BR: 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. If we consider the totality of President Rochon’s record including record number of applications to the college, increasing awareness of the college nationally, the smallest reduction in tuition in 50 years, the success of a number of budgetary initiatives to make Ithaca College more affordable to more students and increasing support from donors that helps us provide increasing amounts of financial aid and the launching of new and exciting academic programs … I think that these accomplishments demonstrate that we have a great president. I know that he is eager to listen and learn and do everything he can to sustain and advance this college, especially in the area of inclusion and respect.