Ithaca College President Tom Rochon recently announced he will be retiring from his position, effective July 1, 2017. This comes in the wake of a semester of protests about the racial climate of the college and no confidence votes against Rochon’s leadership.
Editor-in-Chief Kira Maddox spoke with Rochon about his thoughts leading up to the announcement, what his plans are for his next 18 months in office and what he hopes for the future of Ithaca College.
Kira Maddox: I want to hear from your point of view: How did you come to this decision to retire?
Tom Rochon: Well, with the opportunity to reflect over the semester break about the key challenges facing the college, I realized that I arrived as president at a time of very rapid change, when there were brand-new challenges — it was at the time of the collapse of the global economy and significant changes in higher education — but that the current era, while those challenges continue, the current era is bringing about new challenges. So the question became “Is the best thing for Ithaca College to have a new leadership to help lead those new challenges?” I thought about that very carefully and decided that, subject to an orderly transition to the next president, the answer was yes.
KM: Was there any specific thing that made you start thinking about this? In our last interview, it seemed that you were very confident that you would be staying around for the foreseeable future.
TR: I am staying around for a now foreseen future, 18 months, and I think this is an important 18 months. But the answer to your question, I think, is not so much about events that have transpired since our last interview, as it was the opportunity to step back and look at a much bigger picture than I was able to do in the day–to–day of last semester.
KM: How do you feel about everything that’s been going on on campus? Over time, it seemed while you were always a key focus of the protesters’ chants, the conversation went from the racial climate overall to you as a president.
TR: I feel that, not looking at any individual events, that what happened on campus last fall was a very clear expression of discomfort and pain from many students of color about their experience on campus. Where the focus was is not primary to me. Primary to me is the question of how we can make significant changes that will reduce that pain and create a more genuine and inclusive community.
KM: OK. Now I’d like to switch gears just a little bit. In previous interviews, and just now, you have acknowledged the racial issues raised by the students and say you understand the concerns, but there has been less talk going on about the issues raised by the faculty. Do you feel the faculty have treated you fairly during this process?
TR: I don’t think fairness is something for me to comment on. I do believe one thing we have lacked in our governance of the college is a shared sense of how governance might work and how faculty participation in decision-making might work. There actually is a great deal of common understanding at the level of principle, but we don’t currently have the mechanisms for actual dialogue. That’s an important topic that we need to address in the coming 18 months, and indeed, we’re going to get started on that this semester.
KM: So switching over to you now, will your responsibilities be any different now that you have a set end date?
TR: There is a bit of a shift in psychology of leadership that comes with a set end date. Longer–term planning is appropriately left to the next president, but there’s a very full agenda of important things for Ithaca College to address that I do expect to continue to work on.
KM: Are there any set restrictions or conditions on what projects you can and cannot start, or is it more abstract than that?
TR: If you mean in a formal sense, no, there are no restrictions. I think it’s a matter of common sense on my part and on the leadership team’s part. Let me put it this way: The psychology becomes one of preparing the way for the next president and presidential team, which is a slightly different psychology than I had previously.
KM: During these next 18 months, what projects do you hope to accomplish?
TR: Some of them are ongoing. We’ve done a lot around operational efficiencies and making sure that we slowly but steadily reposition Ithaca College as more affordable to students. That absolutely has to be a continuing priority. I think some of the priorities will be more directly transitional to help the next president get off to a good start. Better understandings and institutional mechanisms for shared governance fall into that category, and we definitely need to make significant progress on the diversity and inclusion initiative that has been laid out.
KM: And what about Blue Sky? Does that fall into the category of future planning to be left to the next president?
TR: Absolutely. Without being definitive, because I think there’s a discussion that we need to have, but I would say in principle, the Blue Sky longer–term thinking now belongs to the next administration.
KM: You had also mentioned “operational efficiency.” Does that include job cuts?
TR: It includes us continuing to be attentive to operational efficiency. I don’t know exactly what that will mean, and that’s something we will figure out in the very near future.
KM: With all of this, you’ve specifically used the term “retiring,” so would you consider this the end of your career as a college president in general, or do you think you’ll be seeking a new position elsewhere?
TR: I don’t know. … I have at this time no post-Ithaca College presidency plans, either at Ithaca College or anywhere else.
KM: Was this decision something you came to yourself or was the Ithaca College Board of Trustees involved?
TR: After deciding that I believed it would be best to have an orderly transition to a president over some defined period of time, I then spoke with the board chair and vice chair about timing and taking their pulse on the whole matter.
KM: So this is something that you came up with first and then spoke with them about it?
TR: I did a lot of reflecting on this over the holiday season.
KM: So before the holiday season, did you have any plans to retire around 2017?
KM: OK. We’ve also had some people bring up questions about your contract because usually the guidelines are a five–year contract and a five–year renewal. So if you started at Ithaca College in 2008, your contract renewal would have been up in 2018. Is that how your contract worked, or were you on a different path?
TR: I’m going to tell you that no, it isn’t, because the assumptions about the length of my contract are incorrect. But I’m not going to say anything else about my contract. In other words, I’m offering a caution if you want to take it about not going down that red herring path, but I don’t want to discuss my contract. I will say this: the timing is timing that is determined by how long does it take from now to organize and implement a quality search for a president on the assumption that we’re not going to have an interim president, which the board leadership felt very strongly about. So just to point you in the right direction, that is what determined the timing, not anything about my contract.
KM: So, just in general, is there anything you think you would have done differently with your presidency as a whole or with the things that happened last semester?
TR: I would have done hundreds of things differently over the course of my presidency and very likely last semester. This is part of the reflection that I’ve done. Leadership involves making choices every single day and assessing trade–offs without having full information on what will happen if you make this choice or that choice. So yes, the way you phrased it is very nice. If I had the knowledge that I have today and the opportunity to play things out again, there are some choices I would have made beginning in my first and second year — none of which are part of this — that would have been different, and continuing right up until probably today.
KM: In the board of trustees’ statement, they alluded to possibly including more members of the campus community in the process to find your successor. Do you know if you’ll be involved in that process at all, or has that not been talked about yet?
TR: No, there’s been no discussion about that. I will say — and again, if I can offer this as a backgrounder comment — the campus community was very involved in the presidential search that led to me. I know that from the interview that I had on campus, but I also have heard of the early meetings in which trustees and board leadership asked the campus community about priorities and important traits of a president and so forth. So the background element is this: For what it’s worth, my reading of that part of the trustees letters was pretty much a statement of we will conduct a presidential search at least broadly similar to the way it’s been conducted in the past. I wouldn’t want anyone to think — memories can be short — I wouldn’t want anyone to think that last time around there was no or very little campus input.
KM: So I have to ask, because we don’t know what this next semester will hold for the campus community, if protests continue or if more stakeholders vote no confidence — because the staff vote has not come out yet — would there be consideration about having to leave earlier than your set 2017 date?
TR: The principle of having an orderly succession from one permanent president to the next permanent president is a very important principle to me, and although the board leadership can speak for itself … as far as I know, it’s also a very important principle to the board leadership. One should never say never, that would be foolish. But I think that we have a very, very strong presumption that this is the timeline because this is the timeline that’s best for Ithaca College.
KM: Are you interested at all in discussing your retirement plan?
TR: No. … My contract is with the board of trustees, and I hold that confidential. If they want to comment on it, they can comment on it.
KM: I figured. … So this will be my final question: What do you hope for the future of Ithaca College?
TR: That’s a great question, and that’s certainly one I’ve reflected on a lot. I believe nearly everyone — faculty, staff, students, alumni — have a deep love for this college and what it can be. … We should recognize that every single day, wonderful things happen on this campus and that this college has an amazing impact on the students who are here. We don’t talk about that a lot, but it has always been true. It was true last semester; it is still true. That said, my hope for the immediate future and longer–term future is we get to a fuller understanding of our shared values, of the college mission, of how we can collaborate together, how we can communicate more effectively and how we can move the college ever closer to the ideal community that we want it to be.