How We Got Here: The Build-Up To Ithaca College’s Protests

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Hundreds of protesters blocked campus sidewalks during a walkout demonstration on Wednesday.

College campuses around the country saw protests this week – Ithaca College among them. Students and faculty there are holding referendums on President Tom Rochon’s leadership. Results from a student confidence vote will come out November 30, and faculty voting begins on that day. Here’s what you need to know about what’s at stake:

Why is this happening at Ithaca College?

The student frustration with President Rochon has been building for a long time. Three major incidents of racism have sparked a lot of outrage, but it definitely goes beyond that. The most talked-about of the incidents is a college event that happened in October. There was a panel of Ithaca College alumni, and one of the panelists, a woman of Afro-Cuban descent, described herself as having a “savage hunger” for success. Two of the other alumni, white men, then referred to her as “the savage” several times. No one from the college stepped in to stop this, and activists are upset about that lack of response.

The protesters also say there’s generally a hostile climate on campus for students of color. Several students said the school has trouble retaining these students because it’s not a place where they feel welcome.

Are all the complaints against Rochon about racism on campus?

No. That’s something that’s getting lost in a lot of the coverage. The students distributed a statement against Rochon during the college Family Weekend last month, and it has a lot more in-depth criticisms. A copy of it on the school newspaper website criticizes Rochon for not getting campus input on his strategic initiatives. It says there’s been a lot of administrative turnover since Rochon took the job, and it disagrees with staff cuts that were announced this fall, as reported in the Ithaca Journal. The faculty confidence vote was on the table even before student protests broke out in October. Many faculty also object to Rochon’s lack of responsiveness to campus input.

How has the college responded?

They’ve rolled out quite a few new efforts. Just Tuesday President Rochon announced a new position: Chief Diversity Officer. The college also laid out a timeline of how it’s going to address the campus climate on its website. Part of that is to address the relationship between campus police and students of color. Faculty are also going to be required to have cultural competency training starting this winter.

So far Rochon has refused to step down, though. He told the Ithaca Journal yesterday that he still feels like he has what it takes to lead the campus. He also seems to have the Trustees’ backing. Board Chair Tom Grape said in a statement that they’re working with Rochon, although Grape didn’t explicitly state support for the president.

Does this connect to the recent protests at the University of Missouri and the resignation of the chancellor and the system president there?

The Ithaca College students have declared solidarity with the Missouri protesters – their causes do align. But the movement at Ithaca started long before any of this was in the news. The big incidents were in early October, and people had started to express concerns about Rochon even before then.

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