Just days after protests at the University of Missouri caused the system president’s resignation, protesters at Ithaca College are calling for their president to step down. Like Missouri, the Ithaca movement has been years in the making. The protesters say President Tom Rochon fails to address racial incidents and is leading the college in the wrong direction.
Hundreds of students packed the Ithaca College quad Wednesday afternoon. They chanted and called for Rochon’s resignation. The student government has been collecting ballots this month for a “no confidence” vote in Rochon.
“The only way we’re going to be heard is if we’re loud about it,” said Isabella Grullon, a sophomore from Columbia and the Dominican Republic. She came to the protest with signs on her backpack declaring “No confidence” and “We want change now.”
Grullon says the protest is a culmination of built-up frustrations. In October a fraternity advertised a party with a racially-charged theme. Alumni on a recent college panel repeatedly referred to a fellow panelist, a woman of Afro-Cuban descent, as a “savage”. The woman had stated that she had a “savage hunger” to succeed.
“He does make an effort to listen, but the way that he has responded isn’t adequate,” Grullon says. “We want answers, and at the end of every time we talk to him we just end up getting more questions.”
The chanting protesters lay down on the wide sidewalk that stretches across the Ithaca College campus. They blocked foot traffic as classes changed. “Let’s cover the pavement,” they shouted.
Politics professor Peyi Soyinka-Airewele rubbed her hands against the cold at the edge of the sidewalk. She’s been on the faculty 17 years, and she says the problems go way back.
“I was the first black woman to be tenured at Ithaca College,” she says. “Some of the things I experienced came from the fact that there was that very low sense of responsiveness to the fact that we were rendered both disposable and invisible.”
Still, Soyinka-Airewele hopes Rochon’s resignation could trigger real change.
Ithaca College alumnus Mohamed Barry still lives in the city and came to campus for the protest. He suggested an improvement: the school could focus on retaining students of color after they start as freshmen.
“Personally, my peers who came in with me, a lot of them didn’t end up with me in school,” he says. “The school lacks involvement in ALANA [African, Latino, Asian, Native American] retention. They’ll get financial aid, and after the first year they won’t get as much. Or they just feel like they don’t fit in because of the campus atmosphere.”
Barry says that he doesn’t have a problem with Rochon as an individual, but that the president fails to relate to students.
“It’s really hard to connect to people if you don’t know where they come from,” he says, “And it’s not like I want a black president necessarily, but I want someone who actually cares – goes out of their way to connect with the student body and especially the minority community.”
In a statement, Board of Trustees chair Tom Grape didn’t express explicit support for Rochon, but said the board is “actively partnering” with him to address the issues. Grape said the board is “committed, as always,” to considering campus input.
Soyinka-Airewele hopes that’s true. “I love IC [Ithaca College],” she exclaims. “It’s a beautiful place. I would not have stayed if I did not think there was hope.”
Students deliver the results of their vote to the Board of Trustees at the end of the month. Faculty are holding a similar vote but do not have a date yet.