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Ithaca College president in hot seat for alleged campus racism
“Tom Rochon! No confidence!” is becoming a common chant at Ithaca College.
The president of the school in Ithaca, N.Y., is in the hot seat thanks to what some students say are inadequate responses to several allegedly racist incidents on campus and an overall negative racial climate.
The incidents range from reportedly offensive remarks made by Public Safety officers at RA training sessions as well as by two Ithaca alumni at a campus event, to a racially tinged party invite from a fraternity.
Now, an email has been sent out by the Ithaca Student Government Association (SGA) asking for a vote of “confidence” or “no confidence” in Rochon, with votes due Nov. 30.
“You should care about … creating an inclusive environment,” says senior and Student Government Administration (SGA) president Dom Recckio. Students “aren’t confident in President Rochon.”
Rochon’s “performance is definitely sub-par,” says sophomore and first year resident advisor Mike Sylvester. “He seems to be avoiding what’s going on.”
The first alleged instances happened at two RA training sessions in August, according to RAs in attendance and an article in student publication The Ithacan.
The two officers, ID’d in the article as Sergeant Terry O’Pray and Master Patrol Officer Jon Elmore, supposedly dismissed concerns about racial profiling, “saying that it does not happen at Ithaca College” and then showed a BB gun, according to RA Rita Bunatal, with one officer saying, “‘If I saw someone with this I would shoot them.’”
Two RAs of color reportedly walked out “in anger and frustration.”
“It was fine … until the conversation turned to guns,” says Sylvester, who was in the training session. “There was awkward laughter, because everyone didn’t know how to react in the moment. The meeting got very tense after that.”
Another meeting was called by the school to address the training session incidents, but many students left dissatisfied. Benjamin Rifkin, provost and vice president for educational affairs, provided The Ithacan with a statement that read:
“In the past year there has been increased attention given to centuries-old patterns of violence against people of color in our country. It is certainly understandable that Ithaca College community members, especially people of color, women and individuals who identify as LGBTQ, have concerns about their own sense of safety in this larger context.
“Indeed, recent events on our campus focus our concerns on disrespect here at Ithaca College: much to my dismay, at a recent meeting of Resident Assistants, I heard from a number of people of color that they do not feel safe on our campus. I affirm the college’s expectation that all members of our community, especially our Public Safety officers, are to treat others with respect and compassion.”
Another controversial incident occurred at the college’s Blue Sky Reimagining event Oct. 8 that asked students to help “formulate ideas about the evolution of Ithaca College.”
During the event, two Ithaca alumni carelessly and offensively referred to Tatiana Sy, a panelist and woman of color, as a “savage” after she said she had a “savage hunger” to succeed.
The third instance occurred when an unaffiliated Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, posted an invite on Facebook post for a “Preps & Crooks”-themed party in October. According to the post, “Prep” attire was described as a “Polo shirt, button-down, backwards baseball cap, khakis or boat shoes” whereas “Crooks” attire was described as a “bandanna, baggy sweats and a t-shirt, snapback, and any ‘bling.’ After students angrily shared the invite, the event was quickly cancelled.
Many students have responded to the issue of systematic racism at the college with protests, and have started the hashtag #POCatIC on social media in support of the campus group “People of Color at Ithaca College.” Some faculty members have raised their voices as well, with some displaying signs on their doors in support of POC.
Rochon and other administration members have held meetings with student organizations to discuss the issues, including at an event “Addressing Community Action on Racism and Cultural Bias” held in late October that was interrupted by PoCatIC, which took over the stage.
The group “really did a lot to prove their ‘no confidence’ (in Rochon),” said Recckio. “Half of the people (ended up walking) out of that room.”
President Rochon continued the event after the walkout occurred.
USA TODAY College was given the following statement from Rochon:
“Ithaca College has a proud history of educating student activists, and we will continue to recruit students who ask tough questions and find solutions that better the whole. The administration encourages the Student Government Association to share its voice with the campus and solicit feedback from all students.
“Every institution has room for improvement, and we are thankful that the students are sharing specific and vital issues they would like addressed. We hear them, and are committed to partnering with our students, faculty and staff to make IC the strongest institution it can be. A campus is made stronger by shared governance and the insights that a variety of perspectives and active feedback can bring. Our job is to take the input available to us and make ourselves and the institution a better reflection of what our community wants and needs.”
People of Color at Ithaca were not available for immediate comment.