Racial Tensions Erupt at Ithaca

College administration criticized for its response to racially charged incidents.

October 30, 2015

A series of racially charged incidents and student protests have roiled Ithaca College.

One incident involved two alumni referring to a third, a black woman, as “the savage” at a college event after she said, “I had this savage hunger” to build a successful career. Another involved an unaffiliated fraternity that encouraged students to wear “’90s thuggish style” clothing and “bling” to a party.

Though the college's president, Tom Rochon, issued a statement saying he regretted that the event at which the two alumni made racist comments about the black alumna “was diminished by insensitive comments,” many were angry that Rochon's response took four days, while a statement addressing the fraternity party appeared in hours. Both episodes angered students and led to protests where students chanted, “Tom Rochon, no confidence” and “no more dialogue, we want action.” (Below: footage of the protest from the student newspaper.)

Dozens of Ithaca faulty members also signed an open letter expressing “very serious concern” over the event where the “savage” remarks were made. “We were distressed and offended,” the letter says, “by the fact that one of the guest speakers, Tatiana Sy ’09, was repeatedly called 'the savage,' by both a guest speaker and the moderator. We are disheartened and disappointed by the fact that our academic leaders did not intervene and object to this demeaning and highly inappropriate phrase.”

In addition to those remarks, the letter says the event, which was intended to kick-start a fundamental rethinking of education at Ithaca, “appeared to dismiss and even disparage the idea that a rich and valuable undergraduate education is critically tied to what happens in the classroom.” (Below: relevant clips from the event cut together by the student newspaper.)

“So many things have happened that have required a strong administration, especially a strong president, and we’ve seen a true lack of that,” said Dominick Recckio, the student body president. Recckio sponsored a resolution that passed unanimously in the student government calling for a campuswide no-confidence vote in the president. When the vote begins on Nov. 4, every student will be sent a link to a page to vote, and the results will be posted Nov. 30, regardless of how many students end up participating.

The resolution cites a distant and disinterested administration as motivation for the vote. Its says a 2012 reorganization of the Office of Student Affairs cut lines of access from students to the administration, and says that “students in democratically chosen positions (the Student Government Association) historically have not had interactions with President Rochon and have not been invited to the table to be a part of any major decisions.”

Rochon was not available for comment, but a statement from the college says, “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.”

Rather than focus on specific policy proposals, Recckio said the goal right now is “for the college students, myself included, to go through a process of understanding what we value in a college president.”

“Whether President Rochon stays or goes, that value judgment will be really important,” he said. “In terms of specific demands and actions, those are going to come from student protesters.”


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