Embattled and Leaving (Eventually)

Facing third of trifecta of no-confidence votes, Ithaca College's embattled Tom Rochon plans to retire -- but not for another 18 months.

January 15, 2016
Tom Rochon

Tom Rochon might have appeared to have weathered the storm that surrounded his presidency at Ithaca College last fall. He endured no-confidence votes by students and faculty members to get to the holidays, and went so far as to posit in an essay that leaders facing criticism (as he was) for racially hostile or otherwise flawed campus environments should "step up" to confront the issues rather than "step down" and give up.

Apparently he changed his mind.

Rochon announced on Thursday that he will leave the presidency of the upstate New York private college, whose staff council was in the midst of a vote in which it was likely to join Ithaca's students and professors in expressing their dissatisfaction with his leadership. He said he is proud of the work he has done at Ithaca, but believes it needs a "fresh start" under a new leader.

Those who had called for Rochon to leave expressed, sometimes in rather nasty terms, relief and satisfaction that he was leaving. But many of them were surprised and disappointed, too, by the fact that Rochon and the college's Board of Trustees decided that he will stay on for another 18 months, until July 2017, to "enable the Board of Trustees the necessary time to organize and execute a thoughtful and comprehensive search for my successor."

"I really think that’s a poor decision on the part of the Board of Trustees to wait that long," said Dominick Recckio, a senior communication management and design major and president of the student government. "I have no idea how you can still lead a place where 70 percent of the people don’t have confidence in you."

Ithaca was among the numerous college campuses that experienced conflict over racial incidents and attitudes last fall. Ithaca's troubles emerged from a pair of incidents -- one in which two alumni referred 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), and another involving an unaffiliated fraternity that encouraged students to wear “’90s thuggish-style” clothing and “bling” to a party.

Many students were troubled by the campus administration's slow response to the first incident -- a statement from Rochon condemning the statements did not emerge for four days -- and by Rochon's standoffish and combative reactions to student protests. More than 70 percent of participating Ithaca students voted no confidence in Rochon in November, and three-quarters of voting faculty followed suit in mid-December.

A survey of administrative employees published in mid-December by Ithaca's Staff Council revealed that 55 percent of the staff perceived a "lack of accountability" in upper administration, and more than half of staff members described their own morale as low or semi-low (56 percent) and morale in their department as low or semi-low (63 percent).

Those votes didn't seem to deter Rochon. During the fall, he frequently said he had no intention of leaving, and he published an op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education in November suggesting that presidents who resign in the face of such protests are derelict in their duty.

Rochon's announcement on Thursday came in the middle of a daylong faculty retreat on unrelated issues, said Peter Rothbart, a professor of music and chair of the council. "Let's just say it sort of blew up my agenda."

He said that despite Rochon's statements suggesting otherwise, the president's resignation was not shocking. "I knew that the Board of Trustees was actively investigating the situation and coming up with a plan," Rothbart said.

Ithaca officials did not respond to requests seeking comment from Rochon or the trustees.

But the board's leaders said in a message to the campus that the 18-month window in which Rochon will continue to lead Ithaca will enable a smooth transition.

"The higher education landscape has changed dramatically over the last 10 years, and Tom has given the board the time it will need to shape the role for the college’s next leader, thoroughly review candidates and, finally, select our new president, without the need for an interim leader," wrote Tom Grape and David Lissy, the board's chair and vice chair, respectively.

Rothbart rejected as too speculative a reporter's question about whether Rochon could lead the campus effectively for 18 months, given the dissatisfaction that key constituent groups have expressed about him. He offered only a story about his days as an "old road musician," in which the leader of a band he was in fired the band but kept it intact for two weeks to fulfill the obligation of one last gig. The music it produced during that time was among the best it had ever played, Rothbart said.

"It's amazing the things can come when the pressure is relieved," he said.

Recckio, the student government leader, offered a story of his own, closer to the situation at hand. He described the scene at the last campus protest of 2015, after students had ended their occupation of a campus building and staged a protest on the campus's Free Speech Rock.

With Rochon watching from the steps of the administration building, students -- boisterously calling for his resignation -- repeatedly asked him to join them for a discussion. Instead, with his own megaphone, Rochon said, "I can see and hear you from here," demurring several times (and arguing with the students via bullhorns) before finally making his way to join the students.

"It's hard to imagine that any trustees who saw that video could believe that the person who did that -- who proved then that he was afraid of his own students -- can really continue to lead this place," Recckio said.

The only way "anything productive" can happen at Ithaca, said Susan Resneck Pierce, a former college president who consults on leadership issues, is if "there's a decision by everybody involved that they’re going to be constructive."

Recent history may raise doubts about whether that's possible, but the parties are saying the right things. Rochon's announcement expressed an interest "in working with the college community over the next 18 months in a constructive and collaborative way, making progress on issues of diversity and inclusion, shared governance, and decision making.”

A statement from the Faculty Council said it, too, "looks forward to working with all constituencies in advancing the best interests of the college."

Follow me on Twitter @dougledIHE.


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