A few weeks ago, colleges across the United States exploded with discussions about race on campus.
Major movements at Mizzou and Yale made the headlines of all the major news outlets, but journalists didn’t fail to mention similar protests at Claremont McKenna, Southern Methodist, Colgate, Bowdoin, and my own Ithaca College.
It’s a little strange to read an outsider’s coverage of what’s been happening here. Interviews with student activists can never fully illustrate how our campus culture actually feels. It’s like writing an essay based on a five-sentence outline.
Here’s what the journalists got wrong.
Our protests were not sparked by Mizzou. The issue of race on campus wasn’t a sleeping giant suddenly awakened when Tim Wolfe resigned from his presidency.
We’ve been protesting the actions (or rather, inaction) of our college’s president, Tom Rochon, since October.
Three incidents this year led to the initial demonstration.
- A Public Safety officer told RAs during training that if he saw them with a BB gun that he would shoot them. Many RAs are people of color, and their job requires them to work closely with Public Safety officers. This comment made many students feel uncomfortable, angry, and fearful to call on Public Safety despite that relationship being crucial to their position. The officer who made the comment refused to apologize or acknowledge it in any way.
- Alpha Epsilon Pi, an unaffiliated fraternity, threw an off-campus party themed “Preps and Crooks,” where “Crooks” were instructed to wear “90s thuggish style…a bandana, baggy sweats and a t-shirt, snapback, and any ‘bling’ you can find!” Students were outraged at the racially charged theme, but the administration declined to take action because the organization isn’t affiliated with the college even though all of its members are IC students.
- At an event unveiling the college’s strategic plan, two white male alumni repeatedly referred to a black female alumna as “the savage” after she said she had a “savage hunger” for learning. President Tom Rochon sat in silence as the rest of the audience became increasingly uncomfortable with the comments (my work supervisor even passed him a note urging him to shift the conversation, but he did nothing). He later said that he can’t control what guest speakers might say, thus attempting to avoid any blame or responsibility.
Note the constant theme here: something racially insensitive occurs, and the administration says and does nothing to protect students of color, preferring to hide in their shells (or massive, beautiful offices) than admit their contributions to the problem or plan a solution.
The first protest took place in mid-October to coincide with Board of Trustees meeting at the college. The two main chants were “No more dialogue/We want action” and “Tom Rochon/No confidence.” Rochon and the Board members attended and observed quietly among the passionate student body.
Finally sufficiently pressured to do something, Tom Rochon held an all-campus meeting the following week to announce his “action plan” to roughly 1500 students, faculty, and staff. Before releasing his main points, the People of Color at Ithaca College (POCatIC) group stormed the stage, claimed the microphone, and explained to the masses how race on campus is a huge problem and how Tom Rochon doesn’t have either the capability or the drive to improve the campus climate.
They read passages from Rochon’s book, which is ironically about how to effectively manage diverse campuses–something he has failed to do at Ithaca. They then declared that they would be walking out of the event, and that all supporters should join them.
Roughly 2/3 of the room walked out in solidarity.
That’s 1000 or so people who all showed their lack of confidence in Rochon’s ability to lead this campus effectively.
Once the room cleared, Rochon joked, “You know, if they had stayed, I would’ve thanked them for reading my book.”
That was October.
Once more for the people in the back: our protests were not sparked by Mizzou.
Seeing Mizzou president Tim Wolfe step down didn’t inspire POCatIC’s movement, contrary to what USA Today and CNN and The New York Times will tell you, but it certainly helped fuel the fire.
The Board of Trustees supports Tom Rochon. Rochon says he has no intention of stepping down. But yesterday the results of the campus-wide student vote of no confidence were released, and the numbers are powerful:
54% of the student body voted, with 72% responding no confidence.
87% of the students of color who voted declared no confidence.
Tom Rochon is supposed to be the leader of this institution, but 72% of the people he serves believe he’s ineffective. If that doesn’t cause some pressure, I’m not sure what will.
From the first protest on campus to the faculty vote of no confidence that takes place over the next two weeks, Ithaca College has been a whirlwind of emotion and activism this year. The initial protest was the first I’ve ever participated in, and I appreciate that I can lend my voice to a cause that’s hugely important.
But now it’s time for Rochon to cut the PR stunts and overly formal campus-wide emails. And it’s time for him to step down.