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Ithaca College president answers criticism

Ithaca College

Ithaca College students will release the results of a confidence vote in their college president Monday, and the college faculty hold their own vote next month. President Tom Rochon has faced criticism and protests for his handling of racial incidents and what some call top-down leadership. 

He spoke to reporter Solvejg Wastvedt about how the college has responded and what he’s learned. Here are the highlights:

Recently you appointed a chief diversity officer, a position that reports directly to you. How do you make sure other people on campus have input into diversity initiatives?

The chief diversity officer has already started sending messages to the campus community on a weekly basis … and in response is getting all kinds of input from the campus. In addition, there are a number of established committees as well as informal dialogues that the chief diversity officer is involved in.

You’ve also said that all new faculty are going to have expanded cross-cultural awareness training. What about continuing faculty, including those who already have tenure?

Our goal is to have programs within each department that enable faculty to pose issues that come up for them. Let’s say a student makes a comment in class that clearly has an offensive element to some other students. A faculty member often feels uncertain how best to respond to that without taking the class off-topic and down a path they don’t want it to go. We’re hoping these workshops will give them the tools they want to have in order to be effective in those very difficult moments in a classroom.

We’re not in a position to literally require every faculty member to go through a training exercise. What we can do, and will do, is state our expectations that all faculty have a strong cross-cultural competence that enables them to function effectively as teachers in the classroom and as mentors to all of our students.

You’ve said that you’re interested in increasing the percent of faculty of color at Ithaca College. What’s your goal – what percentage?

I wouldn’t phrase it as a goal for a percentage of faculty so much as a goal to be as vigorous as we can be in diversifying the faculty and the staff. There’s a fundamental disparity between the fact that 25 percent of our students are new to the campus every year, but only about four percent of faculty and five percent of staff. That means that the diversity of our student body has changed very rapidly while the diversity of our faculty has changed only slowly because they turn over so much more slowly.

We hire about 20 to 25 full-time faculty in a typical year … We have found in recent years that approximately a third of those faculty members have been faculty of color, which is diversifying our faculty over time.

What was your thinking in eliminating the vice president for student affairs position?

That wasn’t an efficiency elimination, that was more of a desire to align our organization with our goals. We used to have one vice president for academic affairs and one vice president for student affairs. We now have a single vice president for educational affairs, which recognizes that the education at a residential college, like Ithaca College, is composed of all the experiences students have on campus.

There is an associate provost of student life to whom the students have the same degree of access and who has the same degree of access to the leadership team. There’s only one relevant change here, and that is that everyone in student affairs and student life now considers themselves to be an integral part of the total student educational experience.

How much do you think a leader like yourself should rely on input from the campus? Are there decisions that you have to make on your own?

Accountability without responsibility is a very dangerous plank to walk on, so I do need to be responsible for the structure of the leadership team and the composition of the leadership team. I need to have the right leaders doing the right things in order to achieve the mission for which I am accountable.

What have you learned over the past couple months?

One thing that I’ve resolved is to be much more directly visible on the campus to a variety of groups and directly in listening posture ... In terms of our goals and whether we are effectively achieving our goals, people on campus are the experts on that. Students are experts on that, staff are experts on that, faculty are experts on that, and I can learn a lot more from them.

We have two confidence votes coming up. If one or both of those votes came up “no confidence,” how would you interpret that?

To me, a great deal hinges on the thinking behind the no confidence votes and not just the votes themselves. It’s not literally an election. I’ve been clear that I don’t intend to resign because of no confidence votes … My feeling is that as long as the board wants me to be president and as long as I think I’m able to lead the college forward in the opportunities that we have that I am going to continue in this office.

At this point, you feel like you have all the tools you need to do that?

I’m coming to work with great energy and focus right now.

Solvejg Wastvedt grew up in western Pennsylvania and graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Over the summer, she served in Los Angeles as an intern on NPR's National Desk. Plus, before coming to Upstate New York, Solvejg worked at the Minneapolis community radio station KFAI. When she isn't reporting the news, Solvejg enjoys running and exploring hiking trails.