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Ithaca College president resigns after protests over race issues

Thousands of Ithaca College students walked out of classes in the fall, calling for the resignation of the college president, Thomas Rochon. (Reuters)

After months of protests and no-confidence votes by students and faculty this fall, Ithaca College’s president announced Thursday that he would step down in July 2017.

Student protesters, angered by what they felt was an insufficient response to racist incidents on campus, have been calling for Tom Rochon’s resignation with “die-ins” and other events, mirroring demonstrations over race and bias incidents on many campuses across the country in recent months. From Yale to Claremont McKenna to Princeton to Towson, students marched, occupied administration offices, and presented lists of demands.

At the University of Missouri, the system president and the university chancellor resigned after protests all but paralyzed the public university’s campus, and students at many universities began or amplified their efforts to make changes. The day after that resignation, Rochon, Ithaca’s president, announced he was creating a chief diversity officer position, but hundreds of students gathered, shouting “no confidence!”

[University of Missouri chancellor, system president resign amid protest over race]

[Mizzou’s impact is felt on campuses nationwide]

In a statement posted on the college’s website Thursday, Rochon said he was proud of the accomplishments during his nine-year tenure at the private college in New York, including holding down tuition levels and increasing financial aid.

“At the same time, I recognize that colleges evolve through eras defined by new opportunities and challenges,” he wrote. “I believe it is best for IC to be led in the future by a president chosen by the board specifically to make a fresh start on these challenges, including those that became so apparent to us all last semester.

“I look forward to 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. I also want to work toward reestablishing a stronger and more unified sense of the educational vision and cultural values that make Ithaca College so distinctively excellent. I am fully committed to working toward these outcomes and urge the community to join together to help prepare the college to attract a highly qualified leader to succeed me.”

[Protests and unrest spread at campuses across the country]

One incident involved an invitation to a fraternity party that offended many students who felt it linked “crooks” to stereotypes of African-American culture:

An incident in October involved an alumni panel in which one participant, a young black woman, said she had a “savage hunger” for success.

Two other panelists, older white men, then referred to her as “the savage.”

“I love what the savage here said,” one said. The panel’s moderator then pointed to her and said, “You’re the savage.”

Rochon apologized for the “insensitive comments” at the time. “In general, the college cannot prevent the use of hurtful language on campus,” he wrote. “Such language, intentional or unintentional, exists in the world and will seep into our community. We can’t promise that the college will never host a speaker who could say something racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or otherwise disrespectful. Even so, we reaffirm our commitment to making our campus an inclusive and respectful community.”

It wasn’t enough. Student protests intensified, and they held a no-confidence vote, with a majority agreeing that Rochon should not lead the college.

Faculty were unhappy as well.

An open letter from some alumni to the Ithacan in December read, in part: “Throughout his tenure, President Rochon has only exacerbated this adverse racial climate, and his removal would signal a direct challenge to the top-down, culturally incompetent administration that currently inundates campus operations.

“…His tenure has seen the increase in students of color at Ithaca College without any attempt to retain them, with student of color retention remaining consistently low. These actions are not isolated but show that President Rochon’s administration has practiced a systemic pattern of insidious racism and out-of-touch, authoritative leadership hiding comfortably within the clenches of bureaucracy.”

Rochon — who earned his doctorate from the University of Michigan in political science, has researched contemporary European politics and social movements in the U.S. and Europe, served among many other roles over the years as a top administrator at the University of St. Thomas and an assistant professor at Princeton — had repeatedly said he would not step down from Ithaca’s leadership.

But on Thursday he wrote that “after much reflection over the winter break, I have decided to retire from the Ithaca College presidency effective July 1, 2017.”

A letter from the Board of Trustees praised Rochon for, among other things, building the school’s endowment, engaging alumni, “and helping raise more money for scholarship endowment than any president in our history.”

Tom Grape, the chair, and David Lissy, the vice chair of the board, wrote that the next year and a half would be an opportunity for the board, Rochon and the community to work on solutions to campus issues.

“We must focus on the serious and important initiatives underway to promote diversity and inclusion on campus,” they wrote. “At the same time, we must also address the broader set of concerns raised by faculty, staff, and students over the last semester around the areas of college governance, campus culture, shared values, and a more engaged leadership with all levels of the IC community.

“Over the course of the past few months, our community members have raised some legitimate concerns. That is why we have engaged actively with and heard from many students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni and will continue to seek their feedback and perspectives so that we can better understand the issues driving the discussion on campus.

“… Unfortunately, from our perspective, some activities on campus during the last several months have lacked important elements necessary for building and strengthening our community. At times during the unrest on campus last fall, some community members engaged in personal attacks, promulgated misinformation, and promoted tactics on social media that sought to harm our college.

“We also heard from some who felt silenced for expressing opinions that differed from those of their peers or leaders, or that were not in sync with the loudest voices on campus.”

There was jubilation from some at the announcement:

And bitterness:

And some dismay, as people across the country saw another sign of the growing power and influence of student protesters to force change.