In 2012, student protests prompted Ithaca College President Tom Rochon to rescind a media policy preventing student media from directly contacting top administrators. And last year, a few hundred students participated in a “die-in,” joining national protests over police brutality. Some students were also involved in recent efforts to unionize the college’s part-time faculty.
But Ithaca College—a private institution in the Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York—has never seen the kind of student mobilization that has occurred this semester around the campus’ racial climate.
Shouts of “Tom Rochon: no confidence!” rang out across campus Nov. 11 as nearly 1,000 people, mostly students, covered the cold, wet pavement of the pathways criss-crossing the Academic Quad with their bodies. It was a die-in more than three times the size of the one in 2014. Many students had walked out of their classes to participate.
At the command of some of the protest’s leaders — who are a part of an activist group known as People of Color at Ithaca College — the massive crowd fell silent for about 15 minutes, and all that could be heard was the occasional rustling of raincoats and the clicking of journalists’ cameras. Students working in the library flocked to the windows to see the disruption.
“It was amazing to get that many people to lie down and be completely silent for that long in the cold and in the rain,” sophomore Violet Perry said. “It was just a really great feeling of togetherness and solidarity.”
The massive protest on Nov. 11 was the result of a few events that built up tensions on campus. On Sept. 2 student Resident Assistants protested against the Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management over insensitive comments made by two officers during RA training sessions. That same month, The Ithacan, the college’s student-run newspaper, published accounts of two separate incidents in which Public Safety officers initiated physical altercations with students of color.
On Oct. 8, a panel of alumni was invited to an event organized by Rochon called the Blue Sky Reimagining Kick-off. The panel was derailed when Christopher Birch ’76 referred to Tatiana Sy ’09, a young woman of color, as a “savage” multiple times after she said she had a “savage hunger” to succeed. The college administration did not release a statement until Oct. 12.
“We can’t promise that the college will never host a speaker who could say something racist, homophobic, misogynistic or otherwise disrespectful,” the statement said.
On Oct. 9 the AEPi fraternity, which is for Ithaca College students but not directly affiliated with the college, posted a Facebook invite to a party with the theme of ‘Preps and Crooks,’ using racial stereotypes as costume descriptions. Ithaca College released a statement the same day to denounce the party, which was ultimately cancelled. Many have criticized the administration for responding quickly to the frat party but taking longer to release an announcement about the Blue Sky remarks.
“Tom Rochon: no confidence!” has become the rallying cry of POC at IC. The chant references student and faculty efforts to initiate votes of no confidence in Rochon in the hopes of pressuring him to resign. The Student Government Association opened a poll for students Nov. 4, which may be the first of its kind in collegiate history.
“He has demonstrated that he’s part of PR machine and has not responded … as a human being with empathy and as someone who is truly listening,” senior Heather Crespin said.
Junior Elijahda Warner compared Ithaca College to a customer service model, with students as the customers, education as the product and the administration as the manager.
“As customers when we don’t like the product, we complain,” Warner said. “When a manager keeps ignoring what the customers are complaining about, there’s a problem. I think if Tom Rochon did step down, obviously it shows the student has a say in our education and what kind of school we want to go to.”
Beyond recent events at the college, junior Siena Cid said students of color face discrimination as a part of everyday life. Cid said it’s not uncommon for employees at retail stores on campus to double-check the validity of her cards and ask her for her receipt to see if she actually bought her products.
Cid described an incident from when she was a freshman between her and a white male student in her dorm building. She said after an argument over a missing slice of pizza, the student called her “a stupid little n——- girl.” Although her RA witnessed the incident, Cid said nothing was done.
“He has been known to make these kind of remarks, and it’s just sad that the he’s still here with no reprimanding whatsoever,” Cid said.
Despite the massive outcry, in a recorded 50-minute interview with The Ithacan Nov. 12, Rochon said he does not plan to resign.
“To me, it makes me feel as though he really isn’t listening to us and doesn’t care … about the opinion and feelings of students,” Perry said.
Amanda den Hartog is from São Paulo, Brazil and is a senior student at Ithaca College. She currently works as the Photo Editor for The Ithacan.
Faith Meckley is a junior journalism major at Ithaca College. She hopes to pursue a career in environmental journalism and outdoor and travel writing.