Reflections on 19 years at Ithaca College
By Maura Stephens, Park Center for Independent Media Associate Director
For much of my 19 years working at Ithaca College, I’ve loved being here. I’ve grown very close to many students and count several dozen alumni as friends. I’ve made lifelong connections with faculty and staff members, and I believe that my contributions have enriched the college community. Having invested enormous amounts of time, energy, effort and love in this place, I feel it’s my right and my obligation to share some thoughts. This is my parting gift and my adieu to the campus and alumni communities.
Over these nearly two decades I have seen much good happen, the output and accomplishments of many magnificent minds, creative spirits and inspirational individuals. I have also, to my dismay, witnessed the once-palpable sense of common purpose deteriorate. Ithaca College no longer feels like the community of learners, of people, striving to understand each other and work together to make a better world.
Now it feels like merely a place where faculty and staff perform their jobs (very well, generally) and go home. And where students come to plunk down a whole lot of money, have fun, make friends and graduate with a diploma that will get them as high-paying a job as possible, so they can repay their student loans and afford a decent place to live. (Not necessarily to find meaningful work that excites and fulfills them.)
Among faculty, with some exceptions, there’s little mutual support and less collegiality. There are few heroes. What passion there is comes primarily from students — who are short-timers here, after all — and after last semester’s intense, sustained actions led by POC at IC (People of Color at Ithaca College), the response from faculty and staff has been dishearteningly quiet, at least publicly. Many POC at IC are understandably disheartened, if not disgusted.
Yet perhaps that dismissal is premature. Scholars don’t leap, they deliberate.
Symptoms of a More Serious Disease
I used to think universities and colleges were places of ongoing experimentation, innovation and excitement, where bold ideas were conceived, tested and implemented. I assumed that faculty encouraged students to think radically and practice pioneeringly, even if failure was likely.
I was (perhaps naively) surprised to find that IC does not really welcome diverse approaches or implement novel programs or policies; witness the way it has responded to pressure for more inclusivity by forming committees and creating new administrative positions. Nor has it figured out how to attract employees who reflect the diversity of the student body it so actively pursues.
During the years 1997 to 2010, I worked in what was then called college relations, housed in Alumni Hall alongside admission and alumni marketers. I saw how specifically they emphasized diversity of race, ethnicity, culture, geography, gender and sexuality in their recruitment and donor publications. They were committed to recruiting students of diverse backgrounds.
But after moving into an academic division, I learned such efforts were not practiced as concertedly in recruitment of faculty. It is clear that retention programs for both students and faculty are woefully inadequate. People in academia tend to recruit from their own circles, so when the recruiters are primarily white and middle-to upper-middle-class, they’re most likely to network with people who look like themselves and come from similar backgrounds.
The lack of diversity among faculty and the cultural bias against people of color on campus are very serious problems, but not new ones. I joined the Diversity Awareness Committee at IC in 1998 and have served on it off and on throughout the subsequent years. I was one of a small group of student-led community members who pushed to create the Center for LGBT Education, Outreach, and Services in 2001 and was part of another small group pushing to create the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity and the (late, lamented) Division of Interdisciplinary and International Studies.
I’ve both observed and participated in search committees struggling to broaden the candidate field to include people of different “races,” ethnicities, cultures, economic status, sexualities and gender identities. I think it’s fair to say that most such committees do not work hard enough to find the best candidates of color.
Our challenges are much the same today as they were in the last millennium, although it did feel that we made some progress through the early part of the 2000s that subsequently slipped backward. In the Institutional Plan implemented in 2001 under then-President Peggy Ryan Williams, the college articulated the priority of “creating a campus environment that accepts, reflects, and celebrates diversity.”
In 2004, Williams established a Presidential Task Force on Diversity to assess progress on that goal. A year later, in response to racist incidents on campus, she wrote in a column for ICView: “There is no room for racism, bigotry, and hatred at Ithaca College.” Also in 2005, she asked the task force for an update, which led to the creation of a permanent President’s Advisory Committee on Diversity, with representatives from across constituencies. (It still exists under President Tom Rochon.) Diversity and inclusion were front and center on our minds and in our discussions, as was another important subject: sustainability (all aspects: economic, environmental, social and encompassing).
An additional critical problem has been articulated by both students and employees over and over in recent years, coming to a head last semester: Governance. The people directly affected by policies and programs are more often than not left out of the decision-making process on those very policies and programs in which they participate. As the administration hatches new ideas, the faculty, staff and students are expected to simply follow whatever missive comes out from on high.
These shortcomings are indeed severe, but they’re merely symptoms. The real problems lie at the top, not only with the upper administration and the Board of Trustees, but also, even more elementally, with the lack of vision and of clarity of mission.
The college’s current mission statement is so bland as to be virtually meaningless:
“Ithaca College strives to become the standard of excellence for residential comprehensive colleges, fostering intellect, creativity, and character in an active, student-centered learning community.”
Back to Basics: What Do We Want to Be?
Why not something unique, visionary and aspirational? How’s this for the kind of place where you want to study and work:
“Ithaca College is working hard to break down barriers and embrace humanity in all its myriad forms. We strive to offer an exciting, questioning, questing, learning, living and working environment where students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni and even our neighbors collaborate on a wide variety of initiatives designed to excite intellects, spark creativity, challenge existing power structures, welcome and ensure the safety of all, and seek solutions to today’s most pressing problems, with the overarching goal of ensuring a sustainable future for us all.”
When the cost of higher education is astronomical and becoming unreachable for average families, IC cannot continue to operate as if it will just take some minor adjustments to set things right and keep classes full. As we are reminded annually at all-College meetings, ours is an almost totally enrollment-driven institution (more than 90 percent of the annual budget comes from ever-rising student tuition and fees). Without a full class coming in each year, we’ll have to do serious belt-tightening [read: “employee layoffs and firings”]).
Consider: Tompkins County has three institutions of higher education.
1. The one on East Hill is effectively too big to fail. A vast research university, it’s got prestige. It’s as big as the city that houses it (and to which it pays no taxes) and has other campuses. It’s got an endowment worth more than $6 billion and a huge pool of wealthy alumni (176,637 individuals gave to its recently ended, decade-long capital campaign), corporations and foundations.
2. The two-year TC3, part of the SUNY system, is agile, adaptive to changing demographics and trends. It expands offerings as needs arise; e.g., it has added degrees in culinary arts, wine marketing, and sustainable farming and food systems to match demand in our area, famous for vineyards and organic farm-to-table innovation. It has almost as many students as IC, including full-time matriculating, degree-seeking students, part-time, certificate-pursuing, and online students. It’s a whole lot more affordable, and it allows commuting, an additional money-saver for students.
3. Ithaca College, despite innovative individuals across all divisions and nationally renowned programs in music, theater, physical therapy, occupational therapy, TV-radio, cinema and various other disciplines, has not distinguished itself as a leader in either programming or operations. It does not appear to even know what it wants to be.
Even IC’s once-groundbreaking, publicity-generating sustainability programs have been all but abandoned, although it has three LEED-certified buildings that were intended to be more than physical nods to energy conservation. (Just walk around the “closed” campus some early-January Saturday and count the number of lights on and computers glowing.) Although many faculty members incorporate sustainability and climate awareness into individual courses, there is no campuswide culture of sustainability, just as there’s no active culture of understanding of equality or campus-wide commitment to inclusion and elimination of bias.
There’s no easy way to say this: I do not believe that, 10 years from now, all three Tompkins County higher education institutions will still be around. One will be gone, unless it begins to envision a whole new way of being, and I don’t think it will be our red neighbor on East Hill or the resourceful community college in Dryden.
The number of families that can afford to pay our tuition, rising as it will, is dwindling. A college education is not as necessary as it once was, with so many nontraditional ways to learn, such as FreeSkool, Open University and self-guided online methods. And planned international “trade deals” are likely to send even more jobs abroad. (But that would be subject for a whole other essay.)
Elephant in the Room
So how can IC become sustainable?
First of all, let’s re-envision what we want it to be, perhaps using the above revised mission statement as a starting point.
Second, let’s replace current leaders with people who reflect the best of what we are. There is a startling difference in the membership of the 2007-08 and 2015-16 Boards of Trustees. The current board is overwhelmingly male (76 percent) and corporate, with only two individuals from the nonprofit sector. The two people of color on it are a George W. Bush appointee as director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys who resigned during a scandal and is now a corporate attorney, and a college dean who stuck by her university’s powerful president when her own faculty voted No Confidence in him. Only one trustee lives in Ithaca.
On the prior board, in place during Peggy Williams’s last year as president of IC, only 12 of 26 trustees were corporate. The other 14 worked in the nonprofit or education sector or were performers or small-business owners; one was an attorney and human rights activist. Three lived in Ithaca. The male-female imbalance was a little less outrageous (61 percent male.)
Of course every board needs people who can donate funds or recruit donors. That’s critical to the fiscal health of the institution, especially one like IC, with a modest endowment that’s dependent on tuition. With one notable exception, the current trustees have virtually no involvement with the students, faculty, staff, programs and offerings of our campus, and are informed only by what the president and President’s Council choose to tell them. And as noted above, they are far from representative of our campus in regard to race, gender, professional field and commitment to the nonprofit and arts worlds.
Our governance body should reflect the community it serves, with at least more than half of its members from the fields of study we offer. And note that the current student population is 59 percent female, and 46 percent of faculty are female.*
Considering how much IC has touted that it has finally reached the magic 20 percent students of color (but only 11 percent faculty of color), the board should have at least that percentage of people of color (and not only rightwing POC).
New board members should be chosen not by current secretive methods but by an open participatory nomination and search process. Similarly, the campus community should create a system via which to audit each individual trustee’s performance yearly — just as staff members are put through review, and just as the campus community should undertake an annual review of the president’s performance.
That’s a start, and necessary if IC is to ever achieve a democratic, open and participatory governance system, which the overwhelming majority of students, faculty and staff have indicated they want. Let’s give credit here to the trailblazing votes held here last semester, when our students became the first in the nation to hold a vote of confidence/no confidence in their president. The faculty followed suit, and the staff became one of only a handful of higher education staffs in the country to hold such a vote. In all three, the message was clear: No Confidence in Tom Rochon.
President Rochon decided, with the trustees’ approval, to stay in his highly paid position for more than 18 months after those votes clarified the campus community’s wishes. That was a clear indication that the comfort and well-being of our campus community is not the trustees’ highest priority. That in itself should be enough evidence that an equitable, sustainable governance system at Ithaca College can develop only when there is a decisive shift in power and responsibility toward the more than 7,000 people who live, work and study here.
Looking Past the Obvious
The best, and the hardest, point is my last. It is impossible to discuss sustainability without stating one stark truth — one that has, for reasons unclear to me, been swept out of the many conversations swirling around this campus, yet is front-and-center among aware people everywhere.
The most important crisis we face, dwarfing the already massive problems of bias, inequity, exclusion, non-participatory government, the Board of Trustees makeup and finding the right president, is the great equalizer: climate change.
Tompkins County, IC’s home, is blessed with abundant fresh water and fertile farmlands. It’s far from the coasts where sea-level rise will be wreaking havoc. Many students and alumni are from or live in those areas; having spent time in Ithaca, it’s likely they’ll look in this direction when they decide to migrate.
If, as I believe will happen, there are no longer enough paying students to keep IC viable as the “residential comprehensive college” it has self-branded, we need to be thinking in more creative ways about what our campus can become, if no longer housing full-time students. Our acres could be cultivated to grow food crops, with our permaculturists leading the way. Our natural lands, already source of mushrooms, maple syrup, fiddleheads, herbs and more, are rich with sustenance for human and other creatures. Our well-maintained buildings could house climate migrants. Our community of bright people with big hearts and imaginations, with experience and courage and passion, if properly prepared and equipped, could help others transition to the new environment we have not yet imagined, but for which we should be readying.
Can we muster the will to guide and participate in such a transformation, whether it takes the shape I foresee or in some other way? Can we remain flexible? Can we be leaders? I hope that we don’t allow ourselves to be shoved down the chute of mediocrity and irrelevance that seems to have been laid out for us by a failed administration and unrepresentative Board of Trustees.
We’ve got a lot to build on. Let’s decide together to answer the call of POC at IC, IC Onward and other campus groups and individuals who displayed such incredible leadership last semester. Let’s not fail them and their promise.
It’s past time for revolutionary change here, if we are not to fade into obsolescence in the rapidly changing realm of higher education on the rapidly changing planet we inhabit, together.
*(Other genders are not acknowledged in official counts.)
Journalist Maura Stephens spent many years at Newsweek and Newsweek International before fleeing corporate media to start an early e-zine and write for such independent outlets as Truthout and CommonDreams. She came to South Hill in 1997 and edited ICView until 2010, when she was named associate director of the Park Center for Independent Media. She is leaving IC this summer.