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In Nationwide Student Revolt over Campus Racism, NY’s Ithaca College is Latest School to Erupt

StoryNovember 13, 2015
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In a week that began with a victorious revolt by African-American students at the University of Missouri and brought solidarity rallies to campuses around the country, a similar protest has erupted at Ithaca College in upstate New York. On Wednesday, thousands of faculty, students and staff staged a walkout to call for the resignation of President Tom Rochon. The protesters accuse Rochon of responding inadequately to racist incidents, including one where an African-American graduate was repeatedly called a “savage” by two white male fellow alumni. We are joined by Ithaca College Student Body President Dominick Recckio and Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, a professor of international and African politics at the school.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Colleges across the country are seeing a wave of protests. On Thursday, students at more than 100 schools coast to coast rallied against institutional racism and mounting student debt. The week began with African-American students forcing the ouster of two top officials at the University of Missouri over a lax response to racist incidents. On Thursday, student protesters at California’s Claremont McKenna College won another victory when Dean Mary Spellman resigned amidst similar protests. Two Claremont students had declared hunger strikes, just as student Jonathan Butler had at the University of Missouri.

AMY GOODMAN: Now Ithaca College in upstate New York has joined the list of campuses in revolt. On Wednesday, up to 2,000 faculty, students and staff staged a walkout to call for the resignation of President Tom Rochon. The protesters, led by students of color, lay down on the rainy walkways in a mass die-in. They expressed solidarity with students on other campuses across the country.

BRITTANY GARDNER: All over the nation, both on and off college campuses, we have seen those young and old fighting against injustice. We stand here in solidarity. Our hearts are heavy with the pain of Mizzou and Yale and Smith and every person of color on a college campus simply because of the color of their skin and the texture of their hair or their ancestry. This is a problem of the nation. However, how can a campus dedicated to preparing us for the real world not actively foster growth to our consciousness of oppression and privilege?

AMY GOODMAN: The Ithaca College protesters accuse Ithaca College President Tom Rochon of responding inadequately to racist incidents, including one where an African-American graduate was repeatedly called a “savage” by two white male fellow alumni. On Thursday, the Ithaca College Faculty Council announced it will hold a no-confidence vote on Rochon later this month. Rochon has rejected the protesters’ demands, saying he will not step down.

For more, we’re joined in Ithaca by two guests. Peyi Soyinka-Airewele is a professor of international and African politics at Ithaca College. And Dominick Recckio is the Ithaca College Student Body president.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Dominick, let’s begin with you. What are your demands?

DOMINICK RECCKIO: I think our demands are certainly that the students vote no confidence in President Rochon and that the students express what they think. We would certainly like President Rochon to resign, but I think going through with our democratic process of no confidence is our goal right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your decision to link those demands also with the issue of the pay of college workers, as well?

DOMINICK RECCKIO: Yeah, I think that everyone deserves higher pay. Living wage in Ithaca, New York, is very important.

AMY GOODMAN: What sparked this specifically this week, Dominick Recckio? Was it the University of Missouri, feeling those students, feeling their power?

DOMINICK RECCKIO: Yeah, the University of Missouri students certainly empowered and inspired the students at Ithaca College. It showed that this is an issue where we have students all across the nation that stand by us.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, could I ask you also about the historical situation at the college? What has been the attitude of administrators historically to racial issues there?

PEYI SOYINKA-AIREWELE: Thank you, Juan. I think the crisis we have at Ithaca College is certainly a long-standing historical struggle with President Rochon, who faculty, students and staff have found to be unaccountable, unresponsive, and alienated leadership. And so, this has been a long-standing struggle with the administration to create a community that is inclusive, not only of race, but of student voices, faculty input and staff input. And so, we’ve had many incidents over the past few years, since Rochon has been in office, that describe and show eloquently that he has absolutely no regard for the contributions of members of the community. So it is not simply about racism. What we’re seeing here at IC is the crisis of a lack of governance, a lack of leadership and a lack of vision. President Rochon was the first president in IC’s history to create a ban on media freedom. He listed about 84 administrators in 2012 who he gagged, effectively. Student journalists would have no access to deans and administrators without permission from an office that he set up. So this has been a long, drawn-out struggle to re-create the kind of leadership that we need at Ithaca College.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the clip from a panel discussion in October, one of the few incidents that have come under scrutiny. Ithaca College alumna Tatiana Sy said she had a “savage hunger” to succeed. J. Christopher Burch, the chief executive of the investment firm Burch Creative Capital, also an alum, then repeatedly called her a “savage,” saying, “I love what the savage here said.” In this clip, you also hear the panel moderator, also an alum, former NBC News correspondent Bob Kur, pointing to Burch and saying, “You are driven,” then telling Sy, “You’re the savage.” The clip starts with Tatiana Sy.

TATIANA SY: That was only because I was—I had like this savage hunger to make it happen, but it wasn’t without learning the risky lesson of balance.

J. CHRISTOPHER BURCH: Look, we have a girl here who, like, just the word “savage hunger.”

BOB KUR: Yeah.

J. CHRISTOPHER BURCH: And so, we’re not—we have to understand, actually, that the two people sitting here, maybe myself, are driven, internally driven, by a message which says “don’t stop.” One, we have to continue as a university or an organization to bring in kids with savage hunger. I love what the savage here said.

BOB KUR: You’re driven and have been driven since college. You’re the savage, and you were driven.

J. CHRISTOPHER BURCH: What empathy means is actually caring deeply for other people’s personal pain, and so as this young—as this savage sits here—

TATIANA SY: All right, I mean—

J. CHRISTOPHER BURCH: It’s a compliment. I’m really complimenting you, because I think she’s an amazing—she’s an amazing young woman.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have this clip. They’re discussing the Blue Sky—the future of Ithaca College. It’s quite amazing. Professor Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, can you respond?

PEYI SOYINKA-AIREWELE: You know, I was at that program, Amy, and like many other faculty and students there, we were distressed not only by the way in which Ms. Sy was treated, both during the program and afterwards. The administration refused to speak to her, to apologize. It was quite clear to the faculty and to the entire community that this was another, you know, symbolization of President Rochon’s disregard for minority members of the community. It was as a result of protest and repeated agitation that he finally, grudgingly, would call Ms. Sy, days after the incident, days after faculty had written a letter of protest. Many of us spoke to him privately. And I think it was in tune with his method of imagining diversity as a way of pandering to a very corporatist sense of the institution, where minority members are brought in as a way of enhancing the competitiveness and the need for, you know, big donors and students who are the majority population. So, in some ways, I think this distressing incident and the reaction of the administration really represented what we’ve been living with for many years at Ithaca College.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor, could you talk about the coming together of the various student groups, this new people of color coalition that developed, and then the faculty allying with them, the process that has occurred now over the last several weeks?

PEYI SOYINKA-AIREWELE: I’m intensely proud of our students at Ithaca College and of the student government leadership. These different groups involved groups like the African Students Association; PODER, the Latino/ Latina association; ALS; CSA. And so, as they had fought over the past few years to get the administration to respond to their needs, they gradually began to form a united, more united, voice. And I think what you’re seeing here is a very representative body. The students are in POC at IC, are trying to create for us a model of what, you know, a representative campus body of students would look like. And what they’ve done is not only to come together as students of color, but they have hundreds of students who have joined them as white allies and are embraced and welcomed in this growing body that is talking about shared governance, is talking about social justice, is talking about a society that could well represent the beloved community of which Martin Luther King Jr. spoke. And so, I feel that they have created for us a kind of access, pushed faculty to look back at the grievances that they’ve had over time, and to begin to create a new network that I think could well speak to the future of Ithaca College as, you know, one of the new models for an invigorated civil society. And so that’s why we’re really excited about what the students are doing at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor, you mentioned POC IC, the People of Color at Ithaca College. I want to turn to a clip from the interview Ithaca College President Tom Rochon had on Thursday with staff from the student-run newspaper, The Ithacan. He was asked why his removal as president is being suggested as a significant step to addressing issues on campus.

TOM ROCHON: I don’t know the answer to that question and wish I understood it better. I do want to say, I just couldn’t disagree more with that part of the analysis. Our culture is composed of every interaction among students, staff, faculty that happens—millions of interactions that happen every single day, and the assumptions and the biases that underlie those interactions. One person does not change that. Now, leadership has responsibilities, and leadership has ultimate accountability. But it would change so little, in my view, to change who is the president without changing anything else. Far more powerful to change a lot of other things, which is why my sole focus right now is: What can we do to take advantage of this moment and make a real difference for the campus?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ithaca College President Tom Rochon. Dominick Recckio, you’re the president of the Ithaca College Student Body. As one president to another, what would you say to the president right now? How do you respond? And is your movement around racial insensitivity, racism on campus merging with this other mass protest across the country, that we reported on in headlines, around student debt and other financial issues?

DOMINICK RECCKIO: So, for the most part, our movement has stayed out of student debt, so I can’t specifically speak on that. But what I would tell the president is that he has shown myself, other student government leaders over the years, other students and faculty members, a complete disregard and a complete misunderstanding or complete dis-understanding of what happens on campus each and every day. So he cites those every interaction starting to build our culture. Most of the culture that’s been created at Ithaca College is a culture of fear, and it’s a culture of fear because of what he’s done. It’s a culture of fear because he has corporatized our Board of Trustees. It’s because he hasn’t listened to student voices. It’s because he allows events like the Blue Sky initiative to happen with no input.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dominick, were you surprised by the faculty support that you’ve gotten?

DOMINICK RECCKIO: I, at first, was very invigorated by the faculty support I’ve gotten. And it’s been pretty spectacular so far. In the student government bill to call for no confidence, I asked the faculty to do the same. And they have, and I’m really proud of that.

AMY GOODMAN: And the cross-racial organizing that’s going on at Ithaca College, Dominick?

DOMINICK RECCKIO: Yeah, the organizing is amazing. I’m seeing a lot of allies stand up, and I’m seeing a lot of people become allies and become truly educated in the classroom and outside of the classroom because of this. This movement has taken over the complete educational landscape of the entire institution. It has framed everyone at Ithaca College’s educational experience and will continue to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll continue, of course, to follow what takes place at Ithaca College and schools across the country. I want to thank you both for being with us, Professor Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, professor of international and African politics at Ithaca College and, I have to add, the daughter of the great Nobel literature laureate, Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. And thanks so much to Dominick Recckio, Ithaca College Student Body president, senior majoring in communication management and design.

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