Ithaca College President Thomas Rochon will step down next year over his failure to respond to racially sensitive issues in the appropriate manner. The decision came after much personal introspection, according to Rochon, after the faculty and students separately voted no confidence in his leadership in a vote that was inexplicably conducted via Survey Monkey, an unscientific method of deciphering opinion.
Ithaca is a private college of around 7,000 students. According to news reports, faculty complained “he didn’t listen to anyone, he made decisions without input and he seemed to be following a business model rather than being concerned with the intellectual development of the students.”
Much of these charges are far beyond and tangential to the original cause of the unrest. In October 2015, on an alumni association panel one panelist, 1992 alumnus Tatiani Sy, said she had a “savage hunger” to learn and be professionally successful. A white 1976 alumnus participating, Christopher Burch, complimented Sy’s thirst for knowledge by referring to her as “the savage” during the course of the panel discussion.
After the event, Sy complained Burch’s use of the word she employed to describe herself made her feel uncomfortable. She added, “When the slur was repeated not once but several times, I think someone should have gotten up and intervened.” She concluded that Burch committed a “microaggression.” Burch apologized profusely, to no avail.
Despite Burch’s assurance that he was merely using in an admirable way the language Sy had originally used to describe herself, the campus exploded. Jennifer Jolly, an associate professor and chair in the Department of Art History, stated, “While I very much respected that [Burch] made a place for empathy, it seemed to me that empathy is particularly important when it comes to being a privileged, white male, who seemed to be completely unable to understand why an African-American woman might object to being called ‘savage,’”
Pandemonium Predictably Ensues
The faculty immediately called for a meeting to discuss the comments as being insensitive and racist, and the event for being too “exclusive.” The students held a demonstration that included a “die-in” and chants of “Tom Rochon. No confidence!”
In the meantime, Rochon threw his own alumnus under the bus:
I [Tom Rochon] apologized to the alumna to whom the comments were addressed. We regret that what was intended to be a visionary moment for our community was diminished by insensitive comments.
In general, the college cannot prevent the use of hurtful language on campus. 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.
We recognize the concerns raised by members of the campus community about the language used during the Blue Sky event. We reiterate our commitment to the principles of respect and inclusion and to the goal of ensuring that Ithaca College is a place where all students, faculty, staff, and visitors feel safe and respected.
Rochon telephoned Sy soon after, and she rejected his apologies, claiming she needed “space” to “process” the situation that overwhelmed her.
This hysterical atmosphere at Ithaca did not develop out of thin air. In March 2015, the student government had passed a bill to create an online system where people could inform on each other for committing “microaggressions.” The aim was to hold those violators legally responsible for their offense. Social justice protestors at campuses across the country have demanded that their universities institute similar speech tracking systems.
Seizing Upon a Scapegoat
After the apology, students and faculty wanted to hold someone responsible for the event. They settled on Rochon. He appeared to balk when in response to student demands for a more “racially sensitive” campus, he claimed students and faculty were simply “frustrated.” He went on to capitulate to the essence of their demands by claiming he would go on to “make a difference.”
In November, he penned a self-flagellating essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Why Embattled Leaders Should Be Stepping Up, Not Stepping Down.” Rochon stated why his own argument is untenable. He abandons the hallowed space left for reason and truth for one in which the students get to create their own reality out of something called inclusiveness:
Before we belittle these heightened student expectations, though, it is important to recognize that the values of a bias-free, inclusive community represent aspirational values that we should be trying to achieve. Prospective students are told in glossy brochures that they will be part of a campus community that provides an environment for unfettered exploration and learning. At Ithaca, every aspect of our vision statement requires a highly inclusive environment in which students are free to explore their identities and expand their abilities on their own terms, without interference from the assumptions — prejudicial or otherwise — of others.
College and university presidents today have both an opportunity and a mandate for collaborative leadership that moves us dramatically in the direction of this aspirational vision. Discussions of racism and other forms of bias are never comfortable and are too often avoided. The current wave of student activism, however, puts these issues front and center, thereby creating the opportunity for campuswide discussions marked by candor and openness to change. Those discussions can, in turn, lead to commitments that institutionalize the values and practices associated with an inclusive environment.
Although Rochon attested he would give the students anything they wanted, in December, he abruptly announced his retirement.
What happened at Ithaca is a product of the atmosphere Rochon created and encouraged while he headed the college. His apology to the campus for Burch’s comments provide enough evidence of what he tolerated on campus. However, Rochon’s academic career has been dedicated to the idea that this life has no ability to determine truth.
Political Correctness Arises from Relativism
In the late 1980s, just before I arrived at the then-Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University), Harry V. Jaffa got into a debate with Rochon over the nature of academic inquiry. In “What is Political Science,” Jaffa eviscerated Rochon for his “ethically neutral” science.
For Rochon, all moral questions are value questions. In other words, values cannot be “known” but facts can be known. Since everyone has “values” there is no way to determine which value is actually good, or better, than another. All are the same and should be treated identically, since they cannot be proven by facts or reasoning. Indeed, Rochon stated that, in political science, questions of “right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust” are “outside the sphere of [political] science.”
Rochon’s entire scholarship is based on the idea that academics has nothing to say about the things that matter most. He claims that it is impossible to know what justice is. Faced with a choice of two competing value systems—say, that of the Nazis and that of the American Founding—Rochon could not pick which one would be more worthy. While Rochon would dispute the claim that he supports a value-free education, his positions on what can be known and unknown lead him exactly in that direction.
It is no surprise, then, that we learned of his demise at Ithaca, although we may lament the success of political correctness at yet another university. In this instance, the cause and champion of just such correctness is none other than the soon-to-be former president of Ithaca College.