Commentary

Why Embattled Leaders Should Be Stepping Up, Not Stepping Down

November 16, 2015

Ithaca College has been among the institutions roiled this fall by student protest on issues of diversity and inclusion. As has been true elsewhere, the immediate impetus for these protests has been concerns about racism and bias stemming from incidents that occurred on campus this year.

More fundamentally, though, the protests are a result of longer-term frustration and anger over persistent shortcomings in the inclusiveness of the campus culture and of the daily interactions that enable students to feel fully accepted and embraced for who they are. Inclusiveness is an important value, but especially so on a highly residential campus and in a tight-knit campus community like that of Ithaca College.

In the wake of decisions by the president of the University of Missouri system and the chancellor of its Columbia campus to step down in the face of similar protests, many people wonder if such resignations will become a trend. At Ithaca College, as well, the focus of student protest has been on me as president, not because of anything prejudicial I have done but due to a belief that the campus climate is not what it should be and that the buck stops with the president.

It is impossible to know whether the current wave of campus activism will increase leadership turnover. So much depends on institution-specific circumstances such as the extent of board support for a given president and whether there are any hidden issues in play in addition to the public issues that engender the protests.

It is highly likely that we have entered a new era of student activism focused on inclusivity and bias.
But it is highly likely that we have entered a new era of student activism focused on inclusivity and bias. This includes that form of bias known as microaggressions: verbal or behavioral slights that, especially when viewed in a cumulative light, send a message of differentiation or hostility to someone based on their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other group membership.

The Ithaca College experience this fall suggests a few observations about the national wave of activism. We are not unique in having a student body that is significantly more racially and ethnically diverse than it was even in the recent past. The percentage of students of color at Ithaca has grown from 11 percent in the fall of 2008, when I started as president, to 20 percent today. Our student body is also more diverse than previously in socioeconomic status and other less-visible markers of group membership.

Our faculty and staff have also become more diverse over that period of time, but not at nearly the same rate. After all, about 25 percent of our students are new to the college each fall, but we hire only about 4 percent of our faculty and 5 percent of our staff in a given year. The result is a growing gap between the composition of the student body and that of the faculty and staff. Our campus culture and institutional practices have not kept up with the extent of change.

Some alumni of color have commented to me that the stories they hear from protesting students are not unfamiliar to their own experience. Students of color are sometimes, then as now, asked in class to describe the views of "their group" on some particular topic. Students of various races and ethnicities are sometimes, then as now, confronted with stereotypical depictions of their group or culture through costumes at a party or jokes told by friends. Some white people refuse to understand, then as now, that the N-word is not theirs to use, no matter what the context or intention might be.

What has changed is the extent of public expression of student expectations with respect to a bias-free, inclusive environment. Words and behaviors are now parsed more closely for evidence of insult — not only in the sense of deeming a group to be inferior but also for evidence of difference: of someone stating explicitly or implicitly that there are group lines, that there is a "we" and a "they."

At one time, campus safety for students from underrepresented groups referred to safety from physical threats, intimidation, or violence. Today, a safe space refers to an environment that is psychologically welcoming, providing an absolute assurance that no student will be made uncomfortable by any expression relating to his or her racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, or other identity.

As an example of this shift in expectations, consider the email from a dean of students at Claremont McKenna College, Mary Spellman, to a Latina student, saying, "We are working on how we can better serve students, especially those who don’t fit our CMC mold." Reference to a student not fitting "our CMC mold" is emblematic of what it means to be noninclusive. Not so long ago, that message would be the occasion for consciousness-raising and a reaffirmation of core values both by its author and by others in the community. Today it is the occasion for student protest leading to the dean’s losing her job.

Are we really "raising a nation of hothouse orchids," as one anguished alum suggested to me?

I believe that a generation gap in values and expectations is indeed part of what is going on here.
I believe that a generation gap in values and expectations is indeed part of what is going on here. Those of a previous generation are easily able to conjure up stories of a world that was more cruel than the world of today, and cruel to more groups of people. However, the argument that the world of yesterday (or for that matter the world off campus even today) was worse carries no weight whatsoever with today’s students.

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.

This is a time for college leaders to step up rather than step down. Higher-education leaders have the opportunity to bring a commitment to inclusion into fuller alignment with a longstanding commitment to diversity.

Thomas R. Rochon is president of Ithaca College.