The Power of Community

By President Tom Rochon

“Starbucks is not a coffee company that serves people. It is a people company that serves coffee.”

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, wrote these words in a somewhat self-promoting book about the lessons he learned from a successful multi-year effort to reverse a period of declining profits, employee layoffs, and store closings. The idea that Starbucks is not a coffee company seems radical at first blush. It takes a moment to realize that serving coffee is not an end in itself but rather a means to creating a certain experience for people, whether it is one of quiet individual reflection or of enjoying the store’s ambience with others.

That led me to wonder: Is Ithaca College all about education, or is it all about people?

Our mission statement would at first seem to indicate that we are all about education. Here is its first sentence: “To provide a foundation for a lifetime of learning, Ithaca College is dedicated to fostering intellectual growth, aesthetic appreciation, and character development in our students.” 

If we left things there, IC would have a transactional relationship with each individual student. Come to Ithaca, dedicate yourself to our curricular, cocurricular, and residential life opportunities, and leave enriched in mind, spirit, and character.

The last sentence of our mission statement, though, introduces a more complex way of thinking about IC. “All members of the College community are encouraged to achieve excellence in their chosen fields and to share the responsibilities of citizenship and service in the global community.” Our College is not just an educational enterprise that serves individual students. We are a community of people committed to lifelong learning and accomplishment, citizenship, and service to others. The IC community includes alumni —  a perspective made clear by the reference to how we hope members of the community will live their post-student lives.

This idea of the IC community is not just empty words in a mission statement; it reflects the way we actually relate to each other. Consider as an example IC’s recent search for a new mascot. As most of you know, Ithaca College has a great tradition of intercollegiate athletic competition but does not have an official mascot. Responding to a request from students that we take some measures to increase the spiritedness of campus events, we decided to create a mascot.

We invited nominations and then sent a survey to about 50,000 people to assess reactions to the finalists. Because IC is a community of employees and students from the past, present, and future, we sent the survey to alumni and to prospective students as well as to those who are currently on campus. That survey generated almost 10,000 responses, not to mention an assortment of Facebook and blog comments, online petitions, and other manifestations of active involvement. Half of the survey respondents not only clicked on their answers to the various questions but also took the time to type in their views on the subject. Experts in polling tell me that a 2 percent response rate to an online survey is common; our response rate was ten times that amount.

I truly wish the IC community had been able to come to agreement on a mascot; however, since the issue began to serve as a dividing wedge, with no clear consensus favoring any of the choices, I chose to discontinue the mascot search. The outcome of this search, however, is in many ways secondary to what the process tells us about the IC community. It is engaged! Many alumni, in particular, showed how deeply they care about the symbols associated with their alma mater. They were thinking about the IC community in an intergenerational way, with a strong feeling that decisions made now are not only of significance for the current student body but also for those who have been students here previously and those who will be students in years to come.

This thinking is a powerful force that can propel IC forward. Working together, we can support each other to become accomplished lifelong learners committed to service, as described in our mission. One example of how we can do so comes from our strategic plan, the IC 20/20 vision that has just been adopted by the College’s board of trustees.

One part of the plan that I am most ex-cited about is the creation of a student-alumni mentor program that will offer students the opportunity to interact with alumni as they define their educational goals, and later as they navigate the transition from student to workplace professional. The program will also give alumni mentors an opportunity to reflect upon their own professional paths as well as expand their professional and social networks with each other. Imagine students and alumni using the networking power of Facebook to have direct conversations with each other on such topics as “What are/were the most valuable or important elements of my IC education” and “What do I wish I had done differently?”

This is the power of the IC community, a community that cares deeply about the quality of the IC educational experience and about ways we can help each other become the lifelong learners described in our mission statement. We really are a people enterprise that focuses on education to create our community.