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Wind In Our SailsWind In Our Sails

August 27, 2010

Dear Friend,

The wind is in our sails.

That is the metaphor I have used for the last 12 months to describe the academic year Ithaca College has recently completed. Everywhere I look around the IC campus, there are signs of incredible energy focused on our commitment to build further on the excellent educational tradition for which we are already known. Some of that vitality comes from the physical appearance of the campus itself, including the recently completed Dorothy D. and Roy H. Park Center for Business and Sustainable Enterprise and the Peggy Ryan Williams Center, which houses (among other things) student administrative services and my office. Renovation of Dillingham Center -- which will guarantee the preeminence of our theater arts program for another generation to come -- and the ongoing construction of our magnificent athletics and events center are additional reminders both of our commitment to excellence and of the generosity of our alumni and friends.

But the most exciting news from Ithaca College stems from what goes on inside the buildings. It was just over 14 months ago that we learned a record 2,014 freshmen would be joining us in fall 2009. This was our largest and most diverse group of first-year students ever. The class of 2013 has already proven to be one of our most talented, as evidenced by academic performance and immediate involvement in campus organizations and activities. One member, Elizabeth Stoltz, was elected by the Ithaca College Board of Trustees this May to join the board as student trustee. We believe she is the first freshman to join the board since the student trustee position was established nearly 40 years ago. Elizabeth was also one of a dozen remarkable freshmen profiled in my August 2009 blog post on the talented class of 2013.

The unexpectedly large first-year class was a wonderful affirmation of the attractiveness of the College, particularly at the height of the economic turmoil surrounding the Great Recession. But the size of the class also created a challenge: Could we provide over 2,000 freshmen with the kind of individual attention -- in the classroom and on the campus -- that is so important to an IC education? Could we even find places for all of them to live on campus?

The answer to both questions was a resounding "Yes." Our residential life and facilities staff stepped up last summer to reallocate spaces on campus and even to build a new temporary residence hall -- Terrace 13 -- in less than eight weeks. Our faculty agreed to teach additional course sections, and our department chairs scoured the region for qualified part-time faculty so that the impact on class size would be minimal.

These efforts paid off handsomely. By the end of the spring semester, I had the opportunity to speak with 224 of those 2,000-plus freshmen, one-on-one, in various planned and chance meetings. Whatever else we happened to talk about, I always asked, "Has your IC experience been all you hoped it would be, despite the large number of fellow freshmen?" And, by 224-0, the vote was "Yes!" (In case you were wondering, students do not hesitate to complain to me when they think something is wrong!) So their unanimous affirmation of the richness of their first-year experience was truly meaningful.

Although there will be no enrollment surprises this fall -- we will welcome approximately the 1,600 freshmen we have planned for -- we had, this past year, the second-largest number of applications in our history. In short, students continue to clamor for the IC educational experience.

And what does an IC education stand for? One of the glories of Ithaca College is that our five schools and two academic divisions offer a wide variety of educational opportunities and experiences. But, for me at least, three traits come immediately to mind as part of the shared philosophy that animates every department and program: a commitment to interdisciplinary education, hands-on learning opportunities, and service to community.

We have a tradition of excellent education within each of our schools. That is reflected in our students, who are committed to becoming the best biochemists and business leaders, musicians and mathematicians, doctors and dramatists, scientists and sound technicians, physical therapists and film critics . . . well, you get the idea . . . that they can be. At the same time, our students know that the problems of the world do not come in neat disciplinary packages, and their curiosity about the world cannot be confined within the boundaries of existing academic schools and majors. Over one-third of our recently graduated class had majors or minors outside their primary field of study. Just over 20 percent of them had majors or minors in more than one school.

We seek to stimulate the kind of intellectual curiosity that takes students across disciplinary borders with a new initiative called (IC)2 ("IC Squared," or the Ithaca College Integrated Curriculum), begun just this past year. A dozen faculty members initiated five courses that gave students the opportunity to study a particular topic from a variety of disciplinary angles. Students in these courses reported that it was revelatory for them to see faculty from different fields listening to each other, learning from each other, and sometimes arguing with each other. They came to understand that we are all lifelong learners, and that you cannot fully understand a topic from any one perspective.

Students get many other interdisciplinary opportunities on the IC campus through participation in hands-on projects that bring them together to work in teams. The products of their work regularly receive national recognition. To name just a few examples from this past year:

• The Ithacan was named the best weekly student newspaper in the country.

• A news program on ICTV won honors as the top campus news program in the country.

• Music students performed in chamber ensembles that entered international competitions, winning several prizes and distinctions along the way.

• WICB was named the top student radio station in the country.

• Seven chemistry students presented the research they are doing under faculty mentorship at the 239th American Chemical Society national meeting in San Francisco.

• Twenty-three IC students presented their original research projects at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Montana. They were the largest delegation from all the colleges and universities in attendance. (We will host this conference on the IC campus in spring 2011.)

Service to community is also a long tradition at Ithaca College and one that spans all of our schools and departments. Over 100 students volunteered at 17 nonprofit service organizations in the community this past January, related to our observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Other students participated in our Saturday of Service programs by volunteering at the Tompkins County Public Library, the Southside Community Center, Finger Lakes ReUse, the History Center, the Salvation Army, Hospicare, and Challenge Industries. Five staff members joined 35 students on alternative spring break service programs held in New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., as well as in Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia.

In the wake of the tragic earthquake in Haiti, the Ithaca College community stepped up by organizing a three-hour concert to benefit Doctors Without Borders. Students organized a variety of fund-raisers on campus, including one that involved students signing away meals on their campus meal plans and another involving the purchase of T-shirts and wristbands in support of reconstruction in Haiti.

Under the oversight of the United Way, IC students created the Stone Soup Philanthropy Corps, which raises money through various events and then makes grants to community organizations. This year students allocated $1,500 in grants while raising $3,935 to be used in grant making next year. For sheer number of students involved and dollars raised, the annual Relay for Life event held jointly with Cornell students to raise money for the American Cancer Society was again king: 75 IC students were active on the planning committee, 975 students participated on the relay teams, and the result was $75,000 raised by the IC teams for breast cancer research.

Though we know our count will never be exhaustive, last year we documented nearly 49,000 hours of student volunteer service to the wider community. We were recognized for this achievement by being named to the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for the fourth consecutive year -- continuing our streak of being named to the honor roll every year since it was started!

Given these facts, it is no wonder the schools and programs of Ithaca College receive so many national honors. This year marked the 15th consecutive year that IC was ranked among the top 10 bachelor's and master's degree-granting institutions in the North by U.S. News & World Report. Our theater arts program was named to the national top 10. Our School of Business was reaffirmed in its accreditation by AACSB International (the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), an honor given to fewer than 10 percent of all business schools nationwide, and even fewer internationally. The School of Music is a founding member of a special consortium of the top 20 music programs in the country -- and one of only two members whose focus is primarily on undergraduate students.

The former president of a university where I used to work was fond of saying, "Do not judge us by the caliber of student we admit. Judge us by the caliber of student we graduate." Thanks to our remarkable alumni, that is a test Ithaca College passes with flying colors. Two of our recent graduates, Melendy Krantz '09 and Amy Cohen '08, won Fulbright awards last year to conduct research in, respectively, Bangladesh and the United Kingdom. Also this past year, one of our journalism graduates, Mark Mahoney '85, won a Pulitzer Prize for best editorial writing. Kate Aldrich '96 signed a contract last year to perform in leading roles as a soprano at Milan's La Scala -- the Mecca of opera houses -- as well as with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Arnald Gabriel '50, M.S. '60 (who also received an honorary doctorate in music in 1989), was awarded the 2010 Ellis Island Medal of Honor in May, an honor "designed to pay homage to the immigrant experience, as well as for individual achievement." He joins Muhammad Ali, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Hope, among other notables, in receiving that award.

The 2010 "Ubiquitous Presence Award" goes to Larry Hirschhorn '80. A year ago, Larry co-produced a revival of the musical Hair on Broadway, earning a Tony Award in the process. This year, Hair opened in London's West End, at the same time that Larry's latest production, a musical based on The Addams Family, received two Tony Award nominations. Despite having multiple productions on Broadway, Larry also found time to co-chair the Dillingham renovation fund-raising campaign!

I think you can see why I believe the wind is in our sails. During a time of turmoil that has affected colleges and universities every bit as much as it has affected other kinds of businesses, Ithaca College is the strongest it has ever been. Of course, that does not mean we can become complacent! It is precisely when the wind is in your sails that you must tighten the grip on the tiller and focus more intently than ever on your intended destination.

As wonderful as the last year has been at Ithaca College, I believe we are poised for an even greater future. Our mission is as simple as it is elusive. We serve as a challenging but also nurturing home in which our students get the most out of their abilities, and in which they discover interests and abilities they did not even know they had.  

In closing, I offer this letter from a parent of one of our graduating seniors that was especially meaningful to me:

Dear President Rochon,

My son Joseph is a member of Ithaca College's class of 2010. I am writing to thank you and your faculty for the education you have given him these past four years. He came to you as a freshman only marginally engaged in academic thought and achievement. Now nearing graduation, he is a full participant in the life of the mind. He cares about the arts, politics, and his fellow man. What his future holds remains a mystery, but Ithaca College has given him the background to enjoy a thinking, productive adult life. A well-known politician popularized the saying "It takes a village to raise a child." I am thankful Joseph was in Ithaca College's village these past four years.

Isn't it for people like Joseph that we choose to be part of the Ithaca College village?

Thomas R. Rochon