About Thomas R. Rochon

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Reclaiming the Social CompactReclaiming the Social Compact
Inaugural Speech April 17, 2009

Trustees [C. William] Schwab, [Lawrence M.] Alleva, and [Francille M.] Firebaugh, thank you; and thanks to all of the trustees for your deep insight in selecting me to be the eighth president of Ithaca College. Thanks also for your support ever since that day.

[Cornell University] president David Skorton, Michael Kaplan [’85, president, Alumni Association Board of Directors], Cornell Woodson [’09, president, Student Government Association], Sue DuBrava [chair, Staff Council], Stan Seltzer [chair, Faculty Council] -- thank you all for your warm greetings.

I would like to thank Robert Putnam, who has offered thoughts here today that strike to the heart of our mission and aspirations at Ithaca College. 

I would also like to thank President Emerita Peggy Williams, who could write a book on how to be graciously but also substantively supportive of one’s successor. 

Thank you to the delegates from colleges and universities.  Your presence testifies to the solidarity within the academy. 

Thank you to the faculty, staff, and colleagues in the leadership of the College, whose support I have felt so deeply ever since arriving on campus. 

Thank you to students and alumni -- you have already taught me so much about the enduring value of Ithaca College. 

Special thanks to my brother and sister-in-law Tim and Shawn Rochon, as well as to friends who have come here from the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities. 

Very special thanks to Amber and to the baby whose only name so far is “Peanut.”  You have both joined in this adventure with me, albeit with varying degrees of informed consent.   

We are assembled at a crucial time in the history of Ithaca College and of higher education more generally.  Colleges and universities have been part of a social compact for over 900 years, since the University of Bologna was founded in 1088.  Institutions of higher education have since then been granted substantial financial support, relatively great autonomy in their internal operations, and an unusual degree of freedom of expression on the part of faculty and students.  In exchange, it is understood that colleges are not in business for themselves, or even solely for their students, but rather for the public good.  

That social compact is today significantly frayed.  We find signs of that fraying everywhere -- in reductions of public financial support and in challenges both to the academic freedom of faculty and the autonomy of colleges.     

We have not helped our case by holding up our end of the social compact, and it is on our responsibilities that I want to concentrate today.  For a variety of reasons, we have tended in recent years to downplay the value of higher education to society at large and instead to emphasize the private benefits to one’s career and income.  Perhaps this is because higher education has become so expensive.  Perhaps we feel this is the message students and their families most want to hear.  But when we treat higher education as a private good, not fundamentally different from deciding to purchase a new car or invest in a certificate of deposit, we weaken the case for public support. 

It is now time to reclaim the social compact involving higher education.  We must do so not just by demanding our rights and privileges but by shouldering our responsibilities.  We must demonstrate the public good that higher education uniquely creates.  Of course, a complex social institution may have many functions and still just one core purpose.  Individual prosperity and social mobility are certainly functions of higher education, but they are not our purpose.  The creation and dissemination of new knowledge is an important function of higher education, but I think we have lost our way if we state that the creation of new knowledge is our core purpose.   

The purpose of our work is to educate the citizenry of tomorrow, including but not limited to future leaders in all areas of human endeavor.  Our purpose is to give people the tools they need to carry forward the march of progress in culture, ethical awareness, and material life that has continued -- and indeed accelerated -- since the first university was founded over 900 years ago.  Our purpose as faculty, staff, administrators, and trustees in higher education is to give those who will come after us the tools they will need to fix our mistakes.   

I ask today that we embrace this more daunting challenge of proclaiming the public purpose of higher education.  And I ask that we redouble our efforts to fulfill that public purpose, beginning here at Ithaca College.   

Our task is fundamentally altered by the full blossoming of the information age, in which both the accumulation and dissemination of information have reached heights we could not have imagined one generation ago.  We have an abundance of facts at our fingertips.  The challenge is to transform those facts into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into action.     

Higher education is in many ways already well structured to meet this challenge.  Our general education creates a breadth of understanding about different ways of knowing.

The ability to deepen one’s knowledge in a single area of inquiry is created by the requirement of a major field of study.  But where do we create an opportunity for students to develop the skills of translating knowledge into action?  What are our strategies for teaching students the skills of problem identification, the tools to search for information and sort results by validity and relevance, a facility for integrating knowledge across domains, and the ability to synthesize a workable plan of action in response to an unfamiliar situation?

I would like to address today three key educational experiences that strengthen these problem solving skills.  They are

  • an emphasis on application as a tool for learning,
  • the engagement of community, and 
  • the integration of educational experience across fields of study.

Application as a tool for learning

Learning by application means learning by working on problems as they present themselves in real life.  Philosophers of education from the Greeks to John Dewey to George Kuh agree that problem solving skills are best honed by experience.  We profess the ideal of applied learning at Ithaca College, and have reason to be proud of the extent to which we integrate application into the learning experience practically from one’s first day on campus.  IC President Howard Dillingham stated in his 1957 inaugural address that the heart of our educational mission lies in enabling faculty and students to create an active partnership centered on learning.  “We all recognize that education is not a process of passive absorption,” Dillingham said, adding that students “should be permitted and encouraged to play a more creative role themselves in their education.”1

At any given time, IC students are learning by doing in studios and in laboratories, in concert halls and at the therapy table, on the stage and in the trading room.  Our students intern in government agencies and trade associations with our Washington program, in public relations firms and production companies with our Los Angeles program, with museums and candidates for Parliament in our London program, and at the Frederick Douglass Academy in New York.  By the time they graduate, our students are well experienced in tackling problems, working with others, applying their skills, and generally getting things done.

Engagement of the community

We value community for many reasons, but its importance to the sustenance of a rich learning environment is sometimes underappreciated.  The Latin word universitas originally referred to all types of community, before its meaning narrowed to refer solely to a community of higher learning.  Frank Rhodes, the former president of Cornell University, explains that community is crucial to our core educational purpose because “without community, knowledge becomes idiosyncratic: the lone learner, studying in isolation, is vulnerable to narrowness, dogmatism, and untested assumption, and learning misses out on being expansive and informed, contested by opposing interpretations, leavened by differing experience, and refined by alternative viewpoints.”2

It is vital, then, that we have a robust and diverse college community.  But educating the citizenry and leaders of tomorrow requires that we also engage with the wider community in which our campus is embedded.  My predecessor, President Peggy Williams, framed her 1998 inaugural address around development of the capacity for learning and the capacity for citizenship.  To emphasize her point about the intimate connection between community service and higher education, President Williams created a day of service at Ithaca College that took place the day before her inauguration.  We continue a tradition of community outreach still today, as recognized by our inclusion on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll every year since its inception.

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has described for us both the decline of community in America and the far-reaching consequences of that decline.3  It is essential that we hold up our end of the social compact by contributing to the reinvigoration of community.  As a residential college, IC has some built-in advantages in educating citizens and leaders who will contribute to community throughout their lives. We strengthen our campus community every time we gather to work or to play, to cheer or to compete, to worship together or even to do battle with each other.  We strengthen the surrounding community when our students teach in the schools, volunteer in the museums, and reach out to neighbors.

We are and should be proud of the vigor of community on campus, as well as of our contributions to community in Ithaca and beyond.  That is one thing that has never changed, despite our move from four rented rooms on Seneca Street in 1892 to the sprawling campus on South Hill today.

Integration of educational experience across fields of study

The problems our graduates will work on and resolve during their lives will rarely -- if ever -- come with a tag that tells us to solve them using the tools of diagnostic reasoning, SWOT analysis, post-structuralist criticism, the hypothetico-deductive method, or simply creativity.  To be successful, students must understand how different perspectives and analyses can contribute to seeing a problem in its entirety.  They do not need to become expert in multiple fields, but they do need to understand how multiple fields contribute to solving a particular problem.

As a comprehensive college in which the liberal arts and professional education infuse and enrich each other, Ithaca College is well positioned to become a leader in offering thematically coherent curricula that draw deeply on the perspectives and skills of multiple fields of study.  This has been part of our DNA from conception.  Upon founding the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, our first president, W. Grant Egbert, said, “It is my plan to build a school of music second to none in the excellence of its faculty, the soundness of its educational ideals, and the superior quality of instruction.”  He later added, “and then to surround it with allied schools, encouraging breadth of view and contact so often neglected by the young student.”4

President Egbert’s vision of integrating his music conservatory with allied schools in other professions and in the liberal arts created an opportunity for an educational experience spanning diverse fields of knowledge.  But it was left to each student to determine whether and how to take advantage of that opportunity.  If our core purpose is to educate the citizenry and leaders of tomorrow, we must be more intentional in linking multiple schools in the search for answers to important problems.  We cannot confine our students to a single school, and we cannot permit them to confine themselves.

Something very special happened at Ithaca College this year that gives me confidence in our ability to integrate educational experience across fields of study.  I invited faculty, staff, students, alumni, and members of the Ithaca community to a series of meetings in which our agenda was to brainstorm on what our educational mission demands of us and how we can become better at fulfilling that mission.  People offered their thoughts with a remarkable breadth of insight, as reflected in the 70 pages of listening session notes posted on our website.  But their thoughts also displayed an underlying agreement on the principles of integrative learning.  As members of the faculty and staff put it, we can create an academic community that spans disciplinary and organizational boundaries, that fosters creativity, that supports risk taking, that is flexible in response to a rapidly changing world, that develops lifelong learners who are global citizens, and that becomes a shared experience for all students.

There is a creative ferment at IC today.  Faculty are taking the lead in launching the “Integrated Curriculum for Ithaca College” -- (IC)2.  This past week we received 30 proposals from faculty members suggesting ways they might develop new collaborations.  We plan in the coming years to create a partnership not only of faculty across the various schools and divisions, but also of staff involved in cocurricular activities and in residential life.  We have already learned that students play a valuable role in this dialogue, since they are among the most creative people on campus in visualizing problem-centered collaborations.

We have just begun to put flesh on this strategic vision, but we already know that one of the challenges of (IC)2 will be to institutionalize the disruption of disciplinary boundaries and departmental silos.  Asked what made Johns Hopkins a great university so soon after it was established, founding president Daniel Coit Gilman is said to have replied, “We went to each other’s lectures.”5  The motivation to span disciplinary boundaries, to attend each other’s lectures (both literally and figuratively), will come from a clear focus on problem-based education.

As I have indicated, Ithaca College is a national leader in applied learning and in the engagement of community.  We have just begun to transform the educational experience at IC so as to become equally strong in offering problem-centered educational experiences that span diverse fields of study.  I believe that the steps we have taken this year, combined with our 117 year commitment to excellence, will put us on the road to leadership in this area as well.

Final thoughts

As human beings, we are meant to learn.  I have been reading a lot recently about the cognitive development of infants.  (Since I will become a first time father in two to three weeks, this is a lot like cramming for a test the night before.)  Newborn infants sleep close to 20 hours per day, though apparently not during the hours you wish they would sleep.  During their wakeful periods, they soak up information using all five senses at a rate that has only recently come to be fully understood.  You could not prevent infants from learning if you tried, and you cannot prevent college students from learning either.

We have an obligation to create a learning environment that is as rich as possible from the perspective of holding up our end of the higher education social compact.  Learning by doing, connection with community, and integration of curriculum are among the tools by which we can strengthen problem solving skills and thereby fulfill our commitment to educate the citizenry and leaders of tomorrow.

In case someone reads these words 50 years from now, as I recently read President Dillingham’s words from 50 years ago, I want to report to the future that everyone in this room is aware that we live in parlous times.  Our performance in educating the citizens and future leaders of our country has actually worsened in recent decades, as the pipeline of students through high school, into college, and to completion of a baccalaureate degree has become leakier and leakier.  We also face today an economic crisis whose ultimate length and depth have yet to be experienced.  We do not know today, as the reader in 50 years will know, how these crises will remake the landscape of higher education, much less the economic and social landscape more generally.  My focus today on the importance of developing effective citizens and leaders does not detract from the fact that we must also make many other adjustments in the way we operate.  We know that we must develop a significantly greater preoccupation with efficiency in our educational programs and support services.  We must be far more engaged in assessing everything we do, and we must be more ready to jettison programs and services that produce only modest results.  We must develop new collaborations with a variety of off-campus partners, not only for services and administrative functions but very possibly also for some aspects of the instructional enterprise.  We must be more effective at serving a vastly more diverse population of students.  We must be far more international in our orientation. 

Reader from the future, judge us by all of these standards.  But judge us first and foremost by our ability to educate your parents, and you, and your children for effective citizenship and leadership.

The challenges we face are no greater than those we have regularly met during our history as a College.  After all, the chair of the Ithaca College Board of Trustees during the presidency of Leonard Job is reported to have been advised by the president of another institution that IC could not possibly succeed.  It was suggested that he close the College, lock the doors, and throw the keys in Cayuga Lake.

President Job didn’t take that advice, and said years later that because he was unaware his task was supposedly an impossible one, he simply went about it.

In full awareness of the magnitude of our task today, but with all the support we can give each other as we fulfill the mission of our great institution, I thank you for the honor of being inaugurated as the eighth president of Ithaca College. I pledge to do my best to carry on the storied tradition of the seven presidents who have come before me.

1   October 12, 1957; President Dillingham’s inaugural speech is printed in its entirety in the


, October 16, 1957. 

2   Frank Rhodes,

The Creation of the Future: The Role of the American University

(Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2001), page 45. 

3   Robert D. Putnam,

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

(New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).   

4   John Harcourt,

The Ithaca College Story

(Ithaca, New York: 1983), page 1.  

5   Cited in Frank Rhodes,

The Creation of the Future

, page 47.