Meet IC President Tom Rochon

The new president is scholar, educator, academic administrator, fund-raiser, political scientist — and already a champion of IC.  by Maura Stephens

The first thing you notice about Tom Rochon is his eyes. They’re deep-set, warm, brown, curious, intense. After a few minutes of talking to Ithaca College’s new president, you get the feeling he’s interested in and focused on what you’re saying, taking it all in, and storing it in his memory for future reference.

That’s the impression I got when I was introduced to him at Alumni Weekend. He hadn’t actually started working at Ithaca College yet — he wouldn’t come to campus officially for another month. But he and his wife, Amber, didn’t want to miss the opportunity to meet many graduates at once and learn how they felt about the College, the education they’d received, and the bonds they’d formed in Ithaca. So the Rochons flew in from their home in St. Paul, Minnesota, to spend three days with visiting alumni and their guests.

I happened to be flying in from Minnesota the same day. The flight attendant on the last leg of the trip into Ithaca kept saying “the home of Cornell University” every time he mentioned Ithaca, and it was seriously annoying me. Toward the end of the flight, when he was making one of those interminable, redundant airline flight attendant announcements welcoming us to Ithaca, he added, “and Ithaca College, the other outstanding institution of higher education in Ithaca.”

Wow, I thought, that’s better. There was a smattering of applause, so obviously I wasn’t the only passenger who wanted to see IC get its due. I wondered who had put a bee in the flight attendant’s ear.

Then he continued, “I’m happy to say that the new president of Ithaca College, Tom Rochon, and his wife are on this flight. Welcome to Ithaca, President and Mrs. Rochon.” This time, applause erupted, and people craned their necks to get a look at the newcomers. I later learned that Tom Rochon was the one who had set that flight attendant straight regarding the importance of the institution on South Hill. That, I thought, was a very auspicious beginning to his presidential tenure.

During Alumni Weekend the Rochons attended many events, including the Saturday night picnic and party on the Quad, Saturday night awards banquet, Sunday morning volunteer breakfast, and receptions, and chatted easily with everyone from the “perennials” — those who graduated 50 years or more ago — to the youngest graduates.

“I got a very good feeling about him,” says theater arts alumna leslie Shreve ’68, a New York actor. “He really seemed interested in what we think. He’s very gracious, and so is Amber.”

Toward the end of the long and busy weekend, the eighth president of Ithaca College and his wife spent more than two hours sitting for photographs and being interviewed for this story, and were completely open and accommodating. It was a delightful give-and-take conversation, as they were as interested in learning about Ithaca as they were about responding to questions about themselves. They gave the impression that they were already falling in love with Ithaca College and the town it’s named for, and were excited about the move and both delighted about and ready for their new positions and responsibilities.

The Rochons are newlyweds — they celebrated their second anniversary in July just before arriving in Ithaca — and their devotion to each other is evident. Amber, who grew up in Canada, is the first member of her family to have graduated from high school, let alone college. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and has spent most of her professional life in human services, most recently working at a shelter for homeless teenage girls. “I love working with that age group,” she says. “Something in me wants to spend my time helping people. It is fulfilling work.” She hopes to go on for a master’s degree in social work or a related field. Amber Rochon is down to earth and just as engaged and interested in people and their stories as is her husband.

Rochon’s experience is about as well-rounded as one could hope for in a president of Ithaca College. He’s an accomplished political scientist with a deep interest in social movements, and has written or edited five well-regarded books* and many journal articles, essays, and book chapters as well as articles on political parties, elections, and social movements. He has considerable teaching and research experience in the United States, Europe (the Netherlands), and Asia (Japan). He speaks three languages and reads a fourth.

He has worked with both undergraduate and graduate programs — an appealing combination for Ithaca College, where the Division of Graduate and Professional Studies is poised to expand its offerings and reach. Rochon led the creation of an interdisciplinary graduate degree program, which — as anyone who has worked in academe can attest — is not an easy task, involving as it does many hours (“Years!” the voice in my head exclaims) of discussion and debate followed by layers of approval, revision, more discussion and debate, more layers of approval, revision, and so on. He undertook successfully a similarly complex task at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, a master’s comprehensive university in Minnesota, where he was for five years most recently executive vice president and chief academic officer (what at Ithaca College is called “provost”): He reorganized academic programs to create an engineering school that offers both undergraduate and graduate courses of study. 

Rochon has experience outside higher education, as well. For three years he ventured into the nonacademic arena, serving as executive director of the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) program of Educational Testing Service (ETS), a private nonprofit corporation. There, among other things, he was able to fix test security loopholes in GRE testing in China and other Asian countries, implement a program that increased the participation of students from underrepresented groups, and add analytical writing to the general test — the first-ever use of essays in the program.

He is well versed in budgets and finance. “I enjoy that aspect,” he says. At St. Thomas he shared responsibility, along with the chief administrative officer, for the $150 million university budget. And during a one-year stint as interim provost at Claremont Graduate University, he actually co-created an accounting system, something not often associated with academic officers.

He has considerable experience and interest in assessment of outcomes and models of accountability. With a background in government, comparative politics, and social movements, it’s not surprising that he led the administrative collaboration with faculty at St. Thomas in developing and instituting a new system of shared governance. Not least, especially in the current climate of increasing pressure to raise money, the new president has fund-raising experience on a personal scholarly level as well as a broader institutional level, having secured both foundation grants and major gifts from individual donors. He was also actively involved in the launch of St. Thomas’s current capital campaign, which is centered on endowment support of students and faculty.

And, as he demonstrated so well on the flight into Ithaca on Alumni Weekend, he is adept at public relations and marketing.

Many things excite Rochon about his new position, but he is keenly aware of the challenges ahead. Demographic trends over the next decade will make the world of higher education ever more competitive: With smaller high school classes from which to draw students, colleges and universities will need not only to be increasingly attractive in their academic and student life offerings, but also to keep up with emerging fields of study. Ithaca College, which has increased its student academic profile (see ICView 2008/1, “How Admission Works”), does not want to lose ground in that area. Because governmental support of education has dropped off, there is more pressure to raise funds. And none of these needs can be met without a boost in institutional visibility, both regionally and nationally.

These are just some of the many issues the new president will grapple with. But Rochon doesn’t seem the least daunted. When I asked what he found worrisome or especially challenging, he thought for a moment. “I have the right experience,” he replied. “I think I’m well prepared to lead Ithaca College. I understand all the aspects of being the chief executive officer of a comprehensive college like Ithaca. I’m a faculty member, scholar, and administrator. This is the right place for me to be, at the right time in my career.”

Such a response inspired confidence, but still I wanted to press this point. So I asked again. “I have been a chief academic officer for quite some time,” he replied, smiling, “so I may have to rein myself in regarding the academic side of things.” Then he added, quite seriously, “I am eager to fully commit my time and energy to the distinctive roles of the president.”

Born in Virginia, Rochon grew up in Michigan. In the summer between his junior and senior years in high school, he took a three-week bicycling trip along the Mosel River Valley in Germany and up and down the mountains of Switzerland. “That trip helped inspire the curiosity about other places that eventually led me to study the political parties and movements of European democracies,” he reflects. “One rich aspect of it was the experience of staying in youth hostels. There were many amazing moments on the trip that I still remember close to 40 years later, but evenings in the hostels with young men — we were gender-segregated — from around the world was an incredible eye-opener. There is a moment in all our lives where we realize that others do not see the world the way we do. Some of what we consider even the most basic common-sense assumptions about history and its meaning, or about right and wrong, turn out not to be universally shared.  What we do next — how we work with the realization that there are wide differences of belief, interpretation, and understanding among informed people of good will — is probably one of those moments that decides our future course in life.”

He went on to the University of Michigan, one of the top schools in the nation. He earned three degrees in political science there: a bachelor’s with high honors in 1973, a master’s in 1976, and a doctorate in 1980. He was a determined and fairly single-minded student once he realized his goal. “I knew what I wanted — to become a professor and teach in a foreign country,” he says. 

He did just that. He first began teaching at Princeton University, a pretty good start for a young man fresh out of graduate school. There he was also assistant master of Dean Mathey College, counseling students and developing academic and campus life programs for first- and second-year students. In 1987 Rochon moved to Claremont Graduate University in California with an appointment as associate professor in the Department of Politics and Policy. A year later he was named the R. Stanton Avery Professor in the Department of Government at Claremont McKenna College. He spent the 1992–93 academic year as a Fulbright Lecturer at Kobe University in Japan, fulfilling the second part of his plan.

The third part of the ambition seems to have grown in place: to be a higher education administrator, and later maybe even a president. Rochon was promoted to full professor in 1995, and the following year was named dean of the recently formed School of Politics and Economics. There he created several joint appointments in political economy and developed an interdisciplinary curriculum that became an M.A. in politics, economics, and business. While dean, Rochon served a one-year term as interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at Claremont Graduate University. He then moved to ETS and then to St. Thomas. And now he’s at Ithaca College, in a position that feels right.

The new president hasn’t got plans to shake things up or do anything drastic, but he is certainly thinking about how his own philosophy and style will color the campus culture. “Of course, I have to think about my inauguration,” he says. “You just have to do that, for a college of Ithaca’s reputation. I will want it to reflect my commitment to scholarship and academic excellence, but I’m not yet sure how we’ll do that. I’ll be talking to my senior leadership team — the vice presidents and deans — to plan an.”

In another conversation after he’d been here a few weeks, he reflected about the College’s “commitment to excellence,” as its seal attests. “Ithaca College’s vision of becoming ‘the standard of excellence for residential comprehensive colleges’ is not a cliché,” he said. “Excellence comes from daily practice, from using one’s knowledge and talents to make a positive difference in the world through a lifetime of commitment — and that is exactly what we cultivate here. The idea of excellence as an everyday discipline — as opposed to excellence as an inborn trait, or as a moment of heroism or peak performance — goes back to Aristotle.”

The new president is not yet as well versed in aspects of sustainability as he’d like to be, but one of the reasons he was especially interested in coming to Ithaca College is that it built the Roy H. and Dorothy D. Park Center for Business and Sustainable Enterprise as a “green” building — which in August received LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum designation, the highest available, from the U.S. Green Building Council. “That intrigued me,” Rochon says, “and made me realize that Ithaca College and its trustees are committed to a forward-looking approach to the campus and its educational mission — one that thinks in terms of the welfare of future generations.” He looks forward to learning more about all aspects of sustainability from the faculty, staff, and students who are the driving forces of Ithaca College’s leadership in this area among U.S. higher education institutions.

In July, Rochon hosted two receptions on campus to give employees a chance to meet him. On both days he stood for two hours, talking animatedly with individual staff and faculty members. He seemed to impress them just as he did the graduates who met him during Alumni Weekend.

In August, at the all-staff and all-faculty meetings that mark the start of each school year (there’s also one in January that kicks off spring term), Rochon was funny and serious and engaging, and he seemed to hit just the right notes. “Amber and I have been overwhelmed by the warmth and graciousness of everyone at Ithaca College, and in the downtown community,” he said. “You have every right tobe proud of the way you welcome newcomers.” Among other stories, he told the assemblies how, soon after he and Amber moved into the IC presidential residence at Fountain Place, he was trying to use a remote to open the garage door, and it just wouldn’t work. “So I kept hitting the button,” he recalled. “I hit it five times, and still nothing happened.” Suddenly campus safety officers were swarming all over the property. “I can report to you,” said Rochon to the group, by now in hysterics, “that Ithaca College campus safety responds very quickly — which I guess you should expect when the brand-new president hit the panic alarm five times.”

After the laughter died down, Rochon continued, “Ithaca College has a wonderful vision and mission statement. The College is very well managed and is on strong ground. We’re blessed in people — our greatest resource — and there is a wonderful legacy of distinction here. I feel very fortunate to be at Ithaca College.” He unveiled a plan to engage all employees in a process of revisiting the College’s academic mission, which he defines as “not just curricula and classes, but residential life and athletics and student clubs, and all the ways we help our students grow holistically, in intellect and character and creativity.”

He asked employees to engage in a dialogue over the coming year on “our own best practices and those from other places that we might borrow from.” He has begun a program to bring in guest speakers and members of the IC community to speak on the challenges and best practices in higher education. “What do we need to do to fully achieve the aspiration of our vision statement — to be “the standard of excellence for residential comprehensive colleges?” he asked. “It’s easy to get caught up in the tasks at hand without looking at how we fit into the whole picture.” To help employees assess where the College is and how it can proceed on its quest to become that standard, Rochon instructed every one of them to take a careful look at these statements and at their own job descriptions, and with their supervisors to decide on what each person’s and department’s key accomplishments should be in the coming year. At the end of the school year, there will be a second round of conversations during which employees will identify what we’re doing well, what we’re not doing well, and how to close the gap. “Think of how your job is connected to the overall mission,” he said. “We’re very good. But being excellent means we have to first assess how we’re doing, and then discover and take opportunities.”

At the campus picnic that followed his first Convocation, Rochon chatted comfortably with incoming and returning students, faculty, and staff. You’d never know he was the new guy on the block. Without exception, those I spoke with told me they were impressed by their new leader.

This fall and winter, Rochon will be taking to the road in a series of events around the country, meeting more alumni, parents, and friends of the College in 14 cities (see box). He’s looking forward to that, too. In fact, he says, “I’m looking forward to just about everything.”

Read more about President Tom Rochon at his official website.

* His first book, Mobilizing for Peace: The Antinuclear Movements in Western Europe (Princeton University Press, 1988, and Adamantine Press, London, 1989), was named a 1988 outstanding academic book by Choice magazine, the premier U.S. source for reviews of scholarly work, and his 1998 book Culture Moves: Ideas, Activism and Changing Values (Princeton University Press) was given the same distinction, as well as a Distinguished Scholarship Prize by the Collective Behavior and Social Movements section of the American Sociological Association. It was subse­quent­ly published in paperback as well as hardcover.