This story was written by Ithaca Voice trainee H. Roger Segelken.

ITHACA, N.Y. —  Ithaca College administrators are apologizing for purported racial slurs uttered at an Oct. 8 “Blue Sky Reimagining” event at the South Hill campus, and two alumni panelists are walking back their remarks.

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The target of the name-calling, an alumna on the panel who also works in Ithaca, says she wants time to ponder an online apology issued by IC President Tom Rochon.

“This is a private journey, not a public one,” panelist Tatiana Sy, a 2009 graduate of Ithaca College and the Downtown Ithaca Alliance’s director of special events, told the Ithaca Voice in an interview on Tuesday.

IC President Tom Rochon. File photo
IC President Tom Rochon. File photo

At the panel, Sy — who is of Afro-Cuban descent — described her undergraduate experience at IC. According to reporting by the student newspaper, The Ithacan‘s Ana Borruto, Sy said she had a “savage hunger” to make her professional career happen.

The alumni panelists were supposed to be discussing a question posed by President Rochon: “If we could design an immersive learning community from scratch, one created specifically to provide the richest possible educational experience to our students, what would that look like?”

But before long, two panelists were calling Sy a “savage.”

Bob Kur, IC Class of 1970 and a former NBC News correspondent used that term and so did J. Christopher Burch, Class of 1976, CEO of Burch Creative Capital  and co-founder of the Tory Burch women’s fashion label, according to the student newspaper.

Near the end of the event, while Burch was talking about empathy in higher education, he referred to Sy as “the savage” a second time, The Ithacan reported.

Later in the event, which was attended by about 200, both Burch and Kur rationalized turning an adjective into a noun, maintaining that Sy called herself that “nickname.”

The other panelist was Will VanDyke, Class of 2005 and director of digital accounts at Warner Music Group.

Panelist is “extraordinarily disheartened”

Kur could not be reached for further comment, but Burch’s office on Oct. 12 issued the following statement:

“Mr. Burch is extraordinarily disheartened and saddened to learn that his comments at the October 8 panel discussion were interpreted as derogatory or offensive by some in the campus community,” the statement said.

“He sincerely admires Tatiana Sy and her extraordinary achievements and has reached out today to apologize to her directly. In response to Ms. Sy describing her own ‘savage hunger’ to succeed, Mr. Burch applauded her as an example of someone who has a drive that propels her to success. He did not intend to be insensitive and could not be more apologetic if it was perceived as such by Ms. Sy or the community.”

A presidential apology

The same day, the Ithaca College president posted this statement on the college’s online “Intercom”:

On Thursday, October 8, we conducted a Blue Sky Reimagining kick-off event, featuring a conversation among four alumni followed by work in small groups brainstorming on how to make the Ithaca College educational experience more immersive. Insensitive comments were made during the conversation. Immediately following the event, I (Tom Rochon) apologized to the alumna to whom the comments were addressed. We regret that what was intended to be a visionary moment for our community was diminished by insensitive comments.

In general, the college cannot prevent the use of hurtful language on campus. Such language, intentional or unintentional, exists in the world and will seep into our community. We can’t promise that the college will never host a speaker who could say something racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or otherwise disrespectful. Even so, we reaffirm our commitment to making our campus an inclusive and respectful community.

We recognize the concerns raised by members of the campus community about the language used during the Blue Sky event. We reiterate our commitment to the principles of respect and inclusion and to the goal of ensuring that Ithaca College is a place where all students, faculty, staff, and visitors feel safe and respected.

— Tom Rochon

“I would like some space…”

Sy told the Ithaca Voice that Rochon phoned her Oct. 12 and told her the statement was about to be posted, but that she was not sure she considers his call an apology.

Referring to Rochon, she commented: “I will say that from one human to another we have discussed the matter and I would like to keep that to myself because I worry about the direction this conversation is going and I would like some space to consider this myself.”

Sy said her “main priority in moving forward … is finding a way to make this a lesson for students that they always have an opportunity to speak up for themselves. As a human who was involved in the situation I feel overwhelmed and need time to process it further.”

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Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.