At 57, Chancellor Nancy Cantor leads Syracuse University into era of community engagement
By Lou Sorendo
Syracuse University is not afraid of commitment. In fact, the university is engaged. Engaged with the Syracuse community, that is.
With Nancy Cantor as its chancellor and president, SU is emphasizing the importance of being deeply committed to community engagement.
“It is the centerpiece of what it means for a university to be a public good,” she said. “We are engaged in using intellectual capital as students, faculty and staff in making a difference and having an impact in the world. A big piece of our world is our local community and region.”
She said universities are widely thought of as “place-based” institutions. “SU isn’t going to just up and leave,” said Cantor, who was born in New York City in 1952. She is 57.
“A very important context for discovery, for education, and for making a difference in the world is our own community,” she said. “We are intimately linked to it. Its ability to flourish influences our ability to flourish as an institution in very pragmatic ways, but also substantively. We’re committed to it.”
“The identity of SU, the kinds of things it is good in, its history and tradition have been deeply shaped by the region and city we’re in,” she noted.
Cantor said SU is strong in its emphasis on environmental sustainability, water resources and indoor environmental quality. It is also spearheading innovations that are being done not only on campus but also at the Center of Excellence downtown, a collaborative effort that the university leads. All of this has “very deep roots in both the Erie Canal, what that meant and the innovation of that period, and also Native American tribes and their commitment to sustainable environment,” Cantor said.
“There’s a lot of history behind who we are as an institution,” she said.
Cantor added that it is important as an academic institution to have its tradition and identities reflected in the kind of intellectual work that people do. That, in turn, has a kind of reciprocity with the community, she added.
“I think one of the things that’s exciting for me is the way in which the university-community collaborations have really taken shape,” she said.
These unions cross sectors to feature public and private collaborations which involve many faculty as well as students.
Cantor enjoys seeing collaborations that involve business, community and government partners as well as foundations and non-profits. “The commitment to use our intellectual capital generously to try to have an impact on the world is what I feel very strongly about,” she said. An example of this, she said, is the “Say Yes to Education: Syracuse” project happening in the Syracuse City School District. The program is a collaboration of the district, Say Yes to Education, Inc., and SU. Say Yes is a national, non-profit education foundation committed to dramatically increasing high school and college graduation rates for the nation’s inner-city youth.
A host of business and community partners is joining SU faculty and about 200 students in supporting the education reform initiative designed to make a difference in the school district.
Cantor’s efforts at emphasizing the need for this level of collaboration helped her earn the 2008 Academic Leadership Award issued by the Carnegie Corp.
Cantor said the university sees itself as an “anchor institution” in the city of Syracuse in several different ways.
“On a pragmatic level, we are a large employer in the city of Syracuse,” she said. “We care deeply about the city school systems and quality of life because our employees, faculty and their families live in this environment.”
“We also see ourselves as intellectually and substantively tied to the creativity and innovation of this city and region and to the people and cultures represented in the city,” Cantor added.
“The city is our world,” Cantor said.
“We are an anchor because we are a large community that itself represents a diverse set of backgrounds, peoples and cultures. We map onto the city,” she said.
Cantor said SU wants to be an anchor of revitalization in the city of Syracuse and wants to be a reciprocal partner and neighbor in that sense. “We want to promote change,” she noted.
Prior to her appointment at Syracuse, Cantor served as chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan.
Leading through tough times—SU, like any large employer and community, has faced real financial constraints while the country hobbles through the current recession.
However, “we are also in a disciplined phase and making sure we are keeping momentum on key projects, collaborations, programs, and financial aid for our students,” Cantor said.
Last year, when economic issues began to take hold and came into sharp focus, SU’s administration made it clear that it had three major goals that cuts would be made around.
One goal was to maintain academic momentum. “For example, we kept faculty searches going,” Cantor said.
Another was to make sure SU provided enough institutional financial aid to its student body and families.
“We increased financial aid substantially over what was already a very large base of institutional financial aid,” she said.
A third goal involved continuing to be able to be supportive of lower- paid employees and staff.
“We kept a salary program going for our lower-paid employees and froze salaries for higher-paid employees,” she noted.
Cantor said SU made administrative and support unit cuts but not academic unit cuts.
“We tried to keep focused on our core missions, and what we need to do going forward. I see it as a continuous process,” she said.
Passionate approach—“I have a very deep passion for the role that universities can play in not only shaping the next generation, but in having real impact on the world,” she said.
This role includes addressing pressing issues of the world, bringing different groups together to convene, and making significant discoveries, whether it involves the environment or life sciences.
The role also includes bringing people together for intercultural dialogue and exploring ways in which people think of citizenship and what it means.
“I really believe in universities as centers of impact that make the world better, that make a difference in the world,” she said.
“For people who are going to be leaders, it really helps if you have a deep passion for the role that your organization can play in making the world a more just, equal and sustainable place, making it a place that is exciting, evolving and innovative,” Cantor noted.
She said it is vital to maximize people’s abilities and talents in order to make contributions.”
“What’s challenging in a positive way is really trying to make sure that we are in a very disciplined way playing to our strengths and building on our strengths,” she said.
Another challenge is being attentive and compassionate toward the people who are members of the university community.
“It’s about really keeping a focus on what this institution, with its tradition and who it is, can do to have a maximal impact,” she said.
Gratifying job—Cantor described some of the challenges as well as sources of gratification she gains from her position.
“The difficulty one has in these kinds of jobs is that there is a crisis a minute, a constraint a minute, and there’s discord all the time. It’s like being mayor of a city,” she said. “You can be fairly easily distracted.”
Cantor said job stress emanates from the fact that her job is 24-7. “There is never a time in which you are not on call,” she said. “Part of that is exacerbated by technology to the extent that you want to be accessible, and I do.”
“People come at you from all directions,” she added.
“You have many constituencies that you are really trying to take into account and serve,” said Cantor, pointing to students, faculty, alumni, federal and state agencies, non-profit partners and auditors as some of the factions she deals with on a regular basis.
“There’s the business end of things, the safety and security side of things, and fans and athletics. There’s just a lot of different pieces,” she noted.
Cantor said it is gratifying “seeing people collaborate who may be protecting silos” and seeing new partnerships brought to bear across all sectors—public-private, community-campus, and global-local.
She also gains gratification from seeing “students being prepared for the world in the world that they are in” and seeing intellectual discovery being made and having an impact.
She pointed to the work of SU professor Charles Driscoll Jr., one of the university’s foremost engineers. Not only is he an extraordinary scientist specializing in aquatic chemistry, but he is also making significant contributions to cleaning up Onondaga Lake, she noted.
“Seeing things put to work that way is very exciting,” Cantor said.
Cantor added that she enjoys seeing SU’s interdisciplinary design group known as COLAB “not only create innovation but actually change the quality of the way in which people interact with each other.”
COLAB is a new initiative based in SU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts that encourages students and faculty to use their diverse skills and perspectives to solve complex, real-world problems creatively and collaboratively.
Being a leader—Cantor said the leaders who she has had the most respect for are people who can create an atmosphere of collaboration more than of competition.
“They can really see how different people’s talents and expertise can be brought to the table together rather than create silos,” she said. “It’s also tremendously important to be willing to experiment, to change one’s mind, never forgetting that leadership is about the institution and not about one’s own power or opinion.”
“You have to be willing to be decisive and make decisions, but it’s important to create an atmosphere where people feel it’s OK to change course, OK to change one’s mind, OK to experiment, risk or even fail,” she said.
“It’s really being entrepreneurial and innovative in that sense,” she added.
“Entrepreneurial in the willingness to experiment and take risks, to see opportunities and grab them,” she said. “And innovative in the sense of really having a very experimental, agile mindset of what you’re doing so there isn’t one right answer or right thing to do.”
Compassion is also a key to leadership, she noted.
“It’s vital to keep up a compassion for people at the center of it so that you are really willing to put that value out there and to stand by it,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that you don’t make hard decisions and it doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with you.”
“It’s understanding what compassion means in an organization as opposed to just thinking of it as always being liked. It’s not about being liked necessarily,” she added.
Cantor oftentimes draws on her background as a social psychologist.
“I feel like I do social psychology 24-7,” she said.
“I’m constantly formed by theories of social psychology. It helps in understanding how people’s different standpoints so impact their perspectives and views, the groups they are in, the turf they are protecting, the default they have of how they see the world,” she noted.
“So much in life is not about right or wrong or good or bad, it’s about alternative ways of construing the world and it’s about being able to role play and see someone else’s perspective,” she noted.
“In a world like ours where there’s so much uncertainty, people are very zero sum about it,” Cantor said. “If I win, you lose and if you win, I lose. It’s often hard to get people de-centered enough from their own perspective to take the other one’s into account.”
“In a more specific sense, certainly my background as a social psychologist is important to what I do as a leader,” she said.
“What we always need to be looking at is the different perspectives that different groups bring to bear and the ways in which you get organizations to be welcoming and inclusive environments,” she added.
As far as influences go, Cantor said besides her children and students, she’s always had a strong network of women friends in academics.
Cantor said she hopes to be an inspiration to other women seeking leadership posts “in terms of the passion I bring to wanting to make a difference in the world and in shaping the lives of the future leaders and citizens of the world,” she said.
Diverse environment—Cantor said diversity is a “huge piece of my scholarly life and as a social psychologist.”
She has strived to make universities be reflective of diversity in many dimensions, whether they concern race and ethnicity, income, geographic diversity, sexuality, disabilities, or the kind of intellectual diversity regarding the way in which one views the world.
“It’s so enriching to the basic mission of an institution like a university to really have as rich a tapestry of diversity as it can,” she said.
“I am deeply committed to the importance in any contemporary moment to take responsibility for the history of the ways in which we have excluded people rather than included them and the ways in which we have not reached equity or justice,” she said.
She said diversity is both a positive recognition of the talent and creativity that comes when one brings different people to the table, and it is a recognition of the ways in which—over the course of history as well as today—we represent a divided, unequal society. “We need to be always committed to access and opportunity,” she said.
“We care deeply about diversity not as a marginal agenda, not just some add-on where you check off the list to see if you have ‘x’ number of people of different backgrounds or such,” Cantor said. “It’s a very substantive, core piece of what defines the institution.”
Cantor said the history of the region has featured some extraordinary social movements of opportunity, such as the women’s rights movement that began in Seneca Falls, as well as the abolitionist and indigenous movements.
She characterizes the “Say Yes to Education: Syracuse” project as “diversity at its fullest.”
“We’re committed to making sure that the opportunities are there for every inner-city child to become a thriving college student eventually,” Cantor said.
“When you think about the faculty, we want to be as supportive as possible of publicly engaged scholarships that allow people not to turn their backs on the community but rather to use their intellectual capital to further make a difference in the world,” she said.
Cantor said a good example of this is the “extraordinary richness we have on this campus of disability studies from a variety of directions. That is a core way of seeing disability as ability and as a really positive feature of the talent.”
“One can be so motivated by the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver and how she had a passion for really reminding people of talent and the different forms it comes in and making opportunity,” she said.
Shriver was a member of the Kennedy family and founded the Special Olympics in the 1960s as a national organization.
An author of numerous books, chapters, and scientific journal articles, Cantor holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University.
She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and a member of the National Academies Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability.
Cantor is married to Steven R. Brechin, an environmental sociologist who holds a dual faculty appointment at Syracuse University in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and the College of Arts and Sciences. They have two children, Maddy and Archie.
Nancy Cantor in Her Own Words
Nancy Cantor is the 11th chancellor and president of Syracuse University. Here are some of her thoughts and feelings regarding several key topics:
• On health and fitness:
Cantor said she is conscious of prioritizing health and fitness, although “they are easy to fall by the wayside” given her hectic schedule.
She is on the road a lot, traveling for SU, and also participates in many social events. “You always have to be careful on food,” she said.
Her favorite form of exercise is walking with her husband and dog Ruby, when time allows, on weekends and vacation.
Her newest exercise regimen is getting up early in the morning and jumping on the treadmill. “Otherwise, once the day starts, it’s gone,” she said.
• On ways to relax:
“I love the beach and I love walking. I also love movies and museums, although I don’t get to go as often anymore. A good novel on the beach is about as good as it gets,” Cantor said.
The Cantors have a residence on Lake Michigan. “That’s my favorite beach. I lived in Michigan for many years,” she said.
Cantor normally vacations in July, but oftentimes takes breaks during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
• On juggling her work life with family life:
“There’s no easy recipe for that. One balances with difficulty,” she said.
“It helps that both my husband and I are academics,” she said. “Over the years, what we’ve tried to do is integrate family life with work life so there’s not a hard firewall between them.”
The couple has also included their children in university-related events throughout their careers as well “so they are part of our lives,” she added.
The husband-wife team also shares a study in their home. “If I’m writing a speech or working on a paper, he may be at his desk doing that too,” she said.
“The way we juggle is not to have a harsh line between what’s work and play,” she said.
• On her legacy:
In terms of legacy, Cantor said she would “love to feel that we were a model of what it means to create signature, collaborative academic programs that speak to the pressing issues of the world and that prepare our students for the world in the world itself.”
She also wishes her legacy to be one that “created long-lasting, sustainable collaborations in our city and around the nation and world. Specifically, she wants it also to be one that created a “place of opportunity and a place that cared about its community.”
• On delegating responsibilities:
Cantor said delegation is a “funny word in modern organizations,” because “you can never fully delegate. What we’re trying to do is create collaborative teams and work with them on things.”
“The emphasis is trying to bring different parts of the institution together on particular issues,” she said.
For example, when thinking about how much debt to borrow to continue building projects in the middle of a recession, Cantor will bring to the table not only business people, but also academic, design and construction experts as well as trustees.