Syracuse U.’s New Chief to Stress Scholarship

Steve Sartori

Kent D. Syverud (right) visits Syracuse U.’s Carnegie Library on his first day in his new job.
March 10, 2014

As he takes up the chancellorship and presidency of Syracuse University, Kent D. Syverud finds himself in a familiar place, 90 miles from where he grew up in a town on Lake Ontario.

"It’s wonderful to come back," says Mr. Syverud, who is 57. "People have the right accents. The weather is what I’m used to."

"At every university I’ve been at," he says, "some people have voiced a narrative that it’s a hard place there because of where they’re located." At the University of Michigan, for instance, people worried that "it’s not a big enough urban area." At Washington University in St. Louis, his most recent posting—as dean of law—"perceptions of the city" were seen as a drawback.

But, he says, "you really need to embrace what’s wonderful about where you are and recruit positively to it. And that’s candidly very easy to do in Syracuse."

"The weather is wonderful here nine months of the year," he says of the city, which gets an annual snowfall of nearly 10 feet. "And the weather in winter, if you revel in the outdoors, in sports, in snow, it couldn’t be better. We’re so close to the Adirondacks, and so close to the Finger Lakes."

But the once-prosperous city of Syracuse is among the fastest-shrinking American cities, with a declining industrial base and widespread poverty.

And the university has seen contentious debate about its direction of late, too. Mr. Syverud succeeds Nancy Cantor, now chancellor at Rutgers University at Newark, whom some on campus thought spent her decade as Syracuse’s chancellor overemphasizing community relations and involvement at the expense of teaching and research.

Ms. Cantor advanced a concept of "scholarship in action" that stressed devoting some of the resources and expertise of the university to the city that shares its name. She sought to forge partnerships in such areas as economic development, school retention, and entrepreneurship with local government, businesses, and community organizations.

"I will very much want to build on that" effort, Mr. Syverud says. "It’s just vital that the region be vibrant and appealing."

Some of Ms. Cantor’s critics say that she let academic quality slip as she pursued her community mission. Particularly vocal was Jeffrey M. Stonecash, now an emeritus professor of political science, who asserted that tenure was granted to undeserving faculty members largely because "they fit her agenda," after Ms. Cantor led a change in tenure and promotion policies to allow consideration of community-engagement projects.

Mr. Stonecash, who retired recently, says the new chancellor needs to make all faculty members—not just those who agree with his personal views—feel that they are listened to and are involved in decision making. Of Mr. Syverud, he said via email: "He cannot help but be an improvement."

Mr. Syverud disagrees with the notion that Ms. Cantor lowered standards at the university, yet he says, "I do think that in this next year it’s very important to focus a great deal on how to get even better academically."

A common refrain among faculty members is that Mr. Syverud would do well to start out by consulting every imaginable subgroup of the Syracuse world. He has done that with striking commitment, speaking with literally thousands of people, and even spending the month before he took office in January living in a student residence hall—to experience Syracuse from the undergraduate’s viewpoint, he says.

"Syracuse’s history has been such that it does not attract entitled people," he says. "Most people here are hungry to prove themselves. There’s a scrappiness that we’re better than everybody and we need to prove it every day."

Mr. Syverud proved himself by earning a law degree in 1981 at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he was editor in chief of the Michigan Law Review. He then earned a master’s degree in economics at Michigan. After he completed a clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 1984-85, he spent a few years as a litigator in Washington, D.C., and then joined Michigan’s law-school faculty.

He was dean of law at Vanderbilt University from 1997 to 2005 and then played the same role at Washington University from 2006 until last year. He has also held leadership roles in several national and regional law organizations.

Since 2010 he has served as a trustee of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Trust, administering the funds BP agreed to set aside to compensate people who suffered damages from the vast oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I’ve always worn a number of hats at a time," he says. "What’s nice is that I’ve pretty much got only one hat here. I’m always busy, but now it’s just all Syracuse, all of the time."