Syracuse’s Slide

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(Courtesy of The Chronicle)

Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Syracuse U., visits an old furniture warehouse that has been renovated by the university for academic programs.

As Chancellor Focuses on the ‘Public Good,’ Syracuse’s Reputation Slides

Nancy Cantor is the chancellor of Syracuse University, but if you didn’t know better you might think she was the mayor of this town.

Since she took over at the university seven years ago, the institution has spent tens of millions of dollars—and attracted much more—to revitalize this sagging Rust Belt city. It has helped refurbish parks, taken over an abandoned building where drug dealers once grew marijuana, and turned an old furniture warehouse into a new home for academic programs in art, drama, and fashion design. The university is encouraging professors to focus their research on the city, while giving free tuition to local high-school graduates.

Ms. Cantor talks about the institution as a “public good,” not an ivory tower. But some professors here say she has spent too little time and money on what goes on inside the university’s classrooms, laboratories, and libraries where traditional education and scholarship take place. Before she came, they say, Syracuse was on the way to becoming a more selective university that competed with some of the nation’s best private urban institutions. Now, the chancellor seems most intent on providing opportunities—both for this struggling city and for disadvantaged students. As a result, Syracuse is fading on the national stage, falling in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of national universities and dropping out—before it could be forced out—of the prestigious Association of American Universities, whose members are considered the nation’s top research institutions.

Robert Van Gulick, a philosophy professor who sits on the University Senate and serves on its budget committee, says that the community efforts led by Ms. Cantor are valuable, but that the university has a relatively small endowment and limited resources. “The administration will give you a list of things we’ve done to improve research and teaching, but what is the top priority?” he asks. “Some people feel that off-campus things that have practical applications in the city and the world get most support. That’s good for the city, but is it good for the university?”

High Energy

Ms. Cantor, who will be 60 next year, is a five-foot-tall dynamo with short brown hair and an outsized growl of a laugh. She starts most mornings before dawn on a treadmill at home, then grabs a tall Starbucks latte before heading to her office. The search committee that chose her in 2004 liked her high-energy style, and believed her interest in social justice fit with the city’s historical ties to the abolitionist movement and to women’s rights.


Jeffrey Stonecash, a professor of political science at Syracuse U., says the amount of tuition money used for administrative costs has grown faster than the amount used for academics.

This fall Syracuse U. helped the city convert a one-way street leading to the campus into a street that goes both ways.

Before she got to Syracuse, Ms. Cantor had already led institutions at the top of the higher-ed food chain—first as provost of the University of Michigan, then as chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In both places, Ms. Cantor vigorously pursued racial justice and diversity, something that made her tenure at times tumultuous. At Michigan she was partly successful in her fight to uphold affirmative action in admissions, a dispute that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But at Illinois her quest to ban what she believed was its racist mascot, Chief Illiniwek, soured Ms. Cantor’s chancellorship in 2004 when the board refused to back her (the mascot was retired three years later).

At Syracuse, Ms. Cantor has continued her interest in opening up higher education to students from a wide variety of backgrounds. This year the American Council on Education gave her its diversity-leadership award.

She often quotes the hockey great Wayne Gretzky, who said he followed his father’s advice to “skate to where the puck’s going, not where it’s been.” For Syracuse, says Ms. Cantor, that means no longer enrolling primarily well-off white students from the Northeast—its historic sweet spot—when a growing proportion of the college-going population is lower-income, minority, and from the South and West. “If you were a strategic business you would be optimizing on what the world is going to look like,” she says. “You wouldn’t be holding on for dear life to your brand.”

Richard L. Thompson, who chairs Syracuse’s Board of Trustees, says Ms. Cantor’s focus makes good economic sense. “This is not 1950s America,” says Mr. Thompson, a lawyer in Washington. “We will be left behind as an institution if we don’t adjust to new populations. Nancy has grabbed the university by the shoulders and pulled it into the 21st century.” The board, says Mr. Thompson, fully supports Ms. Cantor, whose contract it has extended through 2014. In its latest report, Moody’s Investors Services said Syracuse’s outlook remains stable, and lauded its “large and diverse student enrollment with improved geographic and demographic diversity.”

Indeed, Ms. Cantor has changed the face of the undergraduate population since she arrived seven years ago. First, she nearly doubled the applicant pool and increased undergraduate enrollment by about 20 percent to 13,878 students this fall. The proportion of American minority students in the incoming class has climbed from 18.5 percent when she started to nearly 32 percent this fall. That’s higher than the national average at four-year colleges, which stood at about 27 percent of freshmen in the fall of 2010.

Syracuse has also increased the number of low-income students who enroll. The proportion of students at the university who qualify for Pell Grants has jumped from 20 percent the year before Ms. Cantor came to about 28 percent this year. And Syracuse has nearly tripled the amount of its own money that it spends on need-based aid, to $131-million this year. Almost half of its students receive institutional need-based aid, compared with about 32 percent of students at all private four-year institutions in the country, according to FinAid, a nonprofit group that analyzes such information. At the same time, Syracuse has scaled back the number of students who receive merit scholarships, decreasing its spending on merit aid over the last couple of years by about 15 percent. (The discount rate on Syracuse’s $37,667 in tuition and fees, which is the proportion of its tuition that it discounts for the average student, has climbed from 31 percent when Ms. Cantor began, to about 38 percent this year—still less than the national average.)

A Question of Reputation

One of the most-contested parts of Ms. Cantor’s plan to remake the student population has been the acceptance rate. The rate, which stood in the mid-50-percent range after she arrived, spiked up to around 60 percent in each of the last two academic years. That sent up warning signs to both professors and students, who worried that Syracuse was becoming less selective. “Ivy Leagues pride themselves on minuscule acceptance rates of less than 10 percent,” said an editorial last winter in The Daily Orange, the student newspaper. “The shift in recruitment strategy and subsequent rise in the acceptance rate could devalue the SU diploma, cause larger freshman classes, and affect the quality of an SU education.”

Some professors agree, although they have been reluctant to speak out because questions about the university’s admissions policies have touched off charges of racism here. “My fear is that the university is moving away from selective to inclusive,” says David H. Bennett, a professor of history. He says that Syracuse already had a diverse student population before Ms. Cantor arrived, but that the chancellor has taken it to a level unmatched by other selective universities. “If you look at the universities with the top 50 endowments and the percent of their students who receive Pell Grants, none of them were anywhere near even what we were before Nancy Cantor came,” he says. “This may be an admirable goal, but it is going to have an impact on our reputation. It’s a road to nowhere for a place like Syracuse, which is asking parents to pay a lot because they think they’re going to increase their kids’ life chances.”

Syracuse’s leaders say the university isn’t compromising on quality, and they note that this fall the university’s acceptance rate is back down to around 50 percent. The grade-point averages and SAT scores of incoming students have remained about the same since Ms. Cantor arrived. “We would never sacrifice academic qualifications,” she says.

But Syracuse is slipping relative to its peers, at least according to the rankings by U.S. News & World Report. Syracuse fell from a high of 40th among national universities in the late 1990s to No. 62 this fall, and earned a place on the magazine’s list of “A-plus options for B students.” The average SAT scores of Syracuse’s students are lower than those at the public flagship universities in the state, including the State University of New York campuses at Binghamton and Stony Brook—both of which admit a smaller proportion of applicants than Syracuse does, yet cost less than half the price for out-of-state students. Syracuse’s incoming freshmen also have lower SAT scores than do students at urban institutions like Boston University, the University of Pittsburgh, and George Washington University. 

Part of the problem, professors here say, is that while Syracuse has added 20 percent more undergraduates, it hasn’t directed proportionally more tuition money toward academics. According to an analysis by Jeffrey M. Stonecash, a professor of political science here, the amount of tuition dollars spent on the classroom is up slightly, by about 3 percent between the 2007-8 and 2010-11 academic years. Meanwhile, tuition dollars directed at helping cover the university’s administrative costs have increased by about 28 percent over the same time period. Put another way, the amount of money from tuition receipts that goes toward administrative expenditures increased by $22.3-million—to around $100-million­—over the last four years, while the amount of money from tuition receipts that goes toward academics increased by just $5.7-million, to $190-million, over the same time period, according to Mr. Stonecash’s analysis.

“The overall result is a larger student body, more money for administration, and less attention to academics,” says Mr. Stonecash. His analysis has been disputed by administrators, who say academics at Syracuse are supported by a variety of sources beyond the tuition dollars he analyzed. But professors point to another indicator: While the student population has grown by about 20 percent since Ms. Cantor arrived in 2004, the number of full-time professors has risen by only about 13 percent.

Money and Mission

Like some other professors here, Mr. Stonecash wonders whether tuition money is being used to foot the bill for the university’s expanding ventures with the city. Although no one here believes the university can thrive in the midst of a dying city, some professors believe Ms. Cantor’s off-campus work has gone too far.

“To divert resources coming to the university, from moms and dads working hard to try to get their kids a good education, is that both morally right and financially sound?” asks Robert D. McClure, who has been at Syracuse since 1969 as a professor of political science and public affairs. “Our primary mission is not managing cities.”

Ms. Cantor says the university can’t isolate itself up on the hill, disengaged from the city, as it has so often in the past. (This fall the university has helped rip up a one-way street toward the university and made it two-way, as a symbol of connection between the campus and the town.) She also points out that almost everything the university has done in the city has an academic component. Syracuse University, she says, “should have an impact on our democracy and do work that addresses pressing issues in the world.” She adds: “It’s not that you stop caring about the fundamentals or quality, you redefine what constitutes quality and exciting scholarly work.”

That’s exactly what Ms. Cantor has done through a campaign she calls Scholarship in Action. It involves moving students, professors, and research off the campus and into the community to work with local officials, nonprofit organizations, and businesses on projects designed to give students hands-on experience and help solve the problems of the city and its people.

As part of Scholarship in Action, the university lured Cliff I. Davidson to Syracuse after a more than three-decade-long career at Carnegie Mellon University. He was attracted by the possibility of working with the city of Syracuse to use “green” roofs to manage storm water. “I tried to do this work in Pittsburgh, and because our university did not have the same kind of outlook to teaming with the community, it was difficult,” says Mr. Davidson, a professor of engineering and computer science who, with graduate students, has installed research equipment on top of the Syracuse convention center’s 1.5-acre green roof.

The effort also led the university to establish the Connective Corridor, which links the campus with the downtown area through buses that bring students and others to theaters, museums, and buildings Syracuse has purchased to house some of its academic programs. In the last year, approximately 17,000 riders a month used the buses, compared with 250 a month when the service began in 2006, according to the university.

Some higher-education experts applaud Syracuse’s outward focus. “Hopefully in the years ahead, more universities will focus on what they think is important and worry less about maximizing prestige,” says Ronald H. Ehrenberg, director of Cornell University’s Higher Education Research Institute. “We cannot all be top 50 or 60 research universities.”

But many professors here resent that push. “My discipline is not the town of Syracuse,” says one biology professor who asked to remain anonymous. “I’m an intellectual, and I have a community of scholarship all over the world.”

Some professors here say Syracuse University has paid too high a price to fulfill Ms. Cantor’s off-campus mission. This year, after 45 years of membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities, the university dropped out when it looked like it would be forced to leave. Saying the association had narrowed its membership criteria to focus primarily on the amount of federal research money in medicine and the sciences that a university attracts, Ms. Cantor pointed out that Syracuse is engaged in projects that receive money from a wide variety of sources that the AAU does not consider as important.

But Barry Toiv, a spokesman for the association, said its membership criteria have remained the same since 1999.

The only change the association made, said Mr. Toiv, was to compare member universities with nonmembers, based on those criteria. The amount of money Syracuse brings in for federal science and engineering research each year has remained virtually unchanged since Ms. Cantor became chancellor in 2004. That has happened at a time when many AAU members and other institutions have seen their amounts rise.

Professors here say that represents a lack of commitment to significant scholarly work, and some of them predict the university will have a harder time attracting, and holding onto, top-notch professors. “Recruiting a bright aspiring assistant professor with excellent Ph.D. and postdoctoral credentials from Princeton and MIT will be very challenging, since other institutions, AAU institutions, would be recruiting the same person,” says John E. Baldwin, an emeritus professor of chemistry at Syracuse.

Sitting at an outdoor table, eating a salad one afternoon surrounded by the city she has helped remake, Ms. Cantor doesn’t seem too worried. “Syracuse has never been stronger,” she says. “We have no trouble hiring great faculty or recruiting great students. We are being seen as a leader in diversity and really making a difference in the world. Whether you’re a public or private institution, you need to care about that.”


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