Syracuse University Nancy Cantor to become chancellor at Rutgers-Newark

Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor was either loved or vilified by people in both the Syracuse University and city communities. Despite, the good she's done for the university, like the $1 Billion fundraising campaign, her legacy, many people's eyes, is not great.

I don't agree. I can't say I agree with everything she's done or how's she's done it. But I believe her overall impact on Syracuse University is a positive one and in the perspective of history she will be viewed  as a transformational figure. The one who brought the university into the 21st Century.

News broke yesterday that Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor will step down January 1 of next year to become the chancellor at Rutgers-Newark. The move comes as rather surprising news even though the controversial chancellor had already announced she would step down at the end of her contract which ends June 2014. This means Cantor will depart 6 months ahead of schedule, to take a job that can only be considered a step down. According to The Daily Orange, Cantor will take a pay cut to move to Rutgers dropping from a yearly salary at SU of $615,000 to $385,000. Furthermore, she goes from being the chancellor at a major private university to being in charge of only a single branch campus of state university system.

It seems if you asked people what they think of Cantor they would either love her or hate her (sometimes more haters than believers). I arrived on campus as a freshmen in 2005 barely a year into her tenure and already "Chancy Nancy" had garnered almost universal hatred from the student body. I believe this hatred was in part because she followed the immensely popular Chancellor Kenneth "Buzz" Shaw. Additionally, she arrived at Syracuse already a controversial figure. The first female...

chancellor at SU, Cantor was at the center of both affirmative action cases at Michigan where she was the provost: Grutter and Gratz v. Bollinger. Also, while serving as Chancellor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign she was a vocal opponent of the cartoonish mascot, the fictional Native American Chief Illiniwek, which the university eventually discontinued in 2007. The situation was eerily similar to SU's discontinuation of its own Native American-based mascot the Saltine Warrior decades prior.

Cantor also made a number of controversial moves in order to bring the Syracuse University community, which had a somewhat well-deserved elitist ivory tower reputation, closer to the city of Syracuse. This was done through her dogged marketing of an amorphous public transportation/greenway/bike trail project dubbed the "Connective Corridor." Basically, the project was a glorified sidewalk with a dedicated bus lane. The whole thing seemed to represent who and what Cantor brought to Syracuse. During my entire 4 years at SU, I don't remember ever seeing the start of construction, let alone the completion, of the project. The only thing I saw were numerous city buses plastered with Connective Corridor signage like Billy Fuccillo's face.

Further, Cantor ruffled more feathers with projects like Say YES to education and her infamous slogan "Scholarship in Action." Again, this slogan seemed little more than words and signs, including a gigantic sign draped from Byrd Library saying "Insights Incite Change." Great, you can use homophones.

Then there was the hiring of Dr. Daryl Gross as athletic director and the worst 4-year stretch in SU's proud football tradition. But this criticism of Cantor's regime is unfair. First, Cantor was not directly in charge (nor did I think she wanted to be) of the athletics programs. Second, I actually think Gross was a good hire. He has made one mistake. Hiring Greg Robinson (the coach responsible for that horrific 4-year stretch). Other than that all his coaching hires have been great and SU recently achieved its highest Director's and Capital One Cup rankings in school history.

Still, at the end of the day, I think Cantor has been vilified merely because she has brought change. Sometimes people don't like change. Cantor came to SU with innovative ideas for higher education, an egalitarian social activism role for universities, and a staunch advocate for gender, racial, and ethnic equality. This came as quite a shock to the SU community and its alumni. SU prior to Cantor had garnered a bad reputation for lack of diversity and as being a wealthy private university. But SU needed a change. It needed to mend its relationship with the City of Syracuse. It needed someone like Cantor.

Yes, during her leadership the endowment fell, but that was due more to the economy than Cantor. Even faced with this falling endowment and poor national economy, Cantor led the largest fundraising campaign in the history of the school raising $1 billion.

Yes, the school's debt grew, but that was because SU embarked on one of the largest expansion projects in its history including (but not limited too) the construction of a new life sciences complex, the new Whitman School of Management building, and the Newhouse III complex.

And yes, Syracuse slid in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, but I believe those rankings fail to capture the improvements Cantor brought to SU. Let's be honest, those rankings are CRAP. Their based on anachronistic factors like "selectivity" which should not be used to judge higher education in today's world. This kind of factor is inconsistent with Cantor's public service view of America's higher education institutions. Yet, I think many of her initiattives and projects were a benefit to the actual SU student body. Programs like the Say Yes to Higher Education Compact made attending Syracuse University possible for many of the children of Syracuse who previously could not have dreamed of attending. "Scholarship in Action" brought students out of the library in academic, researched-based programs to use their knowledge and skills for the public good, while learning the practical application of their research. Even the aforementioned "Connective Corridor" is complete and is an example of futuristic sustainable urban planning. (see the video below).

I believe that many were skeptical of Cantor's initiatives because they didn't understand them. When people don't understand an initiative it usually due to one of two reasons: either the initiative is just dumb, or people just don't have the vision needed to see the future impact. I believe Cantor suffers from the latter. Even I can't tell you exactly what "Scholarship in Action" is, but I believe I lived it as a student at Syracuse. 

Though her move to Rutgers-Newark seems like a step backward, I think it is perfect fit for Cantor. I mean, there is really no place "up" to go from being chancellor at a major university. It's not like she's going to take over at Harvard. And I don't think she would enjoy working in the private sector. Rutgers Newark is the perfect place for her to continue her social justice policies and her mission to make higher education a social mobility mechanism. Plus, Rutgers is a public school where she won't have to worry about "ruffling so many feathers" and she won't have to deal with a Div. I athletics program. I can understand the move.

Regardless, Cantor's legacy at SU will only be defined in time. Where SU goes from here will have a lot to say about it. Did she provide a foundation for growth? Or did she create a mess for the next chancellor. I can say if I learned anything at Syracuse University, I learned from Cantor to strive to be not what is now, but to be what is tomorrow. To be forward looking and innovative. And that no matter what I do in life, that I should recognize my duty to improve the community around me. I believe that is the legacy and reputation "Chancy Nancy" should have. Whether or not she does, only time will tell.