Syracuse University: slide or rise?

(Cincinnati) Although I grew up in Syracuse as a professor’s child, have visited the university as recently as last week, and know more than a dozen SU faculty, I am not really in a position to evaluate the administration of Chancellor Nancy Cantor. She has tried to reorient the university to serving “the public good.” That means making it more accessible to poor and minority students, supporting the redevelopment of the city of Syracuse in partnership with local citizens, and emphasizing scholarship that engages public issues. Her strategy has become a leading national example of “engagement” in higher education. Therefore, the debate about her administration (see, for example, this critical article in the Chronicle of Higher Education) has national implications.

Some results at Syracuse:

  • The proportion of US-born minority students has risen from 18.5 percent to 32 percent.
  • The proportion of incoming students whose family incomes qualify them for federal financial aid has risen from 20 percent to 28 percent.
  • According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “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.”
  • But the University has slipped from 40th to 62nd on US News and World Report‘s ranking of national universities. The Chronicle quotes some SU professors (all of whom I happen to know) who feel that the investments in financial aid and local redevelopment and the change in admissions standards come at the cost of academic excellence.

I hesitate to make my own judgment because everything depends on quality. Serving the public good is not a matter of intention alone, but requires intellectual excellence–a point very well argued in an Imagining America report by Nancy Cantor and several colleagues. I am too far removed from the scene to be able to assess the quality or impact of SU’s work. But I would make the following broader points:

1. The fate of Syracuse University is inextricably linked to the fate of Syracuse, a hard-hit, post-industrial city. The city’s condition affects the University in the most tangible ways. For instance, talented young faculty will not teach at SU unless the city offers them amenities and feels vibrant.

2. Addressing the condition of our shrinking, post-industrial cities is an immense intellectual challenge, requiring the very highest quality of scholarship across many disciplines. If SU can contribute to that effort, it will distinguish itself intellectually. Moreover, by focusing some of its attention on one great, complex, multifaceted public issue, the university can integrate knowledge and perspectives, becoming more than a shopping mall that offers miscellaneous courses and research products.

3. The diversity of a student body or faculty does not trade off against excellence. Diversity is an educational asset. To be sure, admitting a more diverse class (by race, ethnicity, and economic background) will mean admitting students who start with a wider range of academic skills–including some who are less prepared. But that means they can progress further while they are in college. The ultimate measure of excellence is not whether you admit the smartest kids, but what you teach them. US News & World Report makes little effort to measure “value added,” yet that is what every college should strive for. Competing to admit the students who least need higher education is no way to achieve excellence.

4. The potential dangers I see are: (1) harmful effects on the city if investments are misconceived; (2) failure to support a more diverse student body; and (3) reduced support for forms of scholarship, such as ancient or medieval cultural history or pure mathematics, that feel remote from public concerns. Sometimes these disciplines address live public causes–as in this example from the field of classics. But we do them a disservice if we assess them only on that basis. They have intrinsic rather than pragmatic value.

I raise these potential dangers not because I see them playing out at Syracuse, but because they require vigilance.

For a response to the Chronicle article, follow this new blog by SU graduate students.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.