Four days after introducing His Holiness the Dalai Lama during the Common Ground for Peace forum at Goldstein Auditorium, Chancellor Nancy Cantor, the first female chancellor and president in Syracuse's history, issued an open letter saying she plans to step down when her contract ends in June 2014. While the letter summarized her past achievements, it gave no indication of what she plans do after completing her tenure as chancellor. The early announcement of her resignation on October 12, almost two years before her contract ends, has raised suspicion among those at SU about whether she received pressure from trustees.
“I think her relationship in working with the community is something that I have always felt was incumbent upon us to do. And I think she did that, no matter the criticism,” said SU basketball coach Jim Boeheim in response to Cantor’s sudden decision to leave, according to a Post-Standard article.
During her eight years as chancellor, Cantor initiated “Scholarship in Action,” a broad initiative promoting collaboration between the university and the community, including urban schools, local businesses and non-governmental organizations. She also achieved success with the Campaign for Syracuse University, an ambitious billion-dollar fundraising goal, and she facilitated the construction and renovation of campus athletic facilities. During her tenure, Cantor received acknowledgement for promoting education equality and diversity, but she was also criticized for failing to encourage academic progress. Between 2004 and 2006, after Cantor took office, Syracuse University's US News & World Report ranking jumped around between 52 and 50; it dropped to 58 in 2012. Syracuse also withdrew its Association of American Universities membership for not meeting AAU criteria for producing resarch.
According to a video produced by The Post-Standard after Cantor was awarded a 2012 Post-Standard Achivement Award, “Chancellor Nancy Cantor never intended to embark on a path of academic leadership."
After growing up in New York City, Cantor attended the prestigious Ethical Culture Fieldston School, an institution closely connected with the progressive movement and the movement's left-wing political philosophies. After finishing her undergraduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College in 1974, she went on to earn a doctorate in psychology at Stanford University, where Cantor sampled everything from mathematical psychology to straight cognitive studies, and developed interests in personality and social psychology. After teaching at Princeton and then the University of Michigan for almost 10 years, Cantor became associate dean for faculty programs in the graduate school at Michigan in 1989, which launched her career in administration.
Before coming to SU, Cantor served as the University of Michigan's provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, and the chancellor of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
On Nov. 5, 2004, Cantor was officially inaugurated as the chancellor and president of SU, a position that previously was held by Kenneth "Buzz" Shaw. “The excellence of this institution can only be fully realized if we open ourselves up to those in the outer world,” Cantor said in the Carrier Dome, according to a report by The Daily Orange.
Cantor initiated a trail of programs as part of her Scholarship in Action project in 2005, including Say Yes to Education, a program which seeks to increase high school and college graduation rates, the Near Westside Initiative, which promotes the revitalization of Syracuse's Near Westside neighborhood, and the Connective Corridor, which connects campus to the downtown area.
But Cantor's tenure as chancellor also contained several controversies.
In October 2005, less than one year after her inauguration, Cantor put herself at the center of a freedom of speech debate after revoking a student-run TV station HillTV, because one of their comedy shows, "Over the Hill," contained racist jokes.
It came as no surprise that this long-time advocate of racial equality and diversity showed zero tolerance to racist insults. Cantor, as the chancellor at Urbana-Champaign, supported banning Chief Illiniwek, a symbol of Illinois athletics that she considered racially insensitive. She is also a strong believer in affirmative action and helped prepare the cases of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger while working at the University of Michigan.
"Integration takes hard work, especially when we have little other than collective fear, stereotypes and sins upon which to build," Cantor wrote in a 2003 article for the Chicago Tribune.
In 2011, Cantor was criticized for not reporting the investigation of whether former SU coach Bernie Fine sexually abused former ball boy Bobby Davis to SU's trustees in 2005. Cantor argued that she did not receive sufficient evidence from the law firm hired to investigate the case.
Other controversies have dogged Cantor during the more recent years of her tenure, as a response to her work with the Connective Corridor and the Near Westside Initiative. An article titled "Syracuse's Slide," published in October 2011 in The Chronicle of Higher Education, examined SU's declining academic status as a research university and blamed Cantor for putting too much emphasis on city development and for allowing its acceptance rate to climb from mid-50 percent to around 60 percent.
"My fear is that the university is moving away from selective to inclusive," said David H. Bennett, an SU history professor, according to the article.
“As selective colleges and universities, we have prospered by defining excellence and quality largely by exclusion,” Cantor said in a speech at Wellesley College in 2011. “As the world changes before our very eyes, it's time to revise our maps to include the whole pool of talent, not just part.”
In 2012, a two-part Daily Orange article titled "Fait Accompli" said Cantor had created a "sense of fear [and] futility" that "marginalizes faculty voice." The two articles examined Cantor's HillTV revocation and the handling of a sexual abuse case in 2007, which resulted in the resignation of several university officials. It also joined with "Syracuse's Slide," questioning whether Scholarship in Action led to Syracuse's academic slump because it put too much funding and energy on city revitalization and urban education.
“One of the things we all read about a lot right now is the culture of individualism. That is, in the sense in which education is a private investment for private gain,” Cantor said at Sarah Lawrence's Inaugural symposium, titled “You Can’t Step into the Same River Twice: Reimagining Liberal Arts in the 21st Century." “What I would argue is that in this environment, questions of social justice and moral consideration are all too easily marginalized, and communal responsibility is relegated to some corner of political correctness. My question for all of us, as we think about the role of a liberal arts college, is how do we put communal responsibility back in its rightful, central place—in the place it’s got to be if we are to recover our democratic practices?”
Chancellor Cantor spent her time at Syracuse University attempting to answer that question.
Editor's note: This article has been revised since its initial publication.