The Nancy Cantor Files

Fait accompli: Sense of fear, futility, marginalizes faculty voice, influence in academic affairs

During the past six months, The Daily Orange interviewed dozens of faculty, staff and administrators across campus regarding Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s leadership style and academic missions. These stories are a result of that exploration.

Freezing out vocal critics, conducting angry rants, dismissing unfavorable media and limiting access to information have one victim in common: shared governance.

‘Universities are very complicated organizations, but the main function is academic,’ said Ellen Schrecker, an expert in academic freedom in higher education. Areas like ‘curriculum, like the hiring of faculty, like admissions standards – anything that has to do with the academic mission of the university – should primarily be under the control of the faculty.’

The recognition that faculty members are the long-term stakeholders in research, teaching, promotion and enrollment sits at the heart of shared faculty governance.

But in Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s eight-year tenure, heavy-handed leadership has cultivated fear or resignation among pockets of faculty and support staff, effectively muting their criticism of university affairs and weakening participation in decision-making.

Cantor is no stranger to the importance of free and open dialogue. In February, Cantor gave a speech in North Carolina discussing her academic mission at Syracuse University. Her goals, she said, hinge on fostering trust and communication.

‘True dialogue must be deep, sustained and systemic,’ Cantor said in her Feb. 15 speech.

While Cantor may talk the talk, many faculty and staff say she does not walk the walk.

The central administration’s hostility toward criticism concerning basic operations to Cantor’s major initiatives has chilled conversation about campus politics, making faculty governance a more frustrating and futile endeavor. Cantor’s academic missions have enabled many departments to do innovative research, but a sizable minority said Cantor has poorly articulated Scholarship in Action to such an extent that whole academic fields feel marginalized.

There are distinct sections of campus where faculty and administrators have benefited greatly from the chancellor’s mission and have a cordial relationship with her that supporters call criticisms found elsewhere contrived. In contrast, other pockets of campus said they have experienced vindictiveness and hostility to such an extent they see Cantor’s supporters as nave or disingenuous.

Professors from at least 16 different departments plus staff from the library said they and the majority of their peers fall somewhere in between: supporters of Cantor’s values, but critical, if not livid, at the lack of two-way dialogue and inclusion in decision-making.

Cantor characterizes her critics as a handful of outspoken male faculty members.

‘There are a set of people who probably feel, if we really had that kind of conversation, that they used to have more voice and more impact,’ Cantor said.’Maybe some of these guys that you’re talking to just don’t feel quite as much like they’re running the place.’

But dissatisfaction with ‘business as usual’ permeates throughout campus, though most discuss it behind closed doors and over secure email accounts. Almost every interview for this article began with an earnest conversation about confidentiality and protection. Most academic chairs feared backlash against their departments if their criticisms were publicly displayed.

Last October, a reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Education ran into similar anxiety among faculty and staff before the publication published a multipage feature titled ‘Syracuse’s Slide.’ The article highlighted Cantor’s missions in the context of SU’s falling national rankings and exclusion from prestigious organizations.

Hundreds of campus members commented on the Chronicle article or offered commentary in The Post-Standard and The Daily Orange.The comments revealed how viscerally some faculty, staff and alumni feel in their support for or opposition against Cantor. The author of the article, Robin Wilson, told The Daily Orange it was the largest response she’d ever seen from one of her articles.

Wilson also told The Daily Orange she has had an easier time getting members of other universities to talk about illegal activities than getting SU’s faculty and staff to comment on campus politics.

Deborah Pellow, anthropology professor, said she was dismayed by the administration’s reaction to questions about SU’s slip in national rankings, which faculty first raised at a February 2011 University Senate meeting.

As a feminist, Pellow said, she supported the university hiring Cantor as the first female chancellor, as well as Cantor’s goals to better SU’s long-sour relations with the city.

But she was upset when Cantor dismissed concerns about SU’s declining national reputation and cast critics, like history professor David Bennett, as opponents of diversity, Pellow said.

A university ‘is a place where debate is welcome,’ she said. ‘It’s about talking. It’s about discussing things.’

A perennial complaint on the part of USen committees and individual professors is the administration’s failure to engage faculty in meaningful decision-making. For example, the ad hoc committee exploring the effects of SU’s rapidly expanding student body – up 22 percent since Cantor’s arrival – reported: ‘More than two-thirds of both groups, faculty and chairs/program directors, agreed with the statement that the SU administration was only marginally or not including the campus community in discussions on enrollment planning.’

Several deans said they were fully involved in conversations on enrollment.

National and local media have even called into question Cantor’s openness with the Board of Trustees – to whom she answers – and law enforcement, regarding her decision not to inform them about SU’s 2005 investigation of former associate men’s basketball coach Bernie Fine.

Faculty levied several major critiques against the administration’s leadership style. None criticized the chancellor’s values, namely supporting diversity and engagement in the community. All had to do with the means to those ends.

Three major criticisms of Cantor’s style of leadership shared by dozens of faculty, staff and former administrators are:

A fait accompli

No foreign phrase was used with more regularity than this French idiom meaning ‘a thing accomplished and presumably irreversible,’ according to Merriam-Webster Online.

Plans to change university practices and policy are often presented to the faculty on short notice and with little latitude for revision, said Mary Lovely, economics professor and chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on Enrollment.

Lovely counts herself among Cantor’s supporters. She believes a bigger university can be a positive thing and supports Cantor’s emphasis on diversity and engagement, she said. But in regards to rising enrollment, Lovely said the central administration left faculty out of the planning.

‘What I’m concerned about is the lack of dialogue because it means that the faculty can’t get engaged in thinking about how to deliver the services in the best possible way,’ Lovely said. ‘We know what happens in the classroom, they don’t.’

Lovely also blamed some faculty for the deterioration of intra-university dialogue, saying aggressive attacks on the chancellor are unconstructive.

Other initiatives under Cantor that faculty and staff characterized as a fait accompli include the reorganization of employee benefits; changes to SU’s promotion and tenure policies; moving SU’s child care services to the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics; shutting down HillTV; and major reorganizations in SU Abroad, among others.

Several top administrators, including Cantor, said they’re completely open to giving faculty information about ongoing processes when they ask for it. Eric Spina, vice chancellor and provost, cited several of these examples as cases in which faculty had a great deal of involvement.

At least three dozen faculty members said they feel it’s the administration’s role to go to faculty to gather opinion and feedback, if not consensus, on initiatives before they’re crafted. Having faculty weigh in on SU’s endeavors last minute or after they’ve been implemented is meaningless, many said.

A lack of faculty input on various initiatives often has to do with how time consuming opinion gathering can be for professors already loaded with classes and research, said Kal Alston, senior vice president for human capital development and longtime colleague of Cantor. Although some professors ask for more decision-making power, the reality is most don’t have the time, she said.

She recognized what she explained positively was Cantor’s ‘organic leadership style,’ which has turned off people who want more regimented planning.

‘She doesn’t like to say,’We’re going to get to x,’ where x is a very specific item, by x amount of dates, and then everybody makes a plan and follows a plan,’ Alston said. ‘That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have goals, but I think they’re more broad.’

‘It’s not to everyone’s taste,’ she added.

The application of Scholarship in Action

Many programs have bloomed under the support of the chancellor’s mission, Scholarship in Action: the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute, Syracuse Community Geography, The Stand newspaper, Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities, Say Yes to Education, the Syracuse Center of Excellence, to name but a snippet.

The idea, focusing research and the fruits of academia on the city and outside world, has ample support across campus, particularly in the professional schools like Falk, the Martin J. Whitman School of Management, or the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications – where community involvement is essential to the profession.

Every source critical of Cantor’s management style said they shared, or at least respected, the core values behind Scholarship in Action.

But there are groups of Cantor’s constituents who say they feel alienated by the implementation of Scholarship in Action and have no forum for recourse. Conversations with the majority of departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, SU’s oldest college and the pillar of general education, revealed that after eight years under Cantor, whole departments still do not understand exactly what Scholarship in Action means or how they can apply it to their work.

For example, the natural sciences depend extensively on fundamental research, lab-centered projects subjected to a time-consuming peer review process. Some faculty expressed concern that this solitary type of work – which their peers at other schools consider the cornerstone of scholarship – does not fit easily into the obvious definition of Scholarship in Action.

Vice Chancellor and Provost Spina said many who talk about Scholarship in Action incorrectly boil it down to public engagement. Even a fundamental physicist can fit into Scholarship in Action, he said. If they’re acquiring grants and research funds, those professors fit.

‘From my perspective, they are practicing Scholarship in Action because they are out there improving scholarly distinction and faculty excellence.’

‘Frankly, I think some people don’t want to understand it in that broader sense,’ he added.

A majority of professors in the liberal arts continue to pursue the same research they did before Cantor’s arrival. But there is a sense among faculty that the university only plays up and provides resources for work that fits under the obvious definition of Scholarship in Action.

The university cannot dictate whether engaged scholarship is as good as or more valuable than meeting the standards and expectations set by the profession, said Jaklin Kornfilt, professor of linguistics.

‘There are some who are likely to misapply this notion of engaged scholarship to any kind of scholarship, viewing it as professional and/or civic service, and without having such scholarship undergo the usual quality checks in the profession, such as peer review,’ Kornfilt said. ‘Such work would not have made the cut under the usual norms of the academic profession. I don’t know if this is what the chancellor intended.’

One department chair in Arts in Sciences said faculty or program directors who want support for a particular project feel they need to pay lip service to Scholarship in Action in their proposals. The need for such disingenuousness is not in the spirit of academic honesty, the chair said.

Paul Gandel, a professor in the School of Information Studies and former chief information officer at SU, believes there’s also a lot to be said for purely theoretical work. Students should have the ‘sheer joy to learn and explore all ideas,’ he said. ‘The real significance of a university is to provide the freedom to explore what others may see as irrelevant. Tomorrow’s great ideas may be what others see as irrelevant today.’

In contrast, Cantor has thoroughly explained how departments like African American Studies, and other minority studies, fit into her missions, said Renate Simson, chair and professor in the African American Studies department.

‘The chancellor has sought to make a broader intellectual community,’ Simson said, ‘and have the programs at this university represent the diversity of the American population.’

‘She’s been very, very accessible to us and very supportive, and this is not just my personal opinion,’ she added.

Simson also said SU’s special emphasis on community involvement hasn’t altered the standards for research or professional work in her department. Engagement is ‘in addition to, not in place of,’ she said.

Some professors have even used their public engagement as qualitative research, making Scholarship in Action a means to advance their intellectual work.

Mike Haynie, Barnes professor of entrepreneurship, works with veteran entrepreneurs. His observations from working with veterans and small businesses have provided the basis for his recent publications in such outlets as the Journal of Applied Psychology, he said.

In pondering why others may be dissatisfied with Scholarship in Action, Haynie said, one solution could be communication, offering clearer channels for these groups of faculty to participate.

Saving face at the cost of transparency

The public relations handling of the Fine scandal, in which two men accused former associate men’s basketball coach Bernie Fine of sexual molestation, highlights this particular grievance against Cantor’s style of leadership. Cantor and her top advisers prefer not to engage the community in important conversations in which dialogue would open the university and Cantor to public scorn, critics say.

In February, Newhouse officials held a symposium, ‘When Games Turn Grim: Can Media Cover Sports Scandals Responsibly?’ using the Fine scandal as a teaching moment for journalism and public relations students. A panel of public relations experts criticized the administration’s response to the scandal, saying it was too controlled and insincere.

Effective public relations requires building relationships and a two-way conversation with the community, said Brenda Wrigley, chair of the public relations department at Newhouse. The leaders of the university had, and still have, a responsibility to keep their constituents informed about what happened and what is happening with regard to the scandal, she said.

‘We have a whole university full of thinking people,’ she said. ‘They have a right to information.’

If SU leaves its constituents in the dark about important issues, rumors and resentment begin to churn, said Wrigley and two other professors.

‘The story gets shaped by everyone else but the main player,’ she said. ‘If you want to lead people to great things, there needs to be trust.’

The lack of transparency has angered her so much that she stopped donating to the university. The Daily Orange found other examples, even one very high-profile example, of angered donors threatening to pull funding from the university.

Many who counter criticism of the chancellor focus on its sexist nature. Focusing the conversation on Cantor’s sensitivity to criticism is a gendered construction, said Cantor and several of her top administrators. Harsh critics and the media would not put a male chancellor through the same degree of character scrutiny, said several deans.

In the fall, Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney referenced Cantor when discussing the difficulties and sexism female leaders face from their opposition, according to an article published in The Post-Standard on Nov. 13.

Wrigley, who studies gender in communications, said it’s important to consider such a possibility, but it doesn’t explain her grievances.

‘I’m not an old, white man,’ she said.

The administration’s reaction to the slip in national ranking presents another example of dismissing thorough investigation and conversation about a campus-wide concern.

Any direct connection between Cantor’s mission and SU’s slip in national rankings remains unsubstantiated. But their responses at open meetings like USen make clear the chancellor and her top administrators have very little patience for publicly exploring what caused the drop.

Many faculty, staff and even some deans who spoke to The Daily Orange find it difficult to defy SU’s peer institutions and ignore slips in the rankings.

One such concerned dean includes one of Cantor’s supporters, Melvin Stith of Whitman.

This spring, Whitman dropped from 47 to 61 in best business school rankings by Bloomberg Businessweek. Stith shares Cantor’s concern that the rankings fail to accurately capture the students’ academic experience.

But that hasn’t stopped him from asking difficult questions.

Stith has contacted Bloomberg to get more information about the drop. He’s also particularly concerned about the teaching category, which dropped from an A rating to a B rating, he said. To get answers, Stith expanded the satisfaction survey usually reserved for graduating seniors to include juniors, too. He’s also in conversations throughout the school to find out what may have led to the decreased teaching grade.

Vice Chancellor and Provost Spina said he and fellow top administrators expect the rankings will catch up to the energy and growth on campus in the long run, and that the drop reflects short-term influences on national rankings.

‘Short-term, am I concerned?’ he said. ‘No.’

Conversations about academic reputation, academic missions or enrollment should not simply include conversations with faculty; the faculty body should have near ‘total power’ in deciding them, said Schrecker, the expert in higher education.

Universities nationwide are dealing with a decline in shared faculty governance, Schrecker said. It’s been very hard for faculties to regain lost inclusion in academic planning.

‘It’s very important for professors to be able to feel that they have a say, that they get listened to, even if legally they don’t have the final say,’ she said. ‘It’s hard for faculty to regain their voice … and get the kind of sustained faculty activism that may be necessary.’

rastrum@syr.edu

Development Editor Kathleen Ronayne contributed reporting to this article.

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