kent syverud

Turning the page: Next chancellor expresses eagerness to learn about, connect with Syracuse community

Chase Gaewski | Photo Editor

Kent Syverud discusses the importance of Syracuse University's history during his official announcement as the next chancellor of the school.

UPDATED: September 16, 2:01 a.m.

Less than 24 hours after receiving the overwhelming news he had been selected as Syracuse University’s 12th chancellor, Kent Syverud found himself behind a podium inside a packed Hendricks Chapel, addressing a crowd of people eager for a glimpse of the new face of SU.

He gave them an honest confession.

“I still have so much more to learn.”

With that, Syverud pulled out from underneath the podium a stack of five thick hardcover books and displayed them to the crowd.

“These are hundreds of pages of our history,” he said, pointing to what he revealed to be a lengthy chronology of SU. “In fact, I’ve read five volumes, they’re all from our library.”

SU officials announced Thursday that Syverud would replace Nancy Cantor as chancellor of the university on Jan. 13, 2014. Cantor, after roughly 10 years, will leave to become the chancellor of Rutgers University’s Newark campus.

Syverud will leave his deanship at Washington University’s School of Law in St. Louis on Jan. 12 — only a day before beginning at SU— as he promised to continue teaching his law negotiation class for the next four months.

Until then, he’ll set aside pockets of time to travel to and from Syracuse and arrange moving plans for him and his wife Ruth Chen, an environmental toxicologist who will take up a post as a professor of practice at SU.

He’ll try to absorb everything he can about Syracuse’s culture. He’ll meet with Cantor, explore an SU dormitory, eat a dining hall meal and check out the 2 a.m. Friday night scene, he said.

“I doubt very much that the right thing for Syracuse is to try and be a Washington University,” he said. “I suspect Vanderbilt and Michigan aren’t good models, either. I think Syracuse has to be Syracuse.”

Syverud, 56, has dean and associate deanships at three institutions under his belt: the University of Michigan, Vanderbilt University and most recently, Washington University’s School of Law in St. Louis. He’s worked as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and is one of two trustees overseeing the $20 billion trust fund created to compensate victims of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Mark Syverud describes his “kid brother” Kent as someone who isn’t the usual prototype for chancellor, but rather a “smart guy with a regular approach to life.” He jokes that SU’s 12th chancellor was the overachieving high school student who did all his homework on Friday nights, while everyone else waited until Monday morning.

Kent is one of five children in his family, and has an identical twin brother, Scott, who serves as vice chairman of clinical operations at the University of Virginia. Steve Syverud, Kent’s son, said the two brothers really do look identical, but that Scott is four inches taller than Kent.

The Syveruds grew up outside of Rochester, N.Y., so Kent makes frequent trips to upstate New York to visit family. Just a few weeks ago, while the chancellor search was underway, the family held a reunion in Ellicottville, N.Y. It pained Kent not to tell his family he could be moving back, Mark said.

Syverud’s upstate New York background was among the main reasons he found the idea of working at SU so appealing. As a child, he was in awe of the “fantastic buildings,” and admitted to missing upstate novelties like Wegmans and the New York State Fair.

After graduating from Irondequoit High School in Rochester, Syverud went on to receive his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School.

Among Syverud’s most recognized achievements is his work as one of two trustees appointed to administer the $20 billion claims fund British Petroleum set up to pay those affected by the gulf oil spill, said John Martin, a retired U.S. District Judge and current partner at Martin & Obermaier, LLC. Martin is the other appointed trustee who monitors the fund, which was established after the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that spilled masses of oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico.

Martin and Syverud both continue to monitor the fund, and have worked closely together in the past few years.

“He’s a wonderful person, very bright, and has obviously earned the respect of everyone he’s worked with,” Martin said.

While Syverud admitted he has a lot to learn before he can develop a structured vision for the university, his mind is set on one, affirmative cause: students.

Board of Trustees chairman Richard Thompson recalled a moment during the search process that caught the entire committee’s attention — an anecdote in Syverud’s application that described one of the chancellor-designate’s policies.

“He has a metric he uses when he’s interviewing his employees,” Thompson said. “He waits to see how soon in the interview the candidate will bring up students.”

It’s a policy Syverud developed out of frustration with universities’ tendency to forget their main mission.

“They – universities – are think tanks and publicity machines and care providers who give legal services, and it’s hard to remember that at the end of the day, you’re still a school,” Syverud said.

Syverud’s colleagues at WU call his passion for student life and services his most distinctive trait. He teaches an introductory civil procedure class for all incoming students at the school’s orientation, and holds office hours weekly — an impressive feat for a busy dean, said Elizabeth Walsh, associate dean for student services at Washington University in St. Louis.

Professor Brian Tamanaha said Syverud’s so dedicated to student interests that he’ll often find Syverud personally sitting with students and making phone calls to find them jobs.

“He runs the institution in a way that’s hands-on but very respectful. He listens to everyone,” he said. “Syracuse’s gain is our very deep loss.”

Syverud’s other two focuses will be creating a larger world recognition for SU and investing more in the university technologically. His views on higher education have been heavily shaped by his travels abroad, where he’s noticed a deep respect — and a sense of competition — toward American education from institutions across Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

“If we think we can keep doing the same old thing over again, we’re in trouble,” he said.

When it comes to university rankings — U.S. News and World Report recently ranked SU as No. 62 in the country — Syverud finds them important. They are, in his opinion, one of the main gauges of students’ decisions to attend a university. That being said, he believes rankings aren’t perfect, but that if attention is focused on improving the school, they will slowly rise.

For now, Syverud plans on giving the news of his appointment some time to sink in. He’s excited and amazed by SU’s relationship with the people of Syracuse, recalling a conversation he had in an elevator at the Sheraton Syracuse University Hotel and Conference Center, where a housekeeper talked about their personal passion for the university.

He’ll keep studying SU’s history, people and culture, work on building up animus feelings toward Duke University’s basketball team and — most importantly — discover his own definition of “bleeding orange.”

He ended his address to Hendricks Chapel on Thursday by explaining the significance of SU having just 11 chancellors in its extensive history. With each new chancellor, the university takes a chance.

With a shaky, emotional voice, he expressed his gratitude.

“Today, I’m truly honored that you have taken that chance on me,” he said. “I’m in, and I hope you are, too.”


  • Bostonway

    “I think Syracuse has to be Syracuse.” Ahhh, objective-thinking rationale folks do NOT want Cantor’s Syracuse! We want SU to… imporve standards, be merit based, race-blind, no special treatment, encourage balaced viewpoints, fiscally responsible, non-PC, naturally diverse (vs. artificial), increase in college ratings and rankings, have stronger teachers (that are not barking only liberal dogma), cool research, exciting athletics, great facilities, etc. etc. Frankly, take most of Cantor’s values and actions, and simply do the opposite…if you do, there’s a good chance SU will be stronger and better!

  • James Shomar

    Where I agree with you, I would also like
    to see more focus on increasing the quality of
    education, reducing useless spending (like a new bookstore, building city parks, the umm “connective corridor” or replacing
    kimmel), and reducing tuition costs. I’d also like better teaching from professors, with more hands on learning opportunities for students like research or educationally beneficial programs/groups. Where I have to say I disagree is you’re quite frankly racist remarks. Honestly, it’s not the Say Yes students who bring down the University’s standards, it’s the students foreign and domestic with crazy rich parents paying >or= to full tuition costs to get in even though they’re dumb as dirt. I’ve seen screwed up practices such as speaking in different languages to cheat, even attempting to pay off TA’s. On another front, yeah athletics are fun to watch and certainly a nice cash cow
    for the school but they don’t run it either. Talk about “special treatment” I’ve literally seen student athletes receive test answers from professors. And it negatively effects other ares too. I ran the Formula SAE Race Team as an undergrad, a fantastically beneficial learning experience for students, and we lost a potentially huge donation from a billionaire alumni noting specifically the immoral special treatment given the student athletes at the university as his reason. Speaking of sub-par, the 4 Day a Week Orange here has at least 10 articles on drinking/partying related topics each week, sounds like a great resume builder for student writers (not that the Chancellor has any control over that).

  • Bostonway

    Racist remarks? Name one. Again, I want a race-blind SU. Frankly, the racist remarks and behavior come from those who demand (based on race) special-treatment, lowered admission standards, affirmative action, scholarships for only blacks or hispanics, addtional programs and funding (e.g. SA clubs, homecomings)…again all based on race! And the hypocrisy? If ANY of these ‘advantages’ was even mentioned for whites only…the lib’s and minorities on campus would go crazy (and they should)! Finally, please don’t defend these double-standards; ‘Well, whites have had the advantages in the past, blah, blah’. You don’t fight discrimination and racism with more discirmination and racism, which is exactly what SU is doing. PS: I’m not for any group getting special-treatment or compromsied standards, including athletes.

  • James Shomar

    The racism comes from the implied narrative that improving standards and college rankings would occur as a result of the other implication by reducing the enrollment by minority students. Even if that’s not what you mean its what those statements implies. I also agree we shouldn’t have compromised standards or special treatment, and certainly feel a lot of students are brought in who compromise those standards, the racism comes however from implying they are all minority students. I’m not a liberal or democrat either by the way, I’m a registered independent for the exact reason you just demonstrated. Joining a political group strengthens the stereotypes just like the second half of your response. I never mentioned one of those defenses or even take a stance on affirmative action. What is natural diversity in your definition exactly anyway? That either implies ignorance to the actual diversity of the American population or, that minorities are unable to get in to college based on merit. Most scholarships which tend to increase racial diversity by the way, stem from those meant to increase admission from urban areas with intelligent students in poor performing school districts.

  • geirgo

    Simple solution is to find the brightest students wherever you can find them and convince them to attend SU. Best way to do that is to upgrade across the board – every teacher, program, administrator, and college in the university should be scrutinized to determine how they can improve markedly.
    In my opinion, we should cut the number of majors by at least half – to less than 100, from the bloated 200 plus we offer now. There is no way we can excel with that many offerings – Cornell, by comparison, offers less than 80.

    Cantor’s tenure was a disaster – let’s hope Syverud’s will set us on a different course. There is no legitimate reason Syracuse can’t be among the top 25 schools in the country.

  • Bostonway

    Hey James, 1) I worked at SU. I saw the VERY DIFFERENT admission stats (GPA, SAT) based on race…it was shocking. Do these stats drag-down SU’s ranking and rating? Of course. Not to mention having lower-caliber students on campus. Moreover, minorities drop-out at a higher rate (when weakly qualified). Goggle the national stats… not good. Don’t let the facts get in your way. 2) ‘Natural diversity’ at SU is all about encouraging the recruiting of minority HS students, but NO different or compromised admission-standards. Race-blind is the goal, (I didn’t say economically-blind). 3) You are the one implying ‘minorities can’t get into college based on merit’ by defending affirmative-action and lower-standards practices. 4) It should not SU’s job to make-up for bad HS’s by taking weaker HS students. Fix the HS’s, go to community college, etc. This is college… not a welfare agency.

  • Bostonway

    100% correct geirgo on going for the brightest HS students! UGA did this, for example, giving the strongest HS kids huge cuts in tuition REGARDLESS of race or economics (Hope scholarships). Guess what happened? The caliber of students increased big time, with MORE minorities applying to UGA. When you try to socially engineer admissions or hiring (by compromising standards), it backfires every time. But to most libs and minorities this doesn’t matter. They consider being consistent in standards or race-blind as ‘racist’, and special treatment as ‘fair treatment’. Do the words hypocrisy and double-standard apply? Yup!

  • rbulova

    The main problem with affirmative action is who decides when it’s no longer needed. Certainly not the beneficiaries, and all the rest will be called racist by liberal knee-jerkers for suggesting,

    And by lowering standards for minorities, thereby increasing the odds of a drop out being unable to do the work, you’ve deprived a more competent student the opportunity.

    A&S ’62

  • Bostonway

    rbulova, good points. Affirmative-action was initially not meant to lower-standards… it focused on access and recruiting. It evolved to the ‘watered down’ double-standards that we have today. Which, in the end, does no good for anyone (even the beneficiaries). Personal example? My father’s company hired two black engineers out of college…one was totally incompetent (finally resigned) and the 2nd guy (after weeks of extra coaching, guidance, training) still couldn’t cut-it and played the race-card (got an attorney, etc). My father’s company had to defend itself (big costs and time) for doing nothing wrong and trying to do the right thing. Yet, a local liberal newspaper article wrongly implied racism. A total disaster! My father said; “We will never hire another minority!”

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