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.”

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