For Kent Syverud, Syracuse University
is more than just the man

at the top

Kent Syverud doesn’t like his office. At least not in its current state.

He has plans to change it, though. He’s already removed a small wall dividing the office to make it more open, and wants to remove the long, brown conference table.

But his office, he says, isn’t an appropriate place to pour money into yet. To Syracuse University’s newest chancellor, there’s a lot more to the university than the person sitting on the top floor of Crouse-Hinds Hall.

His life is sprinkled throughout the room. The Asian art on the wall, the red Everlast boxing gloves and the big white binder of his speeches tucked in the shelf of a bookcase. A Sandra Day O’Connor bobble head nods, paying homage to his time working for the former Supreme Court justice. Photos of his family — specifically his wife, Ruth Chen, and three sons, Steven, Brian and David — sit on his desk and along bookshelves.

One of his desks is a five-feet tall table with two PC computers. Syverud prefers to stand there and work rather than sit — he jokes it’s his way of avoiding the Freshman 15. And right below the computers lays a small, yellow sticker.

It reads: “…this will help the students because…”

A day in the life of Kent Syverud consists of shaking a lot of hands — today it was 287. It’s a day where he writes notes in his black Moleskine notebook and converses with SU employees who, all together, have worked more years than there are feet in a mile. It’s a day where he observes the life of a student, catching a presentation in Peck Hall. It’s a day where he discusses with students how he can better communicate with the younger generation.

He wears a black suit, with a white shirt and a tie — on Monday, its gold with little bumblebees. The chancellor’s day is mostly consumed with meetings — ranging from senior leadership to office staff to alumni to campus events. But he sees students every day, especially since the move to his new home: the chancellor’s residence on Comstock Avenue.

“I feel like I’m the only person over the age of 30 in a ten block radius,” Syverud says, laughing. “But everyone has been really great. I love seeing students early in the morning when I walk my dog.”

His day begins with breakfast at the Sheraton Syracuse University Hotel & Conference Center with SU employees being recognized for more than 25 years of service. He was slated to arrive at 8 a.m., but Syverud arrives early, meeting everyone at every table. He wears a nametag and introduces himself every time.

Like every speech he would go on to give that day, he opened with a quick joke and thanked everyone who made the event possible. He mentioned the employees at the Sheraton, who had taken care of him and his wife and who had hosted many SU events. He thanked the employees for their work, which “is often taken for granted in the background.”

“I’ve learned that this place is really held together by people for whom this is not a job just, but a calling. This is a community that matters to them, and it matters to them to do a job well day after day, chancellor after chancellor,” he said. “I haven’t been to a university where people stick with it loyally as a career as frequently as Syracuse. I think that’s one thing that makes us stand apart and makes us better than our peers.”

When the breakfast ends, Syverud shakes some more hands and hugs those who helped plan the event. He walks back to his office — he walks almost everywhere on campus.

His first official meeting of the day is with the university’s senior leadership, where they prepare for the upcoming Board of Trustees meeting. Syverud sits at the head of the table — that same table he wants to get rid of — with Eric Spina, vice chancellor and provost, sitting to his left and Lou Marcoccia, executive vice president and chief financial officer, on his right.

While Spina talks about the logistics of the meeting, Syverud slowly scans the draft of the agenda with his orange pen. Every so often, he writes down notes in his Moleskine notebook and takes a sip of his coffee.

When the meeting ends, Spina stays for a one-on-one meeting with the chancellor. It’s a standing meeting, as they try to meet frequently to talk about different aspects of the university, such as the ongoing search for the College of Arts and Sciences dean and how to better career services.

At noon, Syverud is scheduled to attend a luncheon for the 2014 Class Marshals at Goldstein Alumni & Faculty Center. He’s excited because Faculty is one of the few places on campus where he hasn’t eaten yet.

He walks to the luncheon with Spina. Syverud walks quickly not because he’s running late, but because he likes to be early. That’s what the university gets, he says, when it has a Norwegian chancellor. Punctuality is important.

As he walks down University Place, students stare at Syverud, recognizing the familiar face. One student takes her headphones off and asks out loud, “Wait, was that the chancellor?”

He opens the door of Faculty, as the different students and staff filter in. And like before, he walks into the dining room, introducing himself to the different student marshals. This time, he spots his wife among the crowd and begins introducing her as ‘Dr. Chen’ to the others in the room.

During the luncheon, Syverud talks about the student’s role as marshals and how impressed he was with all of their accomplishments.

“For all of us on this Hill, we exist to serve and inspire you to serve and mentor you after you’re here,” he says. “And I really hope we read your stories and the stories of this university going forward.

“We’re very proud of you. Many people in this room are very eager to meet your families and loved ones at commencement, and tell them how much you’ve meant to us and how much you’ve inspired us. So you’re on orders, introduce them to us. Find the time or moment; we are not offended, we are not busy. This is what we live for.”

Ruth Chen, the wife of Chancellor Kent Syverud, looks around a counseling room, while Syverud tours an observation room. Syverud stands on the other side of a two way mirror in Peck Hall, home to the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics. Photo by Sam Maller | Staff Photographer

Ruth Chen — Syverud’s wife and now a professor of practice at the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science — accompanies the chancellor to a majority of the different campus events and college tours. Like her husband, Chen keeps her style simple: wearing a black suit, orange blouse, realistic and comfortable shoes to walk in, all accompanied by shiny pearl earrings and necklace.

She laughs at her husband’s jokes, and he laughs at hers.

She lingers when on the tour of Peck Hall — home to David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamic’s Department of Marriage and Family Therapy — with her husband. She takes time to look at the photos on the wall, and peeks her head into different windows and classrooms. She observes the small details of the old building, but doesn’t ask a lot of questions.

It’s Syverud who’s asking them.

On the tour, he asks about student safety, as well as student and faculty morale since the department moved into the building about a year ago. He pops into the offices of faculty members, and introduces himself to every single one with his firm handshake. He wants to know everyone who works in the office, and his or her role.

“The desks are so clean, they must have known I was coming,” he jokes.

He listens to Dean Diane Lyden Murphy talk about the department’s move in the old, historic building and its national recognition. Impressed, Syverud asks about where the students take classes, where they hang out between classes and the projects they’re working on.

“Would you want to see some of the students?” Murphy asks. “It’s probably the only time they’ll see you till graduation.”

Syverud and Chen are shown into a classroom of about 35 students. He apologizes for interrupting a student’s presentation.

“Hi everyone, I just wanted to introduce myself. I’m Kent Syverud, the university’s chancellor.” As he looks to the PowerPoint presentation slide about signs of facing midlife depression, he jokes, “Oh wow, I hope this project isn’t about me.”

He and Chen then lean against a table in the back of the classroom, listening to the student’s presentation.

As they quietly leave the classroom about five minutes later, Syverud asks Thom deLara, the department chair and leader of the tour, where deLara came from and how he got here.

“Wait, like me personally?” deLara asks.

DeLara then talks to Syverud about his career before Syracuse and his different degrees, as they walk into the conference room. Syverud passes up sitting at the head of the conference table, giving the seat to the dean instead. It’s her building, not his.

Kent Syverud walks home with a student on Monday night. He usually begins his day at 7 a.m. and leaves campus around 9 p.m. Photo by Sam Maller | Staff Photographer

Syverud hasn’t quite grasped how to communicate to students in 140 characters — despite urging from his sons. For someone his age, he admits, being on Twitter could be creepy.

But yes, he’s aware of all of the fake Syverud accounts roaming the Twittersphere.

For now, he’s content with communicating with students through email. The university, he says, needs to improve communication amongst administrators, students and staff. His sons came up with the idea of sending out a weekly email to the SU community. Though to them, Syverud says, having a five-paragraph email is way too long.

Part of learning how to improve communication involves attending a Student Association meeting. The 7:30 p.m. meeting was the first he attended as chancellor.

“I’ve realized I’ve discovered more when I listen than when I talk,” he says to the student assembly members in Maxwell Auditorium. In the 75 days he has been chancellor, Syverud says he’s found that students are usually shocked when he asks for their advice.

Of the 50 minutes Syverud speaks, 10 were his opening comments about his time at SU so far and the major problems the university is facing. The other 40 were designated for hearing from the students.

As he answers the questions — ranging from increased tuition to how he plans to connect the different colleges — Syverud casually leans against the podium, making eye contact with each student speaking. His demeanor is more of a professor in a discussion with his students than a leader speaking to his followers.

One student in particular asks how he would feel about having the two student representatives on the Board of Trustees be voting members. Currently, they are not voting members.

“I doubt I will want to change that. But yes, I should just say that really bluntly,” Syverud replies. “Sorry to give you that bad news. But when it’s bad news, I’ll tell you.”

After he finishes answering students’ questions, Syverud returns to his seat and stays for the entire meeting.

And as the meeting comes to a close around 9 p.m., so does the chancellor’s day.

He walks back to his new home at the chancellor’s residence, and the on way passes the illuminated campus buildings. But as he makes his way through the quiet campus, he isn’t alone; he walks alongside a student, giving him advice about life after Syracuse.

Fifteen hours after he started his day, it still wasn’t about the man at the top.