How Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud is viewed 3 years into his tenure

UPDATED: April 27, 2017 at 6:10 p.m.


empers were flaring one afternoon last May as Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud began to address the faculty and administrators gathered in a Newhouse classroom.

In a moment that would come to capture the core elements of his leadership style, Syverud was tasked with defusing what has become a regular occurrence at SU: faculty sparring with administrators. In this case, they were at odds over plans to construct a promenade along University Place. To the faculty, the decision to construct the promenade lacked proper governance and communication from university leadership. The $6 million cost only added to their frustration.

Syverud needed just a few minutes to ease the room’s mood. He said everything faculty seemingly wanted to hear: The university wasn’t transparent enough about plans for the promenade. More SU community members could have been consulted. It was possible there was a better way to allocate resources.

“I need to think harder about this,” he said at the time.

But almost as quickly as Syverud said he would consider faculty concerns, construction of the promenade began as scheduled the following week. It was a fitting end to a sequence of events that, in the eyes of many on campus, has exemplified Syverud’s tenure as chancellor.

That tenure now stretches more than three years, and the decisions Syverud has made and actions he’s taken during that time have been met with bleak evaluations from many of his constituents.

Based on interviews over the past eight months with more than 50 faculty, staff and administrators, Syverud is viewed by the university community as a chancellor who means well and often does well, but who has also taken repeated missteps in some areas.

“He seems well intentioned,” said Robert Van Gulick, a philosophy professor, “but there’s been some bumps in the road.”

Syverud was described almost universally as personable and as someone who can lift the moods of those around him, something he exhibited at the meeting concerning the promenade. But at the same time, Syverud is a lawyer who is careful with his decisions and words, as he was when he made no promises at the promenade meeting.

About two dozen faculty members interviewed for this story said there has been a steady trend under Syverud, both before and after the promenade debacle, of poor communication and little shared governance in implementing major initiatives and projects.

Additionally, there’s a shared feeling across pockets of campus that Syverud is prioritizing spending money on infrastructure projects, like the promenade, over spending on academic initiatives.

Together, the facets of Syverud’s leadership style have enabled him to make progress on a number of fronts, including putting the university in a position to succeed financially long term. But those achievements required decisions that have changed the university at its crux, something that has often been met with resistance.

“Anytime somebody new comes in, there’s going to be that period of adjustment,” said Anne Osborne, associate professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “But there’s a long game here, and the chancellor’s job is to play the long game. I think that only time will tell.”


Frankie Prijatel | Senior Staff Photographer

‘It’s about liability all the time’

Syverud waited less than two months into the job to make the decision that many consider his most controversial and the first indication of the type of chancellor he would be.

In May 2014 Syverud announced the closing of the Advocacy Center, which provided resources to victims of sexual assault, and the integration of the center’s services into the Counseling Center. The move was met with backlash from some on campus and became the catalyst for THE General Body’s protests the following fall. It was then that THE General Body, a coalition of student organizations, staged an 18-day sit-in at Crouse-Hinds Hall over grievances with university officials and resources.

The center’s closing sparked outrage and grief among protesters, but emotions never influenced the decision itself. Instead, it was about legality.

“This designation was made because the Counseling Center is the place on campus that can offer students access to completely confidential and privileged services under federal guidelines and state law,” Senior Vice President and Dean of Student Affairs Rebecca Reed Kantrowitz wrote in a letter to the editor appearing on that June.

Syverud, who graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1981 before teaching law at two universities and later serving stints as the dean of two law schools, is a lawyer at his core. He came to SU from the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, where he served as dean from 2005-13.

The closing of the Advocacy Center was the first of several decisions to reflect that background, as Syverud has developed a reputation of making decisions based largely on what is in the university’s best legal interest. Several faculty said that approach has in their eyes led to poor decisions, as they believe Syverud is more concerned with the legal nature of decisions than with what is best for the university community as a whole.

In August 2014, Syverud opted not to compile the Committee Z report, a public record of average faculty salaries in SU’s schools and colleges. The report allowed SU to look for issues such as pay inequities across gender, department and college.

The university had shared that data for nearly 50 years prior to 2014, but has declined to do so since then because of legal concerns. Syverud has said those concerns stem from an antitrust lawsuit brought against law schools years ago for sharing faculty salary data.

More recently, Syverud’s acute attention to the law has influenced his responses to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policy proposals. Trump has called for mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, and while Syverud has expressed support for undocumented students, he has hesitated to designate SU a “sanctuary campus.”

That has become a point of contention on campus, but Syverud has continued to avoid the sanctuary label because of the possibility that SU could lose federal funding for not complying with federal law.

“I think there’s a feeling that decisions are made to protect the university as an institution and that may not be in the best interest of faculty, students and staff. It’s about liability all the time,” said Tula Goenka, an associate professor of television, radio and film, in an October interview. Goenka serves on the Chancellor’s Task Force for Sexual & Relationship Violence and has become one of the top advocates for civil rights on campus, having organized events such as the SU Human Rights Film Festival and marched in support of SU designating itself a sanctuary campus.

Like any good lawyer, Syverud pays special attention to detail and is careful when making public statements that his words are backed completely by facts.

Earlier this semester, he waited two weeks to publicly denounce Trump’s original executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.

I think there's a feeling that decisions are made to protect the university as an institution and that may not be in the best interest of faculty, students and staff.
Tula Goenka

Two petitions calling on Syverud to oppose the ban circulated before he made his comments and some faculty criticized him for not taking a firm stance sooner. But while those petitions were being created and circulated, Syverud was closely studying the travel ban.

“Many people issued statements very quickly and I was somewhat surprised, because I was unable to even locate the text of what the travel ban was that they were commenting on,” he said. “So the first thing I needed to do was figure out what actually the proposal was. Once I read the proposal I realized it had implications for the university.”

Syverud added that he had to clarify what his membership on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Academic Advisory Council meant for what he could and couldn’t say about the travel ban.

Syverud has also surrounded himself with lawyers, creating a feeling among some faculty and staff that the university is run by lawyers. Since Syverud became chancellor, two lawyers have ascended to officer positions on the Board of Trustees: Lisa Dolak, the secretary to the board and Reinaldo Pascual, a vice chair of the board.

Those with law backgrounds in Syverud’s administration include Andy Gordon, chief human resources officer and LaVonda Reed, associate provost for faculty affairs.

“He seems to have a preference for lawyers, and he is one,” said Mark Monmonier, a distinguished professor of geography. “And that might explain some of these decisions.”


Daily Orange File Photo

‘I guess that makes me an introvert’

They come at least a handful of times each semester, and sometimes more frequently than that. This academic year alone, they have covered Syverud’s dog, veterans, American Sign Language interpreters and professors he deemed “incredibly strong teachers.”

They are Syverud’s emails to the community beginning with “Dear Orange Friends.” The emails come randomly from Syverud, who typically uses them to communicate about people or events on campus that impress him.

The emails are indicative of Syverud’s cordial personality and his ability to communicate in a friendly way. Colleagues past and present think Syverud has a personal touch that can be unusual for administrators.

While Syverud is praised for his ability to connect on a personal level, he has had less success communicating to the larger community about his initiatives.

“I like interacting with people,” Syverud said. “I learn more from a 40-minute conversation with one person than from 40 one-minute conversations with people. I guess that makes me an introvert. The main challenge in this job is that there’s so many people that merit a 40-minute conversation and there’s so little time in the day to do it.”

The “Dear Orange Friends” emails have enabled Syverud to have a presence in the public eye, but he’s often bypassed the public when it has come to providing information about important issues.

When SU closed the Advocacy Center, the news was buried toward the end of a memo that also included information about other university initiatives. Syverud later apologized for the university’s communication about the closing.

The university also decided this year to shut down the College of Law’s Cold Case Justice Initiative, but no university officials commented on that development until The Daily Orange reported it.

“It is a little concerning to me that he’s made some miscommunication missteps and he’s acknowledged it and said we have to do better, and then the misstep has been repeated in the next incident,” said Suzanne Lysak, an associate professor of broadcast and digital journalism, in a November interview. “When they have a misstep in communication, they need to apply what they learn to the next major event.”

SU has also at times lacked transparency in its day-to-day operations under Syverud. Craig Dudczak, an associate professor in the College of Visual and Performing Arts and former member of the University Senate’s budget committee, said he immediately noticed restrictions in information related to the budget when Syverud became chancellor.

I like interacting with people. I learn more from a 40-minute conversation with one person than from 40 one-minute conversations with people. I guess that makes me an introvert.
Kent Syverud

In the three-and-a-half years that Dudczak served on the committee before Syverud was chancellor, he said university officials met regularly with the committee to share information about SU’s budget.

“Beginning with Syverud’s arrival, those people were suddenly not available,” he said.

In its report to the Senate earlier this month, the budget committee wrote that it plans to ask to meet with the Board of Trustees budget committee “to facilitate direct communication between the Senate Committee and the Board Committee.”

Syverud contends that transparency at SU is better than it has been under previous administrations, though he added that “we’re not all the way there yet.”

“In higher education in the United States, we’re moving away from transparency, not toward it,” he said. “I’m hoping that Syracuse will counter that trend gradually.”

Some in the campus community, though, would like to see that occur more quickly. Several people interviewed said they’ve become exasperated with the trend of information flow under Syverud. In several cases, they said they enjoyed things like Syverud’s “Dear Orange Friends” emails early in his tenure and, because of that, grew to like him personally.

“I generally like the things he has to say, and I generally like when he talks,” said Laura Lautz, an associate professor in the earth sciences department. “But the honeymoon period is over.”


Daily Orange File Photo

Solo governance

Before the start of the 2016-17 academic year, committee chairs of the University Senate met privately with new Provost Michele Wheatly and had a candid discussion, expressing their unfiltered feelings about Syverud and the rest of university leadership.

Among the meeting’s main talking points was university governance. Senators voiced dissatisfaction with what many faculty and staff believe has been an undemocratic system of making major decisions since Syverud became chancellor, according to two senators who were at the meeting. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was private.

One of the first apparent signs of that trend came in 2014, when the Senate’s nearly unanimous vote to oppose changes to SU’s promotion procedure was disregarded.

The Senate passed a resolution 76-1 urging SU to maintain what had long been the university’s policy when it came to promoting faculty from one rank to another, a decision that was made by the faculty. University leadership wanted to change the policy and give the central administration control over promotions, and SU moved forward with that proposal after the Senate vote.

The Senate, administrators and Board of Trustees later agreed to create an advisory group for promotions, but the process is overseen by the administration.

“The message that sends to me is to say to faculty, ‘You just work here. And we make the big decisions. And if you don’t like our decisions, that’s tough,’” said Mark Rupert, a professor of political science.

The perception of one-sided decision-making has since manifested itself on several occasions.

SU recently announced that VPA’s Bandier Program will move to the Newhouse School. That move was made without any public discussion, even though some in VPA opposed it.

Syverud and university leadership caught the most flak for a decision in the fall of 2015 that the University Senate didn’t vote on, when SU implemented a new travel and entertainment policy requiring SU employees to use a designated online booking service for work-related travel.

The move was met swiftly with backlash from faculty and staff, who chided it as inefficient. The university announced changes to the policy the following January that fixed the issues faculty and staff had pointed out months earlier.

“It was perfectly clear it was just a rubbish idea,” said Albrecht Diem, an associate professor of history, “but nevertheless the university had to push it through and we had to do it for a couple of months until they realized what was obvious right from the beginning and they abolished it.”

SU has also developed a trend under Syverud of making decisions and announcing projects when classes are not in session — periods during which the Senate is not meeting and there are fewer people on campus to question decisions.

SU announced the Advocacy Center’s closing after classes and finals ended in May 2014. The university over this past summer announced about $250 million in renovations to the Carrier Dome and Archbold Gymnasium.

“If you’re going to make these things work, you need buy-in from the faculty,” said Van Gulick, the philosophy professor. “And if you don’t have buy-in from the faculty, it’s going to be less successful.”

Syverud said he values the input of others, but those close to him have also said that he believes strongly in his own judgment and will often trust his instincts even if it is met with opposition.

That was clear in the summer of 2014 and into the fall, when SU was searching for a dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

When the dean search committee narrowed down its finalists to three, it planned to invite them to campus for forums with the community. Syverud opposed doing that because he worried the candidates wanted to keep their candidacy secret, according to two members of the search committee who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private interactions.

If you're going to make these things work, you need buy-in from the faculty. And if you don't have buy-in from the faculty, it's going to be less successful.
Robert Van Gulick

A vast majority of the committee supported inviting the candidates to campus, according to one member, who added that it took “a lot of tug of war” to convince Syverud. When he finally gave in, he was “bitter and upset” about it, that committee member said.

“He said, ‘I’m all for you and will be doing what’s best for you. Why don’t you believe me? Why don’t you trust me?” the committee member said. “… In general I have found that he thinks, ‘I’m the leader. You people have chosen me, so therefore you have to believe in me.’”

But ardent supporters of Syverud say he has a specific vision for SU that — as evidenced by his university-wide Fast Forward Syracuse initiative — every decision is meant to fall in line with.

Syverud’s overarching intention with each decision is to boost the university’s prestige, said School of Education Dean Joanna Masingila. SU’s reputation suffered under Syverud’s predecessor, former Chancellor Nancy Cantor, as the university fell in national rankings and lagged behind many of its peers, she said.

“If we want to move up with them or surpass them, we need to have a plan,” Masingila said. “He’s trying to get the university, the campus, to have a plan. … Getting everybody moving together with a plan, I think that’s a good strategy.”


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Question of values

When Chinese undergraduate student Xiaopeng “Pippen” Yuan was murdered in September, SU sent a professor and a staff member from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs to greet his parents at the airport. The faculty and staff member had no prior experience in such a situation but were sent because they were fluent in Chinese.

The university has few concrete resources available for international students: Even as the university has claimed it is prioritizing internationalization and as international enrollment has increased, the Slutzker Center for International Services has seen its staff reduced in recent years.

“There was a terrible shortage of support (when Pippen was murdered),” said Yutaka Sho, an associate professor of architecture. “That’s not OK.”

The Slutzker Center isn’t the only place on campus that is understaffed. The university has cut back on its staff members, as 254 workers took part in SU’s voluntary buyout program in 2015.

Critics of Syverud see the buyout as part of a larger trend of him neglecting the university’s core resources and mission in favor of preserving financial resources. It’s particularly unnerving to faculty who point out that the university has simultaneously spent millions on infrastructure projects.

Syverud’s desire to save money can be traced back to the spending habits of his predecessor. When Syverud became chancellor, SU was in somewhat of a dire fiscal state: The university was spending from its reserves and losing money after Cantor had poured resources into the local community.

The Board of Trustees mandated that he balance the budget, both university-wide and at every unit level.

That has resulted in cuts to some programs, such as Posse scholarships. It has resulted in the consolidating of resources, such as when SU merged the Division of Student Experience and the Division of Enrollment Management. And it, of course, resulted in the buyout.

The buyout has meant that a number of departments and other units on campus are now understaffed. In several academic departments, such as history, there are only one or two administrative staffers doing the same amount of work — without pay raises — that three staffers used to be responsible for, faculty members said.

Faculty say the budget constraints have also trickled down to them, as their salaries have stayed mostly stagnant and faculty vacancies have gone unfilled.

At the same time, the university has flooded dollars into infrastructure projects. It has completed one relatively large project — the promenade — and announced plans to spend about $250 million on the Dome and Archbold. SU has also regularly added highly paid administrators since early in Syverud’s tenure.

In the eyes of some faculty, that disparity has created a contradiction and has caused them to question what Syverud considers the university’s top priorities.

“It’s jarring when on the one hand we’re being told we have to be fiscally disciplined, and on the other hand there seems to be an unlimited amount of money for fixing up the Dome and installing heated sidewalks and a better gym,” said Tom Perreault, a professor of geography.

Some community members said they’ve also seen a contradiction between Syverud’s rhetoric and his proposals related to academic initiatives. In his inaugural address, he identified the College of Arts and Sciences as one of his primary focuses.

In the years since that address, little money has flowed to the college, at least relative to SU’s spending on campus improvement projects, faculty in the college said. Several professors claimed that there aren’t enough faculty members in Arts and Sciences, that many classrooms aren’t adequate, that there aren’t enough quality teaching assistants and that faculty salaries have stayed stagnant.

It's jarring when on the one hand we're being told we have to be fiscally disciplined, and on the other hand there seems to be an unlimited amount of money for fixing up the Dome and installing heated sidewalks and a better gym.
Tom Perreault

SU did, however, recently move into the top tier for research among all doctoral universities in the country, according to rankings in the 2015 Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education published in February 2016.

Syverud said the community is right to be concerned about the university’s priorities, acknowledging that there has been more movement with the Campus Framework than with the Academic Strategic Plan. But he added that academics are and will remain the university’s top priority.

“To get consensus on academic priorities takes longer and requires much more involvement at the school and college level, but it remains the highest priority,” he said, saying that hiring Provost Wheatly and CFO Amir Rahnamay-Azar has helped speed up the process. “And it’s a high priority that requires more resources than we’ve deployed to it as of right now.”

There are some members of the university community who are supportive of Syverud’s early focus on making physical improvements to the campus.

Matthew Mulvaney, an associate professor of human development in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, called it “ridiculous” that many faculty were upset about the construction of the promenade.

Donald Dutkowsky, a professor of economics in Maxwell, praised Syverud for addressing the Dome, saying “everybody knows it’s long overdue for some real refurbishing.”

A beautified campus will be more attractive to prospective students, proponents argue, and tuition will always be the university’s top money generator, making it easy to justify infrastructure projects.

“It’s not black and white,” said Ken Harper, an associate professor of multimedia photography and design. “You have to pay for the new gym. You have to pay for the new building. You have to pay for the new promenade. And they’re all very nice things. I love it. It’s awesome. I would just like to see balance.”


Ally Moreo | Photo Editor


Syverud paused, leaned back and stared to the floor in his office on the sixth floor of Crouse-Hinds Hall as he considered the question: Since becoming chancellor, what has been the biggest surprise about his job?

“I have learned a great deal about how complicated the organic structure of decision-making and governance at a great university really is,” he said after a few moments of silence. “It is emphatically not a small law school.”

At the Washington University School of Law, Syverud oversaw a school with a total student population of less than 1,000. SU’s total student enrollment is well over 20,000. His job here is vastly different than any position he’s been in previously, and Syverud has worked his way through learning curves in the early years of his time as chancellor.

It’s clear, however, that Syverud has achieved his intention of balancing the university’s budget. He said in January that SU is running a “genuinely balanced budget” and that the university’s endowment is again growing after years of either remaining stagnant or decreasing.

The decisions Syverud has made to reach that point have left him unpopular among some in the community, but he says he welcomes the various perspectives on his leadership style. They’re hard to avoid, he recognizes, at a considerably diverse and constantly changing university like SU.

“I wouldn’t want to be at a place where people feel compelled to agree universally all the time,” Syverud said. “So when people disagree or point out imperfections in things, it doesn’t bother me. It tells me we’re a university.”

CLARIFICATION: In a previous version of this article, Peter Cronin, SU’s vice president for development, legal background was unclear. Cronin currently works at a law school, but does not have a law background.

CLARIFICATION: In a previous version of this article, Richard Thompson’s ascent was unclear. Thompson served as chairman of the Board of Trustees before moving into the chairman emeritus role in 2015.

Banner photo by Moriah Ratner | Staff Photographer