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Andy RosenAndrew S. Rosen is the author of Change.edu: Rebooting for the New Talent Economy and a frequent speaker on the challenges facing higher education in a knowledge economy. He is also chairman and CEO of Kaplan, Inc., one of the world’s largest and most diverse education organizations.

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Syracuse University: Sliding Toward Responsibility

Posted by Andy Rosen on October 3, 2011

 The Chronicle of Higher Education today posts a long story, “Syracuse’s Slide,” that is most remarkable for the fact that it is remarkable.

Syracuse University’s chancellor, Nancy Cantor, is trying to improve the community and serve disadvantaged students. That might sound like a good thing, but her critics think it’s disastrous for the university:

Before she came, they say, Syracuse was on the way to becoming a more selective university that competed with some of the nation’s best private urban institutions. Now, the chancellor seems most intent on providing opportunities—both for this struggling city and for disadvantaged students. As a result, Syracuse is fading on the national stage, falling in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of national universities and dropping out—before it could be forced out—of the prestigious Association of American Universities, whose members are considered the nation’s top research institutions.

A decline in rankings and exit from prestigious associations is a nightmare scenario for most traditional universities, as I discuss in Change.edu.  And sure enough, Cantor’s being attacked from all sides. Says a history professor: “My fear is the university is moving away from selective to inclusive.” And let’s be clear: to traditionalists, openness to too many low-income students is a bad thing. The professor warns: “This may be an admirable goal, but it’s going to have an impact on our reputation. It’s a road to nowhere for a place like Syracuse.”

Cantor is remarkably open about her perspective, and appears to be placid about the storm that surrounds her:

She often quotes the hockey great Wayne Gretzky, who said he followed his father’s advice to “skate to where the puck’s going, not where it’s been.” For Syracuse, says Ms. Cantor, that means no longer enrolling primarily well-off white students from the Northeast—its historic sweet spot—when a growing proportion of the college-going population is lower-income, minority, and from the South and West. “If you were a strategic business you would be optimizing on what the world is goingto look like,” she says. “You wouldn’t be holding on for dear life to your brand.”

Based on the Ivory Tower Playbook that most universities use, Cantor is going about things entirely wrong: as chancellor, her job is to improve the prestige of her university. By those rules, she needs more wealthy Northeastern kids who didn’t get into elite colleges, not fewer.

But those Northeastern kids won’t suffer if Syracuse turns its gaze elsewhere. Their mailboxes are already bulging from all the schools trying to lure them into a spot in their freshman classes. Our society benefits far more from a Syracuse University that delivers an excellent education to lower-income and minority kids than from one that doubles down on the same wealthy kids everyone else is ready to serve.

I watched Moneyball over the weekend, a movie about the strength needed to buck convention. Nancy Cantor, like Michael Crow at Arizona State, is showing she’s willing to do the right thing even when the world around her think she’s crazy to defy conventional wisdom.  Good for her. Who will be the next college leader willing to risk rankings and prestige –the holy grail for higher ed – to expand access?

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