Syracuse University Magazine

Q and A with Chancellor Kent Syverud


What do you perceive to be some of the challenges facing Syracuse University?

I think the key challenges facing Syracuse University are the same ones facing all of higher education today. Technology is changing higher education just as it is changing every other field of endeavor. We cannot be in denial about this. There are some aspects of a great education that will never change, like excellent teaching with face-to-face interaction between teacher and student. But other aspects are going to continue evolving dramatically, and we need to be out in front of it.

I also think we need to pay more attention to our global competitors. Universities have been among the most stable sectors of this nation’s economy, but other countries are now investing heavily to overtake us. We need to expand our notion of “competitor” beyond U.S. News and World Report and start paying attention to what other countries are doing to try to surpass us.

And, of course, affordability is a big concern. We want students who are hungry for knowledge and for the chance to be the best they can be, whether they come from rich, poor, or middle-class backgrounds. So how do we keep higher education within reach financially? Syracuse University actually has been ahead of most of its peers in this regard, and we need to build on that in ways that are consistent with our values and maintain our ability to deliver an excellent academic experience.

What do you see as Syracuse University’s greatest strengths?

Syracuse has a history of embracing innovation and of taking risks. Chancellor Tolley’s decision to enroll scores of returning World War II soldiers under the newly implemented GI Bill was an incredibly bold move. It also was probably one of the most important strategic decisions made here in the past half-century. That institutional willingness to take risks and respond nimbly to emerging needs will serve us well during this time of rapid change.

We have wonderful students who come here in spite of our long winters. They are resourceful and eager to discover what excites them and where they fit into the world. They are learning from dedicated teachers who are pursuing research discoveries on campus and around the world. Our faculty are not only outstanding scholars and researchers; first and foremost, they are passionate teachers who care about their students and about making Syracuse the best place it can be.

What are your top priorities in this first year?

To learn as much about Syracuse University and listen to as many people as I can. I believe that is absolutely necessary in order to practice due diligence before formulating a vision of where we go next. Four things that I do believe will be essential to our long-term success are enhancing undergraduate education and the undergraduate experience; empowering excellent research, especially interdisciplinary research; embracing opportunities for change and innovation; and making Syracuse a leader in empowering and promoting opportunities for veterans.

Can you give three words to describe yourself?

Nope. Human beings are complicated and wonderful. Trying to reduce them to three words or 140 characters is exactly what I try never to do.

What do you see as your strengths?

I like to listen. I learned long ago that there’s so much you can learn just by asking and genuinely hearing what people are saying to you. I also work hard at valuing people as they are and then trying to inspire them, respectfully, to be even more. I also genuinely know what I don’t know and want to learn it. As I get older, I realize how much there still is to learn in every area. That’s a joyous discovery for me because there’s always something new to learn, and learning and discovery are what keep you young.

We understand you are an avid reader. What are some of your all-time favorite books?

For stress relief, I read murder mysteries—right now Colin Cotterill’s Laotian series. I read aloud to my kids for many, many years, and the best read-aloud book was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. My other favorites include Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative and Water Margin, a Chinese classic. But I read pretty much everything.

Other hobbies?

I love music, especially opera and choral music, and I sang in choirs through high school, college, and while I was dean at Vanderbilt. Of course, music is a big deal in Nashville, so it was quite strenuous. But it was great because it was the one thing I did where it was not possible to think about anything else while doing it, because if you weren’t paying attention, you got into trouble. So it was very therapeutic. I also love outdoor activities in any season, like cross-country skiing, canoeing, and kayaking.