Syracuse University Magazine

Thoughtful  Presence

Thoughtful Presence

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Chancellor Kent Syverud is known and admired for a leadership style that reflects his personable nature, sharp intellect, passion for listening, and commitment to helping others achieve success

By Carol L. Boll

When Washington University School of Law Dean Kent Syverud called Adrienne Davis to recruit her for a faculty post at the school, Davis says her first thought was—“Wow! I’ve been waiting 10 years for this phone call!” She had worked previously for Syverud during a brief stint as visiting fellow while he was dean at Vanderbilt University Law School and had long hoped for another opportunity to work under him. If she had been predisposed to accept the offer, her conversation with Syverud during a recruitment dinner further sealed the deal. “I was doing my ‘faculty recruitment’ thing, and I expected him to be doing his ‘dean recruitment’ thing,” recalls Davis, a law professor and vice provost at Washington University in St. Louis. “And he really pushed me. He wanted to talk about my articles and my scholarship, and I thought, ‘This guy has actually read my work. And he’s invested in it.’ And he kept pushing me to articulate what I needed as a faculty member to move forward to the next step. I was stunned. No dean had ever asked me that before.” 

That interaction, Davis says, exemplifies what she calls Syverud’s “Wizard of Oz” quality—“his real understanding of what each person needs to get ‘home.’ He really would press [faculty] to articulate what we needed, and to come up with a sense of what we could do and what the institution could do to support it. It was absolutely extraordinary.”

In January, Syverud left Washington University to begin his tenure as Syracuse University’s 12th Chancellor and President. And friends, former colleagues, and those involved in his selection say his well-documented passion for empowering the highest and best potential in students, faculty, and the institution as a whole will serve SU very well. He’s the type of person, they say, who would rather listen and learn about others than talk about himself. A person of extraordinary intellect as well as deep humility. A collaborator and consensus-builder. A gifted teacher who works hard to know his students “by name and by story” and who still gratefully acknowledges those who helped shape his own story. (To read a Q&A with Chancellor Syverud, click here.)

Syverud’s appointment marks a homecoming of sorts for him. A native of Irondequoit, New York, he says he is thrilled with his return to Upstate New York and, specifically, with his new post at Syracuse University—the first college campus he saw as a child. “It was funny, but when the recruiting firm called about the position here, they started to go into this spiel about how despite the snow it really was an okay place to be and that I should consider it,” he says. “But for me, Syracuse was always the university when I was growing up. So it was sort of like that line from the movie Jerry McGuire—‘You had me at hello!’  People have sometimes pitched things to me that didn’t feel right. This just felt right. And it still does.” 

Search committee members say Syverud was easily the unanimous choice to replace Chancellor Nancy Cantor, who left to assume the top post at Rutgers University-Newark. “On paper, it was clear that we were dealing with someone who showed tremendous skill and ability from not only an administrative standpoint, but also from an academic ability standpoint,” says Ryan Williams, SU’s associate vice president for enrollment management and a member of the search committee. “Then when we met him, it was striking—and I mean striking—just how thoughtful he was, how prepared he was. He really understood the nuances of Syracuse University from every standpoint, and he understood some of the trials and tribulations that a school like Syracuse would be going through in Upstate New York, competing against some of the best institutions in the country if not the world.”

Williams says he also was deeply impressed by Syverud’s humility and clear appreciation for the opportunity before him. “It was very apparent that here was someone who really appreciated where he was, appreciated this opportunity to be at a place like Syracuse University, and really was going to make the most of it,” Williams says. “He made us feel very proud to be a part of SU during the interview process.”

Management professor Kris Byron agrees, citing Syverud’s sense of authenticity, strong listening skills, record of achievements, and superior intellect as a potent combination that quickly won over committee members. “It was a true Kent love fest,” Byron recalls with a laugh. “When he left the room after his second interview, no one hesitated. I mean, it felt like we were on the second date and we were ready to get married. I’m not exaggerating. And we were a very diverse bunch of people who came in there with different ideas about what the institution needed.”

Chancellor Search Committee Chair and SU Trustee Joanne Alper ’72 says she came away from the interview process impressed not only by Syverud’s tremendous intellect, humility, and natural leadership presence, but also by his keen focus on students. “During the first interview, when Kent was given the opportunity to ask questions of the committee members, his first questions were to the students,” she says. “During the second round, when we met with him in a smaller group, again his first questions were to the student. Throughout the process, he demonstrated a sincere desire to learn more about the students’ backgrounds, lives, interests, needs, and ambitions.”

That quality of Syverud’s leadership style has been vividly evident since his first days on campus, says Board of Trustees Chairman Richard Thompson G’67. “The first and most important impression about Chancellor Syverud during the interview process was his laser-like focus on the quality of the student experience,” Thompson says.  “Since he was named Chancellor, there have been dozens of examples of this focus, including his decision to live in a residence hall for two weeks in December. He continues to reach out to students every day in the classrooms, the cafeterias, sporting events, and public gatherings. His commitment to improving the opportunities for every student has already made a big difference for the entire University community.”

Passion for Education

Syverud took a somewhat circuitous route to the Chancellorship of the university down the road from his childhood home. One of five siblings, including an identical twin, Scott, he developed an early passion for learning—a trait for which he credits his fifth-grade teacher, who challenged him intellectually and refused to let him “drift.” Her name? “Shirley Berger,” he says. “She only taught at Irondequoit for a year, and I’ve never seen or heard of her since, but she really transformed my life. She was spectacular.” After high school, he attended Georgetown University to study for the foreign service, but eventually opted for graduate study in economics and earned a law degree at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

While at Michigan, Syverud struck up a friendship with a young woman pursuing graduate study in environmental toxicology and public health who rented a room in the same rooming house. “She was dating a Canadian statistician, and I concluded she could do better,” he says with a smile. “And, fortunately, she eventually reached that conclusion also.” Syverud and the doctoral student, Ruth Chen, married in 1982 and are the parents of three sons: Steven, a business development officer for Coursera; Brian, a graduate student in biomedical engineering at University of Michigan; and David, a graduate of Augsburg College who recently completed an externship in finance and accounting for an assisted living company. (To read a profile of Dr. Ruth Chen, click here.)

Chancellor with Sandra Day O'ConnorA defining point in Syverud’s law school career came with the opportunity to clerk for a relative newcomer to, and first woman to serve on, the U.S. Supreme Court—Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The experience, he says, was incredibly intense yet deeply rewarding. “Justice O’Connor was extremely kind and understanding, yet also had extremely high standards,” he says. “She was a very straight-forward person who calls it as she sees it, and that’s a great work environment. You know what to expect. You know to aim high. I enjoyed it terrifically.” Syverud says he was particularly struck by O’Connor’s capacity for efficiency and kindness even as she shouldered the burden of making life-and-death decisions. “At the time, I didn’t realize that was unusual,” he says. “I just thought that was the way people in leadership roles behaved. I was really fortunate that this was the first experience I had with someone in a high-pressure, high-demand job, because she did it so well.”

He also clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Louis Oberdorfer, during which time he formed a close and lasting friendship with a fellow law clerk, Robert E. Cooper Jr., who now serves as attorney general for Tennessee. Cooper says the two law clerks immediately hit it off. “Kent obviously was incredibly smart,” Cooper recalls. “But in addition to being smart, he was just an excellent communicator and a great listener. He was someone who I think had a vision, but was not overwhelmed with himself and by his success. He has always been a humble guy.” Cooper says even then he assumed Syverud ultimately would land in academia. “It was clear to anyone who knew him then that wherever he went to teach, he was soon going to be running the place. And that’s certainly the way it’s turned out,” he says.

After a short stint with a private law practice, Syverud entered academia on the urging of the same law school mentor, Allan Smith, who had recommended him for the Supreme Court clerkship. He joined the University of Michigan Law School faculty in 1987 and discovered a passion for teaching. He continued to teach even as he moved into administration, first as dean at Vanderbilt Law School and then at Washington University in St. Louis. In fact, excluding leading a seminar at Washington University in early January, this marks the first semester he has not taught a class. He hopes to add teaching to his schedule next fall.

Connecting with Students

Syverud says he has continued teaching because he loves to see those “light bulb” moments students experience as well as the opportunity to satisfy his own intellectual curiosity about the latest research discoveries. In an essay titled “Why I Teach,” from the Spring 2009 issue of Washington University Law Magazine, he offered yet another reason: “Without daily exposure to student learning—and to how hard good teaching is—a dean can gradually come to take the ingredients of a great education for granted.” One of those essential ingredients—good teaching—begins with “knowing students really well,” Syverud says. “Knowing where they’re coming from. Knowing what they already think they know, including what they already think they know that’s wrong. You need to know them by name and by story. And you need to take them as they are and build from that.”

Former colleagues from Washington University say Syverud excelled at building connections with students. “Kent would always think of everything in terms of how this is going to help students,” recalls Peter Joy, law professor and former vice dean under Syverud. “Most institutions of higher education in my experience start to think that whatever is good for the teachers or the administrators just has to be good for students—when, in fact, that is not always the case.” He also cites Syverud’s doggedness in helping students, recalling an instance where one recent graduate was repeatedly stymied by his inability to land a job. “Kent spent an enormous amount of time with the student—talking to him and connecting with the career services office, which in turn put him in touch with an employment coach,” Joy says. “Kent reached out to different people he knew, and it basically became a joint mission to help this student. He just has such determination. He never gives up. He doesn’t give up on students, he doesn’t give up on their aspirations, and he conveys that to them.” 

Washington University’s Adrienne Davis says Syverud shows the same regard for faculty and excels as a consensus builder. She remembers the time he brought before the faculty an initiative involving online course offerings that had been in the works for more than a year. “And then the faculty balked,” she recalls. “A lot of deans would have lost their tempers or gotten frustrated and abandoned the effort. But Kent said, ‘You know what? You guys are right. Let’s do a do-over. Let’s get more faculty and staff involved; let’s do this from the beginning, and let’s do it right.’ I was stunned. We did, and we had the same outcome. But this time, everybody bought into it. That part was really illuminating for me—his willingness to say, ‘This isn’t the process it should’ve been, and we’re going to redo it,’ because process is crucial for institutions of higher education.”

Scott Syverud, a physician at University of Virginia, says his twin brother never was one to shy away from difficult challenges. “He’s very direct,” Scott Syverud says. “He doesn’t like to avoid problems but rather solve them, including the hard ones where there are strong opinions on multiple sides. The ones that most of us put off or hope will go away or leave for somebody else to take care of. That’s not his character.” 

Syverud has put that quality to work outside the university setting as well, serving as one of two appointed independent trustees for the $20 billion Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Trust. The fund was established to compensate victims of the 2010 explosion of a BP oil rig that killed 11 and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. In a radio interview last fall with SU political science professor Grant Reeher, Syverud said that experience has underscored for him the critical importance of honestly acknowledging risks and taking steps to manage them. “I’m trying to learn from that, and to practice non-avoidance of problems,” he said in the interview. “If there’s a problem, it’s important not to pretend it’s not there, or to let your PR efforts overwhelm your self-knowledge.”

Syverud’s willingness to face issues head-on, listen to diverse stakeholders, and support the aspirations of others speaks to that aspect of leadership that he says he most enjoys: Stewardship. “And by that,” he says, “I mean the role of facilitating the success of others and confronting obstacles to people’s success and either making it work better or making it get out of the way.” Toward that end, he has wasted no time in starting to build relationships with members of his new campus community, launching the “Bleeding Orange” blog available at chancellor.syr.edu, spending two weeks in December living in the Brewster-Boland-Brockway student housing complex, touring campus buildings and classrooms, and listening, listening, listening. It’s all part of what he calls “the best job in the world.”

“There’s something special about Syracuse and about what happens in this place,” says Syverud, a voracious reader who consumed five volumes on SU history before he even arrived on campus. “These are the best people in the world here. They are scrappy, entrepreneurial, decent people who overachieve relative to the expectations others thrust upon them. And that is just wonderful to see. You see it in the students who play the bells in Crouse College. You see it in the folks who are Otto the Orange. You see it in the classroom. It’s special. It is idiosyncratically Syracuse, and it’s got to be nurtured and protected and get even better. But that’s my job.” «

 


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INAUGURATION DAY

The University celebrated Chancellor Kent Syverud’s inauguration on April 11 with a number of activities, including a campus run with the Chancellor, an academic symposium, a student showcase, a formal inauguration ceremony in Hendricks Chapel, and a campus community celebration on the Shaw Quad. At left, the SU Marching Band performs on the Shaw Quad.



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FIRST DAY

On his first official day as Chancellor, Kent Syverud visited with students on stops all around campus, including the Carnegie Library and the Schine Student Center, where he and his wife, Dr. Ruth Chen, had lunch with a group of students.



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Photos by Steve Sartori; contributing photographer Susan Kahn



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