Cantor grew up in New York City during the socially turbulent 60s, dreaming of becoming a ballet dancer. After returning
home from dance lessons, she joined family dinner discussions
about the continuous stream of major news events spawned by
the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. It was in this
context that she began to embrace the values of diversity
and change. Social causes were very important in my
family, and growing up during the height of the civil rights
and womens movements, I was constantly exposed to the
issues of citizenship and public engagement, says Cantor,
who will begin her tenure as Syracuse Universitys 11th
Chancellor and President in August. I was actively involved
in social causes and did a lot of exploration of New York
Citys many neighborhoods, ethnicities, and cultures.
experiences as a teenager helped shape her work as a social
psychologist: She volunteered with the Encampment for Citizenship
program in a rural coal-mining town in West Virginia, and
she participated in an international exchange program, living
for several months in a small fishing village near Bergen,
Norway. These were really eye-opening experiences and
got me thinking about how to cross boundaries between different
kinds of people, she says. You become much more
observant about yourself and the world by fumbling around
in another persons culture. While initially that can
be nerve-wracking, you also learn how rewarding it can be
to bridge those gaps.
of Madeleine Cantor Brechin
Madeleine Cantor Brechin, left, celebrates high school
graduation with her parents and brother Archie.
these early experiences, Cantor nurtured her passion for dance
and the arts. One reason she chose to attend Sarah Lawrence
College, a small liberal arts institution in Westchester County,
New York, was because of its dance program and its commitment
to the arts. It was a very experimental, artistic, and
creative place, she says. It was a perfect school
for me because I really developed my interest in interdisciplinary
work and creativityin all its forms. Because the
school required no specific academic majors, she studied everything
from anthropology and literature to visual art and psychology.
Through this framework, she learned that the creative process
could be applied to everything, even an intensive independent
study she took in mathematical number theory.
graduating from Sarah Lawrence in 1974, she enrolled in the
doctoral program in experimental mathematical psychology at
Stanford University, knowing she wanted to become a professor.
Throughout her studies, she moved between several research
areas, including cognitive psychology and math modeling. She
eventually settled on social psychology, a hybrid field that
examines individuals in a group environment. Today, she says
she continues to draw on her education daily, using an interdisciplinary
approach to problems and examining how individuals develop
identity through full participation in social groups and connections
to others. Its so important for a university to
think about questions of society and individuals, how to prepare
future leaders who can defuse conflicts, and how to make people
feel comfortable enough to take risks, try new things, and
change, she says.
Cantor believes strongly in peoples ability to change
and grow. She has focused much of her scholarly work on how
individuals can alter their self-perceptions by taking advantage
of new opportunities and stretching their comfort zones. She
incorporated those theories into her work as chair of the
psychology department at Princeton University; dean of the
graduate school and then provost and executive vice president
at the University of Michigan; and chancellor of the University
of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Interdisciplinary work
and diversity on a campus are valuable because they change
peoples perceptions of themselves and the world,
says Cantor, who was named Distinguished Professor of Psychology
and Womens Studies at SU. Theoretically, we all
operate rather automatically from a whole set of default ways
of seeing the world based on our habits, upbringing, and culture.
A physicist and an artist think about the physical nature
of the world in different ways. But you get them together,
and each starts thinking differently on how to view a problem
while trying to describe it to the other person.
her mind open to people who may differ from her has had a
profound impact on Cantors life, personally and professionally.
As a tenured faculty member at Princeton University on a yearlong
sabbatical at the University of Michigan, Cantor ventured
outside her newly formed social circle in Ann Arbor one night
to go on a blind date with a graduate student in environmental
sociology. The student, Steven Brechin, was a Protestant from
the Midwest who came from a working-class family. Cantor,
a Jewish New Yorker, grew up in a household of intellectualsher
mother, Marjorie, an expert on aging, and her father, Aaron,
a lawyer. Even though we came from different worlds,
we had similar values and views on life, says Brechin,
now her husband of 22 years. We talked about this and
how it ties in to Nancys interest in diversity. Sometimes
its great to interact with people you wouldnt
normally think of as being part of your social world.
Of course, in their case, he adds that Cantors interest
in football and other sports helped strengthen their bond.
She had this strange combination of being a warm person,
a well-established academic at an early age, and an avid sports
fan, he says. What could I do? I had to marry
In a less
literal sense, Cantor has been instrumental in arranging marriages
between diverse departments at academic institutions. At the
University of Illinois, she created 11 cross-campus initiatives
that pull together faculty from a variety of disciplines to
study such issues as family resilience, art and technology,
globalization, aging, and food security. Even at a time
of budget cuts, she pushed for excellence from our faculty
and students by investigating issues that required expertise
from across the spectrum, says Jo Thomas, assistant
chancellor for public affairs at Urbana-Champaign, who is
moving to Syracuse University to continue her work with Cantor.
Weve gotten a number of grants from corporations
and foundations to support this research in a large part due
to Nancys enthusiasm and vision. Shes excited
about Syracuses support of interdisciplinary projects.
Cantor also established several cultural centers at Illinois
to help groups better appreciate and share their cultural
understanding with others. Nancy has said that diversity
is not an afterthought, Thomas says. You cant
just tack it on. It has to be a cornerstone of what youre
B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1974; Ph.D.,
Stanford University, 1978
Princeton University: Psychology professor, 1978-83
and 1991-96 (department chair, 1992-96)
University of Michigan: Psychology professor,
1983-91 and 1996-2001; associate dean for faculty programs,
Horace Rackham School of Graduate Studies, 1989-91;
graduate school dean and vice provost for academic affairs,
1996-97; provost and executive vice president for academic
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Chancellor
and psychology professor, 2001-04
Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career
Contribution to Psychology from the American Psychological
Woman of Achievement Award from the
Executive committee member of the Association
Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Member of the Institute of Medicine of the
National Academy of Sciences
Past chair and member of the board of directors
of the American Association for Higher Education
Board member of the American Council on Education
Board of trustees member of Sarah Lawrence College
Board member of the Center for Advanced Study
in the Behavioral Sciences
Board member of the American Institutes for Research
Served as a member of the national advisory board of
the National Survey of Student Engagement and on various
advisory boards and study sections of the National Science
Foundation and the National Research Council, and the
Congressional Commission on Military Training and Gender
After being introduced at a press conference, Nancy
Cantor listens to a student as David Smith 66,
vice president for enrollment management, looks on.
Cantors commitment to seeking diversity and incorporating
multiple perspectives has sometimes thrust her into controversies.
As provost of the University of Michigan, she defended the
schools admissions policy against a lawsuit that sought
to eliminate the consideration of race in admissions. Encountering
differences, rather than ones mirror image, is an essential
part of a good education, Cantor and Michigan president
Lee Bollinger co-wrote in a 1998 op-ed article in The Washington
Post. Race is educationally important for all students,
because understanding race in America is a powerful metaphor
for crossing sensibilities of all kinds.
support of affirmative action at Michigan drew the backing
and respect of campus members, says Abigail J. Stewart, professor
of psychology and womens studies at the university.
Most of the campus was extremely proud of Nancys
clarity of vision and capacity to articulate the reasons that
affirmative action is the right policy for UM admissions,
Stewart says. She was an inspiring example of someone
who thought the issues through, knew what she thought was
right, and pursued that view in an unconflicted way.
of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Cantor
listened to the complaints of some campus members who believed
the Fighting Illinis mascot, Chief Illiniwek, disparaged
American Indians. She took more than two years to consider
the pros and cons surrounding the issue before ultimately
issuing a statement calling for a new mascot. Her comments
drew fire from some townspeople and campus members, and she
became the target of a smear campaign. Sometimes academic
leaders have to take controversial stands to remain authentic
with their own belief systems and their own perceptions of
what is important for the institution, Cantor says.
I believe the mascot was divisive and I needed to express
Cantors strengths as a decisive and tenacious leader
may be surpassed only by her compassion for those she leads.
Upon learning of a University of Michigan students death,
Cantor, as provost, immediately met with the students
family. Nancy felt, in a very personal way, the loss
of any member of the campus community, Stewart says.
She automatically sought to be present in those painful,
powerful, and very personal moments. She is openly concerned
and caring about peoplefaculty, students, staff, alumni,
everyoneas individuals, and she communicates that concern
and caring directly.
expresses her concern for employees through her actions as
well as her words. At the University of Illinois, she was
instrumental in initiating new child care and family planning
programs. It improves the atmosphere of an institution
to be aware that employees are balancing their work with other
responsibilities, says Cantor, who is the mother of
Madeleine, 19, and Archie, 14. The more we, as an institution,
can be realistic about and supportive of that, the better.
My family is very important to me and engaged in what I do.
Cantor Brechin family, work and family life often overlap.
Madeleine Cantor Brechin, a sophomore at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison, says she appreciates the experiences she
and her brother were afforded by growing up on college campuses,
though sometimes the spillover from her mothers work
wasnt always a positive part of family life. For example,
the controversy over Chief Illiniwek led townspeople to put
ads on billboards across town that read: Keep the chief,
retire Cantor. Mom is always careful about wanting
us to hear about a potential problem from her first,
Madeleine Brechin says. People can say some really awful
things, and sometimes I want to protect her from that. Its
hard to see her whole life get played out and twisted around
in the newspaper. But she is such a strong woman, and she
does a great job of separating work from home.
grew up in a two-income household at a time when many mothers
stayed home. This reinforced her notion that she, too, would
balance work and family. I never really thought that
I wouldnt do both, she says, adding with a laugh:
There have been many times I thought I couldnt do both, but I never thought I wouldnt. She believes
strongly that each aspect of her life enriches the others
and that her children benefit from seeing their mother always
doing her best. It teaches them resilience, she
says. It has also instilled in the children a deep respect
for their mother. I am extremely proud of my mom for
breaking gender boundaries as the first woman to take some
of the positions she has held, says her son, Archie
Brechin. My mom is a wonderful person. She is hardworking,
efficient, and someone who strives to make this world a better
Those who know Cantor say the Syracuse community can expect
a leader who will bring endless enthusiasm and vivacity to
her work, as well as the strength and presence of a person
three times her 5-foot frame. She is remarkable for
her absolute unwavering tenacity once she has taken a position
or made a commitment, Stewart says. It is rare
to work with someone who is so utterly and deeply reliable.
When she says she will back something, she simply lives up
to that. Jo Thomas predicts Cantors refreshing
mix of realism and optimism will spread across campus. She
makes time for anyone, and shes always interested in
what other people have to say, Thomas says. The
only way shes able to do thatand run a huge institutionis
to work all the time. But she enjoys it and shes fun.
She really cares about people.
says Cantors only weakness might be pushing herself
too hard. Cantors husband agrees. She would work
24/7; no one works harder than Nancy, says Brechin,
a sociologist who has been appointed to the faculties of the
College of Arts and Sciences, the Maxwell School, and the
State University of New York College of Environmental Science
and Forestry. She is an inspirational, dynamic leader
and her energy level will amaze everybody. Brechin says
he is responsible for ensuring his wife makes time for rest
and relaxation, and the family has already started exploring
Central New Yorks outdoor recreational areas.
people envision new futures for themselves and succeed is
one of Cantors greatest pleasures. She enjoys witnessing
the transformation of students, the excitement of the facultys
scholarly achievements, and the accomplishments that result
from campus and community collaborations. The great
thing about a university is that youre both changing
the individual lives of students and faculty members, and
youre changing the world via discoveries, Cantor
says. Youre charting a course for whos going
to lead the world and youre actually and substantively
creating things that do change everyday life. Instead
of perceiving herself only as an administrator responsible
for budgets and bottom lines, Cantor sees her primary role
as Chancellor as an agent of change. Leading a university
is about exploring the life of the mind, she says. Its
about development, discovery, innovation, and changing lives.
What will be your top priorities when you take
over as Chancellor in August?
A: The most important thing for me will be to
bring to life what Ive read on paper. I
want to get a sense of the different areas of
campusthe four areas of interdisciplinary
SPIRES [Strategic Partnerships for Excellence
In Research and Educational Success], the arts,
public engagement, recruitment of students, and
the intellectual life of the institution. Ill
have a lot of listening and learning to do, but
Ill try to galvanize activity in particular
Diversity is a core value at SU, and you have
said, a necessary value in a multiracial democracy.
How do you plan to support diversity here?
A: It is critical to articulate the different
ways in which diversity and excellence intersect,
and the way in which the institutions core
missions are intertwined with being productive
in a diverse democracy. We need to interweave
the problems of a diverse democracy into the curriculum,
and infuse our scholarship, and certainly our
public engagements, with these issues. We want
to emphasize commitments to intellectual and social
diversity as commitments to creativity, brainstorming,
and bringing different perspectives to bear. Our
commitment to diversity is one in the same as
our commitment to excellence.
How do you feel about becoming the first female
Chancellor in SU history?
A: Its great. It shows that SU has a commitment
to bringing all kinds of talent to the table.
To the extent that I can serve as a role model
for that message, I think its really important.
I also think that everybody pursues a leadership
role from a particular lifes experience
and that allows me to be attuned to issues that
I have grown up with as a woman. For example,
how do you create a voice for everyone in the
institution? How do you pay attention to the stresses
and strains of modern work and family, or work
and the fuller life of public engagement? How
do you think about bringing groups together? That
doesnt mean if you didnt grow up as
a woman, you wouldnt have those interests.
But they are certainly associated with viewing
the world through gender.
How would you describe the relationship between
the University and the community?
A: There has to be an extremely close and reciprocal
relationship between the University and the community.
In order for the University to really do its job
of educating future leaders, of understanding
the workings of our society, and of contributing
new knowledge that changes peoples worlds,
it has to be completely open to the influences
and issues of the community, and vice versa. The
University can, in partnership with the community,
create new worlds beyond the campus.
As Chancellor, what can you do to help improve
the economy of Central New York?
A: What one wants to do first and foremost is
create as many reciprocal partnerships as possible
in areas where SU has particular expertise and
where there are opportunities for economic development
and improvements to the communitys well-being.
A university can also be a magnet for a creative
culture, which in turn attracts new generations
of people with innovative ideas. All of those
things create momentum for a community that redounds
positively for the economic development of Central
New York. Then youll really see people being
energized by the life of innovation.
What role do the cultural arts have in enhancing
campus and community life?
A: The arts are a natural connection between the
campus and the community. Everybody can do the
arts and appreciate them. They are intergenerational.
The arts attract people to a community, and are
a big part of the health and vitality of a community.
The creative process itself is a signature for
a liberal education, and the arts are so helpful
for both artists and non-artists as a medium of
exchange. The arts are democratic, and we want
to invite everyone into the life of the mind.
The Universitys Academic Plan promotes interdisciplinary
research on campus. Why is collaborative research
A: Collaborative, interdisciplinary research is
really important because it brings to the table
diverse perspectives to address critical issues
and areas that are ripe for intellectual discovery
and social change. The collaborative part is crucial
because these are complex areas and bringing different
perspectives to bear on them results in creativity.
People view the problems through their own disciplinary
lenses and then try to translate what they see
to each other. You have to get outside of your
own language and view the problems from someone
elses perspective. That, of course, is at
the base of what it means to exist in a diverse
community, but its hard, both from a scholarly
and an interpersonal point of view.
How do you determine what resources to invest
in individual academic programs?
A: When I think about future investment at an
educational institution, I think about three key
missions: to capitalize on its strength to make
intellectual discovery, to address critical societal
issues, and to educate the next generation of
leaders and citizens. I try to look for investments
that intertwine all three of those missions and
look for areas in which you can bring people from
across the campus and the community together around
For the first time in years, the athletic program
needs to be subsidized by the University, partly
because of the shake-up in the Big East Conference.
How will the University support the athletic program
and what will that mean for other funded programs?
A: Budgets for complex institutions are always
dynamic. They respond to particular needs at particular
times. The athletic programwhich everybody
is really proud ofcontributes to the life
of the institution, the economic well-being of
Syracuse, and the overall quality of life. At
the moment it needs some subsidies that are relatively
small when compared to the kind of revenue it
brings in. Were partners with athletics,
just as we are with our artistic and cultural
assets, and our major academic programs. We need
to always think about this partnership as a dynamic,
evolving, and complicated process. I dont
view this as set in stone, but rather a response
to what is happening in the Big East right now.
As that smooths itself out and the program finds
other sources of revenue, things may shift back.
But one always has to anticipate moments intime
when programs need particular help.