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Incoming Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud on The Campbell Conversations

Kent Syverud arrives in Upstate New York in January to become Syracuse University's next Chancellor.  Intense speculation has surrounded the transition--will there be a change of course from Nancy Cantor's signature commitment to the City of Syracuse and the Upstate region?  Will the university focus more on improving its rankings and increasing its endowment?  In this edition of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher talks with the incoming chancellor about his future learning curve at SU, and his experiences as dean of the law schools at Vanderbilt and Washington Universities, as well as what he's learned from his experience as a trustee for the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill Compensation Fund. 

Grant Reeher (GR): Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. My guest today is Syracuse University’s incoming Chancellor, Kent Syverud. He’s currently serving as Dean of the Law School at Washington University in St. Louis.  Prior to that, he served as dean of Vanderbilt’s Law School.  Also notable in his background are his clerking for Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, and his service as a Trustee for the $20 billion dollar BP Deepwater Horizon spill compensation fund.  Dean Syverud, welcome to the program.

Kent Syverud (KS): Thank you so much, Grant.

GR: What aspects of this new job challenge have you the most excited?

KS: Boy, all of it. I am so excited to come home to upstate and to come to Syracuse University in particular. It’s such a wide ranging institution and there’s so many parts of it that are exciting to learn about

GR: And thinking of your time at Washington University what accomplishments there as dean of that law school are you most proud of?

KS: Boy, I’m most proud that I came to a law school that was quite good in many ways, and I think it became a better place for its students and its faculty and thereby for its impact on the world.  We did so many things in terms of making the student body have a better experience and having the faculty have a greater impact on the world. I guess what I’m most proud about is that the school has become a change leader; law schools in the United States are under terrific stress because the wave of change both from the legal profession and technologies have had law schools first in higher education and instead of being a school with its head buried in the sand, it’s been a school that’s been embracing change and taking a leadership role in change, and that feels really good

GR: Are there certain things about that aspect in particular that you could say a bit more about? The ways in which it’s done that or certain areas of change that you focused on?

KS: Sure, it’s been particularly innovative in technology, both within the school for the residential students and embracing technology as a way to reach judges and lawyers for education around the world through fully online programs.  The schools been embracing going to where students want to work after they graduate and creating programs and networks in those places.  We particularly have done that extensively in DC, New York and then in niche markets where students have opportunities, thanks to connections, like Delaware, Southeast Asia, Europe and East Asia.

GR: I want to come back to that question about emphasis on other geographic areas a little bit later in our conversation, but let me stick with something that you had said in your welcoming speech to the Syracuse University campus. You said that you had not developed a vision for Syracuse that you were going to figure that out and you were going to learn that, so how do you plan to develop the vision, is there kind of a process for this that you have in mind that you could describe?

KS: Sure, first of all I’ve been immersing myself in the history of Syracuse University and the region, reading everything I can and everything people recommend to me, I’ve been talking and listening to people and candidly it’s going to take a while. I think Nancy Cantor took a full year of listening to folks before her vision of scholarship and action became crystallized as a statement that that could be worked out with various constituencies, so I’m expecting to listen and learn a lot, I don’t know that I have a full year to do that because of the change that’s coming in Syracuse but I sure hope I have more than a few months to do it.  I’ve been coming back frequently here each month and trying to meet and listen to people and I’ve been interacting with Syracuse supporters and alumni around the country as I travel for my Washington University work – I’ve done that already in Boston, Washington and Chicago and will do that in Florida and other places in the next couple of weeks.

GR: I wonder whether coming in in the middle of an academic year sort of complicates that process a little bit, like, in the sense from the schools perspective I guess, you know people go away, they have the summer and they come back and there’s somebody new at the helm.

KS: I mean transitions are always hard, and academics are used to transitions occurring in the summer because the students are mostly away and you can get away with things. That’s not me, I’ve learned a lot from my previous transitions. I’ve moved three times, once a decade, to a different academic institution and the last time I accepted a job in May, uh, while I was in Vanderbilt and I didn’t start at Washington University until January, almost 8 months later, and in the in between I taught at Cornell as a visitor and that 8 months was too long.  Uh, so I’d say it’s hard starting in the middle of an academic year, but what would be even worse would be a very long interregnum because during that period of time u have all the responsibilities of the Chancellor and none of the authority, let’s put it that way.

GR: And do you have a particular kind of leadership style that you think you’ve developed as a dean that you’ll carry over into Chancellor?

KS: Well they’re two very different jobs and so it would be would a terrible mistake to try and act like a Dean while you’re a Chancellor. I have some skills I’ve learned from my many mistakes in trying things but being a Chancellor is going to be different and I’ve studied leadership and taught leadership and taught negotiations so a lot of the skills will be relevant but what I’m trying to do is learn what Syracuse needs now and try to learn the pieces of that.  I am, by inclination I try to be a transparent manager, try and, um, be a non-avoider by which I mean if there’s problems its helpful to put names on them and talk about them upfront with people rather than hope they’ll go away because they tend to get worse if you don’t confront them.

GR: What about the issue of delegation, do you have a particular style in that regard?

KS: Uh, yes and – uh, it’d be kind of like touching an elephant, it’d depend on which part of the elephant you touch if you talk to people who work for me.  You have people who think I’m a micromanager have people who think I’m a hands off manager. And so the style is delegate as much as possible so that you can focus on where your highest and best use is.  But often your highest and best use is where the most serious problem threatening the institution is, and there you have to be a micromanager until you can effectively delegate it again.

GR: I’m Grant Reeher and I’m speaking with incoming Syracuse University Chancellor, Kent Syverud. Both the law schools where you were Dean; Vanderbilt and Washington University, enjoyed an increase in their national rankings under your leadership. Did you follow any particular strategy in order to achieve that?

KS: Yup, both law schools did improve in the rankings and they benefitted greatly from the University as a whole improving in rankings during that period and improvement in the rankings did help the school and the University in terms of constituencies, some of which give much too great an emphasis on rankings; students in choosing schools, faculty and where they choose to go to or stay, donors to some degree. Um-- I worked very hard to enable my schools to be managed to their values rather than the rankings and to enable that I had to have a situation where the rankings where stable or improving steadily during my period as Dean.

By that I mean, the rankings that matter most to law schools and to some undergraduate institutions are US News and World Report among others. Um, they are imperfect, their metrics are manipulable and in some ways they’re quite troubling what they value, but they matter because they affect decision making of constituencies that matter to universities. So I worked pretty hard at both institutions to figure out how we could keep our rankings stable or improving so that we could spend most of our time focusing on improving things by our own definition of what was academic quality and what was impact improving, that proved to be a challenging thing to do but it worked at both places.

I typically don’t give speeches about rankings, I don’t talk about rankings, I don’t -- basically a proud speech about how your ranking has improved if you’re a transparent person should be followed other years by a apologetic speech about why your ranking declined and both that those speeches gave the message that’s what’s most important to the institution is ranking, so I tried to have the schools ranking improve steadily and not talk about it.

GR: And Syracuse University as a whole has recently experienced a slight move in the opposite direction and some folks are concerned about that, why do you think that happened?

KS: So, I don’t know, I mean I’ve been gathering data and studying it.  I know from experience in law schools that, uh, there are certain periods in history where your peers and competitors become obsessed about rankings and if you are not, you can suffer for that reason.  But the different elements are weightings that go into the rankings for undergraduate which is what most people here seem focused on, are varied and change over time. So I will study that very closely but I don’t know yet.

GR: And on this topic of rankings too, the rankings of the Law School here at Syracuse University – it’s in the top 100 but it’s near the bottom of that. Is that something that will be a particular focus for you as coming in from a Law School background?

KS: So, I’m going to be a faculty member in the Law School so I’ll care about the law school even independent because I bell responded to my colleagues and then my students there. And I hope to teach in other schools as well, in the education school. I’ve been teaching almost a full load my entire life as dean so sure I’ll care about the experience and all the metrics by which its measured, of which rankings are one. I haven’t again studied Syracuse Law schools rankings but there’s some real strengths in that law school and I’m really excited to help them get even better.

GR: You’re listening to the Campbell Conversations, I’m Grant Reeher, we’ll continue the conversation after a short break.

GR: Welcome back to the CC I’m talking with incoming Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud, he’s currently Dean at the law school at Washington University in St. Louis. You just said something that’s very tantalizing to me as a faculty member about anticipating that you’ll teach while you’re here as Chancellor, can you say a little bit more about that?

KS: Sure, I ya -- know every academic leader needs ways to engage with students as a way to find out what’s actually going on in the institution and I’ve found for my whole career that teaching students across a semester is the best way to really know what’s working and not working in the institution, it’s a terrific amount of work to teach well and in some ways a self-indulgence as an administrator if you’re not going to put the time in. I am concerned coming here as Chancellor whether I’ll be able to teach right away, so I am looking for ways to do some teaching in various parts of the University so I can understand the students and their needs.  I haven’t figured that out yet and I doubt I’ll be teaching my first semester but I can tell you that in my entire career I’ve never gone more than 12 weeks without teaching, so, including summers, so I can’t imagine not figuring out a way to help out in various schools.

I teach negotiation primarily right now it’s a very intense skills course that I get a lot students in that class, from, the medical school, the graduate school, the business school, social work, advanced under grads, and I get a lot of people who want to sit in on the class who are professors or from the community because they realize they’d like to be better at negation, and so I think I can help out in various ways...I will need a semester to do my highest and best use, which is key leadership for the institution before I indulge myself in teaching but I sure would like to indulge myself before much longer.

GR: And given the aspirations that Syracuse University has as an institution, um, its endowment has sometimes been pointed to as a weakness. Do you have thoughts about how the size of the endowment could be grown?

KS: Sure, uh, it’s more than a billion dollars and most of us would think more than a billion dollars is a strength and not a weakness.  What I’ve learned in academia is there’s always somebody who’s got more money than you do and so you feel yourself weak relative to it. Our endowment is, got to grow and it’s got to grow in -- a, way that supports the key missions of the university which are attracting great faculty and students and helping them have great impact. I’ve looked at the budget in those areas and I think there’s ways to help that but the biggest way to help it is articulating a vision that’s attractive to donors that they want to support for the long run, and by making sure when they do it you don’t spend it all but rather put it into endowment for the long run.

GR: And related to the question of the endowment, one of the things that the school has wrestled with over the years is the size of the student body. What should be that size? And Vanderbilt and Washington are both more highly selective smaller institution that Syracuse University, so do you have thoughts about the ideal size of a private university?

KS: Yeah, I’d say the ideal size of an undergraduate student body is the size of an undergraduate student body that you can give a great education to given what you’ve got to work with.  It’s not a one size fits all.  Washington University is in fact gradually growing its undergraduate student body pursuant to a careful plan that has had a great deal of involvement of both the academic leadership and the faculty and the people on the ground who work with students in the dorms, in the student services dealing with students in crisis. And of course a lot of great universities are growing at the undergraduate level right now so I think the relevant question, is the current size of the undergraduate student body here one that we develop the infrastructure to support to provide a great education to, and I’m going to be looking at that. The best way for me to understand that is by familiarizing myself with what on the ground, faculty and students are experiencing as undergraduates and that’s something I’m committed myself to doing very soon.

GR: And at Washington University, which again for our listeners is in St. Louis, you were involved…

KS: Where the St. Louis Cardinals play, for those of you who are Red Sox fans. (GR laughs)

GR: Um, this comes back to something that you mentioned earlier about the school being involved in different geographic areas.  Um, you were involved in developing in particular the university’s presence in Washington DC I understand, um, I was curious to know whether there are particular geographic areas that you think Syracuse University is poised to expand into and develop more of a presence in.

KS: Well, it’s interesting because that’s one, of course, one of the great strengths and leadership examples from Syracuse University, Syracuse was present on the ground with kind of path breaking programs in more places earlier than almost anybody, both in the United States and abroad and it’s so impressive to see what you’ve already done so when I was doing the preliminary work for figuring out what Washington University could do in Washington DC, Syracuse was one of the programs we scoped out and made a benchmark that we were studying and we realized in order to compete we had to do something different than Syracuse or else our lunch would be eaten, so we ended up focusing on a partnership with the Brookings Institution that had educational programs co-sponsored and in the Brookings Institution. 

So, I guess I’d say this is a strength already for Syracuse, I would wanna talk to the SU abroad folks and to the folks responsible for the Syracuse University programs in the United States outside out Syracuse to get a sense.  Right now, it seems like people are very excited about the expansion of programming in New York City made possible by the Fisher Center, I’ve visited Lubin House but I have not been to the Fisher Center yet, but seems like a lot of opportunities directly tied to career placement for students and directly tied to getting people excited about a New York component to a Syracuse education, so I’m excited about that one in particular.

GR: In case you’ve just joined us, you’re listening to the Campbell Conversations and our guest is Kent Syverud, the incoming Chancellor at Syracuse University.

Well perhaps your predecessor, her signature achievement was the greater involvement of the University in the Syracuse community, there’s obviously, I think, a worry in many quarters in the city that you might shift course in that regard, and even perhaps for some of them that you’ve been brought in order to shift that course. Could you speak a bit about how you see the universities balancing their involvement in the community with attention to their own interests as an institution?

KS: Well sure, I mean, first as a general matter, every time a new person comes in there’s a fear something will change and the fears are greatest around the things that people are proudest of that the previous person did.

And of course, you wouldn’t bring in a new person if you wanted the same person so some change is inevitable, but in this particular area what I would just say to you is that I grew up in Upstate and I have been coming back here for family reasons for 30 years and maybe it’s just important for people to understand that I know how important this University is to this region and to this community not because people have written a brochure and sent it to me but because I’ve felt it from my friends and relatives and how they talk about what the success means to people here, so, I don’t need to drink the Kool Aid to understand the university being important to the community and the community being important to the university. 

I guess I would say that I worked very hard at Washington University to figure out what that University could do on a University wide level to be an anchor institution for St. Louis, which, in its own way has its own challenges, some which are considerably more severe than anything in upstate New York.  So, I have both some experience and some knowledge that’s it’s possible to have a university get much better as measured by peers while also having a strategy of successful community engagement.

The first thing I’d say that, I don’t think is different, but will certainly be a messaging change for me, is that as an upstater who thinks this I the best place in the world to live, which I do, I may be a little more in people’s faces about urging people to stop apologizing or having a chip on their shoulder about where they live, where they’ve come from or the last 30 years in Upstate. 

I’ve been in all sorts of places filled with hubris and people extremely, excessively proud of where they are and none of them should be as proud of where they are as people in this community should be.  There the best people in the world here, it’s the best environment in the world in my view, and I’m not hyping on that, I really believe it’s true. I don’t think you get both the physical environment and the quality of people and their decency to each other anywhere in the world and I’ve lived and taught all over the world.  So I think as a starting point, I think it’s important for us to be positive, and convinced that this place is gonna get better, and something to be proud of, rather than me suggesting there’s terrible problems that unless we fix them, were in the soup, I don’t believe that’s true. I believe there’s challenges, but believe me if you’ve lived the other places I’ve lived, there’s challenges there too.

GR: And you were one of two trustees overseeing the BP Deep-Water Horizon Compensation Fund.  Are there any lessons from your experiences there in terms of broader institutional responsibility that might apply to running an institution like Syracuse University?

KS: Oh sure, uh I mean the oil spill itself was the result of a catastrophic series of bad decisions in dealing with risk, most of which involved a series of meetings and decision-makings in which people convinced themselves that a real risk was not present.  And those risks, those bad decisions came well before the day of the oil spill which killed 11 people too.

So, I’ve read extensively the research, the presidential investigations, I have to monitor the litigation, because we’re paying for a lot of the results of it as a trust, and what it teaches you is that it’s really important for leaders of an institution to not delude themselves about what the real risks are and whether they’ve actually planned for and managed them.  Um, there’s some wonderful books in engineering about this, about the tendency to overlook serious risks due to a series of bad decisions, indeed, even due to a series of bad power point presentations and so I’m trying to learn from that, to practice non - avoidance of problems, uh, that 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.

GR: I have a more personal question for you, again going back to your introductory speech to the campus, you suggested that you’re in this for the long haul and as you’ve spoken here today you’ve also told me how you’re from this area and your strong feelings about it.  So this is a homecoming of sorts, for you, could you see yourself finishing your academic career here?

KS: Yeah, that’s definitely the plan, and I’ve written about how deans and presidents should quit and my basic assertion is it takes 10 years, roughly, to have an impact and you should do it for at least 10 years, and that’s certainly what I believe here.

GR: Let me get to the three questions, at the end, first – what’s the title of the chapter of life you’re currently living?

KS: Oh boy, just “dream come true,” I guess. It sounds so hackneyed but coming home to a place I admired from being a little kid, including the sports teams including the various academic units that are so strong here it just feels like a dream come true.

GR:  Second, what’s your worst trait?

KS: Uh, I tend to delude myself into believing that I’m not overcommitted and thereby getting even further overcommitted, I like people, I like all kinds of people. I really like as much talking to the Rotary Club as much as to the Association of University residents and so I tend to get overcommitted and need people to help me keep my time on the highest and best use for the University.

GR: And finally, what professional or creative achievement in your life so far has surprised you the most?

KS: I wrote an article once in anger in one night, entitled “Taking Students Seriously” which was a kinda cry from the heart about what it takes to be a good teacher inside and outside the classroom and I published again in fit of pique because I was angry at a colleague and of all the articles I’ve written that’s been by far the most read and the most cited.

And so having spent years of effort to produce a truly magnificent essay on liability insurance reform and have it be forgotten in a week, its amazed me that an article on taking students seriously still is used so many places

GR: That was Kent Syverud, Dean Syverud, thanks so much for talking with me.

KS: Thanks so much Grant.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.