Syracuse Chancellor Challenges Universities to Aid K-12 in U.Va.'s Inaugural 'Forum on the Academy in the 21st Century'

Oct. 1, 2007 -- Guest speaker Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Syracuse University, said universities must develop and strengthen ties with K-12 schools to meet current challenges that could otherwise threaten American democracy.

Addressing the audience in the Rotunda Dome Room on Sept. 27, Cantor was the first speaker in the inaugural “Forum on the Academy in the 21st Century,” sponsored by the University of Virginia's Faculty Senate, Office for Diversity and Equity and Office of the President.

“Universities have long endorsed this civic role, certainly with respect to preparing future citizens,” said Cantor, who became Syracuse's chief executive three years ago. “The impetus today to engage directly with our connected communities is arguably more urgent and may require a new level of reciprocity and partnership that joins us at the hip, so to speak, with our ‘feeder’ schools in much more significant ways than before.”

Some of the challenges to our democracy include a growing disparity between haves and have-nots, the latter of whom are more often women and minorities; the education system’s failure to embrace the changing demographics of our society and reach racial and ethnic minority groups; a growing pattern of “de-facto residential segregation”; and what has been called a “clash of ignorance” among different ethnic, cultural and religious groups, resulting in escalating conflicts.

She described “a picture of pervasive gaps and divisions” where a cradle-to-prison pipeline is “overpowering” the pipeline to college. “The educational pipeline is leaking all along the way,” said Cantor, who previously served as chancellor of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and as former provost of the University of Michigan.

“What can we do, in the same spirit in which the Morrill Act addressed the agrarian and industrial needs of 19th century America, to vigorously reassert the public mission of higher education in today’s diverse democracy, not only to ensure a steady flow of students, but also to nurture the conditions required for a thriving and prosperous society going forward?” she asked.

Programs such as the University’s AccessUVA financial-aid plan are beginning to address the need for broader participation in higher education. But universities must reach out more to K-12 schools, becoming partners with them in reform and in creating “centers of community,” she suggested.

Universities should reframe the “achievement gap” problem as “an opportunity gap,” she said. When students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities and students who are nonnative English speakers are given the same resources, enrichments and support services as their more privileged peers, they have a better chance of thriving, said Cantor.

Early data on such outreach efforts are showing positive results. A growing number of new programs have been successful on a small scale and should be replicated and enlarged to see if they work as well, she said. Cantor mentioned that Syracuse is collaborating with its local school district and the Say Yes to Education Foundation to demonstrate the community center idea.

“Successful school-college partnerships can provide students in inner-city and isolated rural communities with this critical exposure to college life,” she said. That’s not all, however. Students at all levels need real experiences with diversity of all kinds, and these programs can provide them.

Universities can “find ways to broaden experiences with diversity for all of our children, as young as possible, and as long as possible, before they go to college.” A Syracuse University course on race and culture in America, for example, has broadened inter-group dialogue by including high school teachers and students.

This and other types of programs will help diversify college campuses eventually, but also can introduce faculty and students from underrepresented groups to an often-missing connection in the present — a more diverse community. They also help majority students and others break down stereotypes they may harbor.

“There is something about opening up the engagements to see and face the deeply polarizing and polarized issues of pluralism beyond our own campuses that serves to crystallize empathy and commitment, with positive ripple effects for transforming universities, too,” Cantor said, relaying a few examples from her university and mentioning U.Va.’s Day in the Life program, which pairs U.Va. student mentors with local middle school students.

“We may well transform the popular metaphor for universities from ivory towers to open-source institutions, in a language more fitting for our information age and knowledge society,” she added.

The new speakers' series on Grounds will continue to address issues that go beyond any one academic discipline, but concern higher education in general, said William B. Harvey, U.Va. vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity.