Public Affairs, Communications & Sustainable Development

Shift Happens: A Perspective on New Leadership

MAY 10, 2014

By Caitlin Moriarty, Contributing Writer

Change is never easy. A transition in leadership, for example, comes with differences in personal opinions, priorities, and biases that will inevitably impact the institution and all those who work with and for it.

This shift is expected, but waiting to see what changes result can, unfortunately, harbor a great deal of anxiety within the institution and among its many constituencies.

Chancellor Syverud of Syracuse University is the newest and most high profile leader in Central New York. Where prior university leadership focused a lot of energy, investment and other resources engaging the surrounding community, Chancellor Syverud appears to have expressed a preference of prioritizing resources and initiatives that more directly impact the university itself.

Some believe that this could also mean eliminating programs and initiatives previously instituted and to redirect or conserve these resources for the highest possible return according to his perspective as the university’s new leader.

As reported by the Post-Standard and, Syracuse University recently eliminated of one of these programs, SU Arts Engage, a department founded in 2008 whose purpose was to facilitate and present collaborative artistic opportunities for the City of Syracuse.

The program was meant to serve as an example of the nationally recognized “Scholarship In Action” concept brought to the Syracuse community by Chancellor Nancy Cantor, which was defined as “a commitment to forging bold, imaginative, reciprocal and sustained engagements with our many constituent communities, local as well as global.”

What we are wondering is if the decision to cut the Syracuse Arts Engage program is a matter of simple, fiscal conservatism by Syracuse University’s new leadership, or if is it indicative of a larger impending fundamental shift in the relationship between a community and its most influential institution?

From what we can gather, it’s too soon to tell.

It’s also interesting to note that in trying to gain opinions from multiple top SU leaders representing programs and departments that potentially could be affected, no one was willing to comment on the record and we were instead referred to Kevin Quinn, SU’s Vice President of Public Affairs. Mr. Quinn did not respond to attempts to contact him for comment.

I have to wonder if this unwillingness to share information is driven by a lack of concern, lack of time, or lack of freedom to do so. Perhaps time will tell.

These initial changes also raise another important question: What responsibility does university's leadership have to the larger civic agenda ‘outside’ of their institution?

Some would argue that if the Chancellor of a university were responsible for the surrounding community he might as well have run for Mayor.

However, if leaders of community anchor institutions only focused internally, leaving the reputation, brand, and well-being of their city to sink or swim, how much does this impact the institution itself?

As a previous Kauffman Entrepreneurship Engagement Fellow at Syracuse University, a program arising out of Chancellor Cantor’s vision for engaged scholarship, I feel it wouldn’t be in the best interest of current, past or future students to find out.

In fact, one of the most rewarding experiences I had during my time as an undergraduate and graduate student at Syracuse University was the opportunity to engage with my community and feel like I was giving back to the city that was my home throughout my academic career.

Serving as an Engagement Fellow and participating in other initiatives connecting my university with my community heavily influenced my decision to stay and help develop and engage our own local “creative class” as defined by Richard Florida, instead of fleeing to NYC or LA like many graduates in hopes of finding something more worthwhile.

Also worth noting is that the startup I am now working for, Short Enterprises, was founded by another former Syracuse University Engagement Fellow, W. Michael Short, who credits his experiences serving in SU’s Office of Community Engagement & Economic Development under the mentorship of Vice President Marilyn Higgins as providing him with the skills necessary to start his own business here in Syracuse.

“The most rewarding opportunities that I had as an SU student involved engaged scholarship and hands on learning in this community,” said Short. “These opportunities enriched my time at SU in ways I could never have imagined and have shaped the person that I am today.”

That being said, some might point out that many of our country’s top universities (like Yale, for example) are not in the most thriving of areas, but the brand name and tradition of excellence are enough of a draw to keep application and attendance rates up.

In recent years we have seen a great deal of growth here in Central New York. Specifically, Syracuse University’s commitment to "scholarship in action" has helped catalyze more than $1.5 billion in new investments in the urban core through groundbreaking projects like the Connective Corridor, Near Westside Initiative and central business districts – working in collaboration with federal, state, city and regional partners – and creating invaluable opportunities for engaged scholarship and enriched learning for hundreds of students every single semester. These projects are considered a national model for the role that universities can play as anchor institutions in accelerating economic development and regional transformation.

But if Syracuse experiences literal or even perceived decline as a result of less support for these resources and programs, is the Syracuse University brand strong enough to combat a neglected city?

Alternatively, is the City of Syracuse able to continue moving forward on its own without the resources provided by Syracuse University?

Change is not easy, but neither is leadership.

There will rarely be unanimous support for every decision that must be made and I have faith that Mr. Syverud truly hopes to serve Syracuse University to the best of his abilities. However, I personally believe that in order to do this, he must employ his leadership role to authentically embrace both organization and community as a holistic ecosystem, within which all parts are needed to thrive.



Caitlin Moriarty is president and co-founder of the Janklow Arts Leadership Alumni Network at Syracuse University. She received her M.A. in Arts Leadership Administration at Syracuse University while serving as a Kauffman Foundation Entrepreneurship Engagement Fellow. Caitlin’s interests involve creative place making and arts based entrepreneurship as they relate to community and economic development. To connect with Caitlin Moriarty, check out her website, follow her on Pinterest and Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.


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