Syracuse UniversityChancellor Inauguration

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Chancellor Kent Syverud

Chancellor and President, Syracuse University

Let’s start with grace. And with humility.

Like all of you, like all our speakers,  I give thanks for Syracuse University. I give thanks for all the knowledge and love and hard work and research and learning and teaching and service that have been poured into this great University. 

Each of us, including me, is called upon to do our part for this great place, and for its mission. Each of us, especially me, is a steward for the accumulated good works of the last 144 years. I will never forget, and I hope none of us ever forgets, that our efforts, while so important, add only one more layer, really a thin veneer, to the great accumulated work that is this University.  

So many great people have built this university. No one Chancellor can or should eclipse or forget their efforts. So I ask us now to remember in silence for one moment all those who have passed through this University, and through this chapel, before us.

To those who spoke today, both in this ceremony and in the faculty events and student events that preceded it, I also give thanks. I thank the faculty because you sustain this university; I thank the students, including runners at 6:30 this morning, and the Fast Forward student presenters, all the students who inspire us and who are our highest responsibility; I thank the trustees for leading us; I thank our alumni all over the world who support us; and I thank our incredible staff, who carry us through each day. To Chief and Faithkeeper Oren Lyons, I say you honor us by your words and by your presence with us today; to Trustee Renee Schine Crown, I thank you for modeling for us a deep commitment to our students; and to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, I just thank you for being both an American hero and the best mentor that anyone could ask for.

I thank Chancellor Buzz Shaw and his wife Mary Ann Shaw, who honor us by returning here today, to their beloved Syracuse, to this chapel and to the Quadrangle outside that bears their name.

I thank my friends from a lifetime spent in Upstate New York, Washington D.C., Ann Arbor, Michigan; Nashville, Tennessee; and St. Louis, Missouri. I thank those friends for journeying here to be with us at this special time.

I thank, of course, all those who worked on this ceremony and inauguration; the staff, the students, the faculty, the trustees, the community.

And finally, I thank my family—my wife, my sons, my brothers and sisters, my cousins, and so many other friends—who have helped me, more importantly, who have put up with me and who have sustained me. 

I wish very much my parents were alive to be here today. I think they would be happy. But my mother, who taught me how to write, would also be worried. She would be worried about all those remarks, and she would be particularly worried if she saw the size of the house I just moved into. Janet Thatcher Syverud would be whispering in my ear right now, if she could, the following words:

“Kent, this day is NOT about you. It is about Syracuse University.”

And she would be so right.

I suspect every person here in Hendricks Chapel today, and every person watching this ceremony on the broadcast and on the web, has been blessed to be taught by someone like my mother. I bet each of you had some teacher—in school or at home, at your place of work or worship, or on a playing field—some teacher who changed your life. I ask each of us to remember now the person who had the greatest faith in you, in your promise, who pushed you to do better, who caught you and carried you when you faltered, and who got you where you are today, connected in some way to this great University. Those teachers that you should be thinking about—they ARE here today, through you. And if they all could be here today and they all could speak today, we would want to know what they want of us. We would want to know what they would expect of this University.

I believe all of our teachers would want us to believe in our University and to aim high for it. Just as they believed in us, and inspired us to aim high in our own work and lives, I think they would want us straighten our backs, roll up our sleeves, dig in and do our best, and never doubt that we and our University can be the best if we just keep at it.

But how specifically do we aim higher today, at Syracuse University, in a world that is changing just so fast? Saying how to do that—how to do it specifically—is a little bit harder. We live in a time, of course, of such great challenges for the world and for universities. The challenges come from every single direction now: they're economic, technological, social, spiritual, and political, and every so often, all our friends—forget our enemies—all our friends look to us in hope that we will make all these things better at the same time. They expect more of us on every front. And so do you. And so do I. And yet...I have never been very successful when I aim in all directions at the same time. Therefore, we need to make some tough choices.

So…..How precisely do we aim higher? We could give a lot of answers. I believe any good answer, though, begins with our unique history and with our values. That is why I wanted this ceremony to occur in this space, the sacred center of this campus. So much of our history has transpired in this Chapel. Our core values will forever be encompassed here. Some of those values are inscribed on the ceiling, above and all around you, and were just sung by the Unversity Singers. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." That is from the gospel of St. John. In a university setting, those sacred Christian words also call upon all of us, of every faith and belief system, to pursue knowledge, both for its own sake and for the freedom it bestows—freedom from ignorance and, therefore, freedom from evil. 

There are many truths that Syracuse has uniquely known and uniquely embodied in its history. One of the remarkable things about the United States is that we were founded on an idea of merit. To quote my very favorite part of our Constitution, “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States.” In other words, in this country at its best, you do not inherit titles, you work for achievements. You should be judged by what you do and not by what your parents did.

By definition in our very Constitution, then, we are an unentitled nation. And this school, I am deeply proud to say, has long been and hopefully forever will be, a University that attracts unentitled people. We are a University that opens its doors to those who are hungry for knowledge and advancement, whether they be middle class or rich or poor, and whether they be American, Native American, or from abroad. This is a University for those who are willing to work hard to know the truth. This is not, and never has been, a school for those who view higher education as an accessory or a fashion statement or a way to define one’s social status. This is a University where, when we are at our best, we are about knowledge and becoming the best.

I say this because so many Universities today seem to be animated by one slogan: “The University is all about you.” Syracuse, in contrast, is animated by something greater than you, or me, or any of us: by the pursuit of truth and all the good that learning can do for so many communities that matter—the community of scholars; the communities we are blessed to find interlaced across this campus in schools and departments and teams and professions and clubs and societies; the community of this city and region that surrounds us and is part of us; and the global community which the best Universities like Syracuse have long embraced.

Today, we should aim high and aim carefully because we all want our University to get better in the future. We will not get there by a single plan or slogan. As in the past, our University’s direction should be inspired and empowered by the insights of all our people, not dictated by one Chancellor, like me. All I can do today is start a dialogue about the direction we might go in. I want to suggest four things to you that I believe are essential for our University to continue to thrive.

First, we must enhance both undergraduate education and the undergraduate experience at Syracuse. 

We are a private research university where the largest number of our undergraduates are in the College of Arts & Sciences. Enhancing undergraduate education has to start with the challenge of building an unrivalled College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse—a college that affords a distinctive, broad, and deep education in the liberal arts and sciences to all of our students—a college that is the envy of our peers. We attract wonderful students now. We want the best unentitled, scrappy, engaged students in the world to want to come here. And when they come here, we want them to have opportunities and experiences that are so distinctive that, forever after they graduate, they will be even more distinctive to the world as the product of a Syracuse education. To do this, we need to address not only Arts and Sciences, but also every other aspect of campus life, including where students live, eat, work, study, and interact with each other and the faculty and community. We can do this. We can do this working together, and without threatening the distinctive identity and quality of so many fine graduate and undergraduate programs at this University.  

Second, I think we must empower research excellence at Syracuse. 

We have to make it easy to talk about, and to do, excellent research at this University. We cannot view research as something that is confined to one department, or one school, or to a particular faculty or discipline. Great research today is so collaborative, drawing in undergraduates and graduate students and faculty from here and elsewhere. Great research is interdisciplinary, and driven not by the question “what’s in it for my school or my department,” but rather by the question “what can we do together with all the resources of every part of a great university and all that surrounds it.”  Great research benefits from University-wide investment and strong graduate programs that are designed around careful strategic choices of areas of need and opportunity. Syracuse University can and will get better in these areas. We have done it before, and we can do it again. I could name here so many areas of research in which Syracuse has led. But I just want to hold one high to inspire us: I want to hold high Joe Zwislowski, our first member of the National Academy of Sciences. His fundamental interdisciplinary research on the human auditory system has led to the way we today protect the hearing of millions of workers around the world, in high-noise environments. In high noise environments like our Dome next door.

So: first undergraduate education and experience. Second, research.

Third, we must become the University that embraces change rather than avoids or denies it. I understand that asking us to embrace change is my hardest message today. It is hard because change so often does not bring improvement. Principles of entropy apply to human institutions as well as to nature. Many days, it seems like our job is to preserve what is good at the University and to resist what will erode it. Change can be threatening, ill-informed, and disruptive.

And yet I can imagine no poorer way to aim high and get better than by slowly and incrementally doing the same things that better-endowed and resourced peers are doing. To get better, we need to take risks, we need to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit that animates so many parts of this campus, and we need to move nimbly. 

I don't mind it at all when someone tells me “we don’t do things that way at Syracuse.” I don't mind it because I've found that it most always means I don’t know Syracuse, I don't know its history, and I need to learn more before I even think about changes. But I do mind it when someone tells me “we don’t do things that way at Syracuse because they don’t do things that way at other, entitled, universities.”  I just don’t see how we are going to get better, to leapfrog others, unless we are willing to try things that entitled places cannot even imagine.

Our history is so rife with examples of us getting ahead by doing just that. We embraced global studies ahead of almost all others, creating what has become SU Abroad. We embraced data and information, becoming the first iSchool in the world and also evolving a truly great Newhouse School of Public Communications. And we embraced veterans, as you have heard, when almost all our peers turned their backs on them at the end of World War II. And notice, as was observed, we embraced veterans to the glory and advancement of our country, but also the glory and advancement of our university. These and so many other instances show that Syracuse gets ahead by embracing the right change and nimbly pursuing it. I will be asking us to do this in the future. I will be hoping to learn what those changes are from you, but it's unfair not to give any thoughts or ideas, so I want to give one example.

Fourth, and finally, I believe Syracuse University must once again become the best place for veterans. We have the capacity, we have the opportunity, to be the best in the world at providing opportunity and empowerment to the veterans of our armed forces and their families. We already, as you've heard, have a glorious past in that area. We already have a great present in that area, building on the best research in the world, and the service in the world, of our Institute for Veterans and Military Families, and our history in University College. We have an unrivaled capacity to bring to bear our expertise in the professions, in disabilities, in entrepreneurship and information, and in the arts and sciences, for the benefit of our University and of those who have borne the battle and their families. So let’s just do it. Because if we do, we will have done so much for our University, for this country and for our veterans.

If we integrate, I think, these four ideas into our aims for the University for the next ten years—if we enhance undergraduate education and the undergraduate experience; if we efficiently and nimbly support research; if we embrace desirable change rather than avoid or deny it; and if we become the best University in the world for those who have served in the armed forces—if we do these things, I believe we will get much better. I believe we will become a greater university, and along the way will enhance all the communities that matter to us and to the world. The greatest contribution this university can make to this city and to this region so important to us is to be a great, thriving, and engaged international research university. With help from all our friends and partners, including in our city and region and from our neighbors right next door at Upstate, ESF, and Crouse and the VA, we will do this.

We have a lot to do in the weeks and the years ahead. Remembering all our teachers, remembering all those who came before us at Syracuse—a great cloud of witnesses—let us now run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Like this inauguration, this race is not about me; it is about Syracuse University. And Syracuse University is not about you; it is about the pursuit of truth -- and about the greatness that the pursuit of truth can unleash in you, in our friends, in our communities, and in the world.

Thank you so much for having me.