Op-Ed: The Chancellor Who Can Transform Rutgers-Newark

Gene I. Maeroff | July 3, 2013 | Opinion
Nancy Cantor comes to Rutgers by way of Syracuse University, where she determinedly promoted diversity and built strong ties between school and community

New Jersey can expect much more than a placeholder in Nancy Cantor when she assumes the chancellorship of Rutgers-Newark. Cantor, who announced in October that she would step down as chancellor and president of Syracuse University, is an intriguing choice for the position in Newark.

She has a long record as a leader devoted to promoting diversity and building relationships between town and gown. Minority enrollment at Syracuse increased markedly under her leadership, and she never hesitated to use the university’s resources to enhance the city, which — like Newark — has known better days.

Cantor, a social psychologist, promoted diversity and civic involvement so extensively that she alienated portions of the faculty who charged that she gave short shrift to research and academic excellence, jeopardizing quality and compromising admissions standards. Cantor and her many supporters vigorously deny these allegations. But it is a fact that Syracuse University voluntary withdrew in 2011 from the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU) just before the institution was going to be dropped from membership in the group of 60 top research schools. The invitation-only AAU took in Rutgers in 1989.

One important example of Syracuse University’s efforts to add to its minority enrollment and simultaneously raise up the city is the key role that Cantor played in Say Yes to Education, a program that has operated in Syracuse since 2008. She committed her institution to providing four-year tuition-scholarships to graduates of the Syracuse public schools who qualify for entrance to Syracuse University.

More than this, Cantor was instrumental in lining up other private colleges and universities, mostly in the Northeast, to provide similar tuition scholarships for Syracuse public school graduates. A main goal of the Say Yes scholarship program is to create a cadre of job-ready young people who will contribute to the economy and civic wellbeing of the city of Syracuse. Advocates of Say Yes make the case that an increasing portion of the population will be in a position to pay taxes and not become recipients of public support.

Newark and its public schools could benefit greatly from the kind of revival in which Cantor immersed herself in Syracuse. It aimed to draw and retain middle-class residents in the city by making the schools more successful and more attractive. In turn, a better-educated workforce was portrayed as a magnet for business and industry.

I began chronicling these efforts in 2009 and Palgrave Macmillan will publish my book on the program in November. It is entitled “Reforming a School System, Reviving a City: The Promise of Say Yes to Education in Syracuse.

Cantor’s arrival in Newark may coincide with Mayor Cory Booker’s departure if the mayor succeeds in his pursuit of a seat in the U.S. Senate. She could well replace Booker as the most influential person in Newark, just as she was in Syracuse. Given her history, Cantor can be counted on to do all she can to dispel the inferiority complex that the Newark campus has long felt in the larger Rutgers orbit.

Among the undertakings that the university pursued under Cantor’s leadership to revitalize the city were the South Side Innovation Center and the Center for Excellence. Streets around Syracuse are still disrupted by the construction of the Connective Corridor, a physical link between the campus and downtown, along which businesses, parks, and cultural institutions will be tied together.

Syracuse University has pursued what Cantor considers its responsibility to the city through projects in four major areas — environmental sustainability, the urban ecological system, inclusive urban education, and neighborhood entrepreneurship. At one point recently, the university was sending into city schools 168 volunteers from Literacy Corps, 75 unpaid tutors, 135 volunteers from public affairs courses, and hundreds of others. The on-going Near West Side Initiative in an impoverished neighborhood at the edge of downtown has already led to the renovation or construction of 60 homes and the conversion of two large warehouses, one providing office facilities downstairs and residence-studios for artists upstairs.

The engine for Cantor’s dynamism has been Syracuse University with its billion-dollar budget and a faculty of more than 900 full-time members and some 500 part-timers. “We view ourselves as an anchor institution and our history and our future are wrapped up with where we are,” I quote Cantor in my book as telling me. Imagine Rutgers-Newark as this sort of institution and what it would mean to the city.

It would be no great surprise — although no one has officially acknowledged it — if Robert Barchi, 66, who was hired as Rutgers’s president primarily to carry out the integration of the medical and dental component into the larger university, were succeeded by the ambitious Cantor, who is 61. Cantor, after all, gave up a salary of more than $615,000 and lots of perks to accept the Rutgers position at a salary of $385,000. She has the experience to assume the top job after heading Syracuse University for 10 years and one can’t expect her to be satisfied with being number two for long.