Syracuse University Chancellor, Nancy Cantor: Interview

A few months ago I got the chance to sit down with Nancy Cantor, the chancellor of Syracuse University. 


Chancellor Cantor is a pioneer in implementing student interaction with the City of Syracuse, enriching the experiences of Syracuse's students as well as the community. Because of Chancellor Cantor's work, Syracuse was classified as a university committed to Community Engagement by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Chancellor Cantor herself won the 2008 Carnegie Corporation Academic Leadership Award. 

She has been an activist for affirmative action, sustainability, liberal education, the creative campus, the status of women in the academy and racial justice and diversity. Chancellor Cantor is recognized for her extensive writings in the area of of social psychology.

Ms. Cantor sat down with the fbomb to talk about being a woman in academia, gender roles in the classroom, community interaction and more. 


What are the challenges of being a successful woman in education?

Well, I think the thing that’s always the framework of the challenge has to do literally with numbers. I mean the fact that in most contexts you’re going to be marked by your gender even unintentionally by other people, on the basis of the fact that you’re going to be rather the only woman in the room or one of very few in the room, or historically the first one, or something like that. So it’s a kind of subtle context for, I think, hyper scrutiny of one’s behavior. I think that that becomes the real issue. Not so much that people intentionally want to—for the most part in higher education you’re not going to find people who intentionally want to discriminate or who don’t believe it’s good to have a diverse, inclusive environment, but you are going to be marked by your gender. And the fact that people sort of view gender as solved, you know, I think becomes a real problem then, because there’re many instances where you realize that there’s a subtle way in which you’re being evaluated against a prototype of a woman, that people don’t realize is happening and it would be easier if people realized that.


This job is probably one of the best-case scenarios for women as far as acceptance. Even so do you find that faculty and even student’s reaction to you is different?

Absolutely, I definitely do. I think it’s very hard for students, for example, not to have a “mommy” view of the chancellor and in some respect hold me, or a woman in these positions, to a different standard—not necessarily higher or lower just different than male colleagues. Where they would assume a male colleague would be very busy and very important and would take as a great sign if that person was tremendously forthcoming if they did anything accessible, for women they expect a woman to be forthcoming and accessible and always there and always responsive, so if you’re even slightly busy or strong or passionate about something it’s seen that way.

Nancy Cantor talked to the fbomb about being a woman in academia, young girls and women in academics, 

So is there something you actively do in your job to let people know that you are equal to a man in your role, or do you let it work itself out?

I’m a bundle of contradictions on that one. It depends on the context and there are times—most of the time I would say—where I ignore it and be myself. But I’m not the kind of person, I know many women say they just don’t want to think about gender at all and they don’t want that to be on the table, and I’m not like that. I will say something if, for example, I might say to a colleague who witnessed something, you know, they’d never say that if I was a man. I’m very aware of gender as a construct and a frame and I’m sort of prone to see it that way, even though I don’t always say it.


Do you think that Syracuse as a university, and the education itself approaches and addresses gender equality?

I do. Actually it’s one of the things I love about this place. It’s interesting to think historically, because here we are in central New York, right near Seneca Falls, right near the real heartland of the woman’s suffragist movement in this country—and we’re right in the lands of the Honoshoni nations Irioqui and Confederacy where the clanmothers were the centerpiece of democracy of this region—so it goes way, way back to think about the role of women. And even if that does seem like a stretch, I think it does have an effect—its almost like it’s in the drinking water. And then on campus we have a very strong women and gender studies program and that has a very strong impact on the way people think about gender. We have a lot of programs on inner-group dialogue that really look at gender, race and ethnicity and sexuality, but really look at gender as a structural variable that people have to be aware of in daily life. So I think there are a lot of directions that it does seep into the education.


What do you notice about women in college’s strengths and weaknesses as opposed to their male counterparts?

Well one of the things I find very exciting, frankly, about what you’re doing, is that we’ve gone through a period shifting back now, where feminism being interested in studies or thinking about gender was poo-pooed and pushed to the side, it was almost like “that’s solved, we’ve done that, we’ve been there.” I see that going back now, I see a lot of people really interested in issues of equality and equity and the structures of society that can make or break opportunities for people, so maybe it’s the political arena where we see more women candidates having a public presence, maybe it’s just more a sense of how long we’ve struggled and are we making progress. So on the one hand I think undergraduate students in particular are often not at a point in their life where they want to spend a lot of time talking about obstacles. And that’s totally understandably—it’s a point of moving forward, not a point of wondering “are there obstacles?” but I do think there is beginning to be more awareness again, this has to be a time when for both men and women, where you think about how society is structured to make it possible for people to fill their potential.


On the high school level girls are pushed towards arts and humanities and boys are pushed towards math and science—do you see that here?

Well what you see is the tremendous need for vigilance and real expectations setting so that women and girls who are interested in science and math and technology don’t turn away from it just because there are few role models or just because it seems like it’s detached from the real world and girls want to make a contribution to the world. So we really have to be vigilant and make sure we (we have a women in science and engineering program) try very had to try to recruit girls, both in the K-12 and in college. But you have to work at it. I mean the National Academy did a study on these barriers and it’s still all there.


I know Syracuse has a lot of internship opportunities--in that respect do you see women in their careers moving in the same patterns?

Absolutely, and I think it’s really important that, for example, one of the things we do is that we’re beginning to explore a lot of really good campus industry, or campus community relationships and partnerships. And those give opportunities for women and girls and people of color, for example, to be engaged in the community and to be engaged in industry- to see a world out there that their expertise can adapt to. And there’s just nothing to compare to real hands on experience.


It seems like Syracuse does a lot of community work. How do you think that impacts your students?

It’s extremely important. First of all I think it’s real citizenship building, it gives people a sense of communal responsibility and power that this is your world—shape it! Don’t just get a degree and be handed this world—take this world on, shape it, make it the world you want to live in. And then also the real subsident work, because we do our work in the community around the academics, there are things people are doing that are really serious projects, it’s an incredible way to test one’s learning and really be informed by the community. Because there are experts in the community that may not be in the classroom but they know enough about what their working on.


How do you think technology has influenced students? Do you think it has helped women to achieve things academically and even socially?

I think, honestly, I’m very mixed on that one. I guess the bottom line is I think it’s both- yes and no. The yes piece of it is that I think it can give one a sense of connectedness to the world beyond the particular opportunities you have, so that’s tremendously empowering and can be even if you see only a few women in your context you can get on the internet and so the context even more, so that I think is very important. On the other hand I think technology, for me as a sociology professor, is the superficiality, that it doesn’t involve real—how do you negotiate conflict on a Facebook site or a social networking site environment. I think you can be very hurtful and very stereotyping in those kinds of contexts. And also really not take other peoples deep view into account and how they react. I always joke with people, and it’s actually not a joke, that the kinds of emails one gets, you just know 99% of the time people wouldn’t say it to your face. That what they’re willing to say on e-mail they wouldn’t say in person. And I just believe in the social negotiating process of people really having a sense of empathy for each other rand working things out and struggling together and I just worry that there’s a kind of superficial sense of having communicated but not a real connectedness. And I think on college campuses and even all the way down it has really encouraged a kind of superficiality in the way we judge other people a vassal sort of evaluation.


Do you see that as a problem on campus?

I do, I do. Every so often I get emails from students saying, not necessarily about facebook, there are so many sites, and students will say “can’t you shut that down?” And you can’t, so yeah it does come to my attention.


What has Syracuse found about the difference between educating boys and girls, not necessarily in subject matter, but in the classroom?

I’m not sure I’m informed specifically on Syracuse in this, but I think that there is a sense that girls in classrooms are more collaborative less likely to shoot their hands up with the answer all the time and to be the expert on everything and that that require faculty to be more aware who really is doing the work, what’s the contribution, making sure everyone feels included. And these are gross generalizations because there will be guys that fall on that end of the spectrum and all kinds of other dimensions of disability, but I think that for the most part, on average, women students tend to be more lost in the classroom setting and less sure of themselves.

Do you think that the way to fix that would be through teachers?

I do think that it’s very important that faculty be sort of aware of their context-the context of the classroom. The other side of that is that I think that, I’ve seen our women students tend on average to be very interested in the world and interested in the community and interested in engaging in these projects so if you find avenues they really flourish in that context, and it’s not that guys are not, but I see seven out of ten will be women or six out of eight. So that can play to the positive side.


There’s this concept of women as outsiders in the academic world in other professions—do you think that you bring something different to an insider’s position as an outsider?

I very much do, and I think that especially if you’re award of that insider outsider dichotomy, I think that what you bring is always a sense of recognition of how recently you came inside and that that means you’re not as, on the one hand, invested in the way we do things, and on the other hand it means that you have an investment in trying to bring more people in. So it’s both trying to create opportunity but also trying to create change. And I think it makes women or people of color, people who are new entrants into leadership positions to be more transformative, more agents of change. Because just almost by nature they’re going to be less committed to the traditions of the institution and organization


Should women be careful to always maintain outsider values while assuming the insider positions?

I actually really do believe that. It’s a little bit of the old adage never forget where you came from and I think it’s on who’s shoulders you’re standing. I think that’s just tremendously important. Because otherwise you can just too easily make the false attribution that you are where you are only because of yourself and not recognize that we need real structural change- you know one of my favorite phrases is when 0, a professor MIT was somebody at the national council of women in sciences was sort of bragging about getting more women into the nation academy and she said “that’s really good but I’ll be really happy when there are as many mediocre women as there are mediocre men in the academy.” And that’s sort of—if you forget where you came from .. its all about individual achievement and not about real structural change for groups.


So ideally as women get involved in academics and more careers how do you think that will change the way institutions have worked for so many years as men, being insiders, have run them?

Here’s how I hope it changes; I hope it makes them more flexible institutions, more able to see the complexity in people, and to reward different aspects of work, to see different talent, not to have such a rigid lockstep view of what it means to be productive or successful—to see many more models for who you can be and what you can do. The other piece that I think that women can help institutions be more risk-taking to stop being as risk-reserving as they are, trying new things even if they don’t work. Making mistakes is not such a big deal. And more caring—it sounds so cliché but it’s really, really true and again these are generalizations- I know plenty of men that are incredibly caring but you know for the most part I think that one thing I’ve noticed about men leaders is that they’re very infatuated with their leadership position. Whereas I think women are more down to earth about the plusses and minuses of who they are and why they’re here.


What do you think my generation of girl scan expect upon entering college—will we be entering the same fields as our male counterparts or will that eventually start to change?

I think it will start to change—one of the interesting things is that now at least in the United States there are more girls going to college than boys in virtually every campus I know. That’s going to start changing the nature of who enters these fields and just literally by numbers alone, it’s going to start shifting. And one of the things I think your generation will begin to see is real movement in the role models moving through the system, so there will be more women with tenure in your college experience than there were when I was a junior faculty member at Princeton. When I got tenure there the women with tenure could fit around a round kitchen table. Well know that is different- and numbers make a big difference just in the normalcy of it.


It seems like this change has been so rapid—especially with women gaining higher positions. Do you think this will harm us or will it continue?

I think it will continue and I also think there’s a long way to go. I mean, there’s change but it’s more incremental than abrupt, actually. There certainly has been real progress but I do think it’s incremental.


Is there anything that Syracuse does specifically to encourage empowerment in women students?

I think in a lot of our disciplines there’s a real awareness—for example the women in science and engineering, which is a real group of women faculty and staff really trying to encourage women students to go in this field. So there’s a lot of mentoring that’s involved in that, trying to make sure that students get good internships and positions and get experience working in labs and industries, so that’s just one example. In the arts I think there’s a real sense to trying to get women students to feel ownership over projects and learning how to get out in the community and make a difference and feel a leadership role is something we really stress. And I think the dialogues are really important, the inter-group dialogues.


You mentioned the challenges of being a chancellor before as far as in relation to students and faculty. Has there been explicit opposition?

I wouldn’t say that it’s been explicit exactly but I do think that things I do sometimes threaten the old guys, and not always old in age, you know, pretty clearly and I think that you can tell that when you hear people attributing things like too micromanaging or too involved or pushing for, where you just know that not always, but often, they’d be saying that isn’t great he has a real vision for it, so still subtle but its gender.


How do you think the university is affected by being led by a woman? Do you think you’re doing the same things a man would in this position or do you notice that you’re doing something differently?

I think I’m doing some things differently. And you know one of the things for me is that it’s hard for me to know, because my own scholarly field is related to this, its hard for me to know whether its just being me or that me intellectually and socially as an activist care about these issues and so they’re more fornt and center. But some of the things I’ve brought the margins of the institutions to the center of the institutions-certain fields of study or approaches to scholarship and teaching and community engagement that weren’t here before. So there’s that, I think there’s probably a wee bit more of a sense of I don’t know if compassion is the right word but- and I don’t mean to say that my predecessors weren’t compassionate people because they were, actually—but I do think that I really try to think about the institution can be passionate within itself and to the world, in a way. That is affected by me.


What advice do you have for girls of my generations in their education and their future professional lives?

I guess I always believe that at the end of the day it’s important to be true to the things that you’re generally passionate about, and to not be deterred by feeling you have to have immediate success in something but to really pursue it to not feel you have to leave your identity at the door—I’m not a person that believe in a gender-blind or color-blind or anything blind type of society in that sense I believe that we should be willing to be engaged and straight-forward and to talk about the ups and downs of life and to not hold yourself to some standards of perfection that in fact nobody reaches but that girls often feel a need, especially in fields where they are underrepresented, to be perfect. And I feel that that’s a real burden.


How do you think your life would have been different had you been born a boy?

I actually think it would have been less fun. Despite the fact that we’re talking about all these obstacles I think that it’s just so challenging and exciting to be part of a movement for change, to really feel like what you’re doing in life can make a difference and I think that just huge expectations on guys to be of a certain sort and in some odd way it frees you more.

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Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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