Syracuse University’s Identity Crisis

It seems like Syracuse University has been in the news a lot lately, and not in a good way.  First there was the announcement that we are the nation’s #1 “Party School,” then the Advocacy Center was closed in the shadiest manner possible, igniting student protests, and now there is news that Chancellor Syverud is slashing funding to the Posse program, which provides underprivileged students funding opportunities to attend our university.  While it might be tempting to see these as discrete events, they are in fact connected, all part of SU’s identity crisis, as it struggles with how it wants to face the challenges of the 21st Century.

This crisis is itself part of a larger cultural debate about how we think about a college education, what that actually means, and how we even understand the university as an institution.  At stake, I would argue, is also the fact that, beneath all of these arguments and hand-wringing over SU’s academic identity is a belief (held by unfortunately too many) that underprivileged students just aren’t cut out for the academic life.  How dare they (these voices seem to imply) drag down our lofty academic standards with their unpreparedness (after all, how can students from poorer and ethnic neighborhoods POSSIBLY be prepared for the rigours of a private school like Syracuse)?  And beneath that, a more sinister question:  how dare they seek to use the university for social betterment?

As a graduate student here at Syracuse, I have seen this battle over our identity coming for a long while.  Even when I served on the University Senate back in 2011, there was a small but vocal group of faculty protesting that Chancellor Cantor’s efforts to throw open the university’s doors to various minority groups was a serious threat to the school’s academic integrity, as if somehow these students would damage SU’s precarious claim to a prestige on league with the Ivies.  Of course, the obvious racism and classism was carefully obscured behind carefully chosen language, but it was there for those who had learned the hard way to expect it.

At the heart of this, it seems to me, is a struggle within the university about what image Syracuse wants to project  to the outside world.  Do they/we want to be seen as on par with the Ivies (with all of the problems that entails), or do they/we want to be seen as a university that is showing what the Academy can accomplish when it finally frees itself of the shackles of racism and classism that haunt its origins and, as this incident reveals, its current worldview?

For me, at least, the answer is an easy one.  Rather than continuing to cling to outmoded ways of evaluating the worth of a college education (I’m looking at you, U.S. News and World Report), we should start thinking about the social mission that the university should embrace.  This isn’t to downplay the importance of research (since that is important, in all fields), but to suggest instead that, when twinned with a social justice mission, research and a rigourous approach to teaching and pedagogy can lay the foundations for a more just society.  Syracuse University has the potential to lead the charge, if only the leadership will start making the right choices, leading us into the future instead of clinging to a hopeless past.

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