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Community Organizer: an Interview with Chancellor Nancy Cantor

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Reprinted from Rutgers Magazine Spring 2014 issue.

As the chancellor and president of Syracuse University, Nancy Cantor developed relationships with its city’s institutions and people to foster civic well-being. Now, as the new chancellor of Rutgers University–Newark, she is doubling down, convinced that robust partnerships between Newark and Rutgers, which already share a sense of community, could serve as the model for institutions of higher learning and their host cities to emulate.

Listen to chancellor Nancy Cantor talk about Rutgers University–Newark, and you can sense her genuine passion for this place—for the university, of course, but also for the city of Newark and for the interplay between the two. That’s no surprise, given Cantor’s tenure as chancellor and president of Syracuse University, where she was known for forging partnerships between the city and the university in areas such as cultural entrepreneurship and school reform. In a way, Cantor seemed destined for the job of chancellor at Rutgers University–Newark. A social psychologist with a Ph.D. from Stanford University, she has made a mark by lecturing and writing about the public mission of universities, diversity in higher education, and expanding opportunities for a new generation of students. One phrase, in particular, resonates for her: urban anchor institutions. Rutgers University–Newark, she believes, is already doing extraordinary things in Newark, and it can develop even more connections and partnerships to become a model for other cities and for the world beyond.

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: What attracted you about the position as chancellor of Rutgers University–Newark?
NANCY CANTOR: Rutgers University–Newark really represents—and this sounds, in a sense, both grandiose and ambitious, and cliché, all wrapped up in one—the cutting edge of what higher education can be, will be, and must be for this country and therefore writ large. It is a diverse, vibrant urban research university with a sense of its place in its community—and of its community. It has all the pieces that I have worked on in my career. My time at Syracuse was spent very much thinking about the intersection of the challenges of metropolitan America and the diverse next generation, and how you put that together. As a sort of prototype of that, this place really stands forth. It’s in such an important metro region of the country, and it’s a place where waves of immigration have come and built the history of Newark and therefore built the history of this institution as well. It’s got an extraordinary faculty—writers, scientists, humanists, professionals—who are specifically devoted not only to those students who represent the newest Americans—the newest wave of the future—but also to the sort of public mission of the academic work that they’re doing.

RM: What have been some of the highlights of your first few months as chancellor?
NC: Front and center, the students are just amazing. They really represent what this country can be and is going to be. I’ve never seen a student body as aware of how important it is that they are soaking up the nuance of diversity in a very substantive way. They are enlivened by the fact that when they sit in a class, there may be 40 students and 17 home languages spoken. It matters to them. It’s not just happenstance or ancillary to their education. They’re industrious, serious students, and education is really important to them and their families. They know that, and they value it in a way that I find extremely refreshing.

RM: What are some of your main goals for Rutgers University–Newark?
NC: We’re in the middle of a visioning process that is articulating for this university our sense of where we want to go vis-à-vis the full system’s strategic plan. I think what’s very clear here is that we want to be able to both enact and redouble the story that we represent, that we are this vibrant anchor institution, both in this metro region and as a model for the world. People often think of urban institutions as narrow or parochial. But I often say to people that if Newark doesn’t thrive, and we as an anchor institution don’t collaborate to help make it thrive, the world isn’t going to thrive. Those things resonate when you’re talking about how to reverse decades of postindustrial environmental degradation or change the cradle-prison to a cradle-college pipeline in an urban center. You do that here, and it’ll resonate elsewhere. My hope for this place is that we increasingly be seen as a model of what pursuing the public mission of higher education is about and what educating the next diverse generation of students to be leaders and professionals is about, and really doing that at a very high level of scholarly excellence.

RM: You’re a social psychologist. Does that background continue to shape your approach to your work and the way you look at the world?
NC: Very much so. I always tell my colleagues that I do social psychology 24/7 in this job and in this life. Thinking about interactions across differences, thinking about the vitality that comes from diversity, thinking about the degree to which even conflict is important for dialogue—all of those things are really touchstones of social psychology. Social psychology also has a very grand and long tradition of what it calls action research—the sense in which the scholarly enterprise is really an action-oriented enterprise of really understanding how social behavior works in situ rather than in a divorced and distanced way.

RM: You’ve been conducting a “listening tour” of the university. What have you been learning?
NC: One theme that stands out is how all of the constituents of Rutgers University–Newark care deeply about how diverse we are. And it’s not just, “Oh, we’re the number-one most diverse research university,” which we are, but they care about it because it’s substantively something that they see as an extraordinary experience, intellectually enriching, and socially important. It’s been extremely interesting to hear that referred to by so many different constituencies in this university. You sit in a room with 80 students, and they are as diverse as you can get, one from another, and they point, without any instigation from me, to what it means for them to be in such a diverse environment—and to understand the many dimensions of diversity represented in modern life and here at Rutgers University–Newark. •

 

A social psychologist by training, Nancy Cantor has lectured and written extensively about the public mission of universities, diversity in higher education, and expanding opportunities for students, more of whom are getting a chance to enjoy the city by living on campus in residence facilities such as the Woodward Hall dormitory, left.

Author: 
Allan Hoffman