Ashley Smith, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Syracuse alumna, is the author of this guest blog.
Everything seemed to be looking up for students at Syracuse University—until recently.
Recognizing the need to bring the institution into the 21st Century, former Chancellor Nancy Cantor make strides in diversifying the student body, particularly when it came to increasing access for low-income and racial/ethnic minority students. During the 2013-14 academic year the first-year student population consisted of 3,500 students, including 32% racial/ethnic minorities, 25% Pell recipients, and 16% the first in their family to attend college. Prior to Cantor’s term as chancellor (about ten years earlier) those numbers were very different, with the entering students only about 20% minority and less than 20% receiving Pell.
In January 2014, Syracuse welcomed a new Chancellor, Kent Syverud. He seemed to be a promising leader as he assumed his role. After all, he defended efforts to increase racial diversity, even writing a legal brief on the Grutter v. Bollinger case on the importance of diversity to legal education. During the first few weeks he traveled around campus and visited offices, personally introducing himself to students. As a recent graduate of Syracuse, I remember his visit to the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA). I joined other students and staff who packed the place, eager to meet the new Chancellor and his wife. Although his efforts to make face-to-face introductions with everyone and his personable demeanor convinced many people of his good intentions, I remained skeptical, waiting until I could observe his actions. As a student of color, I fervently hoped that there would not be many changes to the campus that would impact the communities and spaces that together made the institution feel a little like home to historically marginalized students. But before long my hopes turned into fears.
The author, standing to the left of Chancellor Syverud and his wife during his visit to the Office of Multicultural Affairs
Consider his recent actions. Last spring, just a few months after arriving, Chancellor Syverud sent an email informing students of the closing of the campus Advocacy Center, which provides students with sexual assault resources and support. Weeks later, his administration mentioned they would hold “listening sessions” to hear students’ reactions. Then this fall, Chancellor Syverud announced a plan to erode the University’s partnership with the Posse Foundation. Posse is a leadership scholarship program recruiting youth from urban areas and urban public schools. Currently in its third year at Syracuse, the Foundation is supporting 90 students with full tuition scholarship and pairs each student with a mentor (usually a graduate student, faculty or staff member at the institution) with whom they meet with weekly to discuss academic and personal issues. They also have the support of a “posse,” the students they enter the institution with, in the hopes they will build community, encourage one another, and persist together to the end goal: graduation. Under Cantor, Syracuse accepted students from Miami, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, enrolling approximately 10 students from each city every year.
Syverud proposed to discontinue Posse admissions from both Los Angeles and Atlanta, keeping only the Miami Posse. His administration defended these changes based on its existing recruitment presence in those cities and media reports indicates that it was part of a broader effort to reconsider how the university is spending its financial aid money.
However, after a student-led protest occurred on September 19th, the administration backed off a bit. The University will continue to accept students from Atlanta for one additional year (2015-16 academic year), but has abandoned Los Angeles entirely, and soon will be only working with Miami. All current students who have been accepted through Posse will continue to receive their scholarships until they complete their time at the institution.
I take issue with these policy changes because they lack a clear empirical justification. Why alter the relationship with Posse before assessing the program’s effectiveness? Since the program is only in its third year at Syracuse, the first cohorts are entering their junior year and there is no data about persistence or graduation rates yet. Chancellor Syverud speaks about his commitment to college rankings and it is quite possible that Posse students have higher graduation rates than their peers. These are some of the campus’ strongest leaders; I’ve seen it first-hand. I’ve witnessed them win awards for their talents in scholarship pageants, perform and debate about social (in) justices through creative spoken word, start their own student organizations, studying abroad, etc. They are poster children for overcoming adversity while accomplishing their goals and aspirations.
Existing recruitment efforts in Los Angeles and Atlanta are not good reasons to remove the opportunities for aspiring low-income, students of color provided by Posse. Syracuse is a long way from becoming an inclusive environment—just last month a soccer player was suspended for a video in which she called another student the N word! The University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I now attend graduate school, has a much more expansive Posse-Institution partnership, recruiting students across five cities with a range of 1 to 10 cohorts from each city. How can Syracuse possibly claim it was doing “too much” for such students, given national concerns about the lack of access to selective schools for low-income, minority students?
Absent answers to these critical questions, the very least the Chancellor can do is respect current Posse students. When they were told of the changes the current scholars had many questions, and administrators declined to address them. The campus paper quoted an Atlanta Posse student saying, “This experience makes us even more motivated to be known on campus and to progress in the community as a whole” Last spring and again this fall Chancellor Syverud and his administration moved to cut inclusive campus efforts without taking the time to get to know the students involved, or their families and communities. And that aspect of his “leadership” concerns me most of all.