Q&A: Kent Syverud

Marjorie Malpiede / January 13, 2020

Chancellor of Syracuse University

Kent Syverud’s earnest participation at the Presidents’ Convening on College Student Behavioral Health in September of 2019 prompted a follow-up interview at the school’s central New York campus. It was clear from his remarks at the Convening that the subject was of personal importance to him.

On a panel discussion, Syverud told the 30 or so presidents that were in the room that spending an entire day focused on student health and wellness was like “water in the desert.”

Syracuse had just opened “The Barnes Center at The Arch,” which offers an integrated set of wellness, health, counseling and recreation services in a state-of-the-art facility at the center of campus. Syverud, who was asked to speak about the center, seemed less interested in touting the school’ s latest achievement than in explaining that it was part of a larger strategy to create community on a campus that, he says, values its increasing diversity.

The interview took place just weeks before Syracuse was the center of a widely-covered controversy over its reaction to a series of hate incidents on campus, including racist graffiti and verbal attacks on minority students. Protesters questioned the school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and called for a series of demands including Syverud’s resignation. Syverud met almost all of them but stopped short of resigning, saying he understands why students are angry and afraid and will work hard to help heal wounds.

The following is a transcript from our interview.

Mary Christie Foundation: You recently attended the Presidents’ Convening on College Student Behavioral Health and Wellbeing at Georgetown University. What were some of the takeaways that you brought back to your work here?
KS: The first realization I had was that every president I talked with had been experiencing an extraordinary increase in demand for mental health services. The same is true at Syracuse so it gave me a sense that we are all trying to keep up with what is not necessarily obvious to us about what’s happening with this generation of students.

The other thing I took away was this need to flip our attitudes about student health services from something you do for people who are sick to something that ensures people are well.

We should talk about wellness and happiness as an effort we need to work on and teach instead of making people feel like they’re a failure if they are not happy and cheerful, like their social media profiles might suggest.

MCF: What has Syracuse been doing to address student mental health?
KS: Our students have been telling us for five years that mental health and wellbeing is their number one concern. We have made it a huge part of improving our student experience, the most obvious example being The Barnes Center (see The Barnes Center at The Arch, p. 43) – a wonderful, centrally-located facility that is experiencing huge usage in just the first few months it has been open.

The big challenge now is how do we meet that demand in a model that’s realistic, given both what students expect and what capacity exists. Our counseling services have expanded dramatically but we’re not able to provide one therapist per student for an hour a week and I don’t know of any institution that is able to. It’s still a work in progress and we’re struggling to match services and referrals to the increased demand.

It’s a shared responsibility for all of us. I think it’s easier here with one major center you can refer students to, but there are many layers to this solution. That’s why wellness initiatives are so important. Wellness services used to be a poster next to a coffee pot saying, “Think about yoga once a year.” Now we have a whole host of offerings: mindfulness, relaxation, nutrition and sleep awareness, as well as yoga whenever you want it.

MCF: Do you think the students are different today?
KS: In a way, yes, but I think these issues they are experiencing – anxiety, loneliness – have always been there. It is the rate of seeking help around them that is escalating. We have a generation of students that is educated about their mental health and they have high expectations for us.

I don’t see them as dramatically different or more needy. The needs were always there. They just weren’t being met.

I am actually very hopeful about this generation. I see an extraordinary interest in them to live a meaningful life. For some, that’s expressed through religion and spirituality; for others, its social justice-focused, working in the community.

Health and wellness is a mind, body and soul balance. Being engaged in meaningful work helps produce that and makes students grateful for the humanity in all kinds of people.

MCF: How does mental health tie into the overall student experience here?
KS: Syracuse is a sprawling, amazing institution with all these niches that are the best of its kind in the country – our sports, our professional schools. School spirit is fairly extraordinary here. But it’s not enough to talk about our niche programs as being truly outstanding. The experience across the board has to be outstanding.

When I got here, I spent a lot of time talking to students. I lived in the dorms, experiencing what it is like to be a first-year student taking five classes and trying to find your place. And I realized that the student experience wasn’t uniformly successful. It had to be better for all students.

The renovation of the Schine Student Center is a good example of how we’re improving that. It is located on the main pedestrian thoroughfare on campus but over the years, it became vulcanized into a lot of individual offices and it was closed at night. With the renovation, we are creating more public spaces where different kinds of students interact, can run into each other; where there’s healthy spaces to be at night and on weekends.

A big part of student health and wellness is what students do socially and who the social arbiters of that are. We are very concerned about that, which is why we’ve invested in initiatives like the Schine Center and the Barnes Center that offer a range of options for students with different interests.

MCF: At Georgetown, we talked about student isolation and the antidote for that being creating a greater sense of community. Is that a part of what you are doing here?
KS: Yes. One of the greatest strengths of a university is the diversity of its student body.
A lot of universities talk about that, but I was just blown away by how much deeper and broader that is here.

Socioeconomically, it is a much more diverse university than almost all of our peers – a great, wide range of students from all kinds of backgrounds.

The result of that, however, is that there are many communities within the student body, as in the world right now, that are becoming more segregated, not more inclusive. We have to worry about that because the world is a tense and fraught place right now. We have to make sure people have a sense of belonging and that requires a lot of work.

This is a big, sprawling, urban campus with people from all over the world.

Building a sense of belonging has to be a purposeful, planned activity.

MCF: Do you think the makeup of your students will continue to diversify?
KS: Yes, and that is our intent. The number of traditional, 18-year-old, college-going students that universities have served is going to dramatically shrink. The institutions that will be successful are those that have anticipated a change and figured out how to deliver an education to a much wider range of people: people who are transferring from community college; people who have served in the military; people who are far afield from the traditional liberal arts student of the past.

We still want to deliver the traditional classic college experience for those who want it, but not everybody is going to move to Syracuse for four years. We have 18 online degrees – an online Associates Degree and four online undergraduate degrees, which is very unusual for a university.

MCF: Speaking of the military, tell us about the efforts that have been underway here for veterans.
KS: This university has an extensive history of being more welcoming to veterans and those in the military than most. This started significantly after World War II when the university tripled in size in 18 months and accepted veterans that almost all our peers would not take.

We decided six years ago that we were going to be the best university in the country for veterans and military and we decided to do that because we thought it would make us a much better university—which it has—and because so many of our peers were falling woefully behind in what we perceived to be a moral obligation to serve those who have served.

Through our Institute for Veterans and Military Families we do a lot of outward-facing services to military personnel to help them transition to civilian life and to provide research on them and their spouses. We have served more than 100,000 people in service who are not traditional students. That’s the oldest and most significant part of what we’re doing.

Internal to the university, we’ve dramatically increased our enrollment of veterans which has dramatically increased our diversity and brought a range of views that have been very healthy for this campus.

Right now, we’re at 5% veteran and military-connected students on campus. Most other top universities would be less than one-tenth of 1%.

Interestingly, in fixing things for our veteran students, we backed into fixing things for the non-traditional students we have. It is true that a lot of our students from underrepresented groups are not 18 when they arrive here; many of them transfer from community college or have credits they’re bringing with them. Many of them are dealing with childcare. This cohort of veterans has forced us to address a lot of issues we needed to address for all our students.

MCF: You are a university known for its journalism school (Newhouse School of Communications). How is the issue of free speech on campus playing out here?
KS: You’ll notice that the First Amendment is written across the face of the Newhouse building. It has more than 1,000 extraordinary students who are systematically taught about free speech and what it means to the history of our country. That’s an asset here that many schools don’t have.

We have a very robust press, a high-quality daily newspaper. We have multiple radio stations and students training to be investigative reporters. I think more than most schools, we’re a place where all students, faculty, and staff understand that free speech and exposure and public discussion of issues is highly valued.

MCF: To be a diverse university so outwardly supportive of free speech must raise some challenges. How do you deal with that?
KS: Having a campus that deeply values free speech and an unbelievably diverse student body means that all of us are more likely to be exposed to views we find uncomfortable.

But our job as an institution is to learn things from people we disagree with.

That said, in governing free speech and civil discourse, we need to clarify what those mean and make sure everybody knows what they’re supposed to do about them if we’re getting close to the line.

I think we have to teach what the First Amendment means and what academic freedom means and what the history of academic inquiry has been because many people don’t know it or believe it.

I try to remember what I was like at 19 and the truth is, the university years are years for discovering who you are. I won’t expect all students at the university to agree on anything right now, but I would like the vast majority to understand the reasons for certain norms and how the university works.

I would certainly like them to embrace the notion of humanity and decency and entertain the possibility that you have something to learn from people you disagree with.