Last Friday, students and faculty at Syracuse University were made aware that in 2014, at the end of her contract, Nancy Cantor will end her reign as Chancellor of the university. The university community seems to be split on their reactions to this announcement. After months of criticism by free-speech advocates (including this article by The Daily Orange in April 2012), who see her management and communications style as detrimental to the University, many cheered this news. However, many others in the university see this departure as tragically ending what will have been ten years of increased diversity, community outreach and engaged learning.
In terms of the public relations impact of her departure, I see a long road ahead in effectively maintaining relationships with the university’s stakeholders. The difficulty lies in Chancellor Cantor’s “Scholarship In Action” programs; these new initiatives of engaged learning have created a multitude of new stakeholders who are now strongly tied to the university. Prior to Chancellor Cantor’s reign, these individuals or groups may not even have existed as stakeholders. For example, the Imagining America
program at Syracuse did not move to campus until 2007. Today, there are eleven graduate students whose studies are paid for in part by this program, in addition to three full-time employees running the program and student work studies managing the office. All of these individuals now have stake in not just the university, but in Chancellor Cantor’s initiatives and her leadership. This may seem like a small group, but there are countless groups like this across the university, and all will want a voice during this time of transition.
I will let the hallways and classrooms of Syracuse work out whether Cantor’s departure is for the best or the worse, but regardless, from a public relations perspective, the university is in quite a pickle. Due to the growing criticism of Cantor’s work, should the university start from scratch, and leave behind many of her initiatives? Or, due to the influx of stakeholders who now have brand-new or stronger ties to the university, should it continue Cantor’s initiatives in the interest of maintaining good relations? Either way, the university will need to proceed with transparency (some would argue a new concept for Cantor’s Syracuse…), two-way dialogue and respect for all stakeholders involved. If public relations is not at the table during the important decision-making processes of this transition, it is unlikely the university will come out of this time unscathed.