Dear Chancellor Syverud, Dean Gonzalez, and members of THE General Body,
I write this to express my sincere concern for the fate of Syracuse University, and to offer a humble suggestion for its future.
My name is John Cardone, recent Public Artist in Residence with the Near West Side Initiative, and adjunct faculty in the University Honors Program. I am also a recent alumnus of SU with a degree in Sculpture and a minor in Creative Writing. I was an Imagining America Engagement Fellow, a VPA Scholar, member of the Honors Program, and two time recipient of the Chancellor’s award for public and community service. During my time at SU, I founded an ESL tutoring Program at Nottingham HS, assisted Prof. Sarah McCoubrey in starting after-school programs at the Blodgett School, and Coordinated a volunteer tutoring program at the Center for New Americans. I was also one of the key students involved in the development and maintenance of 601 Tully with Prof. Marion Wilson, a pursuit which brought me endless joy and invaluable experience. Suffice it to say that SU has served me extremely well in the past six years, and I in turn have done my best to give my service the university and to the city itself. And it precisely because of this exchange of service, this engagement of scholarship, that I consider my time in Syracuse to be the most valuable learning experience of my life.
For several years I believed that my positive experiences in Syracuse were brought about entirely by my own doing, and indeed there were many people who did their best to reassure my beliefs. However, I now realize that it was not merely my own initiative but the individuals, communities, and values of SU that gave me the resources to expand beyond my bubble of a self-concerned student into a wider world of very real need and of problems worth solving. Moreover, it was precisely the values of community engagement and civic involvement that salvaged my experience from being one of apathetic theoretical discourse to one of urgent and practical problem solving.
Indeed, by the start of my second year of undergrad, I was so fed up with inward-seeking tendencies in academia that I vowed to drop out of school. By chance, I was introduced to Prof. Sarah McCoubrey and Prof. Marion, Wilson, two of the myriad members of the SU community who were interested in studies beyond the boundaries of the campus. Through them I discovered Syracuse’s underserved neighborhoods and schools, but also its vibrant ethnic and immigrant communities. And it was this encounter with the real world that kept me at SU and ultimately saved my education.
Although I began to spend as much time as possible off campus, I never compromised my studies, and this led me to my second great realization. At the time I was enrolled in a class in the Maxwell School called “Critical Issues in the US, ” a highly praised coursed with many acclaimed faculty, in which we studied the three most critical issues facing the nation today: Education, Healthcare, and Immigration. My classmates and I were given a couple hundred pages to read each week, examining all three issues through case studies of various cities around the US, or wherever noteworthy scholars happened to be in a position to write. And it wasn’t until the last month of the course that I realized I was learning more about the the “Critical Issues of the US” in the public schools of Syracuse than I was in the classroom.
Syracuse’s median income is 45%* below the national average; 38.2% of residents are below the poverty level; its crime rate is 45%* higher than the national average; 7.6%* percent of residents are foreign born; 13%* of residents have difficulty speaking English; 25.6%* of births test positive on drug screen; the Syracuse City School district enrolls students native to 65** different countries and records 75+ first languages among them, and its graduation rate is 51%** (*2012 US Census) (**SCSD.org). With all that to recommend it, it’s a wonder that our class was not conducting a case study of Syracuse. And while the class certainly learned a lot from the readings, I found that I learned twice as much by actually being in the thick of it. However, it must be said that while the city schools gave a me a place to apply my learning, the university classroom also gave me a place to critically analyze my experiences in the real world. It is no accident that the combination of these two environments produced such a dynamic learning experience for me. Actually, it was imperative.
For the next four and a half years I worked as English language tutor, art teacher, summer camp counselor, art program coordinator, tree house builder, and public artist, always with one foot in academia and one foot in the city. I know not everyone can be fortunate enough to have this experience, and each day I counted my blessings that SU was a community of educators who cared for the uneducated, of health professionals who cared for the ill, and of future political leaders who cared for the mislead. I, and those like me, stayed in Syracuse year after year because we had found a community that cared, and was prepared to make good on its aspirations, not least of all because of the leadership of the previous chancellor and her constant call for “Scholarship in Action.”
There are many in the SU community who mocked this slogan, saying that it was an empty phrase attempting to apologize for academia’s impotency for solving real problems. In my experience, the individuals who held this opinion were those unfortunate enough to understand neither the true merits of scholarship nor of action, but only the satisfaction inherent in criticism. Still there are others who find fault not with the slogan, but with the quality of its implementation. More often than not, I found these critics to be lacking in efforts to improve the matter, regardless of how accurate their criticisms may have been. But the argument that no one – or very few people – seemed to make was that engaged learning is outright BAD, because everyone knows that that would be completely untrue. The purpose of studying theory is to put it into practice, and without practical application there would be no theory worth pursuing. And the closer one can come to reconciling theory with reality, the more fulfilling and productive is one’s learning, a principle which is exemplified by institutions like 601 Tully.
Of course I’m not saying that every class in the university should be taught on the Near West Side, or even that every segment of study must have a so called “applied learning” component. What I am saying is that in the time that Scholarship in Action ran its course at SU there were literally hundreds of students and faculty members who recognized the virtue of taking advantage of educational – and simultaneously altruistic – opportunities in our back yard. Not only that, but SU actually made a name for itself and became nationally recognized as a place where you could go to find a community of educators that valued applied learning more that they valued classroom technology. And seeing as there seems to be a shortage of higher educational institutions moving in that direction, it would behoove the university to preserve that which makes it unique.
Now it is surely unfortunate that SU lost its research accreditation, and I firmly believe that this is something that the school should do their best to regain. But there are also other things important to the progress of the human race besides research accreditation and national rankings. We understand that most influential technological and scientific breakthroughs come from research universities, and we understand that every school wants to play its role in the history of innovation, but there are thousands of problems in the world, and even our country, that are not of scientific or technological nature. There are unique systemic problems everywhere we look, and the solution to one will rarely be a solution to another. The best solutions are tailored to the problems they solve, and many of these problems are the result of previously attempted blanket solutions that failed to address the particularities of their environments. The recent debacle of the I-81 viaduct is a fine example of this. But again, what set SU apart from its peers was that it became known as a place you could go to engage issues by looking them in the eye instead of reading about them in books, just as UPSTATE in the SoA involved itself with the I-81 Challenge. Luckily there are still opportunities for students to engage their studies in this way, but those opportunities are in danger.
Perhaps more alarming, however, is that traditional classroom models are even more in danger. As technology advances, it becomes easier and easier to conduct a large portion of one’s learning from the comfort of a home computer. MOOC’s, open sourceware, and online universities, will never fully replace the physical university because they will never be able to match the quality of instruction for the really difficult stuff, especially when it comes to hands-on learning. But that does not mean that a good half of the undergraduate curriculum is not more easily completed online. For this reason, in light of the imminent systemic upheaval in higher education, SU should improve the quality of its education by focusing more on those things that can’t be taught through a computer. This includes high level research as well as engaged scholarship and experiential learning, which in itself is another form of high level research. We can no longer afford to ignore the learning opportunities in our own backyard.
One last note. The Diagnostic Report published by Bain & Company in April strongly emphasized that the university seemed to have poor budget management, a lack of unified vision, and a lack of transparency. Of course these must all be fixed. The need to make strategic budget cuts is understandable, but this does not require to make cuts in attitude or support for community values. Second, the need for a more unified sense of vision does not necessitate a radically different one, but a clearer one, and I urge everyone to continue in some part the vision implanted the the previous chancellor of engaged scholarship in action. Lastly, chief among Bain & Company’s observations was the “high degree of frustration with… decision opacity” and that the “top recommendation of Syracuse employees in Bain’s Diagnostic Employee Survey was increased transparency, communication, and collaboration.“ I know that students and administration are both making conscious efforts towards this, but I cannot overemphasize the urgency of this advice, lest Syracuse University become known as a place for hands-on learning in Higher-Ed Institutional Conflict Mediation.
I regret the loss of funding for 601 Tully and the Advocacy Center and many other precious pieces of the Syracuse University learning community. I hope that eventually their services, if not their names/funding, may be restored to the community in good time, and that an appreciation of engaged scholarship may find its resurgence in Central New York.
Until then I remain hopefully yours,