Rising to the occasion
Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor described a vision
for putting psychological science to work in the community.
Today’s America is similar to post-Civil War America, psychologist Nancy Cantor, PhD, chancellor of Syracuse University, told participants at APA’s Science Leadership
Conference in September, describing a fractured society and
When Abraham Lincoln was faced with that situation, he
created public land grant institutions to help heal the nation’s
wounds, spur innovation and encourage upward mobility. With
the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, which created the land
grant schools, said Cantor, the time is right for psychological
scientists to come together with communities in intellectual
“This is a moment in our nation’s history when
psychological science and scientists can and should rise to an
occasion of national need and serve the public good, both with
our science and simultaneously our penchant for cultivating
new talent pools,” Cantor said.
Universities and faculty members “need to deliberately and
consciously build a two-way street in which we move from our
campuses to engage with the diverse community of experts in
our communities in public problem-solving,” she said.
Doing that requires institutional change, Cantor
emphasized, including changing tenure and promotion
guidelines to recognize this work’s importance. At Syracuse,
she said, it took four years of debate to get a short statement
recognizing the importance of public scholarship into the
tenure and promotion manual.
Today, Syracuse embraces its role as an institutional citizen,
Cantor said. When she first arrived in 2004, she and university
colleagues spent a year “exploring the soul” of the city, sponsoring
focus groups with university and community participants,
sending students into neighborhoods to collect stories and even
commissioning a play about the lives of Syracuse residents.
Designed to set the stage for future collaborations, these efforts
helped the university understand the city’s past and present and
how this aging industrial area could be revitalized.
That kind of collaboration has since blossomed. When
grandmothers reported that they were sick of newspapers
always reporting what neighborhood kids did wrong, for
example, residents, faculty and students from the school
of communication began jointly producing a local digital
newspaper filled with more positive news. The university
created a community center and a nonprofit organization
to sustain its work. The university and surrounding
neighborhood also worked together to rehab local buildings
in environmentally friendly ways and created a program that
trains residents to be green technology management experts.
Most important, said Cantor, the university and school
district are working together to better serve all 21,000
Syracuse schoolchildren by providing before- and after-school
programs and summer services, establishing health clinics in
schools, offering pro bono legal services for parents and giving
scholarships to the university to all local children who qualify
Psychological scientists are key players in such efforts, said
Cantor, because psychology’s toolkit can help solve many of
the problems facing urban America. Psychologists are experts
in fostering growth and change, for example. In addition,
psychologists’ research on such varied topics as conflict
resolution, behavioral economics and Alzheimer’s and other
health conditions can help guide community action.
Psychologists also continue to draw on the work of
psychologist Kurt Lewin, PhD, who after World War II, insisted
that knowledge be transformed into action.
“If we simply sit in our institutions and in our discipline,
knowing but not doing, we will be the free riders, not the
cooperators,” said Cantor. “We won’t build the barn.”
—REBECCA A. CLAY