TIAA Institute Theodore M. Hesburgh Award for Leadership Excellence in Higher Education

Kent Syverud, chancellor and president of Syracuse University, has won the 2024 TIAA Institute Theodore M. Hesburgh Award for Leadership Excellence in Higher Education. An independent panel of judges selected him in recognition of all he has done for veterans, students with autism spectrum disorders, the Central New York region and beyond.

Fireside Chat with Surya Kolluri and Kent Syverud


Speaker 1 (00:00):Greetings. It's my great pleasure to introduce Kent Sud, the 12th Chancellor and President of Syracuse University. Looking back at Kent's decade of leadership at Syracuse, there's so much that underscores his commitment to leadership excellence and the principles espoused by Father Hesberg. He has stewarded Syracuse University through transformational change and progress. That includes hiring of hundreds of new faculty members, expanding scientific research in emerging fields, fostering innovation in online degree programs, and spearheading student-focused renovations to Syracuse's historic campus. Chancellor Silver Road has helped make Syracuse one of the best private universities for veterans and military connected students, as well as a global leader in inclusive higher education. Ken's impact can also be felt strongly across the central New York region. He has been a leader in attracting top employers and major investments to the area, bringing substantial economic growth to the local community. He has raised more than $1.4 billion towards the largest campaign in university history. All of this and more has put Syracuse in an enviable fiscal position poised to make deep investments in strategic priorities while continuing to attract and increasingly diverse and accomplished student body. So Kent Hardy, congratulations on this award and thank you for taking the time for this conversation. So let's get started.

Speaker 2 (01:45):Oh, thank you so much for the award, sir. Yes,

Speaker 1 (01:48):Absolutely. So here's my first question, Kent. Let's begin by addressing what leadership leadership excellence means to you and what are the most important traits needed to be a leader, especially in higher education today?

Speaker 2 (02:03):Boy, today I'd say the traits really needed are humility and a willingness to take risks and by humility. So yeah, I guess mean two things. I mean like you recited all those things that have happened at Syracuse in the last 10 years, but humility is partly realizing, no, I didn't do those things. A whole bunch of people did those things and it's not about you, it's about all the stakeholders coming together and doing them. But it's also, humility for me anyway, is also about constantly reminding yourself what you don't know and that there's so many wonderful people around you who know things you don't if you listen to them. I guess the other one I said was willingness to take risks. And right now in higher ed, there are no risk-free choices in so many areas that at least I'm dealing and sometimes the most risky thing of all is to not decide and to just wait and hope somehow the challenging issue before you will go away and really learned in many settings this academic year in particularly that sometimes waiting to see what other people do or what other people say is the riskiest thing of all.

Speaker 1 (03:24):Indeed, the world is changing so rapidly that both assuming one knows everything or standing still are both risks. So I appreciate that, that answer. But I'm also thinking, Kent, a lot has been lot changed and a lot has changing. So if you just look back a decade, let's say 10 years, it would be interesting to hear a perspective on what has changed and what are those new leadership requirements in that

Speaker 2 (03:49):10 years. Yeah, so when I started as a president, I'd been a dean for a long time, but never been a university-wide responsibility, I guess I'd say. I think I'm able to face things now because in the last 10 years I faced so many things in series. I faced very contentious politics, very challenging pandemics, multiple pandemics. At Syracuse, I faced protests on all sorts of issues, and I think that experience makes it easier now for me as a president. I'd say what's changed is it's so much harder to start as a president now than 10 years ago because all those things come at you at the same time, often calling for a decision-making and communication that's very nuanced and very effective that you've never done before. So I think it's a much more challenging job now.

Speaker 1 (05:00):Very interesting. In fact, in my opening remarks, Ken, I had mentioned that you had led this amazing transformation at Syracuse and it would be wonderful to learn what advice you have for new leaders who are driving transformation themselves as well.

Speaker 2 (05:17):Well, yeah, I guess I'd say what I've learned most of all is that it's really important to pick your first victories as ones that are both achievable and differentiating. So in the first year or two is not the time to do the impossible things, but to do something that builds confidence that you know what you're doing and can pull something off. And it's got to be enough differentiated that people can clearly and briefly say, wow, that has happened because she is here or he is here. Think there's a lot of such opportunities, they aren't obvious, but I think you need to spend the time before you start listening to people and identifying those and doing those in the first year. The advice I got for transformational leadership when I came into the job was basically do nothing for a year. Just go around and talk to people and listen. And I think that was good advice back then. I think it's probably disastrous advice now because people aren't that patient now.

Speaker 1 (06:27):Oh, terrific. So excellent advice on driving transformation. I'd like to switch to a little bit of your background now. If I could. You have a background in law I find very interesting. I would love to learn how that has shaped your leadership perspective.

Speaker 2 (06:44):So I'm a recovering lawyer. I was a practicing lawyer and a law dean and law professor for many years. The most helpful thing from the legal experience has been really believing to my core that I need to understand, truly understand the best possible arguments for every side of a question, even if they're not the sides I necessarily agree with going in. That's been really good instinct when I don't know everything about an issue, which is almost always the case, but I'd also say that having a legal background, it can be a liability because it's easy to fall into the notion that the legal aspects of the problem are the most important or defining aspects of the problem. And in higher ed right now, they're always relevant, but most of the time the academic aspects or the economic aspects or the ethical aspects are much more important. And I found that in my early years, if I fell back on legalistic answers to questions or justifying decisions because some law somewhere required it, I got in trouble. And that's certainly been born out in this past year. So I'd say legal training is great as long as you are aware of the liabilities that go with

Speaker 1 (08:18):It. So the leadership decision making has a number of complex factors of which legal can be one. But I do have a follow-up question on this. I wonder because you have this training in legal thinking and argumentation that if you're able to listen better because you're looking at arguments as an objective, so somebody's making an argument on a opposing point of view, you're able to listen better given your training.

Speaker 2 (08:45):Yeah, I think so. I mean, certainly law, when I learned it, I was frequently assigned to make the best arguments possible for a position that nobody in the class agreed with. And in the course of it convincing people, there were aspects they hadn't appreciated. And the issue is more complex than appreciated. I do think today that's harder to do, right? So in most of the hot button issues we face, it's harder to get people to suspend disbelief and put themselves in the position of making the best arguments possible for something they disagree with. And yet I think that's part of a great education and part of good decision making.

Speaker 1 (09:26):Totally agree. Kent, I am genuinely excited to ask you this next question. In reading your background, we identified this that you were clerking and you clerked for Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor early in your career and that you remained friends with her until her passing last year. We would love to learn about leadership, what you learned about leadership from justice.

Speaker 2 (09:52):Yeah, sure. So she was a great woman, a great justice in my view, and I worked for her very early in her time on the Supreme Court and we worked with her for many years thereafter. I guess I'd say in my current job, the most important lesson she taught me really was how to make decisions and particularly how not to agonize over tough decisions. And she taught me that in the context of a capital case where a prisoner was to be executed in the morning and she and the court needed to make a decision whether to stop that execution or not. And we worked incredibly hard on that case and we lost and the prisoner was executed in the morning, and I came in at eight o'clock that morning after working most of the night, and she was exuberant and cheerful and talking about wonderful things that were going to happen that day.

(10:55):And I thought I confronted her on it. I said she was callous and how could she do that after somebody had been executed that morning? And she had the courtesy to sit me down and say, basically I've got 10 more impossible decisions to make today and the time to agonize over a decision. And what you could have done or what you should have done is before you make it. And so you spend every minute, you don't decide before you've really informed yourself, but afterwards if you agonize about it, you're doing a disservice to the next impossible thing coming at you. And in my current job, and I think the job of most academic leaders today, that's our life, right? That we make tough decisions. We're academics, so we're used to thinking them through and thinking about them a lot, but you got to move on. She taught me that moving on is just a necessary skill, which she did with the poem,

Speaker 1 (11:56):A powerful lesson, which is there's the second and the third and the fourth and the fifth decisions that require equal vigor and attention. So I really appreciate that. If I could, Kent, I'd love to bring you to TIAA Institute business for a second. Sure. One of the areas that we are focused on is the fact that as a human society, we're living longer and the United Nations has declared this decade as the decade of healthy aging. And I wonder from your seat and from your perspective if that topic resonates with you.

Speaker 3 (12:31):Of course it does. I mean, TIAA is kind of a miracle because of course historically it was created because so

Speaker 2 (12:40):Many people working in education in this country retired and had nothing to live on and were destitute and were the subject of charity appeals. And TIA came into existence to assure stable income throughout life for the people given their careers to nonprofits and teaching and so on. And it serves that function spectacularly. But now people are aging so much longer and around so much longer. And we've largely abandoned pensions in the United States in favor of not annuity contracts, but other forms of savings with the result that a very large number of people I see are reliant on social security for decades and on having made really good decisions about their investments in defined contribution plans often when they were very ill-informed and young. So what resonates with me is people are aging longer is probably a need to revive the original focus on the annuity as has to be part of your planning part of your portfolio planning. And again, most of us don't have time to think about that or aren't informed about that. So how we structure it, the way it can be structured, so it just happens automatically. I think about that obviously for people outside higher education or education. But what I see today is many staff in higher ed have had an opportunity to save but have not done so in a way that really guarantees that income when they're in their eighties and nineties.

Speaker 1 (14:29):Absolutely. I'm genuinely delighted that this topic resonates with you. Another implication, and I want to bring this question to campus of us living longer is that there could be many generations alive, there could be many generations in the workforce. And as an educational institution, are we both Syracuse and education general paying attention to this multi-generational aspect? Yeah,

Speaker 2 (14:53):It's a daily experience where I am because of course we rely significantly on our own students also for our workforce and multiple generations of staff and faculty and our students themselves come from all sorts of generations. So what is produced is a kaleidoscopic workforce with very different needs that often need to be carried very carefully mapped onto the unbelievable breadth of occupations we have at the university, which is more like a city than a school in some ways. And I am trying to think of an example of that, what I experienced day to day, which is that, so our talent strategy has to be much more sophisticated now because of the different generations working and the different solutions that are not the same across all occupations at the university. So our work from home strategy needs to be very different for student facing jobs and for it and advancement, for example. And we're used to having a one size fits all solution for all these areas. And if we really want to be fully staffed with highly competent people, it's got to be tailored much more.

Speaker 1 (16:14):Totally agree. It's a fast changing world, including demographics that organizations need to adapt to. That brings me to the topic at hand, father Hesburgh. And so let me ask this question. So Father Hesberg, as we know, was a leader in our country's civil rights movement in the sixties and was steadfast in his commitment to social justice for all. And under your leadership, Syracuse has also demonstrated a deep commitment to equity, to diversity and to inclusion. So we would love for you to share some of the things you're doing at Syracuse and why this work is so important for you.

Speaker 2 (16:49):Well, it is important to us and has been since our founding in 1870. We've always been a university that's tried to be welcoming to all, including when others were not. And of course, father Hesberg was born and raised in Syracuse, and so his legacy matters to us as well as to Notre Dame. I think what we've done tried to do to differentiate ourselves in this area in the last 10 years has been to emphasize a couple of very diverse populations that some do less so and that we think we can excel in. And that includes veteran and military connected students who now number about 6% of our student population and unbelievably diverse, large traction of whom didn't go to college right from high school, but enlisted, which creates a whole different set ways of creating belonging and inclusion. We've also focused very much on students with disabilities and making a university welcoming to all include welcoming to those on the autism spectrum and with all sorts of disabilities.

(18:03):And that's required us to change a lot of our practices and create some fairly exciting new programs, including a inclusive U program that gives autistic students a chance to be fully immersed in all aspects of the college experience. And then the last way I guess I'd say we've tried to follow Father Hess's model is with our indigenous population. So we, particularly with the Haudenosaunee, which is the traditional six tribes of upstate New York, the Tetra, the Onaga, the Cayuga, the Oneida, the Seneca, and the Mohawk, we've tried to create a welcoming environment for students in undergraduate and graduate programs on our campus and to have a very significant population of indigenous students. And we've learned a lot from that as well, that being a university welcoming to indigenous students really has called on us to change some practices or assumptions that many of us had. Obviously diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility. They've been evolving right now, and the professionals in this area feel very much at risk in the United States. So I think the other thing we're trying to do is to make clear that it's Syracuse. This commitment is not going to waiver and existed long before these particular terms became fashionable and as part of what defines us back to 1870. So hopefully that's going to make us a place that people want to come to and feel welcome to no matter what happens in the world or how the politics evolves.

Speaker 1 (19:54):Thank you so much for this very powerful answer. As you were describing this, especially when you're talking about autism and so on, I was reminded that most recently at the institute we published a study on mental health and we connected mental health and financial wellbeing where one could imagine if there's financial stress, there's an impact on mental health, but we also established the reverse connection that if we had mental health challenges, it could lead to erroneous financial decision making and financial stress as well. So we appreciate you throwing a light on that topic.

Speaker 2 (20:28):I assume that's true. I need to study this. We certainly are seeing anxiety about financial issues as well as the economy is doing overall. We're seeing the cost of higher education cause incredible stress to a significant fraction of students applying to colleges. And so anything we can do to alleviate that would be great. The greatest mental stress right now comes from the federal financial aid application, which has put us in a situation right now where a large fraction of students are not sure about whether they'll be able to afford to go to college this coming cycle. I know that folks have been making terrific efforts to fix that, but I'm hearing a lot of stress not just from students applying to college, but students already here whose circumstances may have changed in the last year.

Speaker 1 (21:21):Thank you so much for shining a light on this very important and looming topic as it were. In closing, I have one final question for you. Thinking back over your life and career, what would you tell your younger self and what advice would you offer to the next generation of higher education leaders that might help them become the kind of leaders we recognize with the Hesberg Award?

Speaker 2 (21:48):Well, I mean, I'm not trying to be funny, but first I'd say I tell my younger self to pay more attention to sports because I was not a jock by any means. And today I find myself like most college leaders spending a lot of time on sports issues because of just the changing landscape for amateur athletics in the United States. So I wish I'd paid more attention to that earlier. I guess I'd say the lesson that I wish I'd learned earlier and would say to new leaders right now is that I grew the most and benefited the most, not from doing things that I thought would be helpful to my career, but from doing things that needed to be done that other people didn't want to do. That's pretty vague, but I'll say that. So the two probably things I've done that have taught me the most and helped me the most were things that people told me I shouldn't do because they didn't make sense for my career.

(22:55):So when I was a dean at another university, the political science department was, I was a dean of a law school and the political science department was in meltdown and dysfunctional. And as a favor to the Dean of Arts and Sciences, I agreed to be the interim chair of that department, which was not my discipline. And people told me I was absolutely crazy. And indeed the professors in political science regarded me as a alien invasive species. But I learned so much from that experience. I learned so much respect for arts and sciences and the challenges it faced. And in a little scale I learned about leadership and transformation. And that was so much helpful later in the career. And I guess other example of that is when I became a new president, my athletic conference is in the Atlantic Coast Conference, had real governance issues and somebody needed to go in and overhaul the governance of the conference.

(23:59):And I did that against the advice of some wise elders because of the enemies that could be made. And again, I learned so much from dealing with governance issues and from working with stakeholders that you didn't control, but that you had to persuade. That's been so helpful. And I do think it helpful also to that conference because it was able to get through the pandemic and through some of the exciting things going on in college sports with a governance model that was much more sensible. So just coming back to that, I'd say when people tell you to do something in the interest of your career, my experience is it's more likely to be in the interest of your career if you take on something that really needs to be done because people will remember that as differentiate. Very

Speaker 1 (24:55):Valuable advice. I've learned a lot, I'm sure leaders coming up, we're going to take a lot of value from that advice. So thank you again, chancellor Sru for sharing your time and your wisdom, and welcome to our family of Distinguished Hesberg Award winners.

Speaker 2 (25:09):Thank you so much, SYA.

Now in his tenth year as Chancellor, Kent Syverud has:

  • Overhauled Syracuse’s policies and procedures related to admission, registration, credit transfer, housing, and new student orientation to meet the unique needs of military-connected students and their families.
  • Helped make Syracuse a global leader in inclusive higher education through the campus’s Center for Autism Research and Electrophysiology (CARE) Lab and InclusiveU program for neurodiverse students.
  • Contributed to the economic revitalization of the university’s home city and the Central New York region, including attracting a $100 billion investment from Micron Technology for a massive semiconductor fabrication plant.

Through these and numerous other accomplishments, Chancellor Syverud has solidified Syracuse's position as a world-class university, providing a clear example of leadership excellence to the benefit of countless stakeholders.

The Hesburgh Award is named in honor of the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., past president of the University of Notre Dame and longtime member of the TIAA and CREF Boards of Overseers. A world-renowned educator and humanitarian, Father Hesburgh (1917-2015) was a lifelong champion of human rights, a supporter of interfaith dialogue, the cause of peace, and care for the poor.