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Building ‘a community of experts’

Nancy Cantor

Quantifying the importance of a school’s engagement with its surrounding community can be difficult from a numbers standpoint. Not, however, from a common sense and moral one, according to Nancy Cantor, Ph.D., Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark and a distinguished leader in higher education.

Furman is “inextricably intertwined” with Greenville she told a Shaw Hall audience in Younts Conference Center on Wednesday night, and as a result, its goals and concerns should align accordingly.

“When you think about an anchor institution—a sustained, place-based institution—its health is going to be a function of the collective health of what happens around it. So that becomes critical,” she said. “Institutions all across the country are taking seriously what it means to be stewards of place, what it means to create generative partnerships and not just to do that transactional model of innovation and learning.”

Engagement with the community is one of the four overarching priorities of Vision 2020, a strategic plan devised in 2011 to help guide Furman through the decade, and Cantor’s advocacy for re-emphasizing the public mission of colleges and universities matches Furman’s stated core mission of “earnest participation in society” without considering direct tangible benefits.

Cantor earned an A.B. from Sarah Lawrence College and a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford and before embarking on a career in academia that saw her attain leadership roles at the likes of Princeton, Michigan, Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Syracuse, where she was chancellor and president before moving to Rutgers-Newark. She has a well-deserved reputation as an intellectual.

“Hers is not an ivory tower theorizing, however,” incoming Furman president Elizabeth Davis, Ph.D., said while introducing Cantor. “In the past two decades she has spearheaded intensive and meaningful initiatives between local communities and the faculty, staff, and students of the institutions she has served.”

Those initiatives would never have been possible without a genuine and concerted effort to listen to and involve everyone, which Cantor illustrated with a story from one of her early outreach efforts.

“I do have to say I learned the most at Syracuse from (a) grandmother in the ninth-poorest census tract in the country when she said ‘Nancy, ask us. We lay our heads down here at night,’” she recalled. “And that’s a very profound sense of what it really means to work in a community of experts.”

Cantor referenced community of experts several times as a critical component to collaboration between university and place, and she means just that. Progress requires consensus, consensus requires respect, and respect means accepting what you may not know as much as what you do.

“One of the key principals of public engagement is we have to get out of our silos. We can’t be narrow if we’re going to tackle the issues that really make a difference in the world,” she said. “We need to understand that on many a day in these issues we aren’t the experts. We’re one among some experts, but there are many experts in community and of community, some with pedigree and some without . . . Civic dialogue is at the heart of problem solving. If we don’t get perspectives on the issues facing us, multiple perspectives, multiple disciplines, multiple voices at the table, and do it through civic dialogue we won’t move the dial.”

Rutgers-Newark, a massive public university located in the heart of New Jersey urban area many times larger than Greenville, is in many ways very different from Furman. Its greater resources allow for greater immediate impact on projects, but Furman has advantages as well.

“One really unique aspect of a small and especially liberal arts school like Furman is the silos are not typically as rigid, so the coming together can happen more easily and more quickly,” Cantor said. “In large institutions like mine people don’t even know people in the other departments or in the community down the road, and there’s that kind of disciplinary siloing that I think really has to go by the wayside.”

Another piece to helping Furman achieve its goal of public engagement is for it to find a way to reward the faculty for pursuing what is, outside of intellectual reward, a fairly thankless endeavor.

“One of the challenges is we all have limited time and we have to spend our time in the way we feel like is going to be the most productive, most rewarding,” Davis said. “And rewarding is defined many different ways, but when you’re an untenured professor the reward is tenure, and a lot of times because these activities are not recognized as scholarship and they aren’t rewarded as such . . . time is not spent on these activities.”

Solving local problems will help Furman, but what about helping Furman’s students? Furman political science professor Liz Smith, Ph.D., who delivered the welcome to Cantor’s address and sat alongside her and Davis during the question-and-answer portion, thinks teaching them these skills is a win-win of making Furman a better school, their communities better places, and them better at life.

“Most political science research shows most of us have very thin conceptions of what it means to be a citizen,” she said. “We are mostly focused on our rights and not our obligations, and when we come to an institution like this as students and have the opportunity to consider what our obligations are then we are creating richer students who then become richer people as they move up.”

Cantor’s speech, Universities and the Public: Imagining Our Place, was delivered as part of a week-long celebration of Dr. Davis’s Inauguration, which will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday in McAlister Auditorium.

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