Some Poor Writing About Syracuse in the Chronicle of Higher Education

There's an article by Robin Wilson in the latest issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Syracuse's Slide" that seems, at first glance, to be a substantive news article. In a nutshell Wilson's piece asserts that under the leadership of Chancellor Nancy Cantor, SU has declined academically, dropping some five points in a recent ranking by US News & World Report–a rating mechanism that is relatively non-transparent and which is highly contested within higher education. What's troubling about the article is it's reliance on the rhetorical device known by the Greeks as "pathos"–it asserts a decline is underway at one of the nation's premier universities, thereby raising the emotional temperature of the Agora. Pathos is an excellent tool and it's the one you want if you seek histrionics and readerly credulity. Wilson seems to have been duped by a minority group of faculty who are increasingly unhappy because they do not share the Chancellor's vision of "scholarship in action"–a plan to make the pursuit of higher education and engagement with local educational and civic organizations into a model for 21st century American colleges. That such a plan would have it's critics is hardly surprising. Certainly the histories of contention in higher education would make a generous, if unreadable book. But it's the pathos of the Chronicle piece I find most surprising and disappointing. Pathos is distinct from facts (logos) but it pretends to facts. Enter Wilson's reliance on a disgruntled minority–they assert that funding dollars drawn from tuition have gone up for the administration at the expense of teaching. That this is untrue and that the claims come from an unreliable source seems to have evaded Ms. Wilson who also seems to have failed to question the assertion that Syracuse University's bold embrace of community based scholarship and civic engagement is responsible for a five point drop in the US News index. There is no evidence for this, only pathos, and the latter belongs both to bad writing and to the evident angst of the oddly selective group of faculty who Wilson seems to have consulted. It's interesting that she didn't talk to Deans or faculty with endowed chairs or University Professorships. In fact the article is so unbalanced that one simply returns to pathos in the absence of careful reporting. One wonders who is really responsible for the claim that Nancy Cantor's administration engages in "divisive" leadership? I can attest that having taught at two Big Ten universities and at a first tier liberal arts college I've never and I mean never been a part of such a diverse and energized intellectual community before. All of which makes me wonder about the term "divisiveness"–that can't be code for saying we're concentrating too much on the poor, can it?