Hunter College Taps Nancy Cantor as Its New President

She was born on the Upper West Side. Her mom went to Hunter and her dad to CCNY. So, it really was a homecoming when Hunter College announced that Nancy Cantor, currently chancellor of the Newark campus of Rutgers University would become the 14th president of Hunter College.

| 16 Feb 2024 | 12:59

It has been a long path. Nancy Cantor, the new Hunter president, is a social psychologist and, before Rutgers, served in senior administration roles at Syracuse University, University of Illinois, University of Michigan and Princeton. She succeeds acting president Ann Kirschner who was appointed interim president last July, after longtime president Jennifer Raab stepped down after nearly 22 years at the helm of what has been dubbed the “crown jewel of the of the CUNY system,” by the Princeton Review.

Cantor is a recognized expert on the relationship between universities and their communities. “It is so critical that this next generation of changemakers have a sense that they’re being produced to make a difference in the world,” she said. “In some community.” Straus News caught up with Cantor in her Newark office as she was fielding congratulations from the CUNY diaspora:

“I can’t tell you how many people are writing me saying, ‘my mom went there. My dad went there’. My whole world is interconnected with people all around the country who both know me and have some connection with Hunter. It’s just amazing.

Dick Ravitch used to talk about how New Yorkers don’t always understand the incredible social capital that CUNY creates. And I think that’s what you’re describing.

That’s really a great point. We should really talk about that as a way of telling the story. One through line is the history of immigrant families and the role of that, and I do a lot of work nationally now on immigration. I co-chair the President’s Alliance on Higher Education and immigration. And so it’s really interesting to think about the sort of through line of how are we supporting current immigrants, families and students relative to how important Higher Ed was back in the generations of my mother.

In your introductory message to the community, you talked about how highlighting Hunter and CUNY was important right now because of this “national moment of public skepticism.” Could you expand on what you mean by that?

All the polls that we see, and the kind of local conversations are about higher ed being more and more untouchable for more and more people and families. So, I begin with that. You can break that down to cost and debt and all that. One of the things I was so struck by in the material on Hunter is 75 percent of Hunter students graduate debt free. And that is phenomenal to be able to say. And it’s not a rich student body.

It’s not as if you’re graduating debt free because you came with the resources to do that.

The vast majority of first generation students in this country start on higher education in a community college, and it’s really important that there be smooth pathways...The affordability is obviously a huge issue nationally. We’re seeing people not understanding how to access financial aid. Well, Hunter and CUNY writ large are just exemplars in really embracing an affordable education for a wide set of people.

And then if you go beyond questions of access, and affordability. I do a lot of work in the movement that we call universities as anchor institutions. That really is the kinds of partnerships and spaces and places and relationships that higher education can make to work on the issues that are most pressing in a local community... One of the wonderful things about Hunter is that it’s spread in all these great geographies in New York City, and there’s already huge embeddedness in those neighborhoods. But there’s even more opportunity, I think. That really excites me.

Have you formed any specific thoughts yet about expanding this anchor institution role for Hunter.

I want to wait and see. Because it can’t be top down...One of the things that I think is so important in this work, is to really get on the ground and get to know the neighborhoods. I do think it’s really important to get to know what are the nonprofits? What are the local organizations? What are the other anchors? I am co-chair and part of a group called the Anchor Institution Task Force, which is a national movement. We talk all the time about how do we create that two way street between the university and the community. You are about as knowledgeable as anybody in the country on the state of college campuses these days? And based on everything you know, why would you or anyone agree to be a college president?

I’m a social psychologist. I tell people I do social psychology 24/7. Fundamentally, what we have an obligation to do is to fix the divisive nature of this country at this moment...I always tell people to go back to the Kerner Commission, of all things. Decades and decades ago. right? The bottom line of the Kerner Commission was people have to understand that if you do better, I do better. This country, and world, has lost that ethos.

Everybody focuses, when they think of higher education, on credentialing in careers. And that’s critically important. I’m totally behind that as an engine of social mobility. But higher education is also an engine of civic opportunity, and engagement and health and well-being of our society. I’m just one person. But my whole thing is collaboration. And what we do in these institutions is so critical for creating the next generation to take on these issues.

One of the key questions that’s come up recently is campus speech. You made a statement in 2006 that I wrote down because it seems so relevant today. “With free expression comes responsibilities for being part of a campus community. We have codes of conduct. I don’t think it is beyond question to ask people who are in a diverse campus community to abide by those codes.” Is that still your view? And how would you apply it?

Absolutely. I don’t want ever anyone to imagine that the intent is to shut down speech. Because, you know, I’m a firm believer that the way you get across the divide is actually through the speech that we learn to make with each other. But on the other hand, I want it to be in people’s minds, that there has to be a bottom-line respect for the diversity of lived experiences that have to come to the table. And that’s sometimes really uncomfortable. It’s a balance. The last thing in the world one wants to do in a university is regulate speech or have endless codes. That isn’t my intent at all with that statement. But what I always want people to have in mind is, how do I bring my positionality to the table in a way that still leaves room for someone’s very different positionality? How do I make it an obligation to create that inclusivity? Why are we talking, if we’re not trying to communicate? The role of a classroom, the role of an institution, is to is to create the safety to have those conversations. Not easy.

I’m sure you’ve thought about this, but how would you have answered the question that Rep. Elise Stefanik asked those three college presidents?

Oh, don’t go there!

So let me let me ask you another national political question. You’ll be 72 when you take office in August. now that’s younger than either of the likely candidates for President of the United States. But it’s still an age when many people would say I’ve had enough. Not you, obviously?

So my mother worked till she was 88. Maybe that’s the start. My mother was a gerontologist. A social worker. In fact, was associated with at various points with the Brookdale Center on Aging at Hunter. At one point in her career she ran the New York City Office for the Aging, Research Division, did a large scale study of the ethnic, elderly, poor in New York, and what could happen to help? My parents were both heavy workers. I come from a family of workers.

Diversity has been an important theme in both your academic and leadership work. There are those who’ve tried to argue that diversity, access, these issues, are at odds with the pursuit of academic excellence. What’s your answer to that?

Ridiculous! That’s what my work has been all about–the intersection of excellence and diversity. I mean, one of the books in our book series [Our Compelling Interests, Princeton University Press], by Scott Page, a former colleague of mine at Michigan, is called “The Diversity Bonus.” Scott is a systems analyst and does incredible analysis of how diverse lived experiences, diverse perspectives at the table, add a huge bonus to collective intelligence. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s easy for diversity to come to the table together. That’s why it requires a real emphasis on the value of diversity. But the data are very clear that it really adds, especially in a knowledge economy.

I did a lot of work with the National Science Foundation. We did this whole analysis of safety models in cars. For decades the models were built with men as the prototype. And how did it change? It changed because they got women engineers at the table. It sounds so simple. But the safety measures for women now, and girls, are much, much improved. Because you had a diverse group, who said ‘wait a minute, you know, that body structure isn’t built for the way a woman would typically enter a car or be seated.’ That’s just a very specific example. But I always loved that.