Psychologist Nancy Cantor, PhD, chancellor of Syracuse University, has long held that colleges and universities need to "come down off the hill" and get involved in the economic life and educational progress of local communities.

Now, as chair of the American Council on Education (ACE) Board of Directors for 2006, she's helping bring that message to the American people through a yearlong public awareness campaign.

ACE represents nearly 1,600 college and university presidents and 200 educational associations, and provides national leadership on policies affecting higher education. The association's membership last year elected Cantor to a three-year term as vice chair, chair and past chair of the board. In her role as chair this year, Cantor helped launch the nationwide "Solutions for Our Future" campaign, which seeks to raise awareness about the public benefits of higher education and to make it a public policy priority.

Also with Cantor's support, ACE plans a second campaign next year called "Know How to Go" that will encourage low-income, first-generation students to prepare for college through coursework in eighth, ninth and 10th grade.

The campaign will direct parents to the educational and financial resources that can help plan for college. The effort is necessary because some students from minority groups aren't familiar with the courses needed to prepare for college in high school, and their parents sometimes lack the social connections that can help make college an "imaginable" goal for their children, Cantor says.

"What we all need to do, certainly in middle school, is make the potential for higher education possible through preparation," she says.

Educational access

ACE President David Ward, PhD, says the association built into the Solutions for Our Future campaign Cantor's belief that colleges and universities need to work with their communities. For instance, the campaign encourages institutions to engage in "give-and-take" style dialogue with the communities in which they're located.

"That public role is the idea that we do more than educate students in the classroom; there's an interface with the local community and the regional community," Ward says.

In keeping with that idea, he says, Cantor has helped ACE focus on the need to make higher education accessible to all Americans, and to make the public understand how higher education contributes to the "democratic dream" of opportunity for all.

"Both of those projects are very important to her, and it's been wonderful to have her support and feedback on both projects," he says.

A social psychologist who earned her doctorate from Stanford University, Cantor has held a variety of administrative positions during her career, including chair of the psychology department at Princeton University, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan, and chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

As Ward describes it, Cantor's training and accomplishments in the discipline of social psychology complement the leadership abilities she's honed as an academic administrator.

As chair, Cantor is engaged in the development of the themes and agendas of three annual meetings.

"Nancy is able to combine an ability to convey her own passion and her own values, and yet hear the other voices," he says.

Community connection

More locally, at Syracuse, Cantor is using that blend of mission and listening to lead efforts to connect the university's faculty and students with community schools and businesses through the "Scholarship in Action" initiative that she developed after becoming chancellor of the school in November 2004.

"What we do is engage the community with our community of experts to try to make a difference in the world," she says.

Syracuse is seeking to make that connection through such programs as the Partnership for Better Education, which pairs university faculty with teachers from the city's schools to build curriculum in the arts, literacy and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in local schools.

In one example, middle and high school students document their families, lives and communities with photography, film and video, using equipment and instructors from the College of Visual and Performing Arts shared between the university and local schools. Besides self-expression, students develop literacy skills as they tell their stories.

Other aspects of Scholarship in Action include the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems, a consortium of academic and research institutions and private companies; efforts to promote entrepreneurship in the city's South Side neighborhood; and the "Connective Corridor" linking the city's art institutions together, Cantor says.

In another effort, the university is assisting in the cleanup of Lake Onondaga, a lake sacred to the Onondaga Nation of American Indians that became polluted with toxic runoff during Syracuse's decades as a center of industry.