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Nancy Cantor’s Full Speech at the CBT X Gala (2011)

Nancy Cantor at CBT X

We at the Latino Alumni Network of Syracuse University salute Chancellor Nancy Cantor for her dedication to diversity and inclusion for all SU students. Please read her full speech at the CBT X Gala / Dinner on Saturday, September 24, 2011.

Coming Back Together Gala
September 24, 2011

“Celebrating Our Past, Shaping Our Future”
SU Chancellor Nancy Cantor

It’s a great pleasure and an honor to join you in celebrating the 10th anniversary of Coming Back Together. It feels very good to me to have enough history at SU to share this event with you for third time! I want to thank our amazing MC, the incomparable Angela Robinson, and our dynamic co-chairs, Shanti Das and Marcus Solis. Most of all, I want to say how thrilling it is to look around this room and see the talent, energy, and passion developed, at least in part, because of Syracuse University and sometimes in response to Syracuse University.

We are here, after all, to celebrate the past and shape the future, and that means looking to the past for inspiration but still without rose-colored glasses. Each of us remembers in our own way the silence and inaction of so many in this country in the face of past injustice, our inability as a nation to fully answer the call for freedom. But the pivot of power is in the present, when we can either step up and step forward or step back and shrug our shoulders that this is just the way things are. This is a choice for Syracuse, for the country and for the world.

We can point our fingers at those who abandoned our cities, polluted our environment, failed our children, and shunned our neighbors, and we can leave it at that. Or we can do what the Syracuse 8 did, stand up and go forth together, or what the great John Mackey did when he knocked down the doors between players and owners, fighting for pensions and health benefits for fellow players even as football wreaked havoc with his own health. He was, in the words of his admirers everywhere, a Hall of Famer on and off the field.

SU’s legacy is like the great civil rights song – “We are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For” that captures the grassroots wisdom of the freedom movement that ending segregation was too big a task for the courts, the President, Congress or eloquent civil rights leaders to accomplish on their own. It took the work of everyone.

I would say tonight that this engagement and activism is in the DNA of Syracuse. Dr. Pablo del Rio Zumaya, who graduated from the SU School of Medicine in 1901, pioneered contemporary medicine in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, where he founded a nursing school and created a modern hospital, sometimes paying its expenses himself. He was remembered as “the eternal duty doctor ready to solve any type of emergency.”

Conrad Lynn, the first African-American graduate of the College of Law, participated in some of the earliest freedom rides in the 1940s and took on a host of unpopular cases, of draft resisters and Puerto Rican separatists, as well as the “Kissing Case” in North Carolina, representing two young African-American boys, aged 7 and 9, who were charged with rape because they had kissed a young white girl while playing house. All the while, he sought to make African-Americans part of the judicial system.

These brave and humane alumni, these courageous examples from our past, also define our present. In their spirit, our Cold Case Initiative carves a way forward because it uncovers the past and spurs collective action. The initiative has persuaded the U.S. Department of Justice and the local prosecutors in Concordia Parish, Louisiana to begin Grand Jury proceedings in the horrific murder by fire of Frank Morris 47 years ago, and we are hoping for murder indictments in that case and at least 25 more in that part of Louisiana and Mississippi.

Our challenges today—our nation’s challenges— call for a politics of constructive action by the broad citizenry, across divisions. A politics that the heroes and heroines in SU’s past would embrace. Citizens who struggle to rise above partisan squabbles offer important examples, and higher education also needs to help lead the way. I’m optimistic precisely because we are the ones we’re waiting for. Unlike many other institutions, Syracuse University is vigorously embracing who we are and where we can go, and we are doing it in partnership with others, both in our best tradition and in the only way possible to make progress on the real challenges of the world. This is true whether we are trying to rebuild the life and the heart of the Near Westside of Syracuse, working to open the doors to college to every one of the 21,000 children in the Syracuse city public schools through Say Yes to Education, or through our ongoing multidisciplinary collaboration with the State University of Haiti in which SU faculty and students have installed wireless networks on three of their 11 campuses, and welcomed Haitian graduate students to campus to study here.

I am optimistic. We are the future. You can see this in who is on this campus — this fall our enrollment of first-year students of color is at an all-time high of 32 percent—nearly double the percentage of just a decade ago. More than a quarter of our undergraduate students are eligible for federal Pell grants—a widely recognized measure of socioeconomic diversity. And 15 percent of our first-year students are from the first-generation in their families to go to college.

We are the future. You can see this in the profound and fruitful partnerships we’ve formed across and beyond our campus, and you can see some results of our Near Westside Initiative that has generated close to $70 million in public and private development in the second poorest cluster of census tracts in the United States. You can see this in the excitement of the parents and the students in Say Yes who will finally have the educational opportunities in school and the money after graduation to go to college, here or in institutions across this country.

We are the future. There’s a hopeful, enterprising spirit that informs not only our own students and faculty but also community organizations and leaders of all kind, including our alumni, all of you. It arises from a vision we call, as you know, Scholarship in Action, education for the world in the world. We are part of that world, and so are you. We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, and You Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For. Come back to us, work with us, help us, contribute to these efforts, and together we’ll change the world!

– Nancy Cantor