At Last, at Last, a Shining Exception

Syracuse University has purposefully increased its student veteran population -- a core element of its strategic plan.

November 11, 2019
 
 
Wick Sloane
Syracuse University's new veterans' center

Syracuse University. Eureka. Hallelujah. Syracuse has 140 undergraduate veterans this fall.

How many is that? Well, for the 36 self-proclaimed most highly selective colleges I survey each fall, the undergraduate total is 408, net of the 477 undergraduate veterans at Columbia.

If I could shout for joy in this column, I would.

For 12 years I have been choking at the reasons selective college trustees and presidents offer for why most veterans have no place at their colleges. This is reasoning that I hope would evaporate at these same colleges if offered in the first week of History 101.

Last Tuesday I reviewed the excuses with Syracuse chancellor Kent Syverud at the end of two-day visit to see for myself what Syracuse does for veterans.

“I’ve heard it all,” Syverud told me. “It’s wrong what the other colleges are doing.”

The 2019 Vets Survey
The new iteration of Wick Sloane's
annual study can be found here.

What? A higher ed official, chancellor of a Research-I university, tells me this in answer to my first question? Stunned, delighted, amazed, I said that’s all I needed. My notes and the avalanche of information I had requested before visiting were already a book. I was only writing a column. Syverud kindly offered to continue the conversation.

We were sitting with Vice Chancellor J. Michael Haynie, Ph.D., who served for 14 years as an officer in the United States Air Force. On becoming chancellor in 2014, Syverud promoted Haynie to vice chancellor with duties including all veterans' work. (Also with Josh Grossman, the university’s Washington, D.C.-based director of media relations. Flattering.)

For the 2019-20 academic year, Syracuse reports 140 undergraduate veterans. That’s apples to apples with the Inside Higher Ed Annual Survey of Undergraduate Veterans at selective colleges. Syracuse expands the definition of those served to include “military-connected” students, including dependents of veterans, those in the service. This expands the undergraduate number to 663. Including the law and other graduate students, Syracuse has a total of 764 veteran students and 1,374 military connected.

Staff and budget numbers are always a good descriptive start. For veterans on the Syracuse campus including online, the Office of Veteran and Military Affairs has a staff of 21 plus 27 paid students with an operating budget, university funds, of approximately $2 million.

For all the selective colleges that say they can’t find and recruit undergraduate veterans? This staff includes three full-time admissions officers. The leap from the military to college, any college, is a large one. This staff includes a six-member Veteran Success Team. Beyond this is the full-time assistant director of career services.

Next is a $22 million budget, from external funds, at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families with 92 professional staff and 27 students running programs in 45 states, two U.S. territories and eight countries that as of March 2019 have reached 125,000 veterans and military-connected people. To understand what veterans face and what needs to be done, IVMF Research and Analytics has a team of 14 research staff plus affiliated faculty.

Passing by the excuses, Syracuse has, from the cover of one 55-page report, “Data-driven research to enact the promise of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.” I had to reread that. All this and Syracuse declares the full promise of the Post-9/11 GI Bill is still to come.

As a fiscal benchmark, the Syracuse endowment is approximately $1.33 billion. Williams, my college and a leader in reasons and excuses for enrolling few veterans, reports an endowment of $2.8 billion. Syracuse, again, has 140 undergraduate veterans this fall. Williams has fewer than 10.

“Syracuse University embraced veterans when almost all our peers turned their back on them at the end of World War II,” Syverud said in his April 2014 inaugural address. “As executive director of the IVMF, Mike Haynie has taken the university’s celebrated past and built the best research institute available to the veterans of our armed forces and their families. I believe Syracuse must once again become the best place for veterans.”

Syverud declared that becoming the best place for veterans was one of his four strategic goals. No one knew that was coming in the speech, even Haynie.

Back to my interview. “Running a research university today is one of the hardest jobs there is, and you were crazy enough to pick one that has Division I sports, too,” I said. “No one else is doing this for veterans. You had no reason to pick this issue. Why?” Syverud is not a veteran. Spin or not, I can only call him modest in our conversation. He shrugged. He had discovered the near-total absence of veterans at selective colleges on meeting veterans as a law school professor, he told me. I had my million-dollar quote. That was that. As an interviewer, I have yet “to enact the promise,” if any, of reaching even the shadow of interviewing greats Studs Terkel or Dick Cavett.

My journey to Syracuse began in June this year, when my Harvard Kennedy School friend Linda Bilmes, the 2008 co-author of The Three-Trillion-Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, sent me a U.S. News op-ed by Syverud. A university chancellor who agreed with me that top colleges were doing a disgraceful job supporting the other people’s children graduates of those same colleges had sent to war?

“It’s high time that the nation’s best colleges and universities take meaningful steps to engage this generation of American veterans, and by doing so make our best institutions richer, more dynamic, more diverse, and ultimately better for all of us,” Syverud wrote. My ears still ring from the words years back when a then-Ivy League president who, without a shred of evidence, declared that for Ivies, “Veterans can’t do the work.”

I clicked on. Military Times named Syracuse as the 2019 Military Times No. 1 Private School for Vets/No. 4 Overall in the Best for Vets. Since Syverud became chancellor, the number of veterans and military-connected students has increased 500 percent.

Linda Bilmes introduced me to Haynie. A vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and innovation, including veterans? Haynie, also a professor of entrepreneurship at the Syracuse Whitman School, and I emailed and talked by phone over the summer. I watched his TedX talk, "The Moral Obligation to Know a Veteran." I invited myself for a visit. At last, I had a destination on my search for good news, something, anything that was working for veterans at a selective private college or university. Of course I had to see for myself. I was on a path, I hoped, to good news to report for Veterans Day 2019.

I have already written here a column with a book full of notes to go. Obscure columnists can have opinions. Closing out this column and doing justice to the work of the Syracuse veterans, the faculty, the staff I met is impossible for me. I’ll try.

Starting with veteran problems I have dealt with, I asked about veterans who cannot obtain an appointment with the Veterans Administration clinics and hospitals. Or those with procedures scheduled during the semester. The worst I have seen is a severely wounded veteran who had not recovered from surgery in time for the next semester. Veterans not in school cannot receive GI Bill benefits. If this veteran had not had family nearby? He said he would have been homeless.

Not a problem at Syracuse, I learned in my first meeting. The university built a relationship with the head of the nearby VA hospital. If a veteran has a problem, Syracuse staff know whom to call to solve the problem.

The Syracuse law school has free services for veterans. This is often challenging a less than honorable discharge, which can reduce or eliminate benefits, and the same if for veterans who believe their disabilities have been misclassified. Health care? Discharge status? Disability classification? I am embarrassed that I never thought of these. Of course many of these classifications may be justified. Syracuse is offering veterans a chance to apply their First Amendment right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Syracuse military-connected programs include ROTC and the Defense Comptrollership Program for senior defense executives. The Military Photojournalism and Motion Media Programs let active-duty military earn an essential credential for their career. And more and more. At Syracuse, military and defense staff can earn a combined Syracuse M.B.A./M.P.A. in 14 months.

The editor is waiting. Please check out the opening-in-April 100,000-square-foot $64 million National Veterans Resource Center, right in the center of the Syracuse campus. I could write another book on the years of research and planning led by Ron Novack, a retired U.S. Army colonel, OVM executive director. With handsome ramps everywhere, the building is at a level beyond what I ever thought of as accessible. Two examples: couches easy for people in wheelchairs to use. Handrails with Braille signage. (Syverud gave me his business card, which includes Braille.)

Syracuse is a long drive from here. I volunteer to drive presidents and trustees from the laggard most highly selective colleges for a visit. For expenses and a $25,000 donation to the Bunker Hill Community College Foundation for veterans' services. No fee.

Bio

Wick Sloane is an end user of higher education.

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