A Hard Professor

When I first became a dean in 1995, I was curious about how to find and hire transforming professors—the kind of inspiring, intense, caring and demanding teachers who had made such a difference in my own education. In interviews at the beginning of their careers, these folks do not obviously stand out among their peers. Years and decades later it becomes obvious that they are wonderfully different.

Back in 1995, I collected hundreds of memoirs authored by these teachers and their students, trying to find and code the common attributes or predictors, so that if possible I could hire more of them than other schools. It was a humbling experience. The most common attribute turned out to be a healthy disdain for administrators (like deans and chancellors).

Syracuse University has many of these transforming teachers, and the students revere them even while they confide that they are “hard.” One of the most remarkable, at least to me, is Bill Coplin. Professor Coplin directs the Public Affairs Program in the Maxwell School. His Public Affairs 101 course has enrolled more than 40,000 students so far. It is hard. Bill is demanding, even curmudgeonly. He insists students learn and manifest the skills of a competent professional while also coming to understand citizenship and what it concretely means to do good.

I have seen Bill teach. He knows his students. He demands a lot of them, but that is because he sees extraordinary promise that others may overlook. He relentlessly advocates for his students, including persuading me to deploy them in my negotiation classes as assistants and to recommend them for jobs and careers. He on occasion (surprise) quietly manifests a healthy disdain for administrators. And he is a treasure to this University and our students.

I can’t travel anywhere in the United States or the world without an alumnus coming up to me and thanking me for Bill Coplin. I wish I could reply that I hired him. Instead, I say that I am on the lookout for teachers like him.


Kent Syverud
Chancellor Kent Syverud