Whatever happened to: Nancy Cantor

Whatever happened to: Nancy Cantor

Today, we update you on people and places from the recent past and decades ago. Here, former University of Illinois Chancellor Nancy Cantor.


The UI's first female chancellor covered lots of ground in her three-year term (2001-04) — championing diversity, launching cross-disciplinary research and recognizing a graduate employees' union. She won praise for leading a stirring community service at Memorial Stadium in the aftermath of 9/11. But she became a lightning rod for the contentious debate over Chief Illiniwek. Cantor angered the Chief faithful by defending the free-speech rights of an anti-Chief protester arrested for refusing to leave the Assembly Hall. Her perceived distaste for the Chief prompted one irate fan to buy billboards reading, "Restore the Chief, Replace Cantor." In March 2003, after trustees tabled a motion to retire the Chief, Cantor publicly expressed her disappointment, saying the issue would cloud the university's future. Three months later she accepted a job as chancellor of Syracuse University.


The Board of Trustees officially retired Chief Illiniwek in February 2007, though the debate drags on. After 10 years as Syracuse president, Cantor announced last summer that she would retire at the end of this school year. She then accepted a job as chancellor at Rutgers University's Newark campus, starting this semester. A New York native, Cantor said she was excited to be "on the front lines of an urban university" so close to New York City. She said she looks back fondly on her time at the UI and hasn't followed the Chief issue closely.

Cantor says ...

"I've always said Illinois is an extraordinary university. The talent is just remarkable. I look back with great fondness on the faculty and students and interdisciplinary work we did and the cross-campus initiatives that were started.

"I'm a social psychologist so it's not surprising to me that the issues of culture and group and such are heated and deeply held. ... I had anticipated coming into a context where that discussion was further along than it turned out to be. I don't think it's ever a question of being vindicated or not. People had deeply held beliefs on either side. I don't like a framing that makes these into victories or defeats. They're extremely complicated issues."

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