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From the Editor: Person to Person

by Mar. 16, 2009, 12:36 PM

Last fall I had lunch with a friend whose only child is a sophomore at another university that we refer to around here as one of our “peer” schools. “Oh, Ethan seems happy, and his grades are good,” my friend replied when I asked about her son. “But I hate that he’s not going to his classes.”

At Ethan’s university, she explained, it’s possible to watch most classes online from one’s dorm room and still do well academically.

I thought about Ethan a few days later when Vanderbilt Magazine co-sponsored one of the annual Holocaust Lecture Series events here on campus. Vanderbilt invited the four alumni featured last spring in our cover story, “In the Face of Destruction,” to return to campus for a panel discussion.

On a Sunday evening in November, nearly 200 people showed up to listen to these octogenarians tell of parents killed at Auschwitz, of family fortunes stolen. Probably a third of the audience was Vanderbilt students. I never saw any of them yawning or Twittering or gazing longingly toward the exits.

studentseditorThe turnout, I am sure, was bolstered by the venue—the new Commons Center, now the “community square” of residential life at Vanderbilt. Afterward, Frank Wcislo, dean of The Commons, and his wife, Jane, hosted a reception in the Dean’s Residence. There I met three Baton Rouge, La., schoolteachers, brimming with enthusiasm. They had gotten time off from work just for this event. The parent of a Vanderbilt student had given her Vanderbilt Magazine copy to one of these teachers, knowing she was teaching a unit about Anne Frank. The teacher had read our Holocaust article and accessed the Holocaust Lecture Series Web site listed with our article.

It’s great that we can reach a wider audience online. You can watch many Vanderbilt lectures and other events via podcast. For me it’s often a real timesaver.

Still, I can’t help but think of Ethan. Would the evening have meant as much, watching on a computer from his dorm room, hearing Walter Ziffer tell how he was stoned by other children in his village? Or hearing Max Notowitz relate in his gentle voice how, at age 14, he hid out in a forest for 22 months after escaping a slave labor camp?

Vanderbilt, like most of higher education and the nation, faces formidable challenges during this severe economic downturn. Most construction is on hold. A general hiring freeze for staff has been implemented, and much other spending has been curtailed.

Despite the timing, I’m glad Vanderbilt has invested in The Commons and is proceeding with plans to eliminate need-based loans for undergraduates with demonstrated financial need.

The decision to embrace the concept of community is a wonderful thing, if it means walking across campus on a cold November evening and listening to the stories we have to tell each other—face to face.