Opportunity Vanderbilt

Rodes Hart (left) and Orrin Ingram
Rodes Hart (left) and Orrin Ingram

Rodes Hart and Orrin Ingram believe in Vanderbilt.

As alumni, trustees, philanthropists and visionaries, they reflect on the opportunities—and challenges—of eliminating need-based loans and increasing scholarship endowment.

Rodes Hart, who graduated from the College of Arts and Science in 1954 and now serves as chair of Vanderbilt’s $1.75 billion Shape the Future campaign, joined the Vanderbilt Board of Trust in 1979, becoming trustee emeritus in 2007.

Orrin Ingram received his B.A. from Vanderbilt in 1982. A member of the Board of Trust since 2002, he chairs its Medical Center Affairs Committee and serves as vice chair of the Shape the Future campaign. He also chairs the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center Board of Overseers, and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Board.

Vanderbilt Magazine asked these two leaders to discuss Vanderbilt’s commitment to replace need-based undergraduate loans with scholarships and grants—and the $100 million philanthropic effort, Opportunity Vanderbilt, that will sustain this historic expansion of financial aid.

VM: Why is Vanderbilt’s expanded financial aid initiative, with its emphasis on scholarships rather than loans, so important?

HartRRH: It’s the right thing to do. Scholarships replace the burden of student loans that must be repaid with interest after graduation. That loan obligation can adversely impact students’ career choices or their plans for advanced or professional education. The justification is apparent, especially in this uncertain economy. We want to ensure that financial need is not a deterrent for highly qualified students who want to attend Vanderbilt.

IngramOOI: When a class is made up of individuals of all economic, geographic and cultural backgrounds and experiences, that blend enriches the learning environment for the whole class—and every student.

VM: Opportunity Vanderbilt is seeking $100 million in new gifts to support this financial aid initiative. Why not postpone this, given the current economy?

IngramOOI: I don’t see the economy as a reason not to move forward. It’s never easy. By waiting we could be denying someone who is qualified a chance to attend our university. Though we are certainly mindful of the current economic climate, Vanderbilt’s strategic decisions and philanthropic priorities focus on what’s important to sustain the university’s mission over the long term. And increasing Vanderbilt’s scholarship endowment is crucial to that mission.

HartRRH: While these are challenging financial times, I believe raising philanthropic support is always challenging. Time is of the essence, and time in any endeavor does not wait. We must develop the best minds to meet the many challenges our country and the world face. It is up to the expanded Vanderbilt community of trustees, alumni, parents and friends to meet this essential priority now.

VM: What has been Opportunity Vanderbilt’s progress toward the $100 million goal?

HartRRH: To date, we’ve received $61 million in gifts and pledges. This tremendous generosity is already benefiting students. We began counting gifts toward this $100 million goal in May 2007, as the plan to expand financial aid to eliminate need-based undergraduate loans was being considered by the Board of Trust.

VM: Why not incur student loans in order to receive an education of the caliber Vanderbilt offers?

HartRRH: The young people Vanderbilt educates will be the leaders who will guide our country and positively influence societies throughout the world. But debt will influence their choices.

Vanderbilt has been addressing the challenge of student debt for many years, and since 2000, students’ loan burdens have been reduced by 17 percent. Scholarship giving to our Shape the Future campaign has had a vital role in those debt-reduction efforts. Vanderbilt’s historic announcement that undergraduate loans will be replaced with scholarships and grants builds directly on the university’s long-term focus on this challenge of student debt. We’re not alone—many of the country’s best universities are adopting similar strategies.

Approximately 60 percent of Vanderbilt’s students receive some sort of financial aid. And it’s important to keep in mind that even as we eliminate loans in our financial aid packages, all families still have an expected financial contribution, and some families will meet that contribution through loans—so this expanded financial aid initiative does not make Vanderbilt cost-free.

IngramOOI: Traditional student loans might have allowed a student to attend Vanderbilt, but upon graduation these new graduates were not only entering the work force but also had a huge burden of debt hanging over their heads. One of the great things about philanthropy is helping people who need a boost—and hopefully they’ll be successful and will continue the tradition of giving back and making a difference for future generations of Vanderbilt students.


VM: How do you think the educational needs of your children and grandchildren are/will be different from those of your generation?

IngramOOI: Thank goodness I’m not in college right now. When I was in school, I was being prepared to compete with other companies inside the United States. My children are going to have to compete with businesses both within the U.S. and globally. We’re also shifting rapidly from a manufacturing economy in this country to more of a service-based economy, and generally that requires a higher level of education.

HartRRH: When I was in engineering school, we used a slide rule. It was fairly accurate, but slow. Good engineers were educated using that tool, but my grandchildren have never heard of a slide rule. The tools of today are completely different. To maximize education today and tomorrow, students need a broad educational experience to cope with the fast pace of change and expansion of knowledge. More emphasis on math, science and foreign languages is needed, as well as an understanding of our global community.

VM: What makes Vanderbilt an important institution in today’s world?

HartRRH: There’s no doubt that Vanderbilt is equipping its students for leadership roles in an increasingly complex world—and Vanderbilt does that very well.

IngramOOI: Leaders of tomorrow will be educated at Vanderbilt today. We have very smart students who also have great judgment, maturity and a sense of service. Vanderbilt students today are extremely well-rounded—a vast majority of them participate in community service, and they take full advantage of opportunities to study abroad, to engage in leadership opportunities. That’s the kind of student Vanderbilt is training.

Vanderbilt recognizes that big, important, game-changing breakthroughs and discoveries typically come at the interdisciplinary crossroads. You can find neurologists partnering with musicians on research projects at Vanderbilt. Undergraduates work side by side with Ph.D. candidates in our medical center. Students can study medicine, health and society as a major, or work at the interface of the physical/biological sciences and engineering, or combine their passions for history and economics. With this interdisciplinary approach, we’re finding ways to make the world a better place by having such bright students learn and collaborate with a great faculty, across all the arts and sciences.

VM: Some might wonder if Vanderbilt really needs their support or whether a small gift can make any kind of difference at a big university with a sizable endowment. What do you tell alumni and others when you encounter that?

IngramOOI: You’d be surprised at what a difference a little can make in somebody’s life. A lot of “littles” can add up to be a lot. Our endowment per student isn’t as large as many other schools’—so every penny counts. Vanderbilt receives more than 85,000 gifts each year from alumni, parents and friends who give in amounts from $10 to $10,000. Every gift counts, and every gift makes a difference.

HartRRH: I tell them that every contribution is important and every contribution makes a difference. Of course we need large contributions to reach the Opportunity Vanderbilt goal of $100 million and our overall Shape the Future goal of $1.75 billion—but we need gifts at every level. The endowment for scholarships needs to be increased to help our current and future students meet the cost of education. It will take success at all levels of giving to reach the goal—and I think you would agree with me that our students, the young men and women who will be tomorrow’s leaders, deserve the best we can offer.