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Dear Vanderbilt community,
I am writing to make clear the university’s policies and respond to the many who have written to me concerning whether our campus is a “sanctuary.”
At Commencement last May I spoke about my grandfather, an immigrant from Greece, who was branded “ignorant” and initially denied citizenship in our nation. Only through the efforts of many, including two citizens who stepped forward to attest to his “mark”—since he could not write his name—was he able to be naturalized and continue on his American journey. He died well before I was born, and later in my life I learned he was buried with my grandmother in an unmarked grave. Despite the passage of two generations and more than three-quarters of a century, I, as your chancellor, will forever remember his journey and how education transformed my life and that of my family. For my education I will be eternally grateful, and I will devote myself in every way possible to ensure all of our students can have the same experience that transformed my life.
We are a global university, enriched by all who come from many different backgrounds and places to be part of our community. When we educate, we do so regardless of immigration status or the citizenship of our students. Through my years at Vanderbilt, I have with respect, awe and a sense of our timeless mission always thought of our campus acreage as buffeted by the “real world” but also as “sacred ground,” where ideas and opinions are freely explored, debated and tested. On this “sacred ground” we seek to provide an academic environment that is inquisitive, diverse, rigorous, free, inclusive and safe for all who seek education and discovery. We do not have embargoes, boycotts or tariffs that seek to limit our engagement with the world. We have no stated “foreign policy” except to educate, serve and discover.
I’ve read petitions and letters sent to me regarding Vanderbilt’s designation as a “sanctuary campus.” I am grateful for all of the counsel and advice I have received from many members of our university community on this topic, and I am deeply moved by the many expressions of concern. I have also reached out to meet with and have greatly benefited from the friendship and wise counsel of leaders in our broader Nashville community, including Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, a Vanderbilt alumna; Conexión Americas, where I am privileged to sit as a member of the governing board; and the Islamic Center of Nashville, whose board chair is also a Vanderbilt alumnus.
Let me stress at the outset that we are an educational institution and have supported and will always support our students’ complete educational journey. Through our admission process we invite talented, curious and compassionate students from around the nation and world. Our reach, impact and service to humanity do not stop at national boundaries, and everyone on our campus benefits when our student body is global and diverse. Vanderbilt invests and will continue to invest its resources in the continued success of our students, including scholarship funds, stipends and other means of support regardless of citizenship or immigration status. The university and I have consistently, including as recently as last week, been a public voice supporting college access for undocumented students, on our campus and nationally.
We do not have the option of refusing to follow the law, but I want to emphasize that we are not a law enforcement agency. We are a university. We are served by Vanderbilt University Police Department, and no VUPD officer is permitted to undertake an inquiry into the citizenship or immigration status of our students or others on our campus. We do not routinely release to the public or to public officials any citizenship or immigration information that may be in our possession, unless compelled to do so by law.
We must be clear and unflagging in our deepest commitment to educate and support all regardless of his or her citizenship or nationality. I know, however, that concerns and questions will remain for many, as they will for me and all members of my administration. I will continue to work with campus and community to ensure all of our students will be successful and have the transformative and life-changing experience at Vanderbilt they have earned. I’ve asked Provost Susan Wente to provide additional resources to our many offices so that we can best meet the needs of our students, including answering questions and providing all necessary support.
We are a great university, and that means we are also a caring, compassionate and supportive community. For me, I will never forget the two individuals who helped my grandfather and bravely attested to the mark of an illiterate man who came from a distant land. Please join me in doing all you can do in the daily lives of our talented students in whose hands we are placing our future.
Nicholas S. Zeppos