Bold $125 million investment supports landmark graduate student scholarships and leadership institute

Vanderbilt University will invest $125 million into one of the most extensive graduate student scholarship programs in the nation and an innovative graduate student leadership institute, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost Susan R. Wente announced today. Both the scholarship program and the leadership institute will be named for the influential late Vanderbilt scholar and Graduate School dean Russell G. Hamilton and will launch at the beginning of the Fall 2018 semester.

“There is no better time to make such a bold investment in our future,” said Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos. “Solving society’s greatest challenges requires creative interdisciplinary thinking, which comes part and parcel with a world-class graduate education. What our graduate students learn at Vanderbilt prepares them not just to become exceptional academics but also visionary leaders in business, industry, the arts and public service.”

These investments are part of the $300 million Graduate Education and Research Endowment (GERE) initiative announced by the chancellor in his fall 2016 faculty address, and guided by the findings of the GERE working group report issued last May.

“Ph.D. students undergo rigorous training in research, collaboration, communication and innovation, which is exactly the skill set you need to be successful in today’s knowledge economy,” Wente said. “These new competitive scholarships will lead to an increasingly diverse and talented pipeline of students, and complementing their experience with leadership training ensures they are ready for the challenges ahead. We see this investment in graduate education as an investment in the leaders of tomorrow.”


Russell G. Hamilton Leadership Institute Planning Group

» Mark Wallace – Dean of the Graduate School, Louise B. McGavock Chair and professor

Arts and Science
» Kevin Murphy – Andrew J. Mellon Chair in the Humanities and professor; Faculty Senate representative
» Kathy Friedman – associate professor
» Tiffiny Tung – associate professor, Chancellor Faculty Fellow

School of Medicine and Basic Sciences
» Bruce Damon – associate professor
» Alissa Weaver – Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair and professor

School of Nursing
» Sheila Ridner – Martha Rivers Ingram Chair and professor

» Melissa Gresalfi – associate professor
» Duane Watson – associate professor

School of Engineering
» Cynthia Reinhart-King – Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair and professor
» Bob Webster – associate professor, Chancellor Faculty Fellow

Graduate Students
» Thomas Cienki – English
» Sara Eccleston – Human and Organizational Development
» Zachery Lonergan – Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology
» Chelsea Peters – Environmental Science

Ex Officio
» Kim Petrie – Assistant Dean of Biomedical Career Development
» Ruth Schemmer – Assistant Dean of Career Development


These investments come at a critical time given the declining federal investments in academic research and the growing skepticism about the value of a Ph.D. among policymakers and the public. Vanderbilt’s leadership on graduate education sends an important signal, Wente observed.

The Russell G. Hamilton Scholarship program will ultimately cover the full tuition of approximately 100 graduate students across every school and field at Vanderbilt. A result of the scholarship program will be increased demographic diversity and equity within the Graduate School, dovetailing with the goals set forth in Vanderbilt’s Academic Strategic Plan.

Planning for the Russell G. Hamilton Leadership Institute is ongoing and will continue throughout the 2017-18 academic year, opening to welcome students in fall 2018. One of the key thrusts of the program will be to provide graduate students with professional leadership training and robust career development support. The planning group is also looking at ways to incorporate additional opportunities for real-world interdisciplinary research.

“The notion that the only career a Ph.D. prepares one for is academia is now outdated,” said Mark Wallace, dean of the Graduate School. “These resources will enable Vanderbilt to develop truly innovative training models that prepare our students for success in the ever-changing landscape of the 21st century.”

Currently, more than half of Vanderbilt Ph.D.’s pursue nonacademic careers, Wallace said, and noted that the number of jobs requiring a Ph.D. are projected to number 2.5 million by next year—up 17 percent since 2010, according to the Commission on the Future of Graduate Education. “The world will always need great professors and Vanderbilt remains steadfastly dedicated to training the best in the world. But we must also emphasize the positive impact a doctoral education can have on every aspect of our society and our economy,” he said. “The truth is, the United States needs more Ph.D.’s, not fewer.”

Hamilton, who retired in 2002 and passed away in 2016, was a scholar of Portuguese language and Brazilian and Lusophone African literatures and the first African American to serve as an academic dean at Vanderbilt. He played a crucial role in increasing the university’s recruitment and retention of minority graduate students and faculty. Additionally, he expanded financial aid for graduate students and established a graduate student travel grant program to help students present their work more broadly—priorities reflected in the new initiatives that bear his name.

The Russell G. Hamilton scholarship and institute represent the second and third pillars of the GERE initiative to be announced this year. The first pillar, the $30 million Chancellor Chair Challenge to raise funds for 30 new endowed faculty chairs by June 30, 2018, was announced by Zeppos August 25 at the fall faculty assembly. The fourth pillar, an investment in interdisciplinary, trans-institutional and global research, is still in planning stages and also will be informed by the work of the International Strategy working group, whose first report will be issued later this fall.