What’s On My Mind: Year-end reflections

This regular column is aimed at opening another channel of conversation with you about the opportunities and challenges we face, together as the faculty, staff and leaders of our great university.

This semester kicked off with the spectacle of the solar eclipse and today, it wraps up on the winter solstice. As I shared at Fall Faculty Assembly, the eclipse felt like a powerful symbol and provided a moment to earnestly reflect on our place in the universe and on the work of this university that is our shared mission. This semester, we committed ourselves to going big and going bold for that mission. As night falls, earlier tonight than on any other night of the year, I believe we have begun to do just that.

Delivering on our commitment to recruit and retain the best faculty, we named 33 new endowed chairs this semester, and to date secured commitments for several new chairs through the Chancellor’s Chair Challenge. I encourage you to explore the discoveries our endowed chairs are driving in the cover story of the current issue of Vanderbilt Magazine.

We continue constantly in our work to build our beloved community. We welcomed our first cohort of Ph.D. fellows to the new Academic Pathways program, which aims to bring scholars with diverse backgrounds and experiences to the professoriate. We launched a national search for our next vice chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. This March we will host an outstanding scholarly conference led by James Lawson Professor Dennis Dickerson to discuss the continuing impact to our society and culture of the Civil War. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of the integration of Vanderbilt Athletics and SEC basketball, while we mourned the loss of one of our greatest heroes, Perry Wallace.

Our big and bold efforts to create an unparalleled undergraduate educational experience leapt forward this fall as our faculty formally approved the launch of Immersion Vanderbilt, which will be a requirement for all incoming first-year students in the fall of 2018. College Halls, the centerpiece of our residential education vision, is making rapid progress. E. Bronson Ingram College will open in the fall of 2018, and just this week we broke ground on our newest residential college at the corner of West End and 25th Avenues.

Construction and planning are underway across campus to enhance academic spaces at the School of Nursing, the Divinity School, Eskind Biomedical Library, Owen and Peabody. This semester we also launched faculty-driven planning processes to chart the institution’s future course for capital planning in the humanities and the sciences.

The success of all of these efforts—of all of our oars, rowing in the same direction—is being recognized. We secured our 10-year reaffirmation of accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Our financial position is remarkably strong following the reorganization of the university and medical center, reflected in the AA+ credit rating the university received this fall from Standard & Poor’s. We continue to be highly competitive for federal research funding, ranking eighth for National Institutes of Health funding. Thompson Reuters named Vanderbilt as the 10th most innovative university in the world, and we reached our highest ranking ever—14th—from U.S. News & World Report.

At the beginning of this semester, we also reflected on the myriad challenges facing our university and higher education and the need for our community to rise to meet those challenges together. It didn’t take long before we had to put this commitment into action as we faced the looming threats contained within the tax reform effort.

We took a full-court press approach to make sure our lawmakers understood how short-sighted proposals in both the Senate and House versions of the bill would undermine the educators, families and students that drive our country forward. The final tax bill is a mixed bag—lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander heard our concerns, and some of the most egregious provisions were dropped. But several of the bill’s provisions still undercut higher education’s charitable mission. This is bad policy. But I was proud of our collective response to stand up for our values and, ultimately, mitigate much of the damage contained in the legislation.

Come the new year, we will take a big leap forward when SkyVU goes live Jan. 3. Our new cloud-based system will put us at the forefront of modern university business practices. I offer my gratitude to every member of the SkyVU team for their outstanding work and dedication to this project over the past two years, work that will continue over the winter break. I’m also grateful to all of the faculty and staff who have logged many hours preparing for a successful SkyVU launch.

Many thanks also go to the units that continue their work over the holidays. The university never really sleeps, and I’m grateful for the dedication of our staff with Public Safety, Facilities Business Operations, Plant Operations, the Child and Family Centers, Mail Services and the Libraries for continuing their important work over break.

I hope you enjoy the upcoming holiday as the university goes into repose for our second annual winter break, and that you have the opportunity to relax and recharge with friends and family. I am amazed every day by what we accomplish here, and I’m looking forward to what we can achieve—together—in the coming year.

What’s On My Mind is a regular column from Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos on the life, people and mission of Vanderbilt University and issues affecting higher education today. Share your thoughts at