What’s On My Mind: Celebrating our staff

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.

The work we do here at Vanderbilt is important, complex and multifaceted—and through our work, we change lives. It takes all of us, pulling in the same direction, to accomplish our goals.

Integral to our mission of teaching, discovery and service is our staff, a remarkably diverse and talented team of 4,200 people. I’d like each and every staff member at the university to know how much I appreciate what you do, and thank you for your outstanding contributions to our shared mission.

Staff embodies Vanderbilt’s commitment to working across disciplines and creating trans-institutional initiatives that push the university forward. For example, the just-launched SkyVU is literally transforming the way Vanderbilt does business. Staff have provided exceptional leadership and input to FutureVU land-use planning, which ensures our physical campus is designed and prepared at every level to support our students, faculty and staff in the decades to come.

These are just two of the dozens of initiatives that demonstrate cross-campus teamwork. Gathering the right people around the table, sharing ideas and working collaboratively to advance our mission—this is the culture of Vanderbilt, and that commitment sets us apart from many workplaces.

Over the past few weeks, more than 20 divisions and departments held their own ceremonies for staff service anniversaries and division-specific awards. On Jan. 30, we came together for our annual Service Award Ceremony, a red-carpet event celebrating employee milestones and exemplary staffers. At the ceremony, we recognized 149 employees with anniversaries of 20 years or more—marking a cumulative 3,880 years of service!

We also recognized the winners of VU’s highest staff honors—the Commodore Award and the inaugural Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Distinguished Leadership Award. This year, we named two Commodore Award winners, Danny McKissack of Facilities, a grounds manager who has been with Vanderbilt for 38 years, and Lilliana Rodriguez, administrative assistant to the chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, who joined Vanderbilt 30 years ago. The diversity award winner is Gloria Smith, who leads training for the 440 members of the Facilities department. She’s been with Vanderbilt for a decade. You can read more about each of them, and Tuesday’s event, here.

When I read the nominations for these awards, several words jumped out at me again and again. Words like leader, innovator, problem solver, shining star.

Descriptions like kind, positive, compassionate, patient, tactful, exceptional, generous, fun and inclusive. One phrase from the nominations really stuck with me. The nominator, writing about Lilliana, said she looked at the past “with an even keel and forgiving eyes.” That’s a quality to which we can all aspire.

Creating a strong campus community is important to me, and appreciation and gratitude are essential ingredients in that recipe. Everything that happens at Vanderbilt is possible because of our staff and their focused involvement in our purpose and mission. Onward!

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