What’s On My Mind: Honoring the lessons that John McCain taught us

At Vanderbilt, we aim to deliver an elite level of education that not only covers the facts and figures but also changes the way our students think and gives them the hands-on experiences that transform them into the leaders of tomorrow.

I see a Vanderbilt education as a kind of super power—broader vision, more penetrating insight, deeper understanding and the ability to open many doors. When our students graduate, they’ll be experienced as critical thinkers and as conveners of people and ideas as they help discover solutions to the challenges facing society.

In today’s global society, being able to collaborate with partners across disciplines, borders and backgrounds is essential. And that ability is based in respectful, open communication, a skill that seems to be declining in current discourse, both public and private.

I know I’m not alone in my concern over the tenor of civil dialogue in our country today. It doesn’t feel like there’s as much desire to drive positive change as there is to land zingers on the other side. Underlying that sentiment is often the resolve to draw lines, to create an “us” to be trusted and a “them” to be feared.

When did our country decide that alternative ideas are no long the opposition, they are the enemy?

The sad passing of Senator John McCain last weekend has me reminiscing about his ability to hold passionate opinions while reaching across the aisle to form bipartisan coalitions and friendships.

His philosophy was etched in his final statement, released earlier this week, in which he said, “I lived and died a proud American.”

“We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic,” it continued. “… We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But, we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we’ll get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”

In that one paragraph, Senator McCain laid out the basic tenets of civil discourse: respectful of the person but marking a difference of opinion.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime friend of Senator McCain, shared that sentiment here on campus at a Chancellor’s Lecture Series last spring, saying that both sides of Congress currently view the other side as an enemy and that the failure to forge common bonds keeps our government in gridlock.

Biden noted that the ideological divide in our nation’s politics is a relatively recent phenomenon and that bipartisan collaboration used to be the norm. He holds out hope that the pendulum will swing back toward center. “How can you run this country without reaching a consensus?” he asked.

The coming season of the Chancellor’s Lecture Series will continue these thought-provoking conversations. We are working to bring a wide range of voices and perspectives to campus, and I’m hoping for robust, spirited exchanges that are based in fact, steeped in respect, informed by perspective, and inspired by experience.

Ideally, the national conversation will turn from rhetoric to fact as we make time to think and to reflect, to connect and learn. I encourage you honor the legacy of service that John McCain left for us. I’m optimistic about what lies ahead, and I encourage you to be as well. Let’s work together to build a future we are proud to leave to those who come next.

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