Open Mind: Charting the path for the future

This is the debut of a column from Interim Chancellor and Provost Susan R. Wente. The aim of “Open Mind” is to provide perspective on Vanderbilt’s values, opportunities, challenges and priorities that drive the university’s mission, with the goal of being one of many forums for supporting dialogue and engagement.

In the first month of a new academic year, many of us find ourselves looking ahead—to new classes, new research, new opportunities. Looking forward, though, inevitably means also looking back. By acknowledging what has worked, what has not, and what could be better, we open our minds to how the past can inform the path for our future.

In the last few days, Vanderbilt released three reports that do just that. The Academic Strategic Plan Five Year Report, the Chancellor’s Diversity Report and the Office of the Provost’s Highlights of Academic Affairs’ Efforts to Advance Inclusive Excellence document our successes and identify where there is room for growth, providing a springboard for moving us forward.

The Academic Strategic Plan Five Year Report is a snapshot of the progress we have made together since launching the plan’s action phase in 2014. The report shows the power of the collaborations that created the plan and gave it life, and how we are spurring innovation and discovery in every area of our academic enterprise. For example, over the past five years, we have funded 59 Trans-Institutional Program awards, physically and programmatically expanded the Residential College system and launched Immersion Vanderbilt.

Susan R. Wente, interim chancellor and provost (Vanderbilt University)
Susan R. Wente, interim chancellor and provost (Vanderbilt University)

Community input and engagement also drive our efforts to advance diversity and inclusion, as reflected in the two reports on these topics. The achievements noted, which are only a start, will shape my charges to the new Interim Chancellor’s Diversity Council. The reports also will serve as guideposts to the council as they advise all of us on what next steps we need to take to further build inclusive excellence.

While we recognize our progress and celebrate our successes, we must also continue to ask tough questions—and to listen carefully to the responses. To facilitate these important conversations and actions, we need to create more opportunities to listen to each other and further analyze our shared experiences. It is only by learning about our challenges that we can make real progress. For example, we continually survey our students, and this coming spring 2020, we will launch the second iteration of the COACHE faculty satisfaction survey. Plans also are well underway for a soon-to-be-announced staff survey and a listening tour by vice chancellors André Churchwell and Eric Kopstain. Your experiences and perspectives are critical for evaluating our current environments and for charting our future work in support of our community.

The name for my new column, “Open Mind,” stems from this very idea—the importance of thinking openly about different perspectives and finding new ways to incorporate them into strategies for positive impact.

As a scholar, I am drawn toward evidence and argument that shows where we are doing well, as well as where we have areas to improve. We need to weave the data from these reports together with our personal stories to yield a compelling narrative about our university. I truly believe in the importance of making the most of this rich tapestry that constitutes our Vanderbilt community and using these insights to inform actions.

As a mentor, a leader and an educator, though, I also know that some issues will not be clear-cut. The myriad realities, lived experiences and diverse contexts mean that simple and easy solutions are rare. Yet, when we all work together, taking what we have learned in the past and keeping an open mind to the future, our collective efforts will be much more effective, thorough and compelling.

These three reports are impressive in their breadth, their depth and their demonstration of what we are able to achieve. But I also view them as a call to further action. When you look back at all we have done, I hope that you see more than a listing of accomplishments, but evidence of the essential value of trust, transparency and teamwork. I am committed to our work together—let’s harness our impressive momentum and chart an even better path for the future.