Open Mind: Reflecting on a year of change and continued strengthDec. 9, 2019, 9:28 AM
At Founders Walk in August, I gave our incoming first-year and transfer students a compass. Each gift displayed the same 15 words: “The direction of your path may change, but knowledge and discovery will guide you forward.”
I hope that this message has resonated with those students who are now completing their first semester with us and are forging their own paths to personal growth and exploration. I know it also applies on a broader and more communal scale. It is through the act of examining where we are and plotting our future course that we each have an opportunity to grow in strength and find meaningful paths forward.
As I think back on 2019, there were many pivotal moments that will define the next chapter of Vanderbilt’s history.
- We had incredible victories—on and off the field. In a year that brought new leadership from Athletics Director Malcolm Turner to head men’s basketball coach Jerry Stackhouse, we also felt the devastating and untimely loss of David Williams II, our former athletics director and vice chancellor for university affairs. The Commodores forged ahead during these seasons of change and aimed toward heightened success. I will never forget the camaraderie and pride I saw in Omaha as I cheered on our Vandy Boys, who brought home the title of the College World Series. Their victory, and those of so many of our student-athletes, proved that teamwork, integrity and ambition are at the core of the Vanderbilt Way.
We commemorated the 10-year anniversary of Opportunity Vanderbilt. A decade after the launch of our pioneering financial aid program, its impact is stronger than ever—improving the caliber of our undergraduate student body while ensuring both accessibility and achievability. The individual stories from Opportunity Vanderbilt that we celebrated on this anniversary provide a powerful window into the value of this historic program.
- We expanded our residential colleges and advanced our mission to educate the whole student. On July 27, we watched the implosion of Carmichael Tower 3—many of us in person, and many more streaming the event across the globe. It was an exciting moment and a critical step in making way for three new residential colleges along West End Avenue, including the recently named Nicholas S. Zeppos College. For years to come, these spaces will foster living-learning environments for students and faculty to learn, collaborate and socialize beyond the classroom.
- We brought more diverse viewpoints to our campus. From Venus Williams’ talk about risk-taking and optimism in May, to this fall’s Chancellor’s Lecture Series, which centered around the theme of “Culture of Respect; Culture of Caring,” we have actively embraced new vantage points with the goal of enriching our dialogues, understanding and engagement with the wider world. Stacey Abrams, George W. Bush, Terry Crews, George Takei, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are among the incredible speakers who came to Vanderbilt in 2019. I look forward to welcoming Caroline Kennedy for Graduates Day in May and to announcing soon our exciting lineup for spring 2020.
- We embraced our past to inform our future. In September, thousands of Vanderbilt alumni—including our newest Quinqs—gathered on campus for Reunion Weekend. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many lively events in one weekend—including the unveiling of our second round of Trailblazers portraits, the renaming of the David Williams II Recreation and Wellness Center, the 30-year anniversary celebration of the Posse Scholars Program at Vanderbilt and the opening of our new National Pan-Hellenic Council House. Together, the festivities celebrated the rich history, diversity and optimism of our community—past and present.
- We made a pledge to sustainability and protecting our environment. As part of our FutureVU initiative, Vanderbilt announced plans to power our campus entirely through renewable energy and committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, and we began the elimination of single-use plastic water and soda bottles. As I discussed with former Vice President Al Gore in Langford Auditorium on Nov. 20, our university is walking the walk by taking action. I am proud to see Vanderbilt’s many experts in policy, engineering, the environment and infrastructure working together to protect our future.
- We worked cooperatively to research and solve pressing issues. Using our trans-institutional, “One Vanderbilt” advantage, we made bold discoveries regarding Gen-X depression, alpacas and their role in the study of autism and Alzheimer’s, the implications of marijuana use, and the importance of following your heart. This year, Vanderbilt researchers also shed light on how our language and rhetoric can impact our approaches to health care and examined historical depictions of the trauma of sexual violence before the emergence of the #MeToo movement. Our cross-disciplinary approach pervades every corner of our campus: in each of our 10 schools and colleges and in our centers and institutes, from the entrepreneurial Wond’ry to the reinvigorated programming and new direction of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, which explores the intersection of academic, social and cultural issues in modern society.
- We faced times of transition and will have more ahead. This year brought momentous changes in leadership—from Chancellor Emeritus Zeppos stepping down in August after more than a decade at the helm of the university, to last week’s announcement that Daniel Diermeier will be Vanderbilt’s ninth chancellor beginning July 1, 2020. I have had the tremendous opportunity to serve as your interim chancellor (and provost), and to continue to devote my endless passion and creativity to driving progress that advances the life and work of this great university.
These milestones remind us that Vanderbilt is—by necessity and design—a place of unexpected and constant change. Our achievements are not frozen in time, but a living blueprint for us to evaluate, assess and improve upon what we have done together.
For me, personally, 2019 has been a year of exciting shifts—what I like to call “zig zags.” These moments of transition have deepened my commitment to my priorities, my optimistic approach and my appreciation for trust, transparency and teamwork.
I wish you all the very best for the winter break and the new year ahead.