‘One Vanderbilt’: Hope in troubled times

photo of Susan R. Wente in front of Kirkland Hall
Interim Chancellor Susan R. Wente (John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

When I think back to the beginning of the spring semester, it seems like a forgotten era we read about now only in history books.

We had a full lineup of brilliant speakers scheduled to visit campus in the months ahead. Commodore fans were excited to watch our student-athletes compete at the highest levels of collegiate, even professional, sporting events. And, perhaps closest to my heart, I was eager to personally congratulate all the members of the Class of 2020 as they walked across our Commencement stage.

Of course, our communities have faced unprecedented challenges since then. First, just after midnight on March 3, a devastating series of tornadoes ripped through the heart of Nashville with little warning for residents and businesses. True to form, Vanderbilt students, faculty, staff members and alumni leapt to the aid of our friends and neighbors in need. Then, unthinkably, a week later my leadership team and I made the painful, but all-too-necessary, decision to suspend classes and ultimately send students home as COVID-19 disease swept into this country with terrifying speed and ferocity.

Concerts, lectures, final presentations, parties—all the many wonderful activities and celebrations we had planned came screeching to a halt. Most painful for graduates and their families, we were forced to postpone Commencement for the first time in Vanderbilt’s history.

Our worlds, both on campus and across the globe, changed seemingly in an instant. And the devastation we have since experienced—to human health, to our economic well-being, to our sense of stability—will likely have ramifications for years to come.

Yet in the darkest hours of these past few weeks, I have been lifted up thinking about the indomitable spirit of our great university. Vanderbilt’s very roots were planted in a time of turmoil. And, just as our founders envisioned, we have thrived for nearly 150 years as an institution devoted to scholarship, research, teaching and leadership. We all continue to be guided by our enduring belief in the capacity of human achievement.

The source of this bedrock strength is what I call “One Vanderbilt.” It’s a collaborative, compassionate bond that manifests itself in ways large and small, from embarking on new projects with one another, to checking in on friends and colleagues, to rallying around the university through social media channels.

At a time when we are physically separate, the connections embodied by our One Vanderbilt community have become even more vital. As you will read in this special issue of Vanderbilt Magazine, our students and our faculty have risen to the challenges of working remotely—not merely completing the work that needs to get done, but adapting in innovative ways that may enhance our learning methods going forward; staff and administrators have kept in close communication to ensure critical university operations continue running smoothly; Vanderbilt University Medical Center nurses and doctors heroically care for their patients, whether affected by COVID-19 or other serious health issues; our faculty and researchers at VUMC have joined a global race to find both a vaccine and effective treatments for COVID-19; and alumni from around the world working in government, private industry, media, health care and many other fields have demonstrated extraordinary leadership.

It’s essential that we share their stories of resilience in the face of adversity. It’s equally important for our One Vanderbilt community to put its collective arms around the Class of 2020, whose dreams, hopes and plans for the future were upended by a catastrophe that unfolded to a degree beyond what many people ever thought possible. We need to celebrate their many achievements and find ways to show our love and support until we can be together again in person.

When I take a step back from the daily drumbeat of negative headlines, of tough decisions being made in the heat of the moment, I see a bright ray of optimism shining through the clouds. Our university community—during these moments of our greatest suffering and need—has banded together to seek solutions, to lift up one another and to lead others.

This is our One Vanderbilt, a community that I’m honored to be a part of—and proud to share with all of you.

Be well and be safe.