The new year has ushered in a renewed spirit of optimism at Vanderbilt. We celebrated the successful completion of a fall semester unlike any in the university’s history, and we incorporated lessons from that experience into adjustments we made for spring. At the same time, the world watched in awe as scientists developed and tested an effective vaccine for COVID-19 in record time—an effort that included significant involvement by the Vanderbilt faculty and alumni communities. And on Jan. 14, we launched the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy to draw on our strengths as a scholarly institution to work toward common solutions to complex societal problems, informed by evidence and intellectual rigor.
The past few months also have brought continued challenges and heartache. On Christmas morning, the city of Nashville awakened to a tragic and perplexing explosion. Twelve days later the country experienced insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that many of us never would have thought possible. We continue to see deep polarization in the country, and, despite progress on new vaccines and treatments, the COVID-19 pandemic is still ravaging countries and populations around the world.
Whatever difficulties we face—in the world at large and closer to home—a united Vanderbilt spirit of compassion, intelligence, strength and courage pervades our community. I knew there was a storied culture at Vanderbilt when I joined this esteemed university as chancellor. But the past year has shown me that these values are unique hallmarks of Vanderbilt: They comprise a distinct mindset, at once voraciously ambitious and wholeheartedly generous, that is not present at similar institutions.
One of the greatest examples of this is the story of senior Sarah Fuller. After helping the Commodores clinch the SEC championship in women’s soccer, she stepped up to become the first woman to play football in a Power Five conference. A few days later, as she became the first woman to score in a major college conference football game, her resolve and determination inspired countless young girls and women across the globe. She even introduced Kamala Harris on the night of the new vice president’s historic inauguration. Yet, Sarah did not set out to become a pioneer or break boundaries. She simply stepped up to a challenge placed before her with a steely resolve and a desire to support her fellow student-athletes.
These stories of dedication, compassion and leadership play out again and again across the Vanderbilt community, as you’ll read in this issue. Some members are working tirelessly to save lives and advance medicine in Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s COVID-19 unit, while others are leading newsrooms at one of the world’s most influential television networks. These stories can also be found in our classrooms—developing new ways of teaching and learning at the Blair School of Music, for example, and providing the creative inspiration that nourishes the human spirit in challenging times. And like Vanderbilt alumnus, former U.S. secretary of education and retired U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, they have dedicated their lives to service, education and the vision to create meaningful change in society.
My hope is that we all remain connected to Vanderbilt’s mission to keep learning, growing and innovating—and to support and inspire one another—in the months to come. Thank you for everything you do to make Vanderbilt University exceptional. I wish everyone health and happiness in the year ahead.