Chancellor Daniel Diermeier delivered the following address to graduates of the Class of 2021 on May 15 at Vanderbilt Stadium.
To the remarkable Class of 2021 … to parents, families and guests, whether you are here with us in person or joining remotely … to members of the faculty and the Board of Trust … to our staff volunteers … to the graduates from the Class of 1971 who are with us today to mark 50 years since their own Commencement.
As we celebrate the 146th class to graduate from this storied institution, it is my distinct honor and pleasure to welcome you all to Vanderbilt University’s Commencement.
At the start of this historic year, I challenged each and every one of you to do your part to make this our university’s finest hour.
You have done that and more.
You not only stepped up amid unknown—and unknowable—circumstances; you made this year a resounding success.
You demonstrated resilience. You demonstrated compassion for your community and for one another, and you demonstrated leadership qualities that set the bar high for future generations of Vanderbilt students.
The same is true for your parents and families.
Parents and families, you were a bedrock of support for our students during this uncertain time, helping them navigate their fears and anxieties—or perhaps simply offering a workspace and a strong internet connection—all while your own lives were disrupted as well.
Many people in this audience may have experienced unthinkable tragedy over the past year.
And even if you weren’t directly affected by the hardships our world has faced, the stress and daily toll of devastating news has been exhausting.
Yet, all of you tapped an inner strength to uphold—and advance—our tradition of excellence … a hallmark of Vanderbilt for nearly 150 years.
I thank each of you—and encourage you to thank each other—for what we have accomplished together this year.
This is a proud moment.
Take the time to savor it.
I have spoken about this being a year like no other in Vanderbilt’s history.
It was truly a perfect storm as three major upheavals converged.
When this school year began, the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, with devastating numbers of positive cases and fatalities continuing to climb.
Experts were still developing safety protocols designed to prevent the spread of the disease.
And while there was promising news about possible vaccines, those were still months away.
The second major storm was the global economic shock that resulted from the pandemic.
The U.S. and other countries experienced sudden and massive financial losses. Millions of people were suddenly out of work and suffering—and many still are.
Universities were among the hardest hit.
During the past year, America’s colleges and universities lost one in eight jobs, a financial disaster unprecedented in the modern history of higher education.
And in the midst of those hardships, a third storm erupted as the world learned of George Floyd’s murder … his death sparked an urgent, moral reckoning with racial injustice in this country.
Protests burst onto the streets of downtown Nashville and in cities across the nation.
At the same time, increased polarization and political tensions simmered, unnervingly, for months before they were fully unleashed in January upon the hallowed chambers of the U.S. Capitol.
When I assumed my role as chancellor of this great university, many of my friends and former colleagues reached out to me, expressing concern about my stepping into this role during a pandemic—when nothing was certain, and everything was at risk.
But my response to them was—and remains to this day—the same …
There is no better time to lead a great university like Vanderbilt than when society … when humanity … most urgently needs the lifesaving facts of science … the insights and advice of rigorous policy analysis … the wide lens and proper context of history … the nourishing, expressive power of the arts … or the deep exploration of meaning and context that the humanities provide.
There is no greater honor than to lead a renowned academic institution grounded in the values of collegiality and respect … evidence and logic … creativity and expression.
Where else would any of us want to be amid the generation-defining circumstances and complexities of the past year?
Nowhere, but here.
People ask me all the time: What’s so special about Vanderbilt? What makes it distinct?
My answer is simple.
We are one community … full stop.
We have world-class academics and brilliant students, of course.
We have great resources: a renowned faculty … illustrious alumni … SEC athletics … and a beautiful campus that sits in the heart of an exciting city.
But what really sets us apart is that we all share a commitment to lift each other up … To contribute our talents, our hard work, our insights and compassion … to the greater good, and to the benefit of our university.
We want to see our classmates and peers succeed … we want to get involved to help others … we want to see our community flourish and thrive … and we are willing to do our part to make that happen.
I knew this was all true when I began exploring the opportunity to become Vanderbilt’s ninth chancellor.
It was this radiant spirit that so intrigued me about the possibility of leading this university and of joining its unique and special culture.
However, what confirmed my initial beliefs about Vanderbilt—and about all of you—was watching how our community responded when circumstances grew difficult and uncertain.
Not only did you rise to the occasion in spectacular fashion, you rallied together …
You supported each other … you acted with a maturity and responsibility beyond your years.
And you did it for your Vanderbilt community.
Of course, there was heartache along the way.
Being part of Vanderbilt does not mean blindly following whatever rules are laid out before you.
We can argue about what needs to happen.
We can speak out when we disagree and try to persuade others to adopt our point of view.
Yet we also have a respect for logic, for facts and for evidence.
We focus on making the most compelling argument, rather than being the loudest or most strident voice.
And at the end of this process, we trust one another enough to know that we are all working in each other’s best interests.
We instinctively care for and appreciate this university and the individuals within it.
That is why, time and time again, we as One Vanderbilt converge on the best path forward—and it’s those actions, those deeds, that generate the remarkable momentum this university has enjoyed for many years.
The Roman philosopher Seneca, writing around 64 A.D., said those who “merit careful description” are those whose course is not straightforward.
Those who are tossed about, yet are able to guide a vessel through troubled waters—they are the notable ones throughout history.
Seneca goes on to say, “Ignis aurum probat; miseria fortes viros.”
Loosely translated: “Fire is the test of gold; adversity of strong people.”
And so we were tested.
This year tested us in just about every way possible.
And make no mistake.
We could have retreated to pessimism and despair.
We could have pointed fingers at each other.
We could have lamented our misfortune.
And yes, we could have taken the easy way out.
But we did not.
As the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, which was forged from his horrendous experiences in Nazi concentration camps and became a source of hope to so many readers in difficult times:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
And this is perhaps the biggest lesson of all, never to be forgotten:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
And so we made our choice.
We set our course based on who we are, on what we value—guided by a common purpose and united by a common set of values.
We are a research university, and we believe in the power of residential education.
That perspective shaped our approach so that the question was not whether we should reopen labs and classrooms.
It was about how we could reopen these spaces as soon and as safely as possible.
The question was not whether we should invite our students back or stay remote for the year.
It was how do we deliver the power of a residential education during the tremendous challenges of a pandemic.
And it was not whether we would support our student-athletes and musicians—or whether we would cancel their season and shut down their ability to perfect their art—but instead how could we enable them to pursue their goals and dreams.
This is what everything we do is all about.
Our ultimate purpose is to help the members of our community reach their full potential.
From this noble purpose we would not shrink, we would not falter. And that was our answer.
Day after day, week after week, and month after month of this challenging year, you, our students, did not falter.
And we all know why: It is because you understand and value the power of a Vanderbilt education.
And it is because of what that education means to you and to the generations of students who came before you.
Think about the unexpected connections you have made … the mentors who shifted your perspectives … the moments of inspiration that pushed your thinking and creative expression into places you never thought possible … the friends for life you found.
Think about the athletic events you participated in and the camaraderie you formed … about traditions like Founders Walk or meeting your Commons roommate for the first time … about the empathy and understanding you have developed here … and think about how all of those things, taken together, will guide the next stage of your journey.
For most, the time spent as a student is relatively brief.
Yet, like most significant times, it is a singularly meaningful period that deeply shapes who we are and how we live the rest of our lives.
To me, it is Vanderbilt’s sacred responsibility to provide the most profound, most enduring educational experience possible.
And that is done best in an environment where we live and learn together.
Where chance encounters can take place … where unexpected discoveries can be made … where passionate disagreement and debate can occur … where brainstorms can happen when you least expect them … and where you open yourself to the intellectual and personal influences that will last a lifetime.
And this is why we, as One Vanderbilt community, came together to make this experience possible.
Despite the perils … despite the obstacles … and despite the naysayers.
To do so required an enormous amount of work and sacrifice from students and their families … from faculty members … and from our staff.
We scoured the globe for best practices related to everything from COVID-19 testing to air purifier systems.
We partnered closely with colleagues at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and within the School of Nursing.
We worked with the city of Nashville, as well as with leaders at the state and national levels.
We secured quarantine spaces and implemented contact tracing procedures that—while burdensome—were as robust and effective as anywhere in the country.
For your part, you dutifully masked up everywhere you went … you trekked to the Rec Center more times than any of us can count to get tested … you put up with questions from contact tracers and sometimes endured the tedium of quarantine … you accepted missing out on many of the traditions that typically take place in a student’s last year at Vanderbilt …
You did this—we did this—to ensure that we could keep our community safe and that we could continue our work and accomplish all that we came here to do.
And in the end? It worked!
While we had the best-laid plans in the world, without your steadfast commitment …
None of this would have been possible.
For that, know that your university will be forever grateful.
For your commitment … for your dedication … and for your toughness in the presence of great adversity.
Once again, we showed the world that we at Vanderbilt—now your alma mater—can accomplish great things when we work together.
It’s how we develop lifesaving vaccines.
It’s how we win national championships … or watch student-athlete Sarah Fuller, wearing our black and gold, break another boundary to become the first woman to score points in a major conference football game.
It’s how we bring people together through art and music.
It’s how we build businesses, invent technologies and serve as leaders in every walk of life.
It’s how we call out injustice and fight for the rights of others.
It’s how we take care of those around us who may face more difficult circumstances than our own.
No matter what you do or where your path takes you … I hope that this special Vanderbilt community remains an important part of your life.
Your Vanderbilt family will always be here for you.
And you will forever be a part of Vanderbilt’s legacy.
Each class that graduates adds a unique layer to our character.
We are all stewards of Vanderbilt.
As alumni, you now share an essential bond with Nobel winners … with CEOs and national leaders … with doctors and nurses … with artists and advocates.
I encourage you to tap into this incredible community and to support it—with energy, commitment and affection … we want you to contribute your talents … your insights … your brilliance … your humor … and your compassion … for the benefit of your fellow alumni and future classes to come.
Whether you are facing challenges like we have seen over the past year—or have the winds of fortune at your back—I am confident that your Vanderbilt experience and this incredible community will serve as a source of comfort and strength for all of your days.
And do not forget this year or set it aside as a mere obstacle.
Use it to nourish your conviction that difficulties can be overcome, perils faced and crises turned to opportunities through determination and commitment, and by working together toward one goal.
In opening the 1930-31 school year, just after the initial shocks of what would become the Great Depression, Vanderbilt Chancellor James Kirkland told assembled students that “Your education becomes part of your life and cannot be taken from you …
“The University demands of you sacrifice and toil,” he continued.
“We offer you, in exchange, a Kingdom and a Crown.”
Thank you again for your hard work, your dedication to Vanderbilt’s mission and your commitment to making this most extraordinary year a success.
Congratulations, graduates, on all that you have achieved.
Enjoy the day.
And in the words of our alma mater, Forward Ever!