Susan Wente to be honored in Vanderbilt Trailblazers portrait series

Susan R. Wente, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, will be the next member of the university community to be celebrated through the Vanderbilt Trailblazers portrait series, which recognizes individuals who have broken barriers and made a positive impact at the university and in society at large.

Susan R. Wente (Vanderbilt)
Susan R. Wente (Vanderbilt University)

The Board of Trust made the determination in April that Wente would be part of the Vanderbilt Trailblazers project. Wente’s portrait will be unveiled in the Trailblazer gallery in Kirkland Hall during Reunion weekend in October.

Wente is the first woman to serve as Vanderbilt’s provost, the first woman to lead the university as interim chancellor and the first woman to chair the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology. She holds a Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair and has a distinguished 19-year career at Vanderbilt as a university leader and scientist. She will become the first female president of Wake Forest University on July 1, 2021.

During her time as Vanderbilt’s interim chancellor, Wente shepherded the university through the unnerving start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Using her exceptional leadership principles of trust, transparency and teamwork, she served as the primary architect of the university’s multifaceted coronavirus response, making Vanderbilt one of a small group of leading universities nationally to successfully reopen campus to researchers, students and staff.

“It’s a tremendous and deeply personal honor to be included in the next cohort of Vanderbilt Trailblazers,” Wente said. “As someone who’s had the opportunity to unveil and celebrate many other university trailblazers over the years, I have seen the program’s impact on Vanderbilt’s legacy and culture of inclusion firsthand. I am delighted to be a part of it and look forward to the initiative’s enduring success.”

Creating opportunities

Wente has spearheaded opportunities for others at all levels across the university and has been a strong advocate for equity and inclusion in academic affairs. As interim chancellor, she appointed the university’s first woman athletic director, Candice Lee. As provost, she created the Office for Inclusive Excellence and launched the WAVE Council (Women’s Advancement and Equity). When she served as chair of the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, she dramatically increased the number of women in the basic sciences at Vanderbilt.

Then-Interim Chancellor Susan R. Wente welcomed first-year students as they moved in for the fall 2019 semester on The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons. VUceptors (pictured here) also were on hand to assist the Class of 2023 with Move-in. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

Wente has played a pivotal role in enriching academic life at Vanderbilt inside and outside of the classroom. She co-chaired the development of the university’s Academic Strategic Plan in 2013 and has led its implementation. In doing so, she championed the development of the university’s residential colleges program, launched the university’s first innovation center, the Wond’ry, and helped establish the Russell G. Hamilton Scholarships for graduate education. She is also responsible for the implementation of Immersion Vanderbilt, an innovative long-term experiential learning program that is a cornerstone of the university’s undergraduate curriculum, among many other accomplishments.

“Susan Wente embodies Vanderbilt’s values of equity and excellence in everything she does—from supporting women in STEM to promoting interdisciplinary collaboration to advancing diversity and inclusion across One Vanderbilt,” Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said. “She is leaving Vanderbilt a more united and forward-thinking community than when she first joined it, and that is what being a Trailblazer is all about.”

Wente is also credited with leading and designing many of the academic features of the historic transition of the university and Vanderbilt University Medical Center into two separate legal and financial entities in 2016.

Interim Chancellor and Provost Susan R. Wente (Vanderbilt University)
Susan R. Wente in the lab. (Vanderbilt University)

Wente joined the university in 2002 as professor and chair of cell and developmental biology. She was named associate vice chancellor for research in the Medical Center and senior associate dean for biomedical sciences in 2009, a position that combined research and graduate education under one leader for the first time. In this role, she led several trans-institutional graduate programs and oversaw the training of more than 1,000 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

She continues to run an internationally respected research program that has made groundbreaking discoveries regarding the exchange of proteins and RNA, which have enabled opportunities for further characterization of the biological mechanics behind cellular transport. She has personally mentored 36 predoctoral and postdoctoral trainees and has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1994.

Trailblazers initiative

Established in 2018, the Vanderbilt Trailblazers portrait series seeks to expand the visual narrative of the university’s history and create welcoming, inclusive and accessible spaces that feature art that recognizes, reflects and celebrates the diversity within the Vanderbilt community. Wente’s portrait will be painted by Jared Small, an artist based in Memphis, Tennessee, and will be displayed in Kirkland Hall. Other members of the 2021 Trailblazers class will be announced in the coming months.

The Vanderbilt Trailblazers Committee, which includes students, faculty and staff, oversees the initiative, determines honorees and decides where the depictions of Trailblazers will be permanently housed at the university.