Chancellor Diermeier’s Founders Walk Remarks

Members of the Class of 2025, members of other classes joining us this year as transfer students, and incoming members of the Next Steps program:

It is my great pleasure to welcome you to Vanderbilt.

The walk you just took together was more than a walk through our beautiful campus. And in coming over that bridge, you crossed more than 21st Avenue.

Today, you have crossed into a new realm: your Vanderbilt community.

Throughout my career I have been part of several esteemed universities as a student, professor and administrator, and I can tell you that here we foster a culture and nourish a mindset that distinguish Vanderbilt from anywhere else.

We call this The Vanderbilt Way.

The first thing to know about The Vanderbilt Way is that you belong here.

At Vanderbilt, we carefully choose who we admit, but we proceed from the belief that there are Commodores to be found everywhere, from every background, and in every part of the world. A Vanderbilt education is available to all who have earned it, regardless of their pedigree, financial resources or status.

Joining a university community is full of excitement and possibilities. But it is not free of challenges.

In the coming weeks, some of you might experience self-doubt. You might wonder if you belong here. You might even wonder if the Admissions office has made a mistake. Many years ago I felt the same way.

I was the first person in my family to attend college, and there were moments during my first year when I compared myself to some of my fellow students and wondered where I truly belonged.

These feelings are common and, trust me, they will pass.

And remember: Just as we chose you, you chose us. Just as we have committed to you, you have committed to us. By virtue of this mutual commitment, you are a full member of the Vanderbilt community from Day One.

You earned your place. You belong. And we are so glad that you are here.

You have accomplished a lot during your high school years. You worked hard and diligently, and yes, being admitted to Vanderbilt is in itself a major accomplishment.

But you are not here because of your accomplishments.

You are not here because of what you have done, but what you can do.

You are here because of your potential. You are here because of what you can become.

Founders Walk symbolizes this transition, this crossing from what you have achieved thus far to a future of promise and possibilities realized.

Now that you are one of us, The Vanderbilt Way means carving your own path. There is no mold to fit here, no one pursuit considered more valuable or important than another.

What are your passions and skills? What engages you? What brings you joy and gives your life meaning? What do you want to become? How can you best contribute to a world that urgently needs your talent and tenacity?

I urge you not to rush to find answers to these questions. Allow yourself, as the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.”

Your Vanderbilt community will support you in identifying your strengths and affinities through wide-ranging exploration and self-reflection. And if you are ready to put in the work, ready to commit, and ready to face the challenges that growth always brings, you will excel—not only while you are here, but over the course of your life.

And, yes, this pursuit of knowledge, exploration and discovery requires commitment, and it requires courage. This is the reason the great philosopher Immanuel Kant called this the motto of the Enlightenment: Saper Aude! Dare to know, dare to understand.

Because The Vanderbilt Way means you are always growing—always deepening and evolving in your knowledge, your abilities, and your place in the world.

We want to light a flame in your hearts that never goes out—one that drives you to seek understanding and to take on new challenges for as long as you live.

There is a Latin phrase, Crescere Semper—“Always Growing.” It captures the same sentiment enshrined in Vanderbilt’s Alma Mater in the words, “Forward ever.”

Real growth is not easy. Frederick Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” and this is as true for individuals as for society.

And this is true at Vanderbilt. Here, we seek growth through challenge.

Letting go of constraining mindsets … casting off habits that are no longer useful … allowing new understanding to supplant the old … reaching beyond your perceived limitations and stretching from one foothold to a higher one … are all part of the growth that occurs in true education.

The trees here on Alumni Lawn symbolize these wisdoms: strong winds build strong roots. I encourage you to return here from time to time to remind yourself of their lesson, and of where your Vanderbilt journey began.

And this we know: We grow best when we are part of a supportive community.

Vanderbilt is a place where standing together means as much as standing out. The Vanderbilt Way is to collaborate—to work together and to grow together.

It is about talented people teaming up to break new ground. It is about saying “yes” to enable one another’s success and being open to lending a hand. It is about being a mentor even as you’re being mentored. It is about lifting each other up while you challenge each other.

Many universities, famously, are compartmentalized and siloed. They have walls, real and figurative, that separate disciplines and departments and people and thinking. Vanderbilt is a place where those walls vanish.

Even so, making personal connections takes effort. Transfer students, I know this can be especially challenging for you as you join classmates who have already built some of these connections among themselves. But you are joining this community now and will make those very connections of your own.

By joining Vanderbilt, all of you have become members of an incredible, diverse community. Take full advantage of this diversity. Put in the work. Seek out people who are not like you, who have different backgrounds, identities, interests and beliefs.

We all gravitate toward people like ourselves. We tend towards “homophily,” as the sociologists call it, the tendency to associate with those that are similar to us.

Do not take that easy path.

The active, deliberate path of connecting with others with whom you may appear on the surface to have little in common with requires work, but the rewards are rich.

Your university was founded following the Civil War on the principle of unity. To this day, we believe that together we can do anything.

We don’t compete against each other so much as we compete against ourselves to attain our personal best. We are members of one team.

But great teams are not complacent. They challenge one another and push each other to be their best. At Vanderbilt, we embrace exploration, discussion and debate. Because exploration, discussion and debate are the engines of growth.

College campuses must be proving grounds where ideas can be tested and conventional wisdom challenged.

That does not obligate you to change your mind when confronted with a different view. But by engaging with others in civil-but-spirited debate, you will—at the least—gain a deeper understanding and a firmer foundation of what you believe to be true, while also developing understanding and respect for views firmly held by others.

Here at Vanderbilt, we have a long history of valuing and defending open inquiry and debate.

During the turbulent 1960s one of my predecessors, Chancellor Alexander Heard, was criticized for inviting figures then considered too controversial to speak on campus, figures such as Black Power and Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael.

In explaining his commitment to free speech on campus, Chancellor Heard said, “Young people, and especially young people in college, cannot be shielded from the winds of opinion in our world.” He said, “The university’s obligation is not to protect students from ideas, but rather to expose them to ideas, and to help make them capable of handling, and, hopefully, having ideas.”

We live by the same values today. Earlier this year, our Faculty Senate affirmed these values in a resolution committing “to providing an environment for open inquiry and the vigorous exploration and free expression of ideas.”

Part of our mission is to expose you to a full range of opinions and ideas, even some that might make you uncomfortable. And part of your work here is to learn to critically assess the merits of ideas and thoughtfully disassemble those you take issue with. We do you a profound disservice when we seek to protect you from ideas you find objectionable.

This commitment to free exchange does not mean you have to accept ideas you find abhorrent or stay quiet about them. You can and should argue for your position.

But in stating your argument, you should also be open—open to being convinced by the other side, open to learning something new, open to gaining a broader perspective.

A discussion should be a dialogue. It means being willing to listen, to learn, and to be convinced by the better argument.

The Vanderbilt Way means challenging one another in a manner that is rigorous, thoughtful and passionate but at all times respectful. We listen closely, rebut arguments rationally, and remain open.

In this way, we not only create a collegial environment on campus, but set a powerful example and bring a measure of unity to a nation where too many of us have stopped listening to those with whom we disagree.

Reject the simplicity of shouting and sloganeering in favor of rigorous, reasoned debate. At Vanderbilt, we often disagree vigorously but in so doing, we remember we are part of one community of learners.

Make no mistake, civil debate is hard work. And doing the hard work is part of The Vanderbilt Way.

At Vanderbilt, we put in the time and effort necessary to achieve our goals with excellence. We don’t take shortcuts. And we relish a challenge.

The greatest recent example I can offer you is this university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic during the last academic year.

It would have been far easier for us to keep our campus closed. Plenty of universities did.

But our mission, our purpose, wouldn’t allow it. We are a leading research university deeply committed to residential undergraduate education. We knew that if it was possible to safely bring students back to campus and reopen our labs, we had to do it.

And so we did.

It required us to rethink everything about the way this university functions—from how to teach, to how to serve lunch, to how to regulate traffic in and out of our buildings.

Nothing about it was simple. It demanded a heroic and extraordinarily unified effort from everyone in our community—students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents … everyone.

It wasn’t the easy thing. But it was the right thing.

And our students—your peers—were incredible. All over the country, people predicted that we could not depend on college students to follow COVID protocols.

But Vanderbilt students proved them wrong. When it was time to step up, they did.

As a result, students like you were able to live and learn on campus, while our researchers and those next door at Vanderbilt University Medical Center made pivotal contributions to the fight against the coronavirus—developing treatments and vaccines.

We proved the doubters wrong. And we did it The Vanderbilt Way.

I have called this Vanderbilt’s proudest moment. And I hope you will take pride in it now that you are part of our community. But even more, I hope you’ll see and share in the spirit of hard work and commitment that made it possible, because the journey is far from over.

You are now part of 148 years of history. Starting today, with this ceremony and celebration, your name has been written into Vanderbilt’s history book.

Being members of the Vanderbilt community compels us all to respect this university, to respect the ideals that the university stands for and the noble work that happens within it.

Remarkable people, ideas and innovations have come from this place. Leaders and thinkers who have influenced history. Scholarship and ideas that have given the world new understanding. Inventions that have improved lives.

There have also been innumerable achievements in this place that are more personal in scale, but no less great.

In these buildings, students like you grew in their understanding of themselves and the world, and they mapped the journeys of their lives, just as you will.

They scored huge triumphs and made big mistakes, just as you will.

They did the difficult but utterly essential work of growing and changing, of confronting and exceeding their limitations, before finally gathering all they knew and offering it to the world. Just as you will.

Nothing about this is trivial.

A university is like no other place in our culture, and it serves a purpose more vital than ever to the world.

The work we do here—from the heralded to the hidden, from the major breakthroughs to the most mundane day of classes—is special and precious and important.

This is hallowed ground.

It is worthy of your respect. And even a bit of reverence.

So let us always approach our work, one another, and this place with respect and diligence and humility.

All of this is The Vanderbilt Way.

It is my honor to walk with you today. I am eager to see what discoveries we make together in the coming years. I am eager to see where each of your paths takes you. And I am eager to see how your works and days on this campus, shaped and supported by The Vanderbilt Way, will help propel Vanderbilt forward—ever.

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