2022 Spring Faculty Assembly remarks by Chancellor Daniel Diermeier

Good afternoon. And thank you for making time to join us today during this busy season.

I want to thank Mark Magnuson for inviting me to speak today. And I want to thank Mark and his vice chair, Ryan Middagh, for their service this year to the Faculty Senate.

I also want to extend a warm welcome to incoming chair Rebecca Swain and incoming vice chair Elizabeth Catania. I look forward to working with you both.

The Faculty Senate, and Vanderbilt’s shared governance model, are formal examples of how we pursue our mission as One Vanderbilt—as a university community committed to, and distinguished by, our radical collaboration across colleges and schools, across disciplines, and across the functions of faculty, staff and administration.

This cooperation—this lack of division and silos—is one of Vanderbilt’s greatest strengths, and a key element of who we are. It is central to The Vanderbilt Way. My thanks to all of you for the time you give, and for the insight and expertise you provide, as we move our university forward. Our culture of collaboration, so characteristic of Vanderbilt, is also characteristic of our work together as part of our shared governance process. It allows us to openly discuss difficult issues in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect, dedicated to a common purpose. This commitment to finding solutions together makes our approach to shared governance a model not just for Vanderbilt, but for universities across the country.

It is now a little over two years since, as a community of faculty, students, and staff, we faced the biggest challenge in our history, and it is time to take stock.

Despite the uncertainty we faced over the past year, as COVID-19 surged and receded, you all stepped up in remarkable fashion once again.

In addition to contributing to an almost universal vaccination rate across Vanderbilt, you once more adjusted your teaching and research as circumstances warranted. This was difficult and sometimes frustrating, but we did it together in the spirit of working together. Thank you.

Today, we seem to be returning to a state more closely resembling normalcy. At least that is our cautious hope.

Two years ago, we talked about making this crisis our proudest moment. And there is so much to be proud of. Vanderbilt has emerged not merely intact, but wiser for the experience, and stronger than at any time in our history — by any measures.

Let’s start with you.

Our faculty today is our most distinguished and accomplished ever. And through our Destination Vanderbilt initiative, we continue to add renowned scholars, innovators, teachers, and thinkers to your ranks, and to make Vanderbilt a premier center of exploration, innovation, and artistic expression.

This year, for example, seven faculty members achieved the prestigious distinction of being elected as fellows to the American Association for the Advancement of Science—including our esteemed provost, Cybele Raver.

Last month, the White House named Vice Provost for Research and Professor of Computer Science Padma Raghavan as a member of the President’s Committee on the National Medal of Science.

And at our endowed chair investiture ceremonies earlier this year, we were honored to celebrate many of the significant achievements of your colleagues.

These are but three examples that speak to your accomplishments and to the strength and richness of our faculty.

At the same time we are enrolling our most qualified and diverse classes of undergraduates ever, while strengthening programs and support for professional, graduate and postdoctoral researchers.

Financially, our university has never been more secure. The value of our endowment now exceeds eleven billion dollars—a new high in our history and it grown by more than two thirds over two years.

That is more than an impressively large number. It means funding for research and scholarships, for labs, equipment, and infrastructure that expand the possibilities for exploration and discovery on our campus.

Indeed, our research programs have never been more robust.

Earlier this month, we announced that, together with our partners at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, we have for the first time achieved more than 1 billion dollars in annual research funding awarded from external organizations, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Reaching this milestone affirms our place among the world’s foremost research institutions. And your research made it possible—from discoveries in biomedicine and biotechnology… to vaccine development… and advances in computer science, education, psychology, and more.

The 3,100 external awards you received represented depth and breadth befitting a globally renowned research institution.

Among the projects being supported by this funding are an effort to develop monoclonal antibodies that can be rapidly deployed to prevent and treat future pathogens like what we witnessed with SARS-CoV-2… a collaboration with the state of Tennessee and U.S. Department of Transportation to develop a six-mile stretch of “smart highway” along Interstate 24…groundbreaking treatments for pancreatic cancer…and the development of teaching methods to improve math outcomes for those with learning difficulties.

These are just a few compelling examples of the discovery and advancement that these awards encompass.

Of course, discovery and innovation are not restricted to our laboratories. Every day, our faculty and students explore all corners of history, literature, language, art and more, contributing invaluable knowledge to the great, never-complete mosaic that is humanity’s understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe.

To all of our scholars and teachers, I say, well done—and congratulations on another year of remarkable work. You continue to make Vanderbilt proud… and to make the world take notice of Vanderbilt.

Of course, higher education is not just a catalyst for innovation—it is also a conduit. And to accomplish this, there must be permeability between the university and the business community.

As Nashville continues to boom, and as our city makes definitive choices about what kind of place it will be in the coming decades, one way Vanderbilt can play a part is by connecting more of your innovations with local commercial partners, and by cultivating the local entrepreneurial ecosystem so that innovators will not only begin ventures here, but stay here and attract other innovators.

One way we do that is through our Center for Technology Transfer and Commercialization.

Another is through the Wond’ry, where earlier this month, Provost Raver and I were pleased to join David Owens in announcing Launch, a new program supporting pre-seed and seed-stage venture founders in a broad range of sectors, from health care to the arts.

Launch will house our Founder program, which connects startups affiliated with Vanderbilt and other local universities to investors … provides mentorship … and offers guidance in applying for funding.

We believe that by investing in ideas born here, and creating the space for them to grow and multiply, we can help advance innovation that will move both Nashville and society forward.

By applying our knowledge, our capacity for discovery and our spirit of collaboration, Vanderbilt can help solidify Tennessee’s position as a dynamic region that is admired as much for its quality of life as for its economic horsepower. What’s more, we can help ensure inclusive prosperity that touches everyone and leaves no one behind.

We are doing this in a variety of ways, from bolstering Vanderbilt’s contributions to the region’s innovation ecosystem, to partnering with local businesses on neurodiverse hiring and connecting with Nashville-area schools school leaders to bring about greater equity in K-12 education.

In the next few years, we will continue to invest in and champion your work, to support your research and teaching, and to continue to establish Vanderbilt as a leading center of discovery for multiple fields.

To that end, several of our schools are consulting with top academic leaders from some of our peer universities to undertake external reviews of our systems and practices, with the aim of ensuring that we are providing the best environment for our faculty to thrive.

External reviews bring fresh perspectives and expert feedback that our academic departments can use to evaluate strengths and opportunities as we raise the bar for our ambitions.

We also continue to explore best practices for teaching, whether that involves pilot programs testing new technologies in the classroom or by supporting additional research and learning opportunities for our undergraduates.

As you have heard me say often: At Vanderbilt we are proud, but not satisfied.

Yes, we have reached important milestones. And at the same time, we have only begun to realize our potential.

This isn’t something any of us can accomplish alone. We’ll do it together, as One Vanderbilt.

Our sense of community is one of our most defining characteristics. But it is important to remember that community does not equal consensus.

The basic purpose of a university is simple: We provide students with a transformative education, while providing all of you with an environment that allows you to pursue pathbreaking research and creative expression that changes how we see ourselves and the world.

This purpose requires a climate in which students and faculty can feel free to ask hard questions, debate complex issues, and challenge conventional wisdom.

But as you know, open inquiry and free expression on campus have come under assault.

The threats are coming from outside of universities, and from within them—as misguided legislation seeks to control what ideas can be taught and discussed…as intolerance of certain viewpoints on campus leads to speakers being disinvited and shouted down … and as some students and faculty keep their opinions to themselves, for fear of backlash and censure.

This state of affairs is corrosive for a university and antithetical to what we do and stand for. Maintaining a culture of open discourse and free expression is essential if universities are to fulfill their mission.

Vanderbilt’s campus must be a proving ground where ideas can be tested and prevailing thought challenged. Because diverse perspectives form the rich soil from which insight and impact grow.

Your work can’t happen as it should when debate is stifled … when avenues of exploration are pre-emptively closed off…when conformity in thought replaces intellectual diversity … when we can’t be a place where the better argument prevails .

This is why, at Vanderbilt, we embrace a long tradition of making campus a place where open discourse and free expression thrive.

Just last year, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution committing to provide “an environment for open inquiry and the vigorous exploration and free expression of ideas.”

This resolution reaffirmed our long-standing commitment to open inquiry and free expression stretches to at least the mid-1960s and Vanderbilt’s fifth chancellor, Alexander Heard. Chancellor Heard was an eloquent defender of open inquiry, free expression, and civil discourse on campus.

Today, as in Chancellor Heard’s time, we must be uncompromising in maintaining an environment where free expression and diversity of thought can flourish.

One important, but often underappreciated way that the university can do this, is by maintaining a position of principled neutrality on general political and social matters—matters that do not affect the direct functioning of the university itself.

This important principle has largely been neglected. Many of our peers routinely take political positions while speaking on behalf of their entire university community. They are weighing in on a range of topics that are worthy of concern, but unrelated to the functioning of a university.

I believe this is a mistake.

When a university takes any position—when it sends a signal that one point of view is preferable over another—it creates a climate inconsistent with its purpose, which is not to settle debates, but to foster an atmosphere where students and faculty are free to explore and discuss difficult and complex issues.

Our stance, however, should not be confused with a lack of values.

A university must always proceed from clear values. But its values must be understood as the basis for fulfilling its mission, and not as the imposition of a monolithic opinion on the university community. Principled neutrality is simply the exercise of intentional restraint in the service of our mission.

We owe it to our students, and to all of you, to protect and encourage open discourse and free expression.

We also owe this service to society. Because as other public forums fall victim to polarization, the academy might be the last, best place where American citizens can learn to coexist, converse and cooperate with people whose views differ from their own.

We have come a long way together in just two short years. Where we go next is up to us.

Know that your university honors—and is honored by—all that you do. Vanderbilt is here to support you and clear the way so that you can succeed at the highest level. I am proud to work with Provost Raver, and with all of you, to make that happen.

I hope you feel, as I do, that there is no better moment than this one to be part of Vanderbilt’s considerable history. I hope you agree that the possibilities here have never been greater, our strengths never more numerous—and the need for our work never more urgent.

As I said at our investiture ceremony a couple of weeks ago, together we can build, not a great university as defined in the college rankings, but The Great University for our time, and for all the world—one that is true to the ideals of what a university should be, shaped and stewarded by people joined in common purpose and grounded in shared values.

As the motto on our university seal has it, crescere aude. Let us dare to grow.

I hope your summer is productive, and, if possible, restorative. I look forward to seeing you all at Commencement on May 13th.

Thank you.

Delivered by Chancellor Daniel Diermeier at the Spring Faculty Assembly on April 28, 2022.