“Dare to Grow”
Commencement Address by Chancellor Daniel Diermeier
May 13, 2022
To graduates of the Class of 2022; to parents, families and guests; to members of the faculty and the Board of Trust; to our staff volunteers and to graduates from the Class of 1972 who are with us today to mark 50 years since their own Commencement: Welcome.
It is my great honor to be with you today as we celebrate the 147th class to graduate from Vanderbilt University.
Class of 2022: You did it! Congratulations—to you, and to your families and supporters as well. Well done, all of you.
Commencement is always a special occasion. It is one of the most sacred traditions in all of academia and, for many of us, a joyous milestone in our lives.
This year’s Commencement is especially worthy of celebration because it caps a span of time that has demanded an abundance of persistence, patience—and, above all, courage.
In just a few short years, your class—and your generation—have experienced a global pandemic, you have been seared by wars and conflicts across the globe, you have felt the jolts of an uncertain economy and you have endured domestic friction not seen since the 1960s.
In many ways, your Vanderbilt experience was marked by a “before” and an “after”: The global pandemic forever changed how we work, learn and live. But it also changed us. It made us question our priorities and routines. And we also discovered new strength and our ability to take on and conquer grave challenges.
These are turbulent times. And none of us is isolated from the many complex challenges they present. But I hope you can take heart in the knowledge that great things are born during difficult times—not least among them, your alma mater itself.
In the years following the Civil War, Cornelius Vanderbilt—influenced by his Southern wife, Frank Armstrong Vanderbilt—believed that the best way to heal our wounded nation was to build a university as esteemed as those in the northeast. Vanderbilt’s aim was to bring great minds together to discuss ideas, to make new discoveries and to work toward the common good.
It was a bold idea. An act of courage.
The safe route for the Vanderbilts would have been to donate to an established university or foundation—not to bet a sizable fortune on creating a new institution of higher education in the heart of a fractured region. But Cornelius Vanderbilt believed in the university as the best place to heal our wounds as a country.
Those founding ideals paid off. They were realized through hard work and dedication. And they have been the basis of our growth as a university ever since.
Today, we are no longer an institution with a regional mission, but a research university of global renown.
And we are emboldened by a new ambition: Not to simply build a “great university of the South”—but to build The Great University of the 21st century. This ambition is consistent with our motto: Crescere Aude—Dare to Grow—a motto I hope each of you will carry with you as you walk through your lives.
Of course, it’s easy to quote a motto or inscribe it on a university seal. But what does it mean to live it?
One of the most inspiring examples I know can be found in the story of a Vanderbilt student like you. It began more than 60 years ago in an era whose turbulence matched our own. And it began with a student in our Divinity School.
His name was James Lawson.
Reverend Lawson came to Nashville not long after living in India, where he had studied Mahatma Gandhi’s path of nonviolent change, or satyagraha, which translates as “holding firm to the truth.”
He moved to Nashville and enrolled in Vanderbilt’s Divinity School at the urging of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had persuaded the young minister to come south and join the urgent struggle for civil rights. Once he arrived, Reverend Lawson began holding workshops to instruct local college students in the principles of nonviolent change. He taught them in church basements across the city, and among those who absorbed his lessons were several people who would become towering civil rights leaders in their own right, including the late Representative John Lewis and the pioneering activist Diane Nash.
Reverend Lawson challenged segregation head-on by organizing peaceful lunch-counter sit-ins that took place largely on the street we now know as Representative John Lewis Way. Images of students bravely enduring the verbal and physical assaults of segregationists shook the conscience of Nashville and the nation.
How did Reverend Lawson’s university respond?
Vanderbilt expelled him. James Lawson did not get to walk across the Commencement stage as you are about to do.
His expulsion made national news and sparked an outcry. The dean of the Divinity School, along with many faculty and students, left the university in protest. But for his part, Reverend James Lawson maintained the courage of his convictions. He finished his degree at another university and kept his eyes on what mattered most.
Throughout the civil rights era and to this day, he has been a fierce, lifelong catalyst of positive social change. He brings the same moral bravery and nonviolent strategies he applied in the fight for civil rights to advocacy for those that need it most. He remains an unstoppable champion for justice and a more perfect union.
Decades after his expulsion, Vanderbilt sought to make amends.
Reverend Lawson could have refused. He could have been forgiven for ignoring the whole thing to avoid reliving bad memories or engaging in awkward conversations. He could even have used the occasion to vilify our institution as a bad example.
Instead, following his deep convictions and commitments to peace and forgiveness, he graciously accepted.
As he put it while speaking on our campus just last month, he never broke with Nashville or Vanderbilt. He never broke with Nashville or with Vanderbilt because he could never deny the quality of life and the quality of learning that he had here—and because his nonviolent philosophy showed him that humans do not have to hate each other.
James Lawson’s story doesn’t reflect just his own courage to grow. It reflects Vanderbilt’s as well. This university had to admit that expelling Reverend Lawson was wrong. We had to apologize. More than that, we had to make amends. And most importantly, we had to learn from our mistake and apply what we learned in a meaningful way as we moved forward.
We are a substantially different university than we were in the early 1960s—in part because we have had the courage to look unflinchingly at our history, embrace what was good, and set about correcting our mistakes. Our values have endured, but our understanding of them and our expression of them have been continually refreshed because this campus community has, over the years, remained open to reason and change and the possibility that we are not always right. This work continues today.
Vanderbilt honored Reverend Lawson as a distinguished professor and distinguished alumnus in 2005. An endowed faculty chair and an undergraduate scholarship are named in his honor.
Just a few weeks ago, we were privileged to welcome Reverend Lawson back to campus for the launch of the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements at Vanderbilt University. And it was one of the greatest honors of my professional life to have him speak at my investiture ceremony.
James Lawson dared to grow. And, thanks to him, so did Vanderbilt.
There are so many lessons in courage that we can draw from this story—the kind of courage that you will need in the course of your lives as you seek growth and evolution, as you pursue your goals and as you navigate this challenging and complicated world that you are inheriting.
First, there is the awe-inspiring courage that it took for Reverend Lawson and his fellow civil rights pioneers to stand up to crushing hatred, to put not only their convictions but their lives and their futures on the line in the effort to dismantle an unjust system.
Then there is the courage they showed in choosing nonviolence. For Americans, this was new and bold, and it was just plain dangerous during a time of widespread racial violence. Even some who shared Reverend Lawson’s objectives were skeptical of his approach.
But Reverend Lawson shows us that courage requires us to take risks and accept the possibility of failing. Courage is predicated on the belief that a great pursuit is worth trying—and trying again—even when the outcome is uncertain.
But there is courage not only in acting, but there is also courage in learning, in being willing to open ourselves to new ideas.
As a Methodist missionary from Ohio sent to India to convert nonbelievers, Reverend Lawson ended up discovering the power of nonviolence to bring about social change. His exposure to cultures, traditions and people different from those he’d known shifted his thinking in a profound way.
For this is the secret of transformative learning, whether it happens in India or right here on campus: You must have the courage to fully engage with new ideas, to wrestle with them and, sometimes, to let them change you.
This demands more than polite tolerance of other viewpoints. It requires the willingness to challenge and, even more importantly, the willingness to be challenged.
And this is why universities are where we spend our formative years: in a community of scholars and students, a community that is both supportive and challenging, a community that is dedicated to the growth of its members. Where each of us can reach our full potential as human beings.
As much as an education demands long hours of solitary study, it also requires intense and wide-ranging conversations like the ones you’ve had in your classrooms and residence halls or sitting on the grass on Alumni Lawn on a warm afternoon—the kinds of engrossing, challenging, invigorating conversations that I hope you will have all your lives. For we learn and grow best in conversation with a community—with peers, with teachers, with mentors.
Think back on your time here, to when a classmate’s comment or question unlocked a new insight or sparked an idea. Think about those moments when you got caught up in the mutual electricity of collaboration or when you were having a tough time, and someone lifted you up.
Remember when a lecture left you in awe, when new vistas of understanding opened before you, when a professor took you aside and suggested a new path or when an upperclassman showed you how to lead.
And recall those moments when you were a mentor to others, when you encouraged someone who needed it, when you led a project and pushed your teammates to work harder, do better and not settle for work that was merely good enough.
This is how it works—whether in a university, a civil rights movement, a community or a nation.
We are stronger when we have the courage to collaborate. It is not a new lesson, but it seems it is one we have to learn again and again: People of shared values and purpose accomplish much more when they work together. There is exponential strength in unity.
At Vanderbilt, we take pride in the uniquely collaborative culture that sets our university apart. We call it radical collaboration. Radical—not only as in bold, but also in the sense that collaboration here is not just a nice feature. It is at the very root—the radix—of who we are.
We proved this with our response to the pandemic, when all of you showed the courage to adapt to new ways of living and learning amid the waves of COVID-19.
Thanks to your commitment and bravery, our diverse and varied campus community came together and carried out our mission, working in common purpose as One Vanderbilt.
I am proud that this is a hallmark of our culture.
I am also proud that, as much as we excel through our ability to act as one, we also excel because we refuse to think as one.
This is one of our most fundamental convictions, from which we will not be swayed. Universities must be open forums where ideas can be debated, where the complex issues of our time can be discussed—freely. A college campus must be a proving ground where ideas can be tested and prevailing thoughts can be challenged.
But to engage fully in a debate is not only about winning it. It also requires that we have the courage to allow ourselves to be convinced and to change our minds when presented with evidence we had not considered or insights we had not conceived. It is at universities where “the forceless force of the better argument”—as the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls it—prevails.
Vanderbilt’s fifth chancellor, Alexander Heard, spoke often and eloquently about free speech and the proper role of a university. Amid the conflicts of the 1960s, when our campus hosted speakers as diverse and controversial as Allen Ginsberg, Stokely Carmichael and Strom Thurmond, Chancellor Heard explained the university’s commitment this way: “A 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.”
Just last year, our Faculty Senate passed a resolution for the university to provide “an environment for open inquiry and the vigorous exploration and free expression of ideas.”
Graduating students, your ability to hear, handle and have ideas could not be more crucial to how you will courageously address the challenges of our times. It is at the very heart of an education that will empower you for life.
The late poet Maya Angelou often said that courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can’t be fair or just or generous or kind or wise without first being courageous. She also pointed out that one isn’t born with courage, one develops it. And you develop it by doing small, courageous things every day.
I have seen this courage develop on Vanderbilt’s campus in ways large and small during my time as chancellor. I saw it when we reopened classrooms and labs in the darkest hours of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve seen it in the parents and partners and teachers and counselors who have supported today’s graduates.
I’ve seen it on an average Tuesday in our classrooms and labs, I’ve seen it in our student-athletes on and off the field of play, and I have seen it in our art studios and performance venues.
I have also seen how that courage, that inner strength, takes root in our alumni, whether they are the scientists testing novel treatments for devastating diseases, whether they are founders and entrepreneurs forging new paths of innovation, whether they are poets and artists providing vivid insight into our shared humanity or whether they are simply going about their lives, doing their jobs, caring for their families, giving back to their communities and doing the unsung but unflagging work of engaged citizenship.
Graduates, all of you have developed and shown courage during your time at Vanderbilt. Remember this, for it will serve you well in the years to come.
Risking failure, challenging your own thinking, daring something great that might not succeed and having the courage to be open to the uncomfortable business of growing and learning as part of a community: All of this is how we acquire knowledge, how we shape it into wisdom and how we use it to grow beyond who we are today.
This is not a finite process but, rather, a lifelong pursuit.
Your Vanderbilt education has given you the intellectual tools for this growth. It has also given you something else: a community that supports you on your journey.
In turn, as graduates, it is incumbent on you to draw on your talents, your achievements—and, importantly, your failures—to help other members of our Vanderbilt community develop courage along their paths.
Graduates, I wish you well. I wish that the joy and satisfaction of this day will stay with you for your whole life. I wish you success as you define it.
And I wish you courage.
Not only because you will need it in ample measure, but also because your lives will be richer for it.
Go now, with the pride and blessing of your university.
Dare to grow!