Answering the Call

Nicholas S. Zeppos was named the eighth chancellor of Vanderbilt on March 1.

Nicholas S. Zeppos is named Vanderbilt's eighth chancellor.
by Jim Patterson
photo by John Russell

The men and women who run the great universities of the world must often think in terms of decades and generations. Sitting in his office on March 4, three days after accepting the job of chancellor of Vanderbilt University, Nicholas S. Zeppos was thinking about what he needs to get done by May.

“There are things to be done, and I tend to be a pretty impatient person,” he said. “I don’t get a honeymoon – I just get right to work.”

Zeppos, who arrived at Vanderbilt in 1987 as an assistant professor at Vanderbilt Law School, is pushing his team to ready a plan for a new academic venture fund to continue support for the interdisciplinary, cross-institutional work that’s invigorated campus for the past several years. A new financial aid initiative also is being prepared. He wants both by the end of the school year.

To be a leadership institution, Vanderbilt must “now and forever” say, “Regardless of wealth, background, socioeconomic status, ‘You can come here,’” Zeppos said. “There are great kids who come from very modest backgrounds.”

The Milwaukee native has played many roles at Vanderbilt. Starting as a popular professor, he’s also led fundraising efforts, recruited, overseen research and helped launch new programs. For the past seven years, he’s been the university’s chief academic officer.

“Nick knows Vanderbilt; he knows our strengths, our traditions and the challenges we face as we seek to continue the momentum that has made this university so special,” said Martha Ingram, chairman of the Board of Trust.

Comfort level was a major factor in the match for Zeppos, too.

“It’s a very comforting feeling to go to the grocery store or the symphony or a basketball game, and it’s not, ‘There’s the new chancellor. I wonder what he’s like?’

“It’s, ‘There’s Nick – let’s go say ‘hi’ to Nick.’”

Zeppos, 53, is a hard guy to pin down. First you think you’ve pegged him as the ultimate professorial type; he enthusiastically reports re-reading the U.S. Constitution and astrophysics texts for fun. Then you see him lustily cheering on the Commodores at Memorial Gym, and he confides that he saw The Beatles perform live – twice.

He’s an avid golf enthusiast, and his iPod is loaded up with Mozart, Brahms, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

“My favorite time is in my office at home,” he said. “I’ve got my wireless laptop, I’ve got a golf tournament on with the mute on, and I’ve got music on my stereo.”

The sports bug bit Zeppos as a child in frigid Wisconsin. He was a Chicago Cubs fan, and the Green Bay Packers played 90 minutes to the north.

“Sports and bratwurst – I know good ballpark food,” Zeppos said. “But it’s cold. I went to school in Madison, and it’s even colder. For someone who loves golf, that’s a very short season.”

At the University of Wisconsin, Zeppos studied history and was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate in 1976. Three years later, he gradated magna cum laude from the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he edited the Wisconsin Law Review and was selected as the outstanding graduate of his class.

For most of the 1980s, Zeppos practiced law in Washington, D.C., and earned a national reputation as a scholar of legislation, administrative law and professional responsibility. He advised the Senate and the American Bar Association on the confirmation of Justice Stephen Breyer to the United States Supreme Court, and chaired the Rules Advisory Committee of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

During those years he worked for the law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering and the United States Department of Justice.

“Those were very important and formative years that had a big impact on my abilities,” Zeppos said. “I was mentored by great people … and when I was a young lawyer, I got to stand up in court and say, ‘I represent the United States.’ That’s pretty good.”

But Zeppos had always wanted to teach.

In 1987, he drove with his wife, Lydia Howarth, and their 8-month-old son, Benjamin, in a Volvo station wagon to check out Nashville and Vanderbilt. (Benjamin is now 21 and attends Princeton University; 18-year-old Nicholas, born in Nashville, is a senior at the University School of Nashville.)

“When I came to Vanderbilt and looked at it, I said, ‘This is a place we can be happy. This is a place (where) we can grow.’”

He didn’t think of being anything but a professor, researching articles, teaching and “maybe wearing shorts sometimes during the summer.”

He began to rise through the administrative ranks, serving as an associate dean then as associate provost, before being named provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs. Zeppos continued teaching throughout.

“You don’t go into academia thinking you’re going to be a college president,” he said. “If you take a path that leads you full-time to academic administration and you say, ‘I’m glad I’m doing this because I don’t want to teach anymore, I don’t want to write another research paper,’ then you shouldn’t be a provost, dean or president.”

During his career, Zeppos has come to know four of the seven Vanderbilt chancellors who preceded him.

Harvie Branscomb would still come to campus,” he said. “I spent a lot of time with Alex Heard; when I was provost, we would have lunch together. I worked for Joe Wyatt as associate provost, and I worked for Gordon (Gee) as his provost.”

All had their strengths, Zeppos said, but he won’t emulate any of them. He learned that lesson as a young law professor watching great teachers such as Vanderbilt’s Don Hall and Tom McCoy. “I watched their style … and realized I couldn’t do that,” he said.

“I had to teach the way I thought I could teach. You have to be true to yourself.”

Zeppos has set some clear priorities for the near and distant future. He is determined that Vanderbilt will play a large role in sorting out the way Americans receive health care, and also in how various religious faiths relate to one another.

“Vanderbilt needs to be in a place where in 20 years people say, ‘There was a lot of criticism of health care through the ’80s and ’90s and then into the new century. But there was a place called Vanderbilt that came forward, and (now) we have the best health care in the world. Infant mortality is lower … we’re curing cancer. Diabetes has been eradicated or at least reduced.’”

He has similarly grand plans for Vanderbilt Divinity School and transinstitutional efforts such as the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture.

“The Enlightenment misled many to think that rationalism and scientific inquiry will eliminate the idea of the spirit and faith,” Zeppos said. “Vanderbilt – with a divinity school, with strength in the humanities and social sciences – can make a real contribution to this world.”

Zeppos noted that Vanderbilt’s Jewish and Islamic studies programs have grown quickly in a time of war and upheaval aggravated by religious differences.

“We … have strength in the intersections of Islam and Judaism, and Judaism and Christianity. We’ve made a number of offers this year to buttress our strength in Islam.

“Wouldn’t it be great if in 20 years, people looked back and said, ‘There was a university that moved forward in this area,’” Zeppos said. “We are taking this on as a long-term project.”

At his announcement as the new chancellor, Zeppos described the job as a “spiritual calling.”

“As our Declaration of Independence says, we’re all endowed by our creator with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he said. “And what draws out this potential more than education across the whole breadth of human inquiry and every discipline? To play a role in the development of what each of us has in her or him, which is the potential to learn and change and discover and make the world better. I don’t know how it can be anything other than spiritual.

“It’s just a noble venture and calling across generations and generations, and now centuries,” he said. “Look at Vanderbilt. It will be here for a thousand years.”

To watch video, listen to audio, view photos or read more about new Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos, visit

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Posted 03/10/08