It takes a fluid set of qualities to be an effective chancellor of a large American research university. As he passes his one-year anniversary in the position at Vanderbilt, Nicholas S. Zeppos finds "being reassuring" at the top of the list.
by Jim Patterson
photography by Daniel Dubois and John Russell
“Calm on the bridge,” Zeppos advised when asked about the economy during an interview with the Vanderbilt View. “We’ll be fine. In five years we’ll be better and stronger.”
Then, a quick shift from reassuring to inspirational: “I will tell you one thing. If you want to build America, if you want to improve health care, if you want to create that pathway to the middle class and entrepreneurship, it starts in education.”
Zeppos was appointed the eighth chancellor of Vanderbilt on March 1, 2008. He arrived in 1987 as an assistant professor in the law school.
It has been an eventful year, with the most talented and diverse freshman class in university history marking the opening of The Commons community for first-year students, a Music City Bowl victory by the football team, and becoming the first higher education institution in history to crack the FORTUNE “100 Best Companies to Work For” list in January. Vanderbilt Medical Center will likely play a role in expected health care reforms under the Obama administration, and a significant amount of additional financial aid will become available to all students starting this fall.
Despite all this, Vanderbilt’s reaction to the struggling economy is the issue the chancellor is asked about most these days.
Months after Zeppos took office and announced an ambitious new financial aid initiative to eliminate most student debt, the United States economy went into a freefall starting with the housing mortgage crisis. Vanderbilt’s endowment declined 16.5 percent from July to December 2008, a very restrained drop given losses of 30 percent or more in the stock market overall.
The future of Wall Street will affect everyone. But on Vanderbilt, Zeppos is bullish.
“How will this affect Vanderbilt?” Zeppos said. “It will affect us by making us better.
“I’ve had professors turn money back and say, ‘Make sure you take care of the others here.’ This is a university with a tremendous sense of not just momentum, but a sense of who it is and what it does. When you have those things, you will make tremendous progress in adverse times.”
Zeppos acknowledges that Vanderbilt is undergoing some belt-tightening. The community spirit that pervades the campus has been the key to doing so efficiently and without losing a beat, he said.
“What’s remarkable to me is this sense of, ‘How do we help others, how do we all move forward together?’” he said. “Let’s make these tough choices together. … People here are being really creative and thoughtful and prudent and caring about each other.”
Recalling his own undergraduate days at the University of Wisconsin during the Vietnam War era; early law practice in Washington, D.C., during a time of 20 percent interest rates and hyperinflation; and as a Vanderbilt administrator during 9/11, Zeppos speaks from experience when he says students are discovering internal fortitude they never knew they possessed as they cope with changing times.
“My seniors are going out into a tough job market,” he said. “I tell them, ‘Find your passion. Find it for 50 years. … This is a part of the education. It will make you find what you love to do that you may not have found otherwise. Go live overseas, go teach in China or do Teach for America. I don’t want these youngsters to say, ‘Oh, my goodness gracious, what is happening to the (stock market) today?’ I want to prepare them for their passion, have them find that passion and then go out and serve humanity.”
Vanderbilt students will be supported starting in fall 2009 with an ambitious new financial aid program that will replace need-based student loans with institutional grants and scholarships for all with demonstrated financial need. An anonymous donor gave $20 million to help with that effort, it was announced in December.
“People are struggling, but you know what?” Zeppos said. “People are still giving to Vanderbilt.”
Zeppos also has health care reform on his mind. Vanderbilt Medical Center won’t just be affected by coming changes sparked by the Obama administration; Vanderbilt will be a key player in the effort, he said.
“I think our local, regional, state and national leaders are going to have to face up to how to make health care more efficient and accessible,” Zeppos said. “I think Vanderbilt in so many ways is showing the way, first of all in the use of evidence-based medicine. What works and why? These are fundamental questions of the delivery of care, the ethics of care and the efficiency of care. That is something that is talked about much in national circles, and we are a leader in that.”
After more than two decades on the Vanderbilt campus, Zeppos says he’s had a few sleepless nights as he’s adjusted to the responsibility to steward a vast institution that saves lives, teaches freshman English, stages world-class athletics and arts events and more, daily.
“I’m like anybody else,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind a few days lying on a beach and doing nothing. … But being chancellor of Vanderbilt University gives my sense of my time on earth great depth and meaning. This institution is going to be around a long time after I’m gone, and this is my chance to work hard to make it better.”
He gains insights through other Vanderbilt chancellors who served during challenging times – in particular Chancellor Alexander Heard during the Vietnam War and Chancellor Joe B. Wyatt during another economic downturn.
“Life fulfills you in many ways – family, hobbies, all of that. But I get a tremendous sense of meaning and fulfillment from being at this extraordinary institution right now. We are making progress and achieving our mission despite the challenges. I believe that very much.
“We’ve had a record amount of applications this year. Our delivery of health care is the best in the region and the best in the world. We care for babies here and on the continent of Africa, and we deliver miraculous results. That’s going to continue and that’s going to grow. I try to do the best that I can and count on the community.”
To see a video interview with Chancellor Zeppos, visit VUCast at www.vanderbilt.edu/news.