Top administrators envision a future of community, synergy and enduring tradition
by Jim Patterson
photo by John Russell
Change is coming to Vanderbilt. Tradition will endure at Vanderbilt. Are these statements contradictions?
“I have this consistent, powerful hope. I want our virtue to remain … a sense of values and mission,” Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos said during a joint Vanderbilt View interview with Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Richard McCarty and Jeffrey Balser, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
“People always talk about change, change, change. I do, too. But that notion of virtue and our moral values – that never changes,” Zeppos said.
Zeppos, McCarty and Balser all have been instrumental players at Vanderbilt for some time, but in the past two years have coalesced as the three key administrators who are setting the course for Vanderbilt’s future. They’ve taken the helm in the midst of a nearly unprecedented financial crisis that shook the country and the world.
Vanderbilt’s endowment was affected, though not as much as the endowments of many of its peers. Budgets have been reduced. Health care reform is a burning and divisive topic in Washington and at town hall meetings across the country and an issue of intense interest at Vanderbilt. A bold financial aid effort to eliminate student debt at Vanderbilt has gone forward despite the financial crisis.
And the Class of 2013 has joined the seniors, juniors, sophomores, staff and faculty on campus, expecting and deserving the educational experience of a lifetime.
How will Vanderbilt negotiate all of this?
Zeppos, McCarty and Balser agree.
“We all sink or swim together,” Zeppos said. “This is a university with synergy and community and collaboration.
“We are one university. One Vanderbilt.”
Many universities function with schools and departments as competing fiefdoms, responsible for their own fate and indifferent to other schools or the university as a whole. That’s not the way it is at Vanderbilt, the three administrators say. The collaboration and sense of community at Vanderbilt will continue and expand in the coming years.
McCarty pointed out that Vanderbilt’s relative small size among research universities makes collaboration across schools and disciplines essential.
“If we don’t leverage strength across schools, we’ll never be as good as we could be,” he said. “To have a faculty member from medical or law school or business school come and teach our undergraduates is a tremendous advantage for our undergraduate programs, and I think the faculty who engage in those classroom efforts benefit as well.”
The future of Vanderbilt University Medical Center is intertwined with the rest of the university. Balser, appointed to run the medical center after the retirement of Harry Jacobson last summer, said he expected the medical center to play an important role in national health reform, with significant assistance from talent at the university.
“Many of the major challenges live at the interstices between disciplines,” Balser said. “Faster computation, ethical dilemmas, financial dilemmas – not a single one of these challenges lives in a single silo in this university.
“That is our strategic advantage. We are a university unlike almost all of our peers. Even the ones that live on the same campus haven’t built a culture and aren’t committed to a culture of working as one,” Balser said. “It’s not a question of should we or can we. We will impact health care in this country because we work as one university.”
Zeppos said he wouldn’t be interested in running a university that measured itself simply as the summation of the accomplishments of its individual schools.
“That’s not a learning community,” he said. “That’s not a discovery community. Vanderbilt is both of those things, a powerfully synergistic organization of 34,000 people who come onto campus every day and make it work and create an incredible learning environment.”
The collaborative nature of Vanderbilt has brought key faculty to campus, Zeppos said.
“Every university has a culture, its own genome,” he said. “People come to Vanderbilt for that. They leave places where they’re constantly hearing, ‘Leave me alone’ and ‘you can’t get in my lifeboat if you’re in trouble.’”
Working together needn’t mean loss of independence, Balser said. In fact, possibilities flourish from the approach.
“The way that you work as one combined model in any living political structure is having the key leadership on the same page,” he said. “Nick, Richard and I support each other and believe in how we’re working together. It’s tone at the top that deals with that issue most effectively.”
Balser said it comes down to phrasing the question correctly. It’s not, “Why are you working with the medical center?” It’s “Why aren’t you working with the medical center?”
“Those are two very different conversations that signal very different things,” Balser said. “The second question will get asked at Vanderbilt more and more as time goes by.”
McCarty said there is a common misunderstanding about faculty at Vanderbilt, based on faculty myths elsewhere.
“The joke goes that the faculty doesn’t like change,” he said. “But in fact, everything I’ve done in an administrative role has been suggested by a faculty member in a casual conversation or meeting with department chairs.
“When you have a great faculty, you will have change.”
Zeppos points out that The Commons first-year student experience, which successfully launched last year, was the brainchild of a professor in the classics department.
“So many people say to me, ‘The Commons is amazing.’ I always emphasize that this was the idea of Susan Wiltshire (professor of classics, emerita). She was the one who said more than 10 years ago, ‘We ought to be thinking more intentionally about how we create community.’”
The Commons has been a beneficial change, Zeppos believes, as will be the continuing fruit of collaborations and cooperation between schools, departments and disciplines.
“We know that a great university innovates, creates, discovers and that change is inevitable,” Zeppos said. “Departments thrive, then are transformed and may even disappear. In the early days of engineering, we had metallurgy. Now we have nano materials. Structural biology is now something that is an important idea, and I can assure you that 70 years ago it was not.
“What does not change are values – a culture of collaboration, openness and civility. If we hold on to that, then we will never become untethered from the great Vanderbilt tradition.”
Additional photography by Daniel Dubois