STAFF EDITORIAL: Vanderbilt students deserve a forward-thinking, responsive leader out of our new Chancellor

In serving Vanderbilt, our next Chancellor must continue the legacy of Zeppos’s bold innovation but also show that they represent student needs


Claire Barnett

Chancellor Zeppos at Founder’s Walk.

Editorial Board

Vanderbilt needs a new leader. Since April, when Chancellor Nicolas Zeppos announced that he would step down from his position, the university has been searching for a permanent replacement. The administration formally began this process just after Zeppos’s announcement, when the Board of Trust appointed a Chancellor Search Committee, composed mostly of current and former Board of Trust members but also some faculty and staff. 

Anticipating students’ aversion to a search process conducted solely by administrative elites, Board of Trust Chairman (and Chancellor Search Committee Chairman) Bruce R. Evans also appointed a more representative Chancellor Search Advisory Committee. This committee provides advice to the Chancellor Search Committee and even includes two students – Kelsea Best, the president of the Graduate Student Council, and Frances Burton, the president of Vanderbilt Student Government. In keeping with the Advisory Committee’s proclaimed commitment to “shared governance,” Evans has posted a public feedback form on the search committee’s website. Evans and Search Advisory Committee Chair John Geer even hosted a community update on the search. It is clear that Vanderbilt is taking at least some steps to include community input in the process.

Unfortunately, our last Chancellor and his administration were not as in touch with Vanderbilt students as the hunt to replace him is. Zeppos took an unusually high salary as the university was enacting budget cuts. When a rich man gets a bonus while his university’s programs lose funding, it does not communicate empathy and concern. 

This is not to say that Zeppos was a bad chancellor or that administration doesn’t care about students – he wasn’t and it does.This is most clearly evident for financial aid and the Opportunity Vanderbilt initiative. Zeppos invested heavily in it and instituted a then-radical “no-loan” policy; in combination, the volume of aid and its no-strings-attached conditions have helped attract talented students who might otherwise have looked to cheaper schools. The Princeton Review gives high marks to the revamped financial aid program, listing Vanderbilt’s system as sixth-best in the nation. Such future-focused thinking has paid dividends, but there is so much left to do, especially when more students come from families in the top 0.1 percent of income than come from the bottom 20 percent of income. 

Zeppos laid the groundwork with Opportunity Vanderbilt and raised the profile of our university by making it more accessible than it has ever been. From our next chancellor, we want the same boldness. We want someone who builds the previous administration’s achievements. There are a lot of areas on which the new chancellor could choose to focus their efforts: despite our campus’s increasing diversity, we are still struggling with inclusion and support across many student identity groups; despite our financial accessibility programming, we are not seeing the level of financial diversity and inclusion we should; our faculty diversity needs work, with our faculty body being disproportionately white; we are lagging far behind our U.S. peers in our international rankings. It is hard to determine what the next Opportunity Vanderbilt or FutureVU will be, but that’s the job of the next chancellor. The role should not be custodial, but active and progressive. 

Our new chancellor must look forwards with bold policy programs.

Additionally, Vanderbilt, along with the majority of U.S. universities, has become increasingly corporatized in the past few decades – bureaucratic processes and administrative bloat have made it more difficult for students to interact meaningfully with administrators. We see this as student reporters, when we are pushed to communications representatives, rather than the folks we are trying to speak to. We see this as students, when complaints go through assistants and associates that have to work their way up the chain in order to get an answer. Of course, the chancellor should not be dealing with every little day-to-day concern, but they can take a critical look or perform an audit of the administration of this school and see if the level of bureaucracy is truly the appropriate model of leadership for an academic institution. A focus on  treating the university like a business undermines the representational and academic ideals we all sign up for when we move in. 

When asked for her input on the search, Frances Burton, the student body’s highest elected leader and a member of the search advisory committee working to bring student voices into the conversation, agreed that our new chancellor must look forwards with bold policy programs. 

“So much change is happening at Vandy, and many of those changes are pushing our school to be a leader not only in higher education but also institutional success,” Burton said. “I see this in initiatives such as Vanderbilt’s carbon neutral plan, FutureVU and its continual commitment to financial inclusivity.”

The Search Committee’s online feedback form closes at 10 p.m. on Sept. 9. As such, the period for direct student input in this process has come to a close. We hope that the university’s professed commitment to student representation is reflected in their pick for chancellor. Such a leader would be future-focused and responsive; such a leader would forcefully address the issues that we care about.