Meet Vanderbilt’s first chief diversity officer

Zoe Shancer, Senior Editor

George C. Hill moved his things into his new office in Kirkland Hall yesterday for his first day as Vanderbilt’s first chief diversity officer (CDO).

“I’m still trying to find where the restroom is in Kirkland,” Hill joked. “I almost walked into a closet.”

Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos appointed Hill, a biomedical researcher and diversity advocate, as CDO and vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion Nov. 19, assigning him the duty of helping to cultivate an “inclusive, diverse and equitable academic community.”

“I think the chancellor was interested in identifying individuals who could serve in two roles,” Hill said. “One is stimulating and supporting the vision that he has for increasing diversity and inclusion at the university, and also someone who has had the experience of doing that.”

Hill said the sentiment of one of his medical students relates to what he sees as his role as CDO. His student said, “I learn best when I learn from people different from me.”

“That says it all,” Hill said. “And that’s what I think the chancellor has in mind, because he wants to see all of the students, and in fact all of the faculty, interacting with people who come from different backgrounds than they do.”

Frank Dobson, director of the Bishop Johnson Black Cultural Center (BCC) and assistant dean of students, sees the advent of the Chief Diversity Officer position on campuses in recent years as a reflection of an increasingly complex set of issues having to do with diversity and inclusion. He said beyond the black and white binary, diversity now includes Latino issues, international students and women’s equality.

“That’s what I think Vanderbilt has grappled with for years, how do we get a handle on all these various diversity issues in a way that we have someone who can help oversee and help marshal our resources to effect change in all of these crucial areas?” Dobson said.

For Dobson, the CDO position is broader than offices such as Inclusion and Cultural Competence — established over the summer — or the BCC, because it’s at the vice chancellor level, as opposed to existing as a part of the Dean of Students Office. Therefore, a CDO can examine issues beyond student life, including faculty recruitment, promotion and retention, or curriculum changes.

Dobson emphasized the value of hiring a CDO from within the university, as opposed to utilizing a national search committee, avoiding a potentially long and exhausting process.

“There’s a sense of comfort because George Hill has done this kind of work and has done this kind of work well. And he knows Vanderbilt,” Dobson said. “He knows the players and the players know him, as opposed to getting somebody from Stanford or Yale or wherever and they’re coming here and they’re learning Vanderbilt. They don’t know how to walk across campus, they don’t know what the Commons is.”


One of Hill’s first initiatives in his position is to create a student advisory committee made up of students from a variety of backgrounds.

“We will sit down and discuss what are some of the things that you see that are working well here in this area of equity, diversity and inclusion, and then what are some that aren’t?” Hill said. “What bothers you? Where do you think we can make progress?”

“I tend to be a good listener …” Hill said. “I think it’s important to have an ongoing dialogue and find out exactly what some of the issues are.”

In the same vein, Hill plans to have a series of listening sessions with faculty and students.

“What I plan on doing is, each month, going to some location here on campus, letting people know ahead of time, and just sitting and listening,” Hill said. “So I may go over to Blair, and say for the month of December, I’ll be present from 12-1 p.m., we’ll have lunch, and just talk about and listen to issues of equity, diversity and inclusion from people who are in Blair or anyone who is close to Blair. And in January, maybe in Light Hall. And in February, over in Wilson.”

This would provide Hill a way to hear from Vanderbilt students, staff and faculty regarding the issues they feel are most important.

“And it’s quite open, anybody can bring up any issue,” Hill said. “That’s the way I will begin to formulate some really key goals and directions.”

By the end of February, Hill also plans to bring in three experts from peer institutions who will provide an evaluation of what they see in terms of diversity at Vanderbilt.

“These will be national experts,” Hill said. “And then they’ll provide a report to me, and I’ll send it to the chancellor and to the senior management team, and that again will help to formulate the direction we move forward.”

To further understand needs related to diversity and inclusion on campus, Hill will send out a survey via email to students, faculty and staff evaluating the climate at Vanderbilt.

“You would get an anonymous survey that would say, ‘what are your thoughts with regard to discrimination at the institution?’” Hill said. “‘Have you ever experienced discrimination? Do you see a need for further movement in this direction?’”

Another missing piece at Vanderbilt, according to Hill, is an easy mechanism for individuals who are seeking an individual of color or of a specific background as a mentor.

“What we will do is have a list of mentors that will be willing to serve in this capacity, and students can go online and say ‘I would like to interact with a person of this this and this’,” Hill said. “There will be a database of those individuals. There are two national databases that do that now, so we will develop one for here at Vanderbilt.”

Hill also wants Vanderbilt’s faculty and staff to be more diverse, saying that we need to make sure that individuals who would contribute diversity to certain departments are considered strongly.

“The point is, we want people in front of you, who come from different backgrounds, who have different experiences, so that when you’re discussing poli sci, the individuals have different perspectives, and when you’re talking about pre-med, they’re going to be people who are interested in why, for example, clinical trials do not often include women, but then when the drug is decided to be used, it’s used for everybody,” Hill said.

While Vanderbilt has become a more diverse community since he came here, according to Hill, there is still work to be done.

“It is increasing, but we can do a lot better,” Hill said. “All universities can do a lot better.”

In an effort to oversee both student life and academic affairs, Hill will work closely with the other vice chancellors to identify their concerns, limitations and priorities.


Hill felt that many of the demands to represent and serve a diverse student body that students presented to Zeppos in a protest on Nov. 16 were valid issues and will inform his upcoming decisions.

“I thought the requests were very reasonable,” Hill said. “Not all of them were something that could be done. As you may know as a student, some things the institution can do. Other things the institution can’t do at all. It has to do with regulations and rules. Somebody else is in control of it, not the students, not the administration. But I had a lot of respect for everything that was on there.”

In particular, Hill felt the first section of the petition, which related to mental health, showed maturity on the part of the students who wrote the petition.

“One of the things that is really a major problem for underrepresented students on campus … is that, psychologically, it is very difficult for them,” Hill said. “When you are one of the few of your group on a campus, you really feel sometimes that you have to continue to validate yourself.”

Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos announced a set of new investments in Vanderbilt’s student wellness resources on Nov. 30. This includes an expansion in staff at the Psychological and Counseling Center that have experience and skills working with people of varying racial and cultural backgrounds. A Center for Student Wellbeing plans to be opened in Fall 2016 as a hub of wellness and prevention resources.

These changes are very important and responsive to the needs of students, according to Hill.

Also on Nov. 30, the Office of the Provost appointed a faculty committee to assess proposals for new Multicultural University Courses. The new courses were announced Nov. 9 as part of the overall University Courses initiative and will address topics of diversity, equity and inclusion, race and ethnicity, identity literacy and cultural competency.

Hill is very excited about this expansion in courses.

“It provides an opportunity to look at the curriculum carefully as well as propose courses that will help to contribute to more inclusive, diverse offerings for students,” Hill said. “I’m very pleased with that committee being formed. And also the committee is really representative of the variety of disciplines that are important.”

Hill said the committee will have the opportunity to meet with students before the courses are established.

“So if there are students who are interested in helping to formulate what would be involved [in these courses], now is the time to contact the committee, the chair of the committee, and let their voices be known,” Hill said. “That is very, very important.”


Coming out of retirement, Hill looks forward to using his experience promoting diversity at other universities to serve the needs of students, faculty and staff at Vanderbilt.

“I have always been involved in trying to create an environment at a university where students learn from each other, faculty are different, and students have the opportunity to question people who are totally different from they are, and learn,” Hill said.

Hill’s first faculty position was at Colorado State University (CSU), where he was an associate professor from 1972 to 1983. He and his wife started a summer program called the CSU Motivation Program, which brought minority high school students to the university to work in labs and receive mentoring on study skills and the college application process.

In 1983, Hill came to Meharry Medical College in Nashville to help train physicians and Ph.D. candidates.

“There I took a key role not only in the administration of the institution, but in teaching,” Hill said. “I chaired a department, I was vice president for research. I really wanted to come to Meharry to stimulate more individuals of color in the biomedical sciences.”

According to Hill, Meharry is one of the four historically black medical schools in the United States and trains 40 to 50 percent of black physicians in the country.

“I would like to see every student (at Vanderbilt) be aware of institutions like Meharry, like Fisk,” Hill said. “ I would like our students to be familiar with institutions that serve the underserved minority students … just like everyone at Meharry knows what Vanderbilt is. It needs to be both ways.”

After working at Meharry from 1983 to 2002, Hill was hired to be one of the deans at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, where his job was to establish an active office of diversity in medical education.

“I’m sure it doesn’t come as a surprise to you that a lot of of people felt that back in 2002, Vanderbilt was a predominantly white institution,” Hill said. “And I’m sure there are some people who feel that way today. So our job when it came to the medical school was to really try and attract as many different types of people as possible.”

With the support of many at the university, Hill was able to increase diversity in Vanderbilt’s medical school. When talking about diversity, Hill stated that this refers to more than race and ethnicity, but also to religion, economic background and sexual orientation, among others.

“We increased the number of students who applied, students who were admitted, brought in a lot of different seminars, a lot of different speakers, and helped to just change the culture with a lot of support of what Vanderbilt was about,” Hill said.

In 2012, Hill decided to retire, something he said was difficult particularly because he has been active his whole life. Hill is now writing a book on how diversity came to Vanderbilt’s medical school and what has happened since then.

“When do you think the first black student came to Vanderbilt’s medical school?” Hill prompted.

Levi Watkins became the first black student at Vanderbilt’s medical school in 1966, graduating in 1970, and will be one of the focuses of Hill’s book. Watkins was a brilliant heart surgeon, according to Hill, having put the first defibrillator in a patient in 1980. He was also a wonderful friend to Hill.

“I like to say to the medical students now, what are you going to do in 10 years?” Hill joked. “[Watkins] put a defibrillator in a patient, what are you going to do?”