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Vanderbilt begins academic year in position of strength, despite challenges

Aug. 22, 2014, 10:14 AM

Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos addressed faculty at the 2014 Fall Assembly Aug. 21 in the Student Life Center. (Joe Howell/Vanderbilt)
Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos addressed faculty at the 2014 Fall Assembly Aug. 21 in the Student Life Center. (Joe Howell/Vanderbilt)

Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos told the opening Faculty Assembly on Aug. 21 that Vanderbilt begins the academic year in an exceptionally strong position—academically, financially and culturally.

“This is not to say that we are without challenges or obstacles,” he said.

Signs of strength include:

  • A distinguished, diverse and productive faculty;
  • Increases in research funding, despite cuts in federal funding;
  • Generous funding from alumni and other supporters;
  • Continuing investment in new spaces, including a new Engineering and Science Building, two new residential colleges—Moore and Warren colleges, and a planned tower at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital; and
  • Prowess in athletics, including the national championship in baseball.

“As far as university presidencies go, I’ve had a very enjoyable year,” he said. “It doesn’t get much better than this.”

Tim Corbin, head coach of the 2014 NCAA Championship-winning Commodore baseball team, opened the Fall Faculty Assembly on Aug. 21. (Joe Howell/Vanderbilt)
Tim Corbin, head coach of the 2014 NCAA Championship-winning Commodore baseball team, opened the Fall Faculty Assembly on Aug. 21. (Joe Howell/Vanderbilt)

The Faculty Assembly began with remarks from Tim Corbin, head baseball coach. Corbin said his ultimate goal is to institute a “standard of performance in everything that we do.” From there, he said, “The scoreboard will take care of itself.”

The Chancellor was introduced by incoming Faculty Senate Chair Paul C.H. Lim.

Continuing challenges in health care funding

Despite physical signs of progress and growth, Zeppos told the assembled faculty, the university encounters continuing challenges that it must increasingly face alone. “I’ve stopped hoping for any solutions from Washington, D.C.,” Zeppos said.

“A once-in-a-generation shift occurring in American health care, and a combination of factors, is making it harder to pay the bills at all university hospitals,” he said.  “These disappearing sources of revenue and the failure to expand Medicaid in Tennessee are hitting Vanderbilt very hard.”

Vanderbilt remains committed to its not-for-profit mission of education and discovery, Zeppos said, and will never shrink from the responsibility of providing care to the indigent and uninsured.

“But a health system—and here I include local, state and national governments as well as the insurance industry—that continues to ask its nation’s universities and academic medical centers to make medical discoveries and produce the best physicians and scientists, at the same time that we increasingly shoulder the taxing responsibilities of a public hospital, is headed for trouble,” Zeppos said.

Despite those challenges, biomedical and nursing education at Vanderbilt continued to excel, with a 10 percent growth in grant awards, a 15 percent increase in School of Medicine applicants and continual identification as a top 100 hospital.

“I continue to have great faith and deep admiration for the Vanderbilt physicians, nurses, faculty, staff and students who will be at the forefront of developing the more efficient, equitable and progressive health care system that our great nation deserves,” he said.

Yearlong strategic planning process concludes

The chancellor also thanked the faculty for their support of a yearlong strategic planning process (see related story).

Zeppos expressed gratitude for all of the faculty members involved in the effort and particularly the two faculty members who led the effort, Susan Wente and John Geer. Wente now serves as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, and Geer, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science, is chairing the College of Arts and Science dean search committee.

Zeppos called on Vanderbilt to continue to be a “beacon” for academic inquiry.

Meanwhile, Vanderbilt continues to garner honors from outside entities, he said, including ranking seventh in SAT scores by Forbes. Notably, in the Princeton Review, Vanderbilt was first on the list of happiest college students.

“It speaks to why Vanderbilt is so special,” he said. “We are academically distinguished. We value and strive always for excellence, but we are also a place that values collegiality, civility, friendship and community. … We strive for that sense of balance and a balanced life.”

Excellence, happiness, wellness depend on welcoming, safe campus

Excellence, happiness and wellness all depend on the welcoming and safe nature of our campus and community, Zeppos cautioned.

“When we fail to help, or worse, when we hurt someone—when we don’t help someone—we break this trust and we tear the fabric of this special community that we all cherish. This applies to all that we do, and nowhere is this more true … than in the area of campus safety and freedom from power-based violence,” he said.

With legislation proposed in Congress and litigation rising, the obligation to create a “safe and welcoming environment” has become attenuated. He urged faculty to help raise awareness and to seek training.

Zeppos ended by issuing a challenge to the campus community: “Let us daily, in acts and deeds, in words and achievements, earn our distinction of ‘happiest’ university, a great academic institution, by doing all we can to make Vanderbilt free from any kind of power-based violence or discrimination of any kind.”

Annual faculty awards also were presented during the assembly.

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