Mental Health

June 21, 2023

Elise McMillan to retire as Vanderbilt Kennedy Center UCEDD director

Elise McMillan, JD, has announced she will retire from the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center this month.

Elise McMillan, JD
Elise McMillan, JD

After 28 years of working to improve the lives of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and their families, Elise McMillan, JD, has announced she will retire from the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) this month.

McMillan currently serves as the director of the VKC University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VKC UCEDD), director of Community Engagement and Public Policy team and senior lecturer in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

During her time at Vanderbilt, McMillan has had an extraordinary influence on the development of model evidence-based services for individuals with IDD and their families on a community, state and national level. She has helped to expand opportunities and improve systems, especially in the areas of transition, inclusive higher education and employment.

“Being director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center UCEDD has given me the opportunity to work with outstanding faculty, staff and trainees from both VUMC and VU to improve the lives of people with disabilities across Tennessee,” she said. “UCEDDs were created to connect the research and discoveries at universities and academic medical centers with the community. While I have been at the VKC, we have created and launched programs — working closely with partners and the community — in the areas of education, health and mental health, employment and quality of life. We have had the opportunity to grow programs like Next Steps at Vanderbilt, Tennessee Disability Pathfinder, TennesseeWorks, the IDD Toolkit, the VKC Reading Clinic, ECHO programs and much more. We have also had the opportunity to be visited by giants in this field. At the top of that list are the several visits I had the honor of being part of by the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Sargent Shriver. Their expectations remained high about our work and what more could be done.”

Prior to her leadership role in the VKC UCEDD, McMillan was a career journalist who rose to managing editor, then associate editor and general counsel of the Nashville Banner. After the birth of her middle son, who has Down syndrome, she was contacted by former VKC director of communications Jan Rosemergy, PhD. One of McMillan’s first actions, alongside her husband Tom, was to connect with the VKC for early intervention and research participation. She was also invited by the VKC director to become part of the Center’s community Leadership Council.

“I feel so lucky to have been at the right place at the right time after the birth of our middle son with Down Syndrome,” McMillan said. “I was managing editor of the Nashville Banner at the time, and quickly learned about this national treasure — the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center — which offered research, training and services for people with disabilities and their families. I was honored to become part of the center in 1995. Every day that you walk into our building, you pass a quote from President John F. Kennedy that is a daily reminder of the importance of our work: ‘I cannot imagine any work that is more important, more rewarding, or that means more to millions of people now living in the shadows and to the millions of others who will be born in the future.’”

McMillan was part of the team that competed for and secured the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities for VU and the VKC in 2005. UCEDDs are funded by the federal Administration for Community Living (ACL). McMillan has remained in a leadership position with the UCEDD since that time.

“With Elise’s leadership, the VKC UCEDD has grown and expanded providing much needed information about the abilities and supports needed for people with disabilities,” said Doria Panvini, founding chair of the VKC UCEDD Community Advisory Council. “Through the development of Next Steps at Vanderbilt, employment initiatives, publications, collaborative meetings, summer camps and so much more, Elise has helped to open doors for people with disabilities to be a part of their communities.”

McMillan’s contributions in inclusive higher education (IHE) are impressive. She was the founding faculty member of Next Steps at Vanderbilt, the first IHE program in Tennessee. She partnered with the LDB Foundation and the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities to launch inclusive higher education in Tennessee. Additionally, McMillan worked with the DD Council, the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee, and The Arc of Williamson County to establish the Tennessee Alliance for Inclusive Higher Education, which works to expand IHE programs across the state. She is also a founding member of the new Inclusive Higher Education Accreditation Council, a new national accrediting agency for postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disability. She plans to continue her work with this group after retirement.

“Elise has been a valuable member of our Child and Adolescent Psychiatry team, and we will miss her warm presence,” said Meg Benningfield, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “She has been a thoughtful partner in sharing resources, problem solving and staying engaged with the work through challenging times. Her advocacy for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities has inspired us. We wish her all the best.”

McMillan was presented with the George S. Jesien Distinguished Achievement Award from the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD), which recognizes individuals with a distinguished career of excellence and leadership to advance policy and practice for and with people living with developmental and other disabilities, their families and communities. She also received the National Down Syndrome Congress Education Award and the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Service Award.

“Elise is the heart and soul of the VKC, completely embodying our fundamental mission to improve the lives of people with IDD and their families,” said Jeffrey Neul, MD, PhD, Annette Schaffer Eskind Professor and director of the VKC. “Her leadership of the VKC UCEDD has been instrumental in the tremendous growth of our programs and activities, leading both to national recognition of excellence but importantly to meaningful impact on people and policies. Always a consummate networker and connector, compassionate champion, tireless worker and true friend, her presence will be missed, but the legacy of her outstanding work will continue and provide the foundation for future success of the VKC UCEDD.”

In retirement, McMillan, a Texas native who came to Nashville never intending to stay, plans to spend time with her husband, children and six grandchildren, travel and get in involved in community projects, like the Little Free Library at St. David’s Episcopal Church she and her son recently started supporting.

“I also look forward to staying involved in the disability advocacy community,” she said. “One of the things I am most excited about is helping build a national accreditation agency for inclusive higher education programs.”