October 5, 2001

Levitt named director of Kennedy Center

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Levitt named director of Kennedy Center

Pat R. Levitt, Ph.D. has been named director of the John F. Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development at Vanderbilt. Though Levitt’s appointment will not officially begin until June 1, 2002, in the interim he will act as a special consultant to facilitate the Kennedy Center’s recently announced transition to a university-wide research center.

“Vanderbilt is very fortunate to have recruited a national leader in the field of brain development,” said Dr. Harry R. Jacobson, vice chancellor for Health Affairs. “Under Pat Levitt’s direction, the Kennedy Center’s already stellar contributions to the study of behavioral and developmental disabilities will be further enhanced by a more comprehensive biomedical approach.”

Provost Thomas G. Burish also had high praise for Levitt. “Dr. Levitt is a highly regarded researcher, accomplished administrator, and gifted intellectual leader who is truly committed to creating an interdisciplinary program of the first rank at the Kennedy Center,” he said. “We are delighted that he will be joining Vanderbilt.”

Levitt comes to Vanderbilt from the University of Pittsburgh where he is Thomas Detre Professor and chair of Neurobiology and co-director of the Center for Neuroscience. He received his Ph.D. in Neurobiology from University of California, San Diego in 1978. Over the last several years, his research has focused on the interplay of genetics and environment—including the gestational and early-nurturing environment—in the development of the mammalian brain.

Recognition of Levitt’s leadership in the field is reflected in his inclusion by the MacArthur Foundation in its Research Network on Early Experience in Brain Development. In a similar manner but on a local scale, centralization of the Kennedy Center, which became effective July 1, will bring together a network of researchers and educators from Peabody College, the Medical Center, and the College of Arts & Science to focus on the study of developmental disabilities. The unification will create synergy from disparate areas of expertise, including Pediatrics, Radiology, Psychiatry, and Neurology.

“The leadership of Vanderbilt decided that the Kennedy Center could act as a ‘seed’ for stimulating an interdisciplinary environment for investigators to come together,” Levitt said. “It’s one of the first universities to make such an effort, bringing together insights from basic biology to psychology to physiology that can be translated into new initiatives for people with developmental disabilities. I’m very excited about this opportunity.”

Dennis G. Hall, Ph.D., associate provost for Research, expressed enthusiasm about the changes. “Associate Vice Chancellor Lee Limbird and I have enjoyed working with Camilla Benbow, dean of Peabody College, and acting director Steve Camarata during the last 15 months to reconstitute the Kennedy Center as a university-wide research center, “ he said. “We are thrilled that Pat Levitt will be joining us as director and we look forward to working with him.”

New partnerships and collaborations are already being forged. The Kennedy Center is an integral part of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute and was instrumental in organizing a national conference on neurogenomics held at Vanderbilt in May.

The Center is also a partner in the new Down Syndrome Clinic, which opened in June as part of the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital Outpatient Center. There, patients and families have access to a multi-disciplinary team of physicians, educators, psychologists, and therapists specializing in the treatment and care of children with Down syndrome.

The Kennedy Center was created in 1965 at Peabody College, equally the product of a national vision led by President John F. Kennedy to “make the remote reaches of the mind accessible” and a Peabody College vision to conduct research on development and developmental disabilities to engender, as the Center’s founding director, Nicholas Hobbs said, “a competent and caring society.”

The 1979 merger of Peabody College with Vanderbilt University enabled that vision to be expanded to more minds and new disciplines. Twenty years ago, the Center’s researchers were mostly faculty in Peabody’s departments of Psychology and Human Development and Special Education. Today, more than 100 Vanderbilt faculty from 17 departments participate: 34 percent Peabody, 46 percent Medicine, 19 percent Arts & Science, 1 percent Nursing.

In light of its new status as a transinstitutional research center, the Kennedy Center will change from being an administrative unit of Peabody College, with institutional support from Peabody’s budget, to a university-wide administrative unit, with institutional support shared by Peabody, Medicine, and Arts & Science.

“Increased opportunities for collaboration throughout the campus will enable us to do even more as a resource and center of discovery for children with mental disabilities,” said Dr. Steven G. Gabbe, dean of the School of Medicine. “As the parent of a child who has been challenged with significant learning disabilities, I can think of no one with better talents to lead this effort than Pat Levitt. He has a unique understanding of and direct experience in the kinds of research and outreach necessary for us to do all we can to help these children.”

The change reflects a great moment for the Kennedy Center and for Vanderbilt, said Richard C. McCarty, Ph.D., dean of the college of Arts & Science. “The faculty in Arts & Science are excited about their new role in the expanded Kennedy Center and I believe Pat Levitt is the perfect person to maintain excellence in the programs that have already been developed, and to take the center in new directions, to even greater heights.”

As a university-wide center for excellence, the Kennedy Center will fall under the joint jurisdiction of the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs and the Office of the Provost. Levitt, as the Center’s director, will report to both the associate vice chancellor for Research at the Medical Center and the associate provost for Research at Peabody College.

Provost Burish thanked the search committee that recruited Levitt.

“The members of the search committee, ably led by professors Dan Reschly and Elaine Sanders-Bush, were successful in identifying a number of strong candidates, attracting them to Vanderbilt, and helping to recruit Dr. Levitt and his family,” he said. “I am most grateful to them for their hard and successful work.”

The annual State of the Kennedy Center Address will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 16, at 4 p.m. in Room 241 of the Kennedy Center/MRL building on the Peabody College campus. For information, call 322-8240.