July 24, 1998

Contact: Michael Schoenfeld

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Vanderbilt Chancellor Emeritus

Harvie Branscomb dies at 103

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Harvie Branscomb, a theologian and educator who, as Chancellor of Vanderbilt University from 1946 to 1963, put the institution on the path to recognition as a national university, died July 24 at his home in Nashville, Tennessee. Born in Huntsville, Alabama in 1894, he was 103 years old.

Branscomb was a major figure on the national and international educational scene. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman appointed him as the first chairman of the U.S. Advisory Commission for Education Exchange, which he led for four years. He later was named chairman of the Commission on Education and International Affairs of the American Council of Education (1955-58). Branscomb served as an educational consultant to the World Bank (1962-63), and he chaired the U.S. Commission for UNESCO (1963-65).

Branscomb remained active in the years after he retired from Vanderbilt. He was a member and vice-chairman of the U.S. Delegation to the Unesco General Conference in Paris in 1964. The following year he chaired the U.S. Delegation to the World Conference on the Eradication of Illiteracy held in Tehran. He traveled to Geneva as a member of the U.S. Delegation to the World Health Organization Assembly (1965 and 1966) and to Buenos Aires as chairman of the U.S. Delegation to the Conference of Ministers of Education and Ministers in Charge of Planning (1966).

"Faye and I are deeply saddened by the death of Harvie Branscomb," said Vanderbilt Chancellor Joe B. Wyatt. "He has been a source of great wisdom and counsel for me personally over the past 16 years and an integral part of Vanderbilt University for more than half a century.

"So much of Vanderbilt's success today is a direct result of Harvie's leadership. His influence is apparent in the University's facilities, its governance, the quality of its students and faculty, and in its research endeavors. Chancellor Branscomb realized early on the potential for Vanderbilt to contribute to the nation's education and research efforts and first directed the University toward becoming an institution of national stature, while upholding the University's tradition of civility and integrity."

Educated at Birmingham College (later named Birmingham Southern), Harvie Branscomb was the son of Lewis Capers Branscomb, a prominent Methodist minister. In 1914, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where he took First Honors in Theology and won a coveted Greek Prize. Branscomb began his career as a New Testament scholar, which required mastery of Greek, Hebrew and Latin. His primary contribution was the study of the cultural and religious roots of Christianity. He later authored four books on theology: "The Message of Jesus" (1925), "Jesus and the Law of Moses" (1930), "The Teachings of Jesus" (1931) and "The Gospel of Mark" (1937).

While Rhodes Scholars at Oxford, Branscomb and a fellow student, O.C. Carmichael, were among a group of American student volunteers who worked for Herbert Hoover's Commission for Relief in Belgium. The two smuggled a politically sensitive letter from Cardinal Mercier through the German lines, despite having the letter in their possession and being searched by German troops. This letter to Belgian priests encouraged resistance to the German invasion and was published in the London Times. For this they were awarded the Medaille du Roi Albert, Medaille de la Reine (Belgium). Carmichael was later Branscomb's predecessor as Chancellor of Vanderbilt.

After his return from Oxford, Branscomb served as a Lieutenant in the field artillery, but the war ended before he saw action. He then moved to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where met Margaret Vaughan, daughter of a judge in Greenville, Texas, who became his wife and partner for 71 years. While at SMU, Branscomb championed the right to academic freedom of another junior faculty member. In 1923 Branscomb took a year's leave of absence to complete coursework for a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University.

In 1925, Branscomb moved to Duke University, where he ultimately became dean of the Divinity School. While at Duke, he served briefly as Director of Libraries, and in 1940, under sponsorship of the Carnegie Corporation, he published "Teaching With Books," demonstrating that libraries were seen primarily as repositories for research materials, and were little used in class room teaching. He also was decorated by the Brazilian government with the Order of the Southern Cross for his work in reorganizing the National Library of Brazil, while serving as chairman of the American Library Association Mission to Brazil in 1945. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1931-32.

He also held honorary degrees from Brandeis University, Northwestern University, Southern Methodist University, Columbia University, Southwestern University, Birmingham-Southern and Hebrew Union College.

In 1946 Branscomb was appointed Vanderbilt's chief executive, only the fourth chancellor since the University's founding in 1873. Under his imaginative and forceful leadership, the University experienced dynamic growth in nearly every area and began the transition from an excellent regional institution to one of national prominence.

Branscomb is credited with transforming the selection process for nominees to the Board of Trust in order to attract leaders of national as well as local institutions. He recruited Harold Vanderbilt, great-grandson of founder Cornelius Vanderbilt, to membership on the Board of Trustees. In an effort to recruit and retain distinguished scholars and scientists to the University's faculty, Branscomb urged the Board to reinforce the University's commitment to academic freedom, raise faculty salaries and recruit distinguished faculty.

During his term as Chancellor, full-time student enrollment reached a then-record level, even as test scores and grades continued to rise. The University became a more diverse institution as students from around the country were drawn to Vanderbilt, and in 1952 the University opened its doors to minority students before the other private universities in the South did so.

By the time of Branscomb's retirement, the number of full-time faculty had doubled, faculty salaries had almost tripled (in current dollars) and the number of buildings on campus had more than doubled. The University's annual budget increased by more than 400 percent, and the endowment increased from $38 million in 1946 to $88 million in 1963 (market value). He rebuilt the Medical School, which had been recommended for closure but became one of the outstanding institutions in the nation.

Between 1953 and 1962, the schools of Engineering, Divinity and Law all acquired their own buildings and 15 new residence halls were built, more than doubling the number of buildings that existed on the campus prior to his tenure. In 1963, Branscomb's final year as Chancellor, "Vanderbilt for the first time ranked in the top 20 private universities in the United States," according to the book "Gone With the Ivy," a biography of the University written by Distinguished Professor of History Paul Conkin.

Branscomb maintained an active interest in University affairs in the years after his retirement. Honored with the title Chancellor Emeritus, he maintained an office in Kirkland Hall and regularly attended University functions. He particularly enjoyed the celebration of his 100th birthday in December of 1994 at the residence of Chancellor and Mrs. Wyatt.

Chancellor Emeritus Alexander Heard, who succeeded Branscomb as chancellor, said, "Chancellor Branscomb was both a hard man to follow and an easy man to follow. His enormous achievements set a standard dauntingly high for a successor, yet he and Mrs. Branscomb were incomparably hospitable to Jean and me from our first day at Vanderbilt, and our friendship and gratitude remained ever after. Chancellor Branscomb brought Vanderbilt to new levels of recognition, quality and possibility."

Branscomb is survived by three sons, Harvie Branscomb Jr., attorney in Corpus Christi, Texas; Dr. Ben Branscomb, distinguished professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Alabama Medical School in Birmingham, Ala.; and Lewis M. Branscomb, emeritus professor of public policy and corporate management at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. and member of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust. He is also survived by his brother Lewis C. Branscomb, emeritus professor at Ohio State University; two sisters, Dr. Louise Branscomb and Mrs. Charles L. Dill, both of Birmingham, Ala.; nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held Monday, July 27 at Vanderbilt University's Benton Chapel at 4 p.m. Visitation will be held at Tillett Lounge in the Divinity School from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the Branscomb family has asked that memorial donations be made to Vanderbilt University.


Vanderbilt University is a private research university of approximately 5,900 undergraduates and 4,300 graduate and professional students. Founded in 1873, the University comprises 10 schools, a public policy institute, a distinguished medical center and The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. Vanderbilt offers undergraduate programs in the liberal arts and sciences, education and human development, engineering and music, and a full range of graduate and professional degrees.

For more news about Vanderbilt, visit the News and Public Affairs home page on the Internet at http://www.vanderbilt.edu/News.

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Document updated July 24, 1998.