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Message from Interim Chancellor about The Commons

Posted Tuesday, September 11, 2007.

Dear Colleagues:

I write to update you on the progress of The Commons, which formally opens in less than a year when we welcome the Class of 2012.

While it may seem early to be talking about next year’s class when this year’s freshmen are only beginning their academic journey, in fact, The Commons already represents a significant and transformative stage in Vanderbilt’s commitment to the education of our students.

Simply put, The Commons reflects Vanderbilt’s claim to leadership in the critical reconsideration of undergraduate education occurring at universities both in and outside the United States. Beginning with our first year students, Vanderbilt will create a system of residential College Halls for all undergraduates as the infrastructure of our distinguished 21st Century research university. To achieve that goal, it is important to think of The Commons — the first stage and foundation of that effort — as both a place and an idea.

As a place, The Commons is a newly constructed campus-within-a-campus for first-year students and residential faculty. It comprises ten first-year residences, called Houses. Nine of these are currently open to sophomores and juniors. Each will be home to an average of 165 students living mainly in double rooms. A new Commons Center, which has just opened to rave reviews, serves as both the community’s public square and its state-of-the-art dining facility. All spaces, both real and virtual, on the campus of The Commons — eleven new seminar classrooms, wireless computer technology, quads and lawns, and well-lit indoor gathering spaces — are designed to encourage community interaction. As you may have already seen, The Commons represents Vanderbilt’s most significant investment in a sustainable, “green” campus, with two of the buildings achieving LEED certification and five other buildings under consideration.

One of your colleagues, Professor Frank Wcislo of the Department of History, is the Dean of The Commons and Chair of the Commons Council. He reports directly to the Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. Beginning next June, Professor Wcislo will reside with his family in the Dean’s Residence, which will be both a family home and a crossroads for guests from the Commons, the university, and the larger community.

A Faculty Head will be the intellectual and community leader for each House. These faculty mentors have been appointed from all four of Vanderbilt’s undergraduate schools (Arts and Science, Blair, Engineering, Peabody), as well as the Divinity School. The first ten Faculty Heads of House are:

Jo-Anne Bachorowski, Associate Professor of Psychology (West House)
Greg Barz, Associate Professor of Musicology, Anthropology, and Music and Religion (North House)
Tony Brown, Associate Professor of Sociology, (Hank Ingram House)
Mark Dalhouse, Lecturer in History; and Director, Office of Active Citizenship and Service (East House)
Frank Dobson, Director, Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center, (Gillette House)
Chalene Helmuth, Senior Lecturer in Spanish and Portuguese (Sutherland House)
Paul Lim, Assistant Professor of Church History (Crawford House)
Tiffany Patterson, Associate Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies (Stambaugh House)
Ron Schrimpf, Professor of Electrical Engineering (Memorial House)
Sharon Shields, Professor in the Practice of Human and Organizational Development (Murray House)

Your colleagues who were selected to be the inaugural Heads of House make up a distinguished and diverse group of teachers and scholars, and I know they will be calling on every member of our learning community to participate in the programs and activities that will take place in The Commons. In addition, a tested and experienced group of educational staff professionals, who report to both Dean Wcislo and Dean of Students Mark Bandas, will collaborate with Faculty Heads and undergraduate students of the Houses to assure the academic growth, health, well-being, and intellectual liveliness of the commons community.

The Commons is more than a new campus, however. It is an idea, a philosophy of education and human potential. The Commons is a living and learning community of resident and affiliated faculty, first-year students, and educational professionals. The collaborative enterprise we are building will enhance the likelihood that first-year students will become intentional, proactive learners and, as such, citizens of a university empowered to influence its life.

As the new foundation of a complex, yet open, university community, The Commons will create social networks among students, faculty, and educational staff — in the House, in a Vanderbilt Visions group, through Commons programming, in affiliation with a Faculty Associate. These networks will empower undergraduate students, from their first year forward, to enrich and energize the educational enterprise of our university for all its constituents. The Commons community of first-year students, Faculty Heads of Houses, non-residential Faculty Associates, and talented educational professionals will create new collaborative patterns of learning and mentorship that will lessen the distinctions between “inside” and “outside” the classroom that exist at many universities.

Each House will possess a programming budget for activities planned by its residents. Informality will abound in The Commons: over a meal with a physician from Africa visiting her colleague, the Faculty Head of North House; in a group of volunteer tutors traveling to a Nashville neighborhood primary school; at a Friday night acoustic concert in The Commons Center with Blair students and faculty; at a Sunday brunch in the Dean’s Residence to meet successful engineering alumni; at a House picnic to celebrate an intramural baseball championship; at a chance encounter on the quad with an astrophysicist who has become a mentor and a friend; at a Spanish-language dinner table; at a late night conversation about race and identity with a visiting university lecturer.

We are not just building a new campus. We are building a new first-year undergraduate experience that complements and enriches the mission of discovery at the core of our research university. We will encourage our students to seek out the scholarly and artistic knowledge being created by our faculty. We will help our students learn how to become creators of that knowledge themselves, and to explore the common experience of diversity that people of differing backgrounds all share. These students want to acquire the skills required to be citizens and leaders in the diverse, democratic, and global communities of the 21st Century.

This is their challenge to us each year as they arrive at Vanderbilt. I ask you, as the faculty of Vanderbilt University, to respond to this challenge and embrace the task of learning and mentoring in The Commons.

Sincerely,
Nicholas S. Zeppos

Interim Chancellor
Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Professor of Law