Oliver C. Carmichael 1937-1946
To replace James H. Kirkland, the board named Oliver C. Carmichael, 46, then dean of the graduate school at Vanderbilt, as chancellor. This signaled a turning point for the university because Carmichael already had shown that he favored an institution more attuned to current problems than the older, more elitist Vanderbilt. As dean, he wanted more emphasis on graduate work and research and a more flexible curriculum.
These changes were opposed by many of the older faculty. Despite a protracted fight, Dean Carmichael backed down and saw few of his changes become reality.
After 1937, however, he had the big stick of the chancellorship. He proved to be a consummate politician, and in time he achieved most of his changes through persuasion rather than coercion.
Carmichael grew up on an Alabama farm. He graduated from Alabama Presbyterian College, received a master's degree at the University of Alabama, then was awarded a Rhodes scholarship. While Rhodes Scholars at Oxford, Carmichael and a fellow student, Harvie Branscomb, were among a group of American student volunteers who worked for Herbert Hoover's Commission for Relief in Belgium. For smuggling a politically sensitive letter from Cardinal Mercier through the German lines, the two were awarded the Medaille du Roi Albert, Medaille de la Reine (Belgium). Their friendship would shape Vanderbilt's destiny for nearly three decades.
After working as a YMCA employee in India and East Africa and doing a stint in the U.S. Army, Carmichael came home to be principal of a high school and later president of Alabama College, a small women's college.
Carmichael had an engaging personality and had become widely known in Southern academic circles as an expert on educational philosophy. These factors led to his being tapped to head the new graduate school at Vanderbilt.
Later, as chancellor, Carmichael's political skills resulted in what may be the greatest single achievement of his administration, the establishment of the Joint University Libraries serving Vanderbilt, Peabody and Scarritt College.
In 1945, Carmichael resigned to become head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The Vanderbilt board, following a lengthy search, picked a 51-year-old biblical scholar named Harvie Branscomb, then dean of the divinity school at Duke University.