Pamela King Ginsburg’s first day as a law school student turned out to be even tougher than she expected. It was almost as if she had “PICK ME” stamped on her forehead. In class after class that day, professors singled her out as the very first student they called on. By the time her Civil Procedure class rolled around in mid-afternoon, Ginsburg’s nerves were frazzled–but sure enough, the young professor with the wild, curly black hair called on her, too, asking her to state the facts of Pennoyer v. Neff.
“Some people gasped and others snickered,” Ginsberg remembers. “I threw up my hands, told him I did not understand the case, and suggested he call on somebody else. He was visibly stunned by the impertinence of the first student he ever called on.”
That August day in 1987 was not only Ginsburg’s first day as a law student–it was also Nicholas Zeppos’ first day as an assistant professor. And neither could have known that, because her name just happened to appear at the top of the second column on the student roll, every professor had zeroed in on her as the first victim. Ginsburg’s law school career could have been off to a rocky start, but Zeppos, she remembers, “did not hold it against me. Months later, we had a good laugh when he told me he had learned of my plight that day and was sympathetic.”
Ginsburg, JD’90, is now an attorney with the Cincinnati firm Ulmer & Berne. “I think his gifts as a professor,” she says, “were his ability to accept students as humans with both strengths and foibles, his genuine interest in our development as lawyers, and his sense of humor and knack of never taking himself too seriously.”
Nicholas Zeppos has matured and evolved during his 21 years at Vanderbilt, but he has not lost the attributes that characterized him that first day teaching law school. He has climbed the academic ladder from assistant professor to associate dean for research and faculty development at the Law School, to associate provost to provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. He has served as Vanderbilt’s first vice chancellor for institutional planning and advancement, as interim chancellor and now chancellor. That’s just the condensed version. He has written widely about legislation, administrative law and professional responsibility; earned national renown as a scholar; won multiple teaching awards; and shaken the trees for scholarship money.
Universities like Vanderbilt do not often choose their top leader from within their own ranks. Vanderbilt has done it only once before: 71 years ago, when Oliver Carmichael ascended from dean of the graduate school to chancellor.
Yet Zeppos has been so much at the center of every major initiative at Vanderbilt in the last decade, it’s difficult to imagine Vanderbilt having made any other choice. He has spearheaded innovative efforts in undergraduate admissions and financial aid, the planning process for The Commons and College Halls of Vanderbilt, the Strategic Academic Planning Group, and development of new programs in neuroscience, law and economics; Jewish studies; and medicine, health and society. He has overseen the university’s Shape the Future fundraising campaign, helping raise more than $1.5 billion more than two years ahead of schedule.
New plans are on the drawing board for initiatives in the environment, religion, health care, and life sciences and engineering.
“In my time at Vanderbilt, I’ve known professors who are brilliant intellectuals. And I’ve known administrators who possess a gift for making complex institutions run well,” says John C.P. Goldberg, now associate dean for research at Vanderbilt Law School and one of the faculty members to whom Zeppos has been both a mentor and friend.
“What makes Nick almost unique is that he is exceptionally able on both scores. He is a first-class academic and a masterful leader.”
Zeppos peppers his conversations with phrases like “wouldn’t it be great if … .” He pounds the table frequently as he talks, in a way that reveals enthusiasm rather than anger. His natural exuberance masks a Midwesterner’s ingrained modesty, a deftness for turning any conversation around to focus on the other person or on the institution.
“I think I’m a pretty good lawyer, a pretty good professor, and I hope to be a pretty good chancellor,” he allows. “But I don’t like being the center of attention. I love doing all the work that comes with being chancellor. But there’s nothing inherently important about me. Vanderbilt is so much more than the chancellor.”
“Anyone who meets Nick will immediately observe two things about him,” says Goldberg. “First is his love of knowledge. I’ve spent my life around academics and have never met anyone who is more widely read and more intellectually curious. Second, there is his love of humanity. Most of us like to tell the people we meet about ourselves. Nick is more interested in learning what is going on in others’ lives and minds. Really, these two qualities are the same one–he is insatiably interested in the world around him.”
Now a youthful 53, Zeppos grew up in Milwaukee, the youngest of three brothers in a family just one generation removed from its Greek origins. His grandfather, who was born in Athens, left for America with his four brothers and never returned.
“He and others in our family came through Ellis Island. There was a big migration west to Detroit and Chicago among Greeks,” Zeppos says. “I’m sure they knew somebody in Milwaukee and went where the jobs were.” The area was Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs country by the time Nicholas Zeppos came on the scene. He developed an early interest in both sports and history. “I love history, and I love the history of civilization,” he says. “I thought I would teach history.” At the University of Wisconsin, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1976, with a history major and a growing interest in the law. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin Law School, served as editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Law Review, and was outstanding graduate of his class. He thought he would be the kind of lawyer who helps people who most need it. Zeppos met his future wife, Lydia Howarth, in Madison, where she developed her skills as an academic editor. They married in Washington, D.C., when Zeppos was practicing law and Howarth was working at National Geographic. “We lived in Dupont Circle, and I would walk Lydia to work and then get on the subway and head down to the Justice Department,” Zeppos remembers. “One of our regular ‘romantic dates’ was meeting after work at the Washington Monument and then running home together along the mall and through Rock Creek.” Busy with their careers, they decided to elope. “Eloping was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” Zeppos says cheerfully, “especially since it was with Lydia. I got married relatively late. I was 31. By then we had both lived away from our families for some time and were working all the time. We thought, why spend a lot of money and a lot of time?” Zeppos remembers filing a brief in the Second Circuit that day and meeting Lydia and her “bridesmaids” at the Gallery Place Metro station. They headed off to get married and were back at work the next day. Zeppos discusses the practice of law with passion, crediting great mentors along the way. He first practiced in Washington, D.C., at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, and then worked for more than five years at the Justice Department, taking a substantial cut in pay to go from private practice to the government. “I was in court all the time. Each case was like a challenging law school exam, and when I stood up to argue I was privileged to say, ‘I represent the United States of America.’ That was an honor and well worth the cut in pay. I learned so much and am grateful for being able to represent our nation in court.” Among his law career highlights: “Arguing before then-Judge Antonin Scalia was an intense and demanding experience. Judge Richard Posner taught a cerebral seminar, and then-Judge Stephen Breyer was the consummate and reflective professor but cared deeply about the real world. “I’m intellectually drawn to the law and its intersection with politics, history, philosophy, psychology, biology, sociology,” he adds. “It is the ultimate multidisciplinary area, yet it has a practical side.” But he still felt called to teach, and in 1987 he headed south to Vanderbilt with Lydia and their 8-month-old son, Benjamin. “I had never been in Nashville. I found that Vanderbilt mirrored the wonderful things about the region: community, civility and warmth. There’s something very special about this region of the country and its sense of being nice to each other as opposed to everything being zero-sum and dog-eat-dog.
“People want to be here. Vanderbilt bears a lot of the qualities and characteristics of this region, and I like that. It distinguishes us,” he says, speaking like someone who has just gone on the local chamber of commerce board.
“It’s one of the most entrepreneurial, creative cities, and it’s a lot more interesting than cities where other universities are located. Faculty love it.”
His first year at Vanderbilt, Zeppos claims, his students gave him teaching evaluations that were “brutal.” But, he adds, “Student evaluations are pretty reliable indicators. There’s a myth that they’re not good predictors, or that you can inflate grades and get your evaluations up. That doesn’t work. Where you really get evaluated is when you read your students’ examinations. The ultimate feedback is when you read a great set of examinations.”
By the time John Goldberg joined Vanderbilt’s law faculty in 1995 as an entry-level professor, he says, “Nick was already one of the school’s leading lights. Although he was incredibly busy with his own work and with the life of the law school, he was a generous, constructive and inspiring mentor. I have vivid and fond memories of the hours I spent as Nick listened patiently to my half-baked ideas, then steered me–sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently–toward a better way of thinking through a problem.”
Zeppos is proud to have raised his children in Nashville.
“This is a wonderful community for families. My only disappointment was that our second son, Nicholas, could not be born at Vanderbilt. They were on diversion and had no room for us.” Now, he says, “We’ll have at least two freshmen beginning at Vanderbilt this fall who were with my younger son at Vanderbilt’s preschool since age 1.”
What can those students expect with Zeppos as their chancellor? Student debt is clearly a top priority, and the university is stepping up efforts to make Vanderbilt accessible. What parents care about for their college-bound children, Zeppos believes, is not only the intellectual and academic challenge of academia, but the kind of adults they will become–ethically, emotionally and socially.
“That’s what Vanderbilt has always cared about, and that’s what our strategy and mission are.” Beginning this fall all first-year students will live in The Commons, Vanderbilt’s first step in making residential life at the heart of the Vanderbilt experience. “We have small classes and great teachers who are committed to the undergraduate experience,” Zeppos says. “Why not build on that? “My hope is that all these great youngsters in America–rich, poor, black, white, north, south, east, west–will say, ‘I’ve been blessed with the ability to achieve in school. I want to be a leader. I’m a hard worker. I should look at that place called Vanderbilt.’ And we work with them to develop their human potential.”
He believes the university needs to examine its role in educating the next generation of scholars, scientists and researchers and how Vanderbilt’s undergraduate, graduate and professional schools can feed into each other, and that graduate studies deserve more emphasis and more resources.
“It goes back to our core mission and aspirations: research, discovery, teaching and healing,” he says. “We are a research university, and we want to take a more prominent place in training the future leaders in research, policy, and at the great educational institutions of the world.”
Ever the optimist, Zeppos publicly tells audiences that Vanderbilt will go to a bowl game this year “absolutely. I don’t make predictions–I make promises.” He embraces wholeheartedly the integration of athletics into student life begun under his predecessor, Gordon Gee. ”
An important part of leadership in America is athletics,” he says. “Some years a third of our freshmen are athletic-team captains. Part of what distinguishes Vanderbilt is our sense of balance. The kids have multiple interests–they are interesting intellectually and also service-oriented community leaders. Athletics is a critical part of our culture and our balance.”
His ability to step out of a scholar’s comfort zone and look at the university’s needs as a whole is part of what has elevated the former professor to the halls of Kirkland. In 2001, Gordon Gee appointed Zeppos as Vanderbilt’s first vice chancellor for institutional planning and advancement. Up to that point, Zeppos says, “I had not been involved with fundraising at all. I think the reason some provosts don’t become president is that they don’t enjoy it.
“I always emphasize that the word philanthropy doesn’t mean ‘give me money.’ It means ‘love of humanity.’ I’ve had wonderful training, from the most junior development officers at Vanderbilt to our most senior people. “I’ve worked with Martha Ingram and Monroe Carell Jr. and other fabulous philanthropists. What I’ve learned is that people who have been blessed with resources want to make a difference in somebody else’s life and in society.”
Ingram is chairman of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, which unanimously elected Zeppos as Vanderbilt’s eighth chancellor in March. “Chancellor Zeppos is both a visionary and a pragmatist,” she says. “He is a deeply ethical person whose guiding principle is, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’”
Zeppos refers to universities as a kind of utopia “of intellectuals who don’t think it has to be a race to the bottom.” His speeches often draw on his love of the ancient classics and of history. “I like to refer to things that I know about, that are important to me, because I think my only value as a speaker is to talk about things that are in my heart and in my mind.” He has a richly textured voice and a sincerity that makes you believe Vanderbilt really can and does change the world. This is important business, he is saying, even though he seems to be incapable of taking himself too seriously.
Vanderbilt is in the final 30 months of its university-wide Shape the Future campaign, stretching toward a goal of $1.75 billion. During a recent address, his first since being named chancellor to a crowd of development and alumni relations staffers at Vanderbilt, the room is hushed as Zeppos outlines the university’s ambitious goals and lofty mission.
“There are challenges ahead,” he says. “I think we’ll meet them, just like my predecessors met them. We’re one of the greatest universities in the world, part of a very small group of Research 1 universities that educates undergraduates. It allows us to focus on leadership and educating the whole person. I believe very deeply that it really matters for Vanderbilt to be here, to thrive, and to have the resources to heal and teach and discover.”
Somewhere in the crowd a cell phone shatters the quiet with a jaunty tinkle. A crimson-faced staffer scrambles for her purse.
“Is that the ice cream truck?” Zeppos asks gleefully.
In the face of a weak stock market, a housing industry in crisis, and a long list of other economic woes making headlines every day, Vanderbilt is about to bite off a very big obligation in scholarship assistance. The Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital is undertaking a $203 million expansion. The athletics department has just announced a planned $50 million in facilities upgrades. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“I graduated from law school in 1979,” Zeppos says. “I have lived through stagflation and hyperinflation. I’ve lived through probably the highest unemployment since the Great Depression. I’ve lived through recession, stock market crash, the insolvency of the American banking system. I’ve seen the Internet bubble, I’ve seen 9/11. I’ve seen wars–popular and unpopular. I’ve seen the subprime crisis. And I think of Chancellor Kirkland and Chancellor Carmichael dealing with wars and depression and plagues and epidemics. I think of Chancellor Heard during the Civil Rights Era and the Vietnam war, the oil embargo, hyperinflation, the Peabody merger. These great institutions endure and lead.”
Nicholas Zeppos is clearly enjoying the challenge.
“I plan on finishing my career here,” he says.
One of the perks of being chancellor, he adds, is the option of being buried on the Vanderbilt campus.
“I’m thinking 50-yard line.”
© 2015 Vanderbilt University
Conversation guidelines: Vanderbilt Magazine welcomes your thoughts, stories and information related to this article. Please stay on topic and be respectful of others. Keep the conversation appropriate for interested readers across the map.