Chancellor Daniel Diermeier began his tenure on July 1, 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic—joining a long line of Vanderbilt leaders entrusted with navigating steep obstacles while keeping focus squarely on the university’s mission and long-term success.
During his first year in office, Diermeier launched Destination Vanderbilt, a bold commitment to recruit and hire renowned faculty at an accelerated pace. He established the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy, which seeks to elevate evidence-based reasoning in the national discourse. He also oversaw the launch of Vandy United, a $300 million campaign dedicated to Vanderbilt student-athletes, athletics programs and Commodore fans, the largest undertaking of its kind in the university’s history.
Vanderbilt’s chancellors have long guided its growth—from a fledgling regional university affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, to the renowned global institution for education, research and discovery it is today.
Landon C. Garland (1875–1893) helped select the first faculty, arranged the curriculum and set university policies. Under his plan, Vanderbilt would have four departments: Biblical; Law; Literature, Science and Philosophy; and Medical. Steeped in Scottish moral philosophy, he believed the development of character was the central purpose of a true university.
James H. Kirkland (1893–1937) guided Vanderbilt to rebuild after a devastating fire in 1905 consumed Main Building and all its contents; it was later renamed Kirkland Hall in his honor. He navigated the university’s separation from the Methodist Church in 1914, a result of the Board of Trust’s dispute with church bishops over who would appoint university trustees. He also fostered numerous projects designed to raise educational standards in the South.
Oliver C. Carmichael (1937–1946) championed advances in graduate studies and research as well as a more flexible curriculum. He created the Joint University Library—a coalition of Vanderbilt, Peabody College and Scarritt College—to serve all three institutions.
Harvie Branscomb (1946–1963) aspired for Vanderbilt to be not just a great Southern university, but a national leader among higher education institutions. He encouraged racial integration and open admissions at a time when higher education in the South was strictly segregated. Vanderbilt was elected to the elite Association of American Universities during his tenure.
Alexander Heard (1963–1982) presided during a particularly turbulent period in American history. Because of his proactive engagement with student leaders and his defense of the open forum, Vanderbilt witnessed peaceful demonstrations instead of major unrest. Heard lobbied to place the first woman, Mary Jane Werthan, BA’29, MA’35, on the Board of Trust and to add a cohort of young alumni to the board to offer a youthful perspective. He oversaw the addition of the Owen Graduate School of Management and Vanderbilt’s mergers with Peabody College and the Blair School of Music.
Joe B. Wyatt (1982–2000) utilized information technology as a strategic resource for accelerating the university’s global prominence in education, research and patient care. He raised Vanderbilt’s profile by leading a national effort to improve elementary and secondary education in the nation’s public and private schools. Under Wyatt, Vanderbilt acquired or built one-third of the current campus—more than 4 million square feet of mostly new construction.
Gordon Gee (2000–2007) renewed Vanderbilt’s commitment to admitting the most qualified students regardless of their ability to pay. Under his leadership, Vanderbilt became one of the most selective institutions in the country and saw one of its most rapid increases in student body diversity. The campus landscape changed visibly, with more than $700 million in new facilities and the start of construction on The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons, the residential college community for first-year students. Gee also placed a special emphasis on Vanderbilt’s engagement with the larger community.
Nicholas S. Zeppos (2008–2019) successfully guided the university through the 2008 global financial crisis. He implemented Opportunity Vanderbilt, a pioneering initiative to fund loan-free tuition for students regardless of their background or financial means. The Ingram Commons opened, beginning Vanderbilt’s robust and enduring residential college system. Zeppos oversaw the separation of the university and Vanderbilt University Medical Center in 2016, positioning both institutions for long-term success. And the university launched FutureVU, its campus development plan to align Vanderbilt’s physical spaces with its academic mission.