Daniel Diermeier

Investiture Address by Chancellor Daniel Diermeier
Vanderbilt University
April 9, 2022

Chairman Evans, trustees, Provost Raver, students, distinguished faculty, esteemed alumni, Vanderbilt staff, and honored guests:

We gather today as heirs and stewards of a great legacy.

One hundred and forty-nine years ago, with the guns of the Civil War still resonant, Cornelius Vanderbilt and his wife made what was then the largest charitable donation in America’s history.

Their gift helped realize the vision of a Methodist bishop who imagined using education to bind the wounds of a divided country. He sought to create the great university of the South, one comparable to the venerable institutions of the East. And so, Vanderbilt was born.

We all know this tale. It is our origin story—often recited, often remembered. But recalling the moment of our founding nearly 150 years ago should give us pause.

Why was a university the best solution for healing the wounds of a deeply divided nation? Was there no other, better use of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s million dollars? I don’t think so.

Vanderbilt’s founders understood the unique power of a university to bring people of opposing viewpoints together in common purpose.

They understood the importance of creating the right conditions to search for the true, the good and the beautiful.

They understood a university’s capacity for bringing new ideas to seemingly intractable problems … for generating not only answers, but also hope.

And they saw that a university encourages and develops the best in human beings. After Abraham Lincoln implored Americans to be moved by the better angels of their nature, Vanderbilt’s founders knew that a university was where those angels could spread their wings.

In the decades that followed, as it broadened its scope and extended its reach, Vanderbilt became that great university of the South.

And as time passed … students, faculty and administrators who walked these grounds before us dared bolder things and drove Vanderbilt ever onward.

One of those students was the Reverend James Lawson, an American hero who, in changing the world, also changed Vanderbilt.

Over time, Vanderbilt became something more: a globally recognized university for which “of the South” was no longer a necessary qualifier, as Senator Alexander pointed out in his kind remarks.

Today, on the cusp of our sesquicentennial, we are, by all measures, stronger than ever. For this, we owe a debt of gratitude to the eight chancellors who came before me, all bringing their unique personalities and abilities to serve this great university.

I am particularly grateful to my immediate predecessors, Interim Chancellor Susan R. Wente and Chancellor Emeritus Nicholas S. Zeppos. Thanks in large part to their efforts, and the efforts of many people in this room, Vanderbilt was prepared to weather the storm of COVID and emerge even stronger.

We are enrolling our most qualified and diverse classes of undergraduates.

World-class scholars, innovators and thinkers make up what is the most expert and accomplished faculty in our history.

Financially, we have never been more secure.

And our research programs have never been more robust. Earlier this week, we announced that, together with our partners at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, we have, for the first time, received over one billion dollars in annual external research funding.

This is indeed a proud moment in our history.

But as I said when I was first welcomed to Vanderbilt, we are proud … but not satisfied.

Having outgrown our days of following the example of other institutions, and no longer looking over our shoulders to see what others think about us, we now have the opportunity to lead—to define The Great University for the 21st century.

As is so often the case, the path to greatness lies in knowing who we are. It lies in a clarity of purpose that guides us … and in the values that ground us. Purpose and values endure, but they need to be reimagined and newly understood in every age.

We are living in difficult times. A global pandemic has been followed by the greatest threat to peace, prosperity and the global order since the Second World War. Our country continues to be divided ... and, as Provost Raver noted, urgent and persistent problems hunger for solutions.

Just as it was nearly a century and a half ago, Vanderbilt must be a force for unity, invention, opportunity and hope.

We can still help elicit the best from human beings. We can still be a sorely needed source of solutions and optimism. We can still be a beacon of possibility, casting a welcome light on humanity’s road ahead.

And so, I submit that, in our time, a great university must do three things:

It must protect and encourage civil discourse and intellectual diversity.

It must maximize its capacity for research, discovery and innovation.

And it must drive an inclusive prosperity in its neighboring communities and in the wider world.

Even a few years ago, it would have been strange to call for universities to be protectors of civil discourse and intellectual diversity. Because that has long been their role by definition.

Universities are, by design, where we come to debate and probe the questions that matter to us most. And our explorations are richest and most fruitful when they are informed by a wide range of viewpoints.

But this very lifeblood of a university—and with it, a free and thinking society—is under threat as the culture wars encroach on our campuses and actors at both ends of the political spectrum politicize our conversations.

Threats to open inquiry and free expression are coming from outside of universities and from within them, as misguided legislation seeks to control what ideas can be taught and discussed, as intolerance of certain viewpoints on campus leads to speakers being disinvited and shouted down, and as some students and faculty keep their opinions to themselves for fear of backlash and censure.

This state of affairs is corrosive for a university and antithetical to what we do and stand for.

Maintaining a culture of open discourse and free expression is essential if universities are to fulfill their mission.

Our purpose lies in providing students with a transformative education, while providing faculty with an environment where they can engage in pathbreaking research. This requires a climate where students and faculty can feel free to debate complex issues and challenge conventional wisdom.

Vanderbilt’s campus, like all college campuses, must be a proving ground where ideas can be tested and prevailing thought challenged. Because diverse perspectives form the rich soil from which insight and impact grow.

This is why, at Vanderbilt, we embrace a long tradition of making the campus a place where open discourse and free expression thrive.

Alexander Heard, Vanderbilt’s fifth chancellor, spoke often and eloquently about free speech and the proper role of a university.

Amid the turbulence of the 1960s, when our campus hosted speakers as diverse and controversial as Allen Ginsberg, Stokely Carmichael and Strom Thurmond, Chancellor Heard explained the university’s commitment this way: “A university’s obligation is not to protect students from ideas, but rather to expose them to ideas, and to help make them capable of handling, and, hopefully, having ideas.”

More than five decades later, we live by the same principle.

Just last year, our Faculty Senate passed a resolution for the university to provide “an environment for open inquiry and the vigorous exploration and free expression of ideas.”

As a university, we must be committed and uncompromising in maintaining an environment where free expression and diversity of thought can flourish.

One important, but often underappreciated, way we can do this, is by maintaining a position of principled neutrality on general political and social matters—matters that do not affect the functioning of the university directly.

This important principle has largely been forgotten. Many of our peers routinely take political positions while speaking on behalf of their entire university communities. They are weighing in on foreign policy … energy policy … high-profile jury verdicts … and more—all topics worthy of concern, but unrelated to the functioning of a university.

I understand the impulse to speak up. We are living in extraordinary times. Every week seems to bring a new crisis demanding that each of us take a stand, and everyone wants to know which side you’re on.

But a university’s paramount—its essential—mission is to provide the conditions for transformative education and pathbreaking research.

When a university takes any position—when it sends a signal that one point of view is preferable over another—it creates, one public statement at a time, a climate inconsistent with its purpose.

That purpose is not to settle debates … but to foster an atmosphere in which students and faculty can explore even the most difficult and complex issues.

Chancellor Heard put it this way:

“The social values of open forum and free inquiry cannot be realized without the political neutrality of the university as an institution, except where the university itself is the issue.”

Our stance should not be confused with a lack of values.

A university must always proceed from clear values. But its values should be understood as the necessary preconditions for fulfilling its mission, not as an imposition of one opinion on the university community. Principled neutrality is intentional restraint in the service of our mission.

And so we must be vigorous, firm and uncompromising in upholding the principles of academic freedom and free expression. But we must practice principled restraint in making comments on general matters of policy that, intentionally or unintentionally, undermine these very foundations of free expression to which a university must be committed.

These commitments require clarity of thought and firmness of character. And they are tested every day.

But they are essential. By virtue of our mission, we owe it to our students and faculty to protect and encourage open discourse and free expression.

We also owe this service to society … Because as our media, legislative bodies and other traditional forums fall victim to polarization, the academy might be the last, best place where American citizens can learn to coexist, converse and cooperate with people whose views differ from their own.

If we can productively negotiate our differences in our classrooms, lecture halls and student residences … and if we can send more people into society with the skills and sensibilities to build community with those whose perspectives oppose theirs … then there is hope yet for the American experiment.

Diversity in thought and the unfettered exchange of ideas are also essential and necessary to the second task that a great 21st century university must undertake: It must maximize its capacity for research, discovery and innovation.  

I doubt I have to convince anyone in this room that breakthroughs in university laboratories have, again and again over the last century, fueled human progress and improved the quality of life.

We need look no further than the COVID-19 pandemic, for a powerful example: The reason America was ready to meet SARS-CoV-2 head-on, with rapidly developed vaccines, was because a close network of investigators at universities and research institutes—including our colleagues here at Vanderbilt and at the medical center—had conducted foundational research for many years before.

More than ever, the world needs the solutions that research universities can uniquely provide. The challenges humanity faces—in ensuring that every person thrives on a planet with finite resources, in creating prosperity for all, in defeating authoritarianism, in preparing for the next pandemic and more—require that our innovative engines do more in a shorter time.

Federal funding of basic research at universities has an unparalleled history of success. It encourages a rich variety of ideas that ultimately lead to breakthroughs—discoveries which can produce not only inventions, but whole new industries.

In the process, government funding also supports the education of our next generations of innovators and scholars.

The public often thinks of Silicon Valley as the place where innovation happens. But it was university researchers who laid the groundwork for many modern miracles, including seatbelts, MRIs, web browsers, fluoridated toothpaste, genome sequencing, LEDs, various cancer treatments and, yes, Google.

A recent study on the economic impact of science found that one dollar invested in academic research produces, conservatively, an average of five dollars in direct social productivity benefits and as much as twenty dollars when accounting for broader effects, such as general improvements in global health.

Just as important, today’s innovations can trigger additional innovations, or a previously unimagined technological leap—perhaps decades later, in an altogether different discipline, and often with dramatic social and commercial benefits. 

And of course, discovery and innovation are not restricted to our laboratories.

Every day, our faculty and students explore all corners of history, literature, language, art and more, contributing invaluable knowledge to the great, never-complete mosaic that is humanity’s understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe.

Our mission is a noble mission. And we deserve to be proud. But, again, we should not be satisfied.  

Vanderbilt’s founders understood that a university serves a common purpose. Its work—its knowledge and innovations—must speak to the great challenges of its time, and particularly those in its own community. And it is here where universities can do more.

Too often, universities have shied away from engaging with their communities and have instead retreated to the proverbial ivory tower.

Vanderbilt is no exception. In the 1990s, Nashville’s mayor, Phil Bredesen—in Sports Illustrated of all places!—famously described Vanderbilt as, “a big gorilla that has held itself apart from the community.”

Regrettably, Vanderbilt has at times earned such criticism.

At some moments in our history, we viewed ourselves as a university in Nashville, but not of and for Nashville. A “magnolia curtain” separated us from our community, our city and our state. 

Those days are well behind us. Vanderbilt is not, and must never again be, a place apart. A vital university depends on a thriving community, and vice versa.

Today, we are literally re-shaping the campus to reflect our connection to the community, with construction on West End Avenue and elsewhere designed to erase the boundary between university and city.

But our connection to Nashville and Tennessee is more than architectural. We have for many years been a reliable economic engine for the region, generating billions in economic activity, tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in tax revenue.

We have built robust programs and infrastructure that support technological and cultural advancement in our region, including our Center for Technology Transfer and Commercialization … the Wond’ry … and programs from the Owen School and the School of Engineering that support entrepreneurship.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center has provided world-class health care to our community for many decades.

And we have been a source of joy and—sometimes—heartbreak for all fans and supporters of Vanderbilt athletics.

All of this is a prelude to the civic collaboration to come. For this is our third task: to be an engine of innovation and growth that benefits all members of our community.

Vanderbilt and Nashville are coming of age together. As we consider what we want Vanderbilt to be 50 years from now, our relationships with our city and region must be central to our vision.

Culturally and economically, Middle Tennessee has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to thoughtfully and intentionally shape its future. As we have seen so vividly, the critical question is not whether our region will grow and change, but how. The answer is within our control—if we seize this moment.

Vanderbilt stands ready to play a central role in ensuring that our region claims its place as one of America’s centers of innovation and prosperity—and does so true to its nature, true to its soul.

By applying our knowledge, our capacity for discovery and our spirit of collaboration, Vanderbilt can help solidify Tennessee’s position as a dynamic region that is admired as much for its quality of life as for its economic horsepower.

We can help the region evolve thoughtfully and intentionally, with growth rooted in the values and way of life that we all love.

What’s more, we can help ensure inclusive prosperity that touches everyone and leaves no one behind.

By driving thoughtful, inclusive growth for Nashville and Tennessee, by maximizing our capacity for creativity and innovation and by maintaining a vibrant space dedicated to the vigorous exchange of diverse ideas and opinions in the service of enlightenment, discovery and advancement.

Vanderbilt, once modeled on other universities, can now be the model, exemplifying what a great university can be in this century.

Vanderbilt will lead by being authentically and proudly itself—not by emulating others, or chasing passing trends. But by being fully who we are and pursuing our mission The Vanderbilt Way: a way of being a great university based on four defining principles.

The Vanderbilt Way begins with a signature sense of belonging. 

We are selective in whom we choose to join our ranks, but once you are admitted to this remarkable community, you need never doubt your place in it.

For we are a community assembled not for cutthroat competition or to confer superstar status on an anointed few, but to enable every one of us to realize our unique potential—to make one another, and the world, better.

Everyone here earns their place, and once you’re in, you’re in for life.


Within our community, each of us carves our own path. Because The Vanderbilt Way also values self-direction.

As individuals, and as a university, we are guided by what is inside us—not by what our peers are doing, or what is expected, or what has been done before.

There is no mold to fit here, no one pursuit considered more valuable or important than another.

Our community consists of mechanical engineers and musicians … archaeologists and accountants … special education teachers and student-athletes.

From Bach to baseball and everything in between, we value it all.

And once we discover our path, we commit to it with everything we have. We take risks. We dare. We try. And sometimes … we fail. And when we do, we find the lessons in the failure. And we try again.

Put another way: The Vanderbilt Way means we are always growing. At Vanderbilt, we never stop learning and evolving, because we believe continual growth is more valuable than any one achievement. We believe that potential—in people, and in universities—is realized over time, in both small steps and great leaps. And the amazing thing about potential is that it knows no limits. It expands as we grow. The more we dare to do, the more we are able to do.

And at Vanderbilt, we grow together.

We collaborate—radically. “Radical,” here, means that our sense of collaboration, of community, is not just a nice feature, but is at the very root—the radix—of who we are.

Vanderbilt is a place where people team up to break new ground. We pursue a myriad of different interests and hold divergent points of view, yet we operate as One Vanderbilt.

Many universities claim to be collaborative, but they are often siloed and divided. Not here. No one matches Vanderbilt in its sense of community and its collaborative spirit.



Continual growth.

And radical collaboration.

These principles compose The Vanderbilt Way. Honed over decades, they have transformed Vanderbilt from a university created in the likeness of others into one that, today, need not follow anyone.

My friends, it is the greatest honor of my professional life to be invested today as Vanderbilt University’s ninth chancellor.

From the time I enrolled in college as the first member of my family to do so, to the day I arrived in the U.S. as a graduate student with a thousand dollars and two suitcases, and right up to this moment—higher education has been my life’s work.

It has provided me with growth and understanding that are immeasurable … sustaining relationships that are innumerable ... and moments of satisfaction and joy that are incalculable.

I am especially proud and humbled to be invested as your chancellor, because I have already seen what we are capable of achieving together.

I have witnessed our culture of collaboration at work in ways large and small during the most challenging of times.

I have come to know firsthand the character and resourcefulness of the people who make up our university community—your mettle and grit and bravery and creativity … your passion … and your dedication.

In fewer than two years, we have done so much.

Indeed, we have learned that we can do far more than we ever imagined.

We have come through a devastating tornado.

We have made our university stronger in the face of a grinding pandemic.

We have engaged in collective reflection, and in honest and sometimes difficult conversations, as we walk the path toward greater inclusion … and a sense of belonging for everyone in our community.   

And we have launched Vandy United, our campaign to enhance our athletic facilities and operations so that we can better provide Commodore Nation with that feeling that sports uniquely deliver—the feeling of achieving together on the same team.

We have done all of this in the spirit of collaboration and common purpose that is our hallmark.

We gather today justifiably proud of who we are, and how far we have come—but we are not yet satisfied. Because we know we have only begun to realize our potential. 

Vanderbilt’s destiny is in our hands.

Together, let us go and continue this worthy work.

Together, let us dare to be as visionary as those who birthed Vanderbilt from a dream.

Together, let us show the courage to unapologetically pursue our mission, our way, and take the bold leaps necessary to revitalize the notion of what a university can be … and do.

Together, let us deepen our sense of being One Vanderbilt, so that we can accomplish more, and so that we might again model for our nation the limitless strength and possibility inherent in unity and a shared purpose.

I ask you today to join me in building not the great university of the South … but The Great University.

Not a great university as defined in the college rankings. But The Great University for our time and for all the world—one that is true to the ideals of what a university should be, shaped and stewarded by people joined in common purpose and grounded in shared values.

This is our moment. This is Vanderbilt’s moment.

Let us seize it with equal measures of courage and humility, with gratitude for all whose work and dedication brought us to where we are today and with the motto emblazoned on our university seal always close to our hearts: 

Crescere aude!

Dare to grow!



Thank you.