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The Report of the Chancellor Search Advisory Committee

Chancellor Search Committee Chancellor Search Advisory Committee

“Vanderbilt needs someone with a bold, innovative and inclusive vision for the future … I very much hope that our next chancellor will be able to hold many things to be true at once.”
—A written comment submitted to the Advisory Committee

The  Chancellor Search Advisory Committee began its work in May 2019. At that time, we committed to developing a robust process that would draw from and fully represent the varied sectors and constituents composing the Vanderbilt community. We worked throughout the summer and into the fall term soliciting input from Vanderbilt faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents and community members for this report to the  Chancellor Search Committee . Our outreach efforts were extensive, and the community’s response impressive ( see Appendix D ). Members of our committee sent email messages to more than 100,000 recipients (alumni, faculty, staff and students), and interacted directly with well over 2,500 students, faculty and staff. We conducted nine town halls and listening sessions between May and September. We created an online survey soliciting views on the search, which garnered 1,677 responses. Other measures indicate broad interest in the search. There have been nearly 30,000 views of the  Chancellor Search website and the 10 MyVU stories about the search had nearly 24,000 page views. On social media, there were nearly 2,500 Facebook hits and nearly 4,500 views of a video explaining the search process. Our committee is rightfully proud of the process that yielded this report.  We are confident that it reflects to the very best of our abilities the spectrum of the Vanderbilt community’s views on the search for our next chancellor.


Views of the Chancellor Search website


Views of 10 MyVU stories about the Chancellor Search process


Views of Chancellor Search video on social media


Recipients of emails requesting Chancellor Search feedback


Town Halls and Listening Sessions

The bylaws of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust deliver to that body responsibility for the hiring and tenure of Vanderbilt’s chancellors. Board of Trust Chairman Bruce Evans took unprecedented steps in this search to involve the larger Vanderbilt community in the hiring process for our ninth chancellor. By ensuring a broadly representative Advisory Committee and by including four faculty members (Adams, Geer, Igo and Owens) and one staff member (Lee) from the Advisory Committee on the Search Committee itself, Chairman Evans has worked to ensure a broad base of community input into the opening stages of the national search and to bring Vanderbilt into line with the best of today’s top-level university hiring practices.

Our committee is confident that the larger community has a significant, indeed central, voice in the hiring process for our ninth chancellor.

The Chancellor Search Advisory Committee is composed of 19 members including four deans, faculty from all schools and colleges, staff, students (graduate and undergraduate), non-tenure-track faculty, administrators and alumni. We were charged by Chairman Evans in early May 2019 to assist “in the search for the university’s ninth chancellor. The Advisory Committee, comprising faculty, staff, students and alumni, will gather, synthesize and provide advice to the Search Committee on the priorities the next chancellor should address, as well as discern the qualities that individual should possess.”  Because Chairman Evans engaged with the Advisory Committee as we devised our strategy for collecting information, carried out that labor, internally presented, and analyzed and discussed our findings—and because the Search Committee includes five members of our committee—we have had a far more open and dynamic working relationship with the Board of Trust and especially with the Search Committee than had been the case in previous chancellor searches. Our committee is confident that the larger community has a significant, indeed central, voice in the hiring process for our ninth chancellor, a process which, in order to ensure the best and most desirable candidates, will in its final stages remain confidential.


From the start, the committee crafted and committed to an array of guiding principles: to be at every stage of our process as transparent and inclusive as possible; to solicit the widest possible participation; to treat seriously and respectfully the feedback we collected in every form; to inform our communities of early findings to secure additional feedback; to maintain diligent and close communication with the Search Committee via an interim report in early August ( see Appendix C ) and this final report in mid-September; and to take conscientious advantage of the overlapping membership between our Advisory Committee and the Search Committee as well as the good-faith efforts of Chairman Evans to ensure that the extensive input from Vanderbilt’s larger community would inform the search.

Our committee has collected the opinions and priorities of the Vanderbilt community through a variety of means, having agreed at the outset that too much feedback was preferable to too little. We have been more than pleased by the broad participation from all segments of our community. The survey responses, along with town hall sessions, small group meetings, and one-on-one conversations with constituents, drove the content of this report. Our process was iterative. The advisory committee adjusted the emphasis of our report and the discussion points at town halls based on early results from the survey. Likewise, some constituents noted that they responded more than once to the call for feedback, having developed new ideas as this process unfolded. This back and forth between the committee and the Vanderbilt community captures our intent to faithfully represent the views and priorities of many different stakeholders.

At our first meeting, we discussed the challenges of launching this process at the start of the summer recess. We crafted the five-question survey linked to the Chancellor Search webpage, and devised methods for widely and visibly advertising the survey to faculty, staff, students, alumni and other key members of Vanderbilt’s extended community. We staged a Chancellor Search Open House in early June. We conducted numerous listening sessions with faculty, staff and students continuing into the start of the fall semester, as well as alumni outreach events. Individual committee members held face-to-face conversations and solicited email input from their constituencies. We all provided interim reports by early August which allowed us to get a preliminary picture of the data we were in the process of collecting, to start thinking about ways to analyze those data and to find ways to redress areas of low response. The committee read the extensive written feedback from the electronic survey before completing our overview of the data.

The level of participation we have witnessed demonstrates a real spirit of ownership among our community in the future of Vanderbilt.

The volume and richness of those narrative data persuaded us that we needed not simply to read the responses, but also to analyze them as thoroughly and carefully as time would permit. In July, we formed a subcommittee, led by Tiffiny Tung and John McLean, to work with the Office for Planning and Institutional Effectiveness (PIE—formerly the Vanderbilt Institutional Research Group) to help us more systematically analyze these thoughtful responses ( see Appendix A , and below, for more details). We wanted to ensure that our conclusions were not impressionistic or cherry-picked, but as empirically grounded as possible—and also to honor the time and effort our colleagues spent on their comments.

The enthusiastic participation we have witnessed during this process demonstrates a genuine commitment among our community to the future of Vanderbilt, and we are satisfied that our outreach efforts provided a platform for people to engage in the process in a variety of ways. The responses from the different subsets of our community—faculty, students, staff and alumni—revealed significant engagement from all corners of our Vanderbilt community. Many survey respondents noted and thanked us for the repeated solicitation of input. And following a final request for participation in listening sessions and the survey, we saw a substantial jump in survey responses across all groups in early September (an additional 541 people responded in the last week), indicating that those who wished to offer input have taken advantage of one or more opportunities to do so.


The major conclusion that emerges from the 1,677 survey responses, multiple town halls and other listening sessions is that the Vanderbilt community broadly endorses the direction the university has taken in the last decade . While we certainly uncovered some differences in emphasis and tone, and some disagreement over future priorities for the university ( see Appendix A ), we were struck by this general agreement.

There is strong support for the planks of the Academic Strategic Plan.

Whether they are students, faculty, staff or alumni, all want to capitalize on the university’s recent momentum and further advance Vanderbilt’s outstanding achievements and reputation. That momentum is driven by strategic investments in faculty, staff and students, and the next chancellor should, given the feedback we received, continue on this path. In particular, there is strong support for the planks of the Academic Strategic Plan: collaboration across academic units and colleges, the construction of new residential colleges, enhanced inclusion and diversity at all levels, transparency and accountability to Vanderbilt’s various constituencies, and Opportunity Vanderbilt.

While few thought that the next chancellor should be a “disruptor” or chart a new direction for the institution, it was evident that there are important challenges facing the university and some sense that if Vanderbilt fails to address them we would either 1) miss important opportunities available to us given our strong position today among research universities, and/or 2) risk falling behind our peers.

Key Priorities

What follows is a distilled set of key priorities gleaned from our reading and analysis of all the community feedback, listed roughly in order of prevalence:

  • Improving our research and teaching infrastructure
  • Building and retaining a more diverse faculty and staff that aligns with our ever-more-diverse student body
  • Increasing support for graduate and professional education
  • Creating a welcoming, inclusive campus
  • Forging a more prominent global footprint
  • Advancing our mission in an era of growing concerns about higher education
  • Investing meaningfully in the creative arts and humanities
  • Strengthening faculty governance
  • Fostering VU-VUMC collaborations
  • Securing research funding in the face of shrinking federal support
  • Ensuring excellent working conditions and pay for staff as cost of living in Nashville increases
  • Increasing links between Vanderbilt and Nashville/Tennessee
  • Sustaining (financially) the physical plant and residential college rollout

The list reflects the complexity of a big, diverse institution like Vanderbilt and suggests that the next chancellor will confront important challenges that will demand thoughtful and creative solutions. While all evidence points to a broad consensus that the university is in a very strong position in 2019, we also find a sturdy conviction that we cannot rest on our laurels.

Our community wants our next chancellor to lead Vanderbilt to even greater heights.

Our survey and conversations focused on institutional challenges and priorities and also on the desired experiences and traits of our next chancellor. While the picture that emerges is at one level obvious, it also reveals the values of our community: we seek someone who is intellectually curious, who understands why universities matter, who has a fair, humane, and open leadership style, and who is a person of impeccable integrity. The next chancellor should be naturally inclusive, with a demonstrated track record of supporting and sustaining diversity, and devoted to every segment of the university. The next chancellor should be an attentive listener who has a good sense of humor. And the next chancellor should be a respected scholar and teacher. Our community is quite open to a chancellor from outside Vanderbilt as long as that person is committed to Vanderbilt’s values. That person must advance civility and collaboration, two central values that define Vanderbilt. That person also must have significant management experience, must be skilled at fundraising and must thoroughly understand the financial operations of private research universities. Finally, the next chancellor must be familiar with medical centers and be prepared to foster essential ties between VU and VUMC.

Our community wants our next chancellor to lead Vanderbilt to even greater heights and to possess the vision and ability to inspire stakeholders on and off campus. Chancellor Zeppos set a very high standard in this regard, and our diverse community hopes that our next leader can and will build on his many successes.

A Closer Look: The Survey Data

We received 1,677 responses filled with thoughtful and insightful observations about Vanderbilt, revealing a deep commitment to and engagement with the university ( see excerpts from the responses in Appendix B ). Certain themes emerged, revealing key issues that are on our constituents’ minds. Below, we highlight several.


The single most popular term in the narrative feedback was the word “diversity,” mentioned over 1,400 times. Specifically, 85 percent of the staff who responded raised this topic somewhere in their response, while 76 percent of students and 73 percent of faculty mentioned it. Sixty-six percent of alumni who responded discussed issues of diversity.


Mentions of the most popular term in the survey, the word “diversity”

The majority of those responses stated that the new chancellor should channel efforts at recruiting and retaining faculty, staff and students of color and other underrepresented groups. Among students, faculty, and staff that mentioned diversity, 91 percent to 95 percent highlighted this particular point, stating, for example:

the next chancellor should embrace racial and gender diversity and the elimination of inequality at Vanderbilt. And not as a marketing slogan (by just giving it lip service), but as a necessity in ensuring that students, faculty, staff and even administrators are empowered and transformed by their academic experience. The next chancellor should see the university’s diversity mission not as charity work, but as equity work .”

There were 5 percent to 6 percent of those three groups that instead emphasized the need for viewpoint diversity on campus (this emphasis was often raised at points not tied to the term “diversity,” which means that this view was somewhat more common than the data capture of 5–6 percent suggests).  One respondent put it this way:

A commitment to the free exchange of ideas. A belief in diversity of thought and opinion, not just identity groups. Protection of underrepresented opinions in the academy should be of paramount importance to a leader who believes in the dialectical pursuit of knowledge and truth. The chancellor should reject calls for suppression of unpopular speech or publications and should actively promote free speech and free thought .”

It’s worth noting that many who emphasized openness to different ways of thinking did not use the word “diversity,” which means that concern was more common than this result suggests.

Alumni who mentioned diversity were significantly different from students, faculty and staff in terms of their sentiments on diversity: 82 percent of alumni highlighted the need for demographic and socioeconomic status diversity, while 14 percent requested more emphasis on viewpoint diversity, and 4 percent were critical of Vanderbilt’s diversity initiatives. ( See Appendix A  for summary graphs.)


All groups expressed a desire that the new chancellor continue cultivating a strong sense of community and a culture of belonging at Vanderbilt, while also noting that this community should extend beyond the borders of campus.


Feedback responses that highlighted the sense of community at Vanderbilt as a strength

Our respondents clearly aspire to more partnerships with the city of Nashville and the larger region and more engagement with global communities—recognizing not only that we have much to offer, but also that we have much to learn from people and institutions beyond Vanderbilt. Among those who discussed Vanderbilt and external communities, more than half highlighted community outreach as a top priority and a challenge that the new chancellor would need to address. For those discussing notions of community, nearly 70 percent highlighted the sense of community at Vanderbilt as a strength, some further noting that it helped to generate a sense of belonging and pride in being part of the university’s larger mission.  This view is captured in a student’s comment:

I love the community that Vanderbilt is, and all of the little communities within the larger campus population are each adding a piece to the greater good of our people .”

The new chancellor should continue to cultivate strong community bonds within Vanderbilt as well as beyond Vanderbilt—reaching out to Nashville and internationally to foster Vanderbilt’s mission of discovery, lifelong learning and service to a greater good.

Academic vs. Nonacademic Experience of the Chancellor

There was an overwhelming preference among our respondents for a chancellor with academic experience in an institution of higher learning. Our detailed reading of a subsample of two-thirds of the respondents who weighed in on the question of preferred experience of the chancellor showed that 438 people discussed whether or not the person should be someone with academic experience. Only 12 percent expressed support for someone without academic experience, while 88 percent stated that they prefer someone with a university or academic background. Of the 88 percent, 12 percent noted that nonacademic experience could also be quite useful, but that it must be accompanied by “boots on the ground” in academia.

Internal vs. External Candidate

Slightly more respondents stated that they prefer an external candidate (46 percent) to an internal candidate (42 percent), while 13 percent were ambivalent on the matter. This reveals no strong indication in either direction and dovetails with many respondents’ expressed desire to search widely for the best possible candidate.

The summary above does not do justice to the nuance and insight of the many comments that we received. We urge everyone to spend time with  Appendix B , which offers a glimpse of the feedback we received (which we do not offer in its entirety because the confidentiality we promised would for some of the responses be impossible to protect). As a committee, we were deeply impressed by the quality, volume and power of our community’s views about the future leadership of this institution. While it was impossible to capture this collective wisdom fully in this brief report, we hope our approach here hits the mark.


The thoughtful feedback all sectors of the university have offered to our committee provides a clear vision of what Vanderbilt, taken as a whole, expects from our ninth chancellor. And it is a clear window on the state of our university: a community of involved students, teachers, researchers, staff and alumni who are fully invested in contributing to Vanderbilt’s excellence. This commitment to excellence rests on a rich vision of what our community is and what it can become.

Our committee’s work ends with this report. We are grateful to our many constituencies and proud of what this process has shown all of us about the place where we work and live. We especially thank the five members of our committee who are working on the Search Committee to ensure that the hiring process culminates in the selection of a candidate who advances Vanderbilt’s strong vision. Finally, we thank all the members of the Search Committee for their efforts as they move into the confidential phase of the hiring process for Vanderbilt’s ninth chancellor. We wish them the very best of luck in this important endeavor.

Chancellor Search Advisory Committee

  • John Geer , Dean of the College of Arts and Science and Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science; Chancellor Search Advisory Committee Chair
  • Douglas Adams , Daniel F. Flowers Professor of Engineering and Distinguished Professor and chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Kelsea Best , President, Graduate Student Council
  • Frances Burton , President, Vanderbilt Student Government
  • Tracey George , Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs and Charles B. Cox III and Lucy D. Cox Family Chair in Law and Liberty
  • Sarah Igo , Andrew Jackson Professor of History and Faculty Head of E. Bronson Ingram College
  • Candice Storey Lee , Associate Vice Chancellor for University Affairs and Deputy Athletics Director
  • Christopher Loss , Associate Professor of Public Policy and Higher Education
  • Jeff Loudon , President, University Staff Advisory Council
  • Dan Lovinger , BA’87, Alumni Association President
  • Lawrence Marnett , Dean of Basic Sciences in the School of Medicine, University Professor of Biochemistry, Chemistry and Pharmacology, and Mary Geddes Stahlman Professor of Cancer Research
  • Joshua McGuire , Senior Lecturer in Musicianship, Director of Faculty Affairs, Blair School of Music
  • John McLean , Stevenson Professor of Chemistry and Faculty Senate Chair
  • Dana Nelson , Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English
  • Linda Norman , Dean of the School of Nursing and Valere Potter Menefee Professor of Nursing
  • David Owens , Professor of the Practice of Management and Innovation
  • Eric Skaar , Ernest W. Goodpasture Professor of Pathology and Professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology
  • Emilie Townes , Dean of the Divinity School and E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society
  • Tiffiny Tung , Associate Professor of Anthropology


Appendix A: Analysis of Survey Data

Appendix B: Taking a Closer Look at the Feedback

Appendix C: Interim Summary of Input from Stakeholders

Appendix D: Chancellor Search Advisory Committee Timeline