Chancellor’s Ashes at Benton
One of the lesser known treasures of Vanderbilt’s campus can be seen when one walks down the side isle of Benton Chapel. Near the front, on the side wall to the left of the main altar, are two simple plaques that pay homage to a man and his wife who gave so much to Vanderbilt. Chancellor Harvie Branscomb, and his wife of 71 years, Margaret, have their ashes inurned (the actual term for internment of ashes) of in the wall of the chapel that he saw opened during his tenure as Vanderbilt’s Chancellor. Simply indicating that he was Vanderbilt’s fourth chancellor, the plaque is simple, yet distinguished as the final resting place of someone who saw Vanderbilt go through the Civil Rights Movement and see the vision of Vanderbilt change from a leading Southern University to a National Leader among all Universities.
Below his plaque is a simple quote, written in Koine Greek, that gives testament to the character and work of Chancellor Branscomb and also his theological training at the same time. The Chancellor saw Vanderbilt through the issues of integration and civil rights and worked with students, staff, faculty, and the Board of Trust to bring the best possible outcome for all.
Read this bio of Chancellor Branscomb:
Harvie Branscomb 1946-1963
Born in Huntsville, Ala., Harvie Branscomb, the son of a Methodist minister, earned his B.A. at Birmingham Southern and a distinguished M.A. in biblical studies as a Rhodes Scholar. After working on the same Hoover relief commission as Oliver Carmichael, he served in the Army and then took a professorship at Southern Methodist University before earning a Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. The 51-year-old dean of the divinity school at Duke University was named Vanderbilt chancellor in 1945.
In his 17 years as chancellor, Branscomb directed an expansion of Vanderbilt that resulted in a doubling of the number of buildings. Perhaps more important than the expansion of facilities, however, was the expansion of Vanderbilt’s vision of what it could become. Not satisfied with Vanderbilt as a great Southern university, Branscomb wanted Vanderbilt to become a national leader among universities.
The chancellor knew that Vanderbilt must be open, not only to all types of ideas, but also to all types of people. He stressed the idea that Vanderbilt could not hope to become a true national university unless it was willing to make changes, and that meant dealing with racial integration at a time when higher education in the South was strictly segregated.
First, Branscomb explained to the Board of Trust that Peabody College had admitted two African Americans and, unless the board wanted to break a long-standing cooperative agreement with Peabody, Vanderbilt would have to allow the students to take Vanderbilt classes.
A few meetings later Branscomb was back, explaining that he was confronted with the case of a black minister from Jackson, Tenn., who wanted to take courses at the divinity school. After all, the chancellor said, it would look bad to turn down a minister.
Then, a little later, the chancellor explained that because of a new position taken by the American Association of Law Schools, Vanderbilt’s law school might lose its accreditation if it didn’t admit African Americans. Later, he explained that the university in general was in danger of losing foundation support if it did not admit more African Americans.
All the while, Branscomb was subtly encouraging the Faculty Senate to vote overwhelmingly in favor of integration, nudging student groups to speak out. One of his allies was the editor of the Vanderbilt Hustler, who campaigned for open admissions. That editor was a student named Lamar Alexander, who would later become governor of Tennessee, U.S. Secretary of Education, and U.S. Senator.
Branscomb is credited with transforming the selection process for nominees to the Board of Trust in order to attract leaders of national as well as local institutions. He recruited Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, great-grandson of founder Cornelius Vanderbilt, to membership on the board. In an effort to recruit and retain distinguished scholars and scientists to the university’s faculty, Branscomb urged the board to reinforce the university’s commitment to academic freedom, raise faculty salaries and recruit distinguished faculty.
Despite the discord caused late in his administration by fallout from the expulsion for civil disobedience of black divinity student James Lawson (who returned to Vanderbilt in 2006 as Distinguished University Professor), by the end of his chancellorship, Branscomb had guided Vanderbilt to an open admissions policy, constructed vastly improved facilities and laid the foundation for a national reputation, including election to the elite American Association of Universities in 1949. Branscomb retired in 1963, and the board named Alexander Heard, 48, as chancellor.
Branscomb lived another 35 years, dying on July 24, 1998, at the age of 103. He maintained an office in Kirkland Hall until his death, and attended university functions until shortly before he died.