Letters Archive
Spring 1993, Vol. 1, No. 2
  • A Discussion: Vaclav Havel, A Performer of Political Thought
  • An Afternoon of Reflection
  • An Afternoon of Reflection

    Chancellor Emeritus Harvie Branscomb remembers the Vanderbilt of yesteryear and offers advice for tomorrow.

    HARVIE BRANSCOMB was Vanderbilt's Chancellor from 1946 to 1963. During his tenure, the University moved from a regional self-awareness to a national orientation and developed in quality, resources, and vision by a previously unimaginable speed and determination. Recently, Mr. Branscomb spoke of the changes he has seen at Vanderbilt to a group of faculty members who have been in the college for a short time. He is ninety-seven years old, but we knew from experience as we considered calling him for a presentation at the Center that his intelligence, memory, sense of timing, and power of presence are extraordinary. He holds a memory of Vanderbilt and a sense for its future that are rare in their combination. A talk by him would be an unusual opportunity for insight into the University's recent past as well as into its present life.

    I called him last spring to see if he would consider doing the program. After I explained my proposal he said, "When do you want to have this event?" "In the early fall," I told him. "Charles," he said, "I don't even buy green bananas. I can't plan that far in the future. Call me in September and we can talk about it then." I took his expectation of talking in September as a good omen, and when I called three months later, he had thought about what he would say and was ready to make plans—plans over a short time period that would be about right, I thought, to allow bananas to ripen.

    It was a remarkable afternoon that was informed by a range of experience, dedication, and passion that gave us to know something about leadership and education that we professionals can overlook. We include here excerpts from both his formal remarks and the discussion that followed.

    Mr. Branscomb said to four of us who stayed after the program that he expected this to be his last presentation. As I recalled the intensity of his words, his clarity of commitment, and his flawless recall of lines from Euripides in answering a question, I doubted that he was right. Or at least I hoped that he was wrong. Justice seemed to me to require a little more time and at least one more moment like the one we just had. —Charles E. Scott

    I would like to say at the beginning that the changes that have benefited Vanderbilt are due to the work and dedication of many people and to social changes that I shall mention. I have been asked to speak of the significant changes that I have seen. I can mention some of them, but I will not be able to give proper credit to the individuals who have formed this institution over the last forty-six years.

    I don't think anyone can quite realize the extent of the changes that have taken place in this institution unless one had seen or known Vanderbilt as it was in the 1940s. Let me see if I can paint a concise picture of some of the features before we move on to discuss changes that have taken place.

    When I first arrived on the campus and saw its limited character and the encroachment of the city on the area, I gave some serious thought to the possibility of moving the University, with the exception of the Medical School, to some open area ten or fifteen miles from the city, an idea that I soon abandoned. The University was housed in three of four structures that remained from the original days, fine examples of Victorian Gothic, plus a number of rather nondescript buildings which had been constructed later for classrooms. We also had two relatively new structures: the Joint University Library, which had been built just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and the Medical School. In one respect the University was woefully deficient. Neither Chancellor Garland nor Chancellor Kirkland, influenced by German university models, had really believed in dormitories. Chancellor Garland made the statement that dormitories were "breeding places of misbehavior" and that he preferred for students to live "in the Christian homes surrounding the campus." That principle was modified slightly by the construction of one dormitory!

    As far as finances were concerned, the University which began with what appeared to be the magnificent sum of a million dollars had failed to keep up in its resources with the growth of knowledge, the growth in the student body, and the changes in the demands on universities. In 1946 the endowment for eight schools and colleges totaled 28 million dollars, of which 14 belonged to the Medical School and hospital. Faculty salaries were shamefully low. The chairmen of the departments in the Medical School received ten thousand dollars a year, and full professors in the College of Arts and Science enjoyed salaries of around four thousand dollars.

    The professional schools call for some special comment. The Divinity School was nearly destroyed by the separation from the Methodist church some thirty years earlier. It had few students. Its building had burned. The only reason, I am sure, that the School had been continued was that a loyal Divinity School faculty still remained with no jobs offered them by the Methodist church. The Law School, manned chiefly by local lawyers, had been closed during the war and reopened in 1946, the year that I arrived. The Medical School began with a great flourish. It had the beginnings of a great institution, but the inflation which followed the First World War had reduced it to a point where it could no longer pay for indigent patients, and paying patients did not want students to practice their art upon them. The hospital in 1946 was losing money steadily, and the Medical School no longer had adequate funds for any expansion or growth. It was in 1950, I believe, that the Dean of the Medical School recommended formally to me that the Medical School be abandoned and closed. The Graduate School of Arts and Science existed on paper and had brief spurts of development. It had no funds of its own, however, no separate faculty, and no status as an institution.

    I'd like to mention also that when I arrived in 1946, I was told that no black person had ever been on the Vanderbilt campus, except in a domestic capacity. And while I am confident this was an overstatement of the facts, it did indicate the point of view of this deeply Southern aristocratic University at that time. Furthermore, due I think in large part to the failure to develop dormitories and an attractive student life, the undergraduate student body was rapidly becoming local. In 1946, two thirds of the students in the College were from the state of Tennessee, and approximately one half were from Nashville and the surrounding region. The rest of the student body was limited almost entirely to our neighboring Southern states.

    This rather depressing picture was, however, only part of the story. From its beginning Vanderbilt had maintained high standards, both in the selection of its faculty and in the admission of students. For the first few decades of its history there were no rival institutions in the South that had any claim to distinction. Vanderbilt was able to attract the better students from Florida to Texas, with the result that the Vanderbilt Alumni in the 1940s was unusually strong. It was on these foundations that the subsequent growth was able to build.

    The changes which have taken place since those years nearly a half century ago are quite obvious. They have been due to a number of factors—the changing economy of the South, the growth of the institution from a Southern college to a nationally recognized university, the growth of the intellectual inheritance, and finally to changes in the society which we serve and which supports us.

    The campus was able in the 1960s to acquire a good deal of land. During this period the University constructed fifteen or sixteen dormitories. The Divinity School was moved back on the campus in beautiful quarters to which was attached the University Chapel. The Law School received new quarters of its own with additions to its endowment, and it became an outstanding school. The Engineering School was given a new building of its own and an annex. The Medical School, brought out of its doldrums largely by the development of federal aid for medical research and also by the growth of medical insurance which provided indigent patients who could pay their way, has exploded into a plant almost the size of the rest of the campus. The union with Peabody College, which had been discussed for years, was finally achieved in the 1970s. The School of Management was added to the University during this period, and it has developed into a substantial and well-recognized program.

    The endowment funds, so meager at the beginning, have grown at an almost unbelievable rate. l am now advised that the figure is somewhere between $500 and $700 million. Much of this, of course, belongs to the respective schools and colleges.

    Two other changes are important. During the 1950s, Vanderbilt took the lead among private colleges and universities in the South in admitting black students, and by 1963 integration was legally achieved for all parts of the University.

    The second change may seem insignificant, but it was more important than it may appear. I mentioned earlier that for many years the University had only one old dormitory for men, and more recently McTyeire Hall was built for limited number of women. The housing of other students had been taken over by the fraternities, all of whom had off-campus houses. These were old residences, a number of them dangerous fire traps. Furthermore, the fraternities packed these students into rooms—four in a room, some in attics. The situation was really one that the University could not continue.

    I took on a fight with the fraternities to abandon their houses and to move onto campus-students being housed in University dormitories in accordance with University responsibilities. This was a bitter fight. The fraternities were strong, but the proposals carried the day. The University was fair with the fraternities in the handling of the financial transfer, and we moved, therefore, from a dangerous fraternity situation into one in which only a few officers were allowed to live in each house in order to assure its protection.

    Now let's talk about some changes to the ethos and character of the institution. Back in the '40s, the administrative staff consisted of the Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor, the Business Manager, and the secretary of the Alumni Association, whose chief duty was to send out a postcard every Christmas asking for money for the University. The development of a large administrative staff since those years has been absolutely necessary and very successful.

    But there are some risks involved in the development of a fairly substantial bureaucracy. The most substantial risk is the possibility that the points of view, the needs, and the aspirations of the people of the rank and file will get weathered out as they move up through the various levels of the bureaucracy. Currently the administrative offices have been careful to keep open several avenues of communication, the two most important perhaps being free discussions with the University Senate and the annual speech made to the Board of Trust by a faculty member on faculty concerns. But as institutions become larger, this problem grows accordingly. I mention this not because I think that it is a current problem, but it is something for us to keep in mind. It is important that the institution keep alert to the need for some way of open and direct communication between the schools and faculties and the central administrative structure.

    I mention a second change, the change in the sense of community on the campus. Back in the '40s and '50s, we were much smaller, and we made an effort to get the faculty acquainted with one another. There was a sense of belonging to the Institution as a whole. Today, simply due to the growth in size and complexity, much of that has faded. Today friendships and the sense of strong unity belong to schools and departments rather than to the University as a whole. I don't think this can be avoided, and the substitution of close associations and mutual support within a lesser division of a large institution is not bad. I would only suggest that we must not lose a sense of intellectual unity in the University as a whole. After all, universities is a basic conception behind the institution.

    The communal sense in these days seems to me to be made of rather formalities established among different parts of the institution. The development of interdisciplinary programs and relationships has become much more an official rather than an in formal function, as perhaps it once was. This is something to keep in mind: that we don't drift apart, each one going his own way.

    Another aspect of community is even more significant, and this applies to the student body and to the University body as a whole. Today we have set, I am afraid, diversity as a primary objective. Diversity is not the goal; it merely makes a contribution. The goal is mutual understanding, respect, cooperation, fellowship, and social solidarity. To be sure, a university believes in and must maintain freedom of opinion and divergence of views, but this divergence and these differences must function within a complex web of mutual respect and cooperation.

    A third change which I think is of some concern to a lot of us is the imbalance that has taken place in the growth of the University. It's a very simple fact: the society we live in is now concerned about the economy and technology and science, and that's where the money is. So, the biological and the physical and the medical areas of the University have been able to get the resources for development that other parts of the University have not gotten. But the economy doesn't exist by itself. It is dependent on education, on wise political leadership, on social and family stability, on social solidarity, on a widespread, common-accepted sense of fairness and justice. Knowledge is not in compartments but is an interwoven web. We should keep to the fore the concept of the unity of the University and a national need for the unity of knowledge so that administrators, corporations, and foundations will begin to realize that there are other aspects of the University that need equal support. I am confident that this will come, but in current years we have certainly seen an imbalance in growth. Some defense of what in previous years has been the heart of the University must not be forgotten.

    I am going to stop at this point.

    QUESTION: Will you entertain questions and discussion?


    QUESTION: I have a question concerning the radical increase in the size of our endowment. I can see that you could get people who knew what the institution was like in the 1950s to continue contributing. But in order to grow as much as the institution has grown, you had to find money.

    BRANSCOMB: Oh yes.

    QUESTION: How did you do that? How did you get the endowment built?

    BRANSCOMB: All right. I started out with the observation that the Vanderbilt family had established this University, it was named after the Commodore, but none of the members of the Vanderbilt family had ever taken a real interest in it aside from a few contributions for equipment and some buildings. Now I'm not going to tell you the whole story—it would take a long time to do it—but I got Mr. Harold Sterling Vanderbilt first to come and visit us. His wife told me afterwards that he didn't want to come at all! She told me that he said, "You know, all that man wants is my money." And she said that he had the check in his pocket that he was going to give me. So he came here, invited to spend the night.

    When he first arrived, I took M. L. Vanderbilt for a walk around the campus. He was quite surprised. He didn't know it was that big a place. Then I showed him all the portraits of the Vanderbilt family we had hanging in Kirkland hall. I eventually took him into my office, and I could see he braced himself for the touch. I talked a little bit, and he said, finally, "Well, all right, what can I do for you?" And I said, "You can do two things. First, your cousin, Mr. Frederick Vanderbilt, made us participants in his will and gave us the largest contribution of a single individual in the University's history—larger than the Commodore's original million . . . and we don't have his portrait. Could you borrow a portrait of Mr. Frederick Vanderbilt, and let me have it copied?" "Oh," he said, "I'll get that for you." I said, "That's great." He said, "What else," now with a different tone of voice. I replied, "Well, your cousin Mrs. Twombly is a very generous woman." She was a Vanderbilt heiress, somebody with lots of Vanderbilt money. I said, "I thought she might want to build Twombly Hall for the women here. I have never met her. Now that you've been down here, and you've met me and seen the campus, would you be willing to write her a letter introducing me so I can go talk to her about it?" And he did.

    Of course, this was the only decent way that Mr. Vanderbilt's visit could have been handled, since he had come at my invitation and was my guest. But he clearly expected something different, and the way he was entertained laid the basis for a long and fruitful friendship.

    Two years later I got him to take a membership on the Board of Trust, and subsequently, when the timing was exactly right, I asked him to be Chairman of the Board of Trust, and he accepted. Now, the fact was that Mr. Vanderbilt was well known in all the relevant circles in New York. Well, with him on the board, I could get anyone I wanted on the Board of Trust. We got the president of J.P. Morgan, the president of Chase National Bank, the Vice-President of The World Bank. We got all these guys on the Board of Trust! So when I wanted to get some money, I would write one of them and ask them, "Would you take me over to Mr. so and so." That helped a lot!

    In a thirty year period we also got off to a good start with some foundations. The period after the Second World War was a very good one for American universities. The country had learned that we had to find out about the rest of the countries in the world. We didn't have people who could speak the language of some of our allies! They realized that universities not only taught language and culture, but that they were the places re search on new technology came from. It was the government that began making contributions for research. And the country as a whole began to feel like the universities were very important. It was a good period.

    Then some things just happened serendipitously, just fell out of the sky. You just had to be alert and follow some of these things up. I read not long ago a book of old Greek plays, one of which speaks of this serendipity. Euripides' Medea ends with something that I think applies to the growth of Vanderbilt. It reads like this—I think I can quote it:

    Great treasure halls hath Zeus in heaven
    From whence to man strange dooms be given,
    Past hope or fear.
    And the end men looked for cometh not,
    And a path there is where no man thought:
    So Hath it fallen here.

    Well, the path fell to us where no man expected it in a half-dozen different happy occasions!

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