Students in the political science course, Unity and American Democracy, are no strangers to high-profile guest speakers. Throughout the semester, they have been hearing from renowned experts and leaders. But when they entered the classroom on Tuesday, November 30, they found one of Vanderbilt’s own at the lectern: Chancellor Daniel Diermeier.
In addition to being Vanderbilt’s ninth chancellor, Diermeier is an internationally recognized political science and management scholar. His work includes studying political structures, how they change, and how people behave within them.
Diermeier used his talk in part to discuss with students the fundamental purpose of universities: to teach students “not what to think, but how to think.” He also shared some of his personal experiences as a young scholar, including being in his native city of Berlin when the wall fell and witnessing the subsequent reunification of Germany. That transformation inspired his work in analyzing how governments succeed and fail. He emphasized the important role of market-based economies and democracies—including America’s—in creating peace and prosperity. He said, “When we look at nations comparatively throughout human progress over time, the dramatic economic development over the past two hundred years has arisen through a combination of market-based economies, the rule of law, and democratic governments.” The lecture concluded with Diermeier engaging in a lively Q&A with students.
Unity and American Democracy is co-taught by three Vanderbilt professors: presidential historian Jon Meacham, international mediator Samar Ali, and political scientist John Geer, who is also the Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science. It is part of a broader initiative—the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy—which launched in January 2021. Co-chaired by Meacham, Ali and former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, and managed by Geer, the project holds events, conducts research, and publishes articles from an array of thinkers in an effort to cut through political rhetoric with facts, evidence and civic discourse.
Additional speakers on this semester’s class roster included New York Times political reporter Jonathan Martin, Harvard history professor Jill Lepore, former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and authors Annette Gordon-Reed (On Juneteenth) and Sasha Issenberg (The Engagement: America’s Quarter-Century Struggle Over Gay Marriage). The final speaker was former vice president Al Gore on Dec. 1.