Vanderbilt University
Early view of Kirkland Hall at Vanderbilt University.

Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University in Nashville owes its inception to the vision of a great university dreamed by the leaders of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in the 1850s. Efforts to realize the dream were abandoned during the Civil War and finally resurrected by the General Conference of the church in 1870. Translating the dream to reality required the efforts of two very different men: Methodist bishop Holland N. McTyeire and “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, the New York shipping and railroad entrepreneur. The creation of Vanderbilt University reflected Southern Methodism’s need for better trained ministers and the South’s need for quality higher education in the late nineteenth century.

In 1872 the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, granted a charter for Central University. Renamed Vanderbilt University after Cornelius Vanderbilt made an initial gift of $500,000, the school was dedicated in 1875. The school retained strong denominational ties (the first faculty and nearly all the students were Methodists), but the money, eventually totaling well over a million dollars, came from the very secular Commodore and his son W. H. Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt University vaulted to an enviable position as Southern Methodism’s wealthiest university, and within the South only Johns Hopkins University had more financial resources. Vanderbilt’s first chancellor, Landon C. Garland (1875-93), in conjunction with McTyeire, president of the Board of Trust, established a biblical department that reflected the commitment of training future ministers, an academic department with an abundance of the latest scientific equipment (at the time Vanderbilt was known for the quality of its scientific apparatus), and affiliated professional schools. An immediate problem arose over the poor academic preparation of the all-male student body. Compromising with this reality, Garland allowed subcollegiate courses to be taught to prepare students for university work, but also moved to raise academic standards at the secondary level through entrance exams administered throughout the southeastern region and certification of private and public secondary schools.

Vanderbilt’s second chancellor, James H. Kirkland (1893-1937), oversaw a university facing a crisis of identity over whether to chafe under denominational ties and remain a sectarian school or break free of its Methodist moorings and make a bid for national recognition. Choosing the latter, Kirkland led Vanderbilt through the bitterness of a divorce from the church in 1914. The severance of church ties ushered in a period of plentiful gifts–$1 million from Andrew Carnegie for the medical department, over $15 million from the John D. Rockefeller-funded General Education Board, and the continued generosity of the Vanderbilt family. Although women had attended classes at Vanderbilt since its founding, the university continued to be conceived as an institution for males. During the 1890s women fought to achieve full legal equality and during the early twentieth century led the student body in grade-point averages and university honors. During Kirkland’s chancellorship, the Medical and Nursing schools led other departments of the university in achieving national reputations. After World War I, a group of Vanderbilt intellectuals including Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren began publishing an influential poetry journal called The Fugitive. After the breakup of the Fugitives, Tate, Ransom, Davidson, and Warren, joined by others at Vanderbilt, published a volume of essays extolling southern values and agrarianism entitled I’ll Take My Stand in 1930. The Fugitives and the Agrarians gave Vanderbilt a lasting distinctiveness.

Kirkland’s forty-four years as chancellor established a record for leadership at a major university. He left his successor, Oliver C. Carmichael (1937-46), a legacy of vigorous leadership difficult to follow amid the challenges of the Great Depression and World War II. When Vanderbilt’s fourth chancellor, Harvie Branscomb (1946-63), took office, he confronted problems common to southern universities of the period–inadequate facilities, provincial students, a faculty poorly paid and outside the medical school, generally without national eminence, and low annual income. In order to benefit from the post-World War II economic boom, Branscomb and Harold S. Vanderbilt, president of the Board of Trust and a major benefactor, had to steer the university in line with national norms, particularly in the area of racial integration. The dismissal of divinity student James Lawson, regional director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and supporter of the Nashville sit-ins, caused serious divisions within the Vanderbilt community in 1960 but did not stop the slow decade-long march towards lifting of racial restrictions on admission, finally achieved in 1962. By the time of Branscomb’s retirement in 1963, Vanderbilt was drawing better qualified students from around the country, had a more diverse and distinguished faculty, and had an expanded physical plant.

Alexander Heard, chancellor from 1963 to 1982, steered Vanderbilt through the difficult years of the Vietnam War, student activism, and demands for equal treatment by women and African Americans. A commitment to freedom of expression, pluralism, and increased self-government of faculty and students helped stimulate the intellectual atmosphere. In 1969 the quota that kept women to one-third of enrollment in the College of Arts and Sciences was ended. Departments began to recruit more women and minority faculty. An open forum policy brought significant and controversial speakers to campus through the annual Forum and Impact series. Major fundraising drives and campus expansions such as the absorption of George Peabody College for Teachers and the Blair School of Music demonstrated Vanderbilt’s determination to achieve national stature.

Under its most recent chancellor, Joe B. Wyatt, Vanderbilt continued to define itself according to national standards, a considerable journey from its denominational and regional origins. In February 2000 the university trustees named E. Gordon Gee as chancellor. Total enrollment in 2000-2001 was 10,194. The university is the largest private employer in Middle Tennessee with 1,900 full-time faculty, 1,500 part-time and clinical faculty, and a staff of 12,600.

Suggested Reading

Paul K. Conkin, Gone with the Ivy: A Biography of Vanderbilt University (1985); Edwin Mims, History of Vanderbilt University (1946)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Vanderbilt University
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018