Wednesday, September 4, 2013

He'll Always Be Our Chancellor

When we gather for Reunion in October, it will be our first without former Chancellor Alexander Heard. He passed away July 24, 2009 at the age of 92.

Heard led Vanderbilt for nearly two decades (1963-1982).  While his tenure was an often tumultous period in terms of change on campus and student unrest nationwide, his leadership at VU saw relative calm here along with the addition of three new schools (Peabody, Owen and Blair), the construction or major renovation of some three dozen school buildings, two highly successful fund-raising campaigns, a doubling of enrollment and the school's annual budget increasing tenfold!

We almost lost him in the summer of 1969 right before we came to school. Columbia University was one of at least a half dozen schools that tried to hire him away over the years. But Chancellor Heard always remained loyal to Vanderbilt.

A major part of Alexander Heard's legacy at Vanderbilt was his commitment to the University as an open forum particularly through the creation in 1964 of the annual IMPACT Symposium, now one of the longest-running student operated speaker series in the nation.

The Chancellor' s commitment to an open forum on campus continued despite the controversy and criticism that ensued (even from VU Board of Trust members) when black power and civil rights leaders such as Stokley Carmichael and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at IMPACT sessions. It even continued during our time at Vanderbilt in the Spring of 1970 when Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington was sharply critical of Vanderbilt and the Chancellor for inviting flamboyant attorney William Kunstler to speak just weeks after he was involved in the infamous Chicago 7 anti-Vietnam War Trial.....

Chancellor Heard was also a frequent Presidential advisor, heading major studies on topics such as campaign costs, intergovermental relations, education and community relations under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Most notably during our time at Vanderbilt, Chancellor Heard was named a Special Advisor to President Nixon in the spring of 1970. It came during a period in which campus unrest was at its height following the invasion of Cambodia and the widening of the War in Vietnam. Here below is a photo of Chancellor Heard addressing Vanderbilt students in Neely Auditorium on the day he accepted the presidential appointment, followed by a CBS Evening News report by Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather that aired the same evening.....

Chancellor Heard also led the efforts to diversify Vanderbilt's top leadership adding the first woman to the Board of Trust (several more have followed) as well as a new class of trustees----four recent graduates to assure a youthful perspective will always be heard by the board. The Heard name of course remains prominent at the school...the Joint University Library of our day now holds the name of the Chancellor and his wife, Jean. And since his retirement in 1982, Vanderbilt annually presents the Alexander Heard Distinguished Service Professor Award honoring a faculty member for his/her contributions to the understanding of problems in contemporary society.

We miss you, Chancellor. Rest in peace.

1 comment:

Unknown said...


Sophomore year I was taking a Political Science class (I actually think YOU talked me into it). That was the time of Black September when the Jordanian Army cracked down hard on the Palestinians. Our Professor that semester was Samir Anabtawi, who was himself a Palestinian Christian (you Americans seem to think Jesus came from Lake Michigan instead of the Sea of Galilee). He brought Chancellor Heard in for two weeks as they team taught the class. The Chance's knowledge and teaching style was incredible.

Two other great Al Heard moments for me was when he corrected my spelling on a written question to him, "You do intend on graduating this semester, don't you, Mr. Womack?"

The other was when we were serving on the committee to select the Young Trustee from the class of 1974 (I think we selected John Civils). Bob Nixon, who was our Student Body President, was supposed to be there, but wasn't.
Chancellor Heard asked where Mr. Nixon was. Someone mentioned he was at Oxford. This prompted The Chance to go on a rambling accolade about all the Vanderbilt graduates who had attended Oxford, especially another former Student Body President, John Gaventa.

At this point, Rob Roy Purdy took a deep drag on his pipe, and said "Al, I think he means Ole Miss."

The Chance's whole demeanor changed immediately.

He was indeed OUR Chancellor. Harvie Branscomb was a treasure trove of stories and anecdotes as he walked the campus twice a day.

It wasn't the same when Joe B. Wyatt offered me a beer the first time I met him at a Graduate Student mixer. He the Chancellor when I got my Masters, and I liked him personally, but MY Chancellor was always Alexander Heard.

He let me play with that crystal tiger he had on his desk. He remembered that 15 years later when we had him and Jean as our guests for our reunion that year. Rest in Peace my friend.

Steve Womack