A Chancellor Emboldened by DACA: Vanderbilt’s Subtle Shift on Trump


PC: Vanderbilt University

Naveen Krishnan

Naveen Krishnan, Sydney Silberman, and Simon Silverberg all contributed to this article.

Zeppos’ Subtle Shift on Trump

Earlier today, Nicholas S. Zeppos, Vanderbilt’s Chancellor, issued a response to Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for DACA. The statement – unusually brief and direct for Zeppos, whose press releases are often quite lengthy and verbose – succinctly stated “ending DACA is a mistake.” The statement criticized how Trump’s action “closes the door to young student scholars and leaders” and “cuts short their potential to contribute to their communities and our national economy.” While he has often critiqued Trump’s policies through official press releases, Zeppos’ declaration that “[Vanderbilt] will continue to support and embrace [it’s] students regardless of immigration status, citizenship or nationality” presents a departure from previous statements which have failed to establish direct messages of unequivocal confrontation with the Trump Administration.

It is common for Vanderbilt officials to publicly comment on major current events – such as the white supremacist rally and corresponding terrorist act in Charlottesville or Hurricane Harvey’s impact in Texas – as the University often reiterates its commitment towards diversity, inclusion, and the support of the entire community a regular basis; however, after Trump’s inauguration, the Chancellor issued carefully crafted statements to the community that, while incessantly affirming Vanderbilt’s diversity, were also careful to illustrate how Vanderbilt does not intend to actively defy federal laws. This distinction fomented varying degrees of discontent and disapproval among the student body. The trepid navigation by which the University has crafted its words has resulted in statements that symbolically oppose and stand staunchly against oppressive actions, such as Trump’s Jan 27th Executive Order (the Muslim Ban). To promote Vanderbilt’s inclusion initiatives, Chancellor Zeppos responded to this xenophobic order, claiming that he “joined with many of [his] colleagues in calling on the administration to rectify or rescind the original order,” as it was “at odds with” the University’s aforementioned guiding principles. Contradicting this notion, it has been made clear that Vanderbilt “does not have the option of refusing to follow the law.” In a statement from the Chancellor on November 28, the community was reassured that the University “do[es] not routinely release [immigration records] to the public,” however the administration would hand over those records if “compelled by law.” Zeppos’ DACA statement illustrates a Chancellor growing increasingly frustrated with the Trump Administration, as Trump continues to issue decisions which are facing increasing condemnation from individuals on both sides of the aisle.

The Restrictions of the Chancellor & The Need to Be Bolder

While it goes without saying the Chancellor is committed to his opposition of xenophobic and exclusionary policies, his defenders – often other University administrators and officials – maintain that he is constrained by the boundaries associated with the position he holds. Many university officials across the nation are put in delicate positions such as this one. Additionally, it is crucial to note Vanderbilt’s rapid transformation over the past decade alone: often heralded as the ‘Harvard of the South’, Vanderbilt’s student body used to be notably homogenous, comprised mainly of Southern, Christian, and conservative students. With an increasingly diverse and left-leaning student body, Zeppos finds himself stuck between two Vanderbilts: what once was and what exists today. This conflict corners Vanderbilt, posing a more complicated situation than other universities face (such as Columbia, which officially declared itself a sanctuary campus on November 22nd).

Late last week, University presidents from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, NYU, and Duke joined other university leaders in voicing their concern over the rumors regarding the end of the DACA program. Universities have taken steps in recent months to help the well-being of undocumented students. These precautions – proactive or reactive – follow a consistent theme from University officials of doubling down on their respective commitments to diversity and inclusion. Abiding by millennial standards of communication, Chancellor Zeppos has recently taken to Twitter to voice his disapproval of many of the Trump Administration’s actions. If Zeppos intends for Vanderbilt to mirror the prestige of its elite peers, Vanderbilt must start mirroring the measures taken by peer institutions, such as Columbia.

Looking into the Future

It is evident through his actions that while Zeppos intends to move Vanderbilt in the direction of other colleges such as Columbia, the University is inching towards a stronger, explicit stance against Trump. Although most of these formal statements are from the Chancellor himself, we – the Vanderbilt Community – must not forget that entire administration plays a role in this institution’s efforts – or lack thereof – to protect the entire student body and promote equity, diversity, and inclusion. Vanderbilt is a private institution, which means it is contractually bound to honor the promises made to the community. The claim being made is that Vanderbilt is dedicated to the inclusivity of all students, which is incompatible with Trump’s America. How is the collective administration going to stand against this?