On December 4, Vanderbilt announced that Daniel Diermeier, the Provost of the University of Chicago, will become the new Chancellor in July 2020. The Provost has an extensive background in political science, economics, and public policy. Days after the announcement was made, students and alumni started sharing a petition asking the Board of Trustees to rescind their offer to Provost Diermeier.
Alumni Connor VanAllman (Class of 2016) and Télyse Masaoay (Class of 2019) started the petition within a few days of the announcement, and it currently has over 320 student and alumni signatures. The petition highlights three main points arguing for the Vanderbilt administration to rescind their offer: the Provost’s history of supporting corporations at the expense of activism, his involvement in an anti-union campaign at the University of Chicago, as well as a call for more diversity in Vanderbilt’s leadership.
“The more we learned about Diermeier’s history of union-busting, his attitude towards activists and his extreme unpopularity at his current institution, the more worried we became. Several of us felt that we couldn’t let the Board of Trust go unchecked. We started this petition because we believe in the power of student, staff and alumni voices to make change,” explained Masaoay.
With regards to Provost Diermeier’s stance on activism, the petition refers to his role in authoring the book Corporate Reputation and Social Activism: Strategic Interaction, Firm Behavior, and Social Welfare, which was published in August 2019. The book discusses how social activism attempts to influence firms through different methods and assesses whether activism is beneficial to social welfare.
In the first chapter, Diermeier and his two co-authors reference the deadly collapse of a factory in Bangladesh in 2013. In the aftermath of this event where over 1,100 workers were killed, many activists rallied for large corporations, such as Walmart and Disney, to improve working conditions and safety standards. The authors consider this event to be an example of how activism attempts to “[regulate] global commerce.”
Chapter four of the book entitled “Do Activist Campaigns Benefit Society?” questions whether activism creates enough social value to outweigh the costs. The chapter begins by saying that “[activist] campaigns can potentially create social value,” but that they also entail costs, such as making corporations excessively “sensitive to reputational management.” While the chapter initially considers how activist campaigns may impact social welfare, the first four sections highlight the costs created by these campaigns.
As mentioned in the petition, the alumni are concerned with Provost Diermeier’s perspective on activism. They argue that the characterization of activists as a threat to corporations is troubling.
“In our next Chancellor, we expect a candidate who values the contributions of peaceful, democratic activists, including those of our own campus’ student activists, over corporate profits. In this regard, we have no confidence in Diermeier,” stated the petition.
The petition also mentions Provost Diermeier’s history of pursuing action against unions while at the University of Chicago. His anti-union record raises concern for many students who fear that he may implement the same strategies against unions at Vanderbilt. In June 2019, the University of Chicago Graduate Student Union held a three-day strike, demanding better working conditions and hoping to be recognized by the University’s administration. In response, Provost Diermeier issued a university-wide email in which he intended to “reaffirm the University’s position on graduate student unionization.” In this email, the Provost pointed out that while the University of Chicago supports freedom of speech and “is not opposed to unions,” the University is not required to recognize a graduate student union. He explained that unionization is harmful to the University’s tradition of a decentralized graduate education, and that it may have an adverse effect on the progress that has already been made.
“We are officially very concerned about Diermeier’s anti-activist and especially anti-union history. We think unions are the backbone of a good working class movement,” said Matt Chvasta, a member of the Young Democratic Socialists.
The third and final point mentioned in the petition concerns a need for more diverse and representative leadership at Vanderbilt. As the student body has grown more diverse over the years, members of the Vanderbilt community believe that the administration should be representative of the University as a whole.
“Diversity is a substantial and legitimate factor in these kinds of decisions — particularly when there was such a strong desire from the student body to have someone that we feel could address issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. from personal experience,” said student Sofia Ramirez Starkey.
“As a woman of color, I can tell you how important it is to have leadership that speaks to the issues and experiences of the most marginalized,” explained Masaoay. She continued by stating that “while diversity in leadership is incredibly important, I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not oppose Diermeier based on his race, gender or any other identity that he holds. I, and many others, oppose Daniel Diermeier’s appointment because of his track record as an administrator who squashes union efforts and sees activists as a threat to corporate profits.”
On the other hand, some students believe that the demographics of the incoming Chancellor should not be a major factor in the decision-making process. Some students, such as Cedoni Francis, also feel as though signing the petition will accomplish nothing.
“I know that Vanderbilt [isn’t] going to fire a Chancellor because people are unhappy. This university is a business, and picking Diermeier was a business decision,” said Francis.
The petition has spread to many members of the Vanderbilt community. Stephanie Coelho, class of 2019, signed the petition despite no longer attending Vanderbilt.
“I feel as though Vanderbilt had the opportunity to send a message with this choice and either they chose to ignore that opportunity or they are sending the wrong message with their choice in Chancellor,” said Coelho.
The search for a new Chancellor began in May of this year after former Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos announced his resignation in April. The Chancellor Search Committee, which consisted of members of the Board of Trust, faculty, and staff members, led the search. As part of the search, the Committee emailed over 100,000 members of the Vanderbilt community asking for input, including current students, alumni, faculty, and staff; they also circulated an online survey. Out of the 1,677 survey responses, respondents mentioned diversity more than 1,400 times.
Speaking to the Chancellor search, Masaoay explained “either the Vanderbilt Board of Trust did a poor job of vetting their candidate or they ignored these red flags entirely. Either case is disturbing and we should all be disappointed that Vanderbilt is now championing Diermeier as an embodiment of Vanderbilt’s values.“
Through this petition, Vanderbilt students, alumni, and faculty ask the Vanderbilt administration and Board of Trustees to reconsider their offer to Provost Diermeier.