When Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt—-the wealthiest man in America—-decided to turn to philanthropy in 1873, he was persuaded by Methodist bishop Holland McTyeire to fund the creation of a college in Nashville, Tennessee. Vanderbilt’s million-dollar gift gave the Methodist university enough capital to enroll its first 200 students in 1875. The college took Vanderbilt’s name to honor the Commodore, who passed away in 1877 without ever setting foot on his namesake campus.
The school split from the Methodist Church after 40 years and established itself at the forefront of modern Southern scholarship and medical research. The 1960s were a tumultuous time, and while Vanderbilt wasn’t the first to integrate its campus racially, it did take a stand by recruiting the first black athlete to play in the Southeastern Conference, Perry Wallace. Vanderbilt also experienced major growth in the 1960s, absorbing both Oberlin College’s Graduate School of Theology and the nearby Peabody College for Teachers. Since then, Vanderbilt has worked to expand and enhance its slate of undergraduate and professional offerings, and today, the school has four undergraduate and six graduate colleges, all located on its 330-acre campus.
Vanderbilt is only a mile away from downtown Nashville, but the campus has done its best to protect its green spaces and natural beauty from the urban sprawl. The campus itself is laid out like a fan, with the historic Main Campus section at the base and subsequent development reaching out towards the city.
Main Campus, primarily constructed during Vanderbilt’s early years, contains the majority of the academic buildings for the College of Arts and Science, as well as the Owen graduate business school, the divinity school, law school, and Sarratt Student Center. The medical school complex borders Main Campus to the south, and to the west is Vanderbilt’s residential section, including dorms and Greek houses. Athletic facilities, fields, and the Vanderbilt Stadium flank campus on its far west end.
Vanderbilt’s campus stands in contrast to the original Peabody facilities, and the two (which merged in the 1960s) are linked together by the 21st Avenue pedestrian bridge. Vanderbilt preserves an organic style with its curvy Romantic architecture and its natural landscaping and tree groves (the campus is a state-designated arboretum). Peabody, on the other hand, emulates Jeffersonian classicism, with white-pillared buildings and neo-Greek simplicity. While Peabody may be Vanderbilt property now, administrators have decided to enshrine its individual history by letting each side of 21st Avenue do its own thing.
Vanderbilt students only have to step off campus to reach the shops, stores, and restaurants that make up the Hillsboro Village, as well as nearby retail meccas Hillsboro Village and Green Hills. But students looking to escape the Vanderbilt Bubble can take advantage of downtown Nashville, a quick ten-minute car ride away. Some students are wary of the vagrants and panhandlers from the city (dubbed “Nash Trash”) who get too close to their campus, and while crime on-campus is usually fairly low, the proximity to a major U.S. city can make less urbanized kids nervous. But those who make the trek to any of Nashville’s numerous live music venues, bars, restaurants, and cultural scene report that it’s a great city for the college crowd.
With their long history on campus, the frats and sororities are proud to carry on a number of Vanderbilt traditions tied both to the school and their Nashville home. Frats host crayfish boils on their porches, and spring formals involve a trek to far-away Florida during break (many graduating seniors also travel to the Sunshine State for “Beach Week,” during the gap between finals and commencement). Football tailgates are an occasion to put on their fancy semi-formal outfits and booze it up before Commodore games.
Vanderbilt’s Rites of Spring festival, held every April, attracts national college-favorite touring acts like Feist, Lil’ John, and Spoon annually to play the campus stage. The weekend is also packed with games, events, and outdoor festivities to give Vandy students a chance to relax before the final stretch of classes and exams.
Before beginning on their college careers, Vanderbilt freshmen gather together at the Honor Code Signing Ceremony, where each is asked to sign a pledge to maintain academic integrity. The Honor Code dates back to some of Vanderbilt’s earliest classes, and longtime former Dean of Students Madison Sarratt is credited with a quote echoed on many campuses since: “If you must fail one [exam], let it be trigonometry, for there are many good men in this world today who cannot pass an examination in trigonometry, but there are no good men in the world who cannot pass an examination in honesty.” The Signing Ceremony marks the only time except graduation that the entire class will be assembled in the same place at the same time.
Lamar Alexander (1962) is the former Governor of Tennessee and a current U.S. senator.
Amy Grant (1982) is a Christian pop singer.
Rosanne Cash (1979) is a singer/songwriter.
Robert Penn Warren (1925) won a Pulitzer Prize and is a former U.S. Poet Laureate.
Jay Cutler (2005) is a quarterback for the Denver Broncos.
Stanford Moore (1935) is the winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research on ribonuclease molecules.
Molly Sims (1995) is an American actress and model.
Vanderbilt’s teams get their name from Cornelius Vanderbilt—-known as “the Commodore”—-and are nicknamed "the Dores." In 2003, Vanderbilt attracted national attention when it decided to eliminate its separate athletic department and put all varsity sports under the care of the Office of Student Life, a first in Division I play. The move was designed to better integrate student-athletes into school life, and some feared quality coaches and players would flee the program. Ironically, since the change was made, Vanderbilt has chalked up better seasons than before, especially for its baseball, tennis, and basketball teams.
Fourteen of Vanderbilt’s varsity teams compete in Division I play in the Southeastern Conference, making them both the smallest school and the only private one in the division, while their women’s and men’s lacrosse teams participate in the American Lacrosse Conference. While its football team may draw the most Commodore fans to the field, its record has been mediocre at best in recent years. The newly-formed women’s bowling team brought Vanderbilt its first NCAA team title since the school joined NCAA play, and men’s and women’s lacrosse both enjoy consistent success. Varsity baseball and basketball teams also make regular appearances in NCAA tournament play.
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Its unique mascot, the Commodore, is portrayed as a 19th-century naval officer in full uniform with mutton chops and a cutlass.
Rumor has it classes at Vanderbilt have only been canceled twice in its history, and one of those times was due to a bull being loose on campus. This is not true. However, the gates near Kirkland Hall were originally designed to keep cattle from wandering onto campus.
Every tree that naturally grows in Tennessee is represented on the Vanderbilt campus.
The Vanderbilt Hustler is the oldest newspaper in Nashville. It got its start in 1888.
Except for those rooming with relatives in Davidson County, Vanderbilt has typically required its undergrads to remain in campus housing for all four years. Starting in the fall of 2008, however, all students must live in university housing—-while some upperclassmen were disappointed by the change, 83 percent of undergrads already choose to stay on campus. It’s just one step Vanderbilt has taken recently to promote a better, self-contained community for students.
Another major change, the construction of residential colleges called “College Halls,” will affect incoming freshmen from 2008 onwards. While the project will take 20 years to complete, the first of the College Halls, the Commons, collects ten residential halls on the Peabody campus to house all first-year students. Like the residential colleges at Harvard and Yale, the dorms will have some faculty members living, eating, studying, and doing laundry side-by-side with students. The brand-new facilities will be a boon to incoming freshmen, and two of the dorms have been recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council for their eco-friendly construction.
The remaining residences are clustered around quads and in towers on the west side of campus alongside frat and sorority houses. Kissam Quadrangle, Alumni Lawn, Carmichael Towers East, Carmichael Towers West, Branscomb Quadrangle, and Highland Quadrangle mix freshmen and upperclassmen in a variety of singles, doubles, and suite-style living arrangements.