Vanderbilt taps University of Chicago Provost Daniel Diermeier as new chancellor

Jason Gonzales
The Tennessean

Daniel Diermeier will lead Vanderbilt University as its ninth chancellor, taking over leadership of one of Nashville's most prominent and important institutions.

The selection of the University of Chicago provost Wednesday ended an eight-month search process to replace Nicholas S. Zeppos and begins a six-month period for Diermeier to become familiar with Vanderbilt and Music City.

Diermeier, who will begin July 1, beat out a diverse and deep pool of candidates for the job, said Vanderbilt Board of Trust Chairman Bruce R. Evans. Through the interview process, Evans said, Diermeier showed he has a commitment to advancing the school and improving outcomes for students. He fits with the vision of the school, Evans said. 

Vanderbilt University has selected Daniel Diermeier as its new chancellor, taking over leadership of one of Nashville's most prominent institutions.

“One thing that struck us was Daniel shares Vanderbilt core values of teaching, research and service, and the university's commitment to educating the whole person academically and socially within a diverse and inclusive campus community,” Evans said. “We think Daniel's experience and vision make him the ideal candidate to advance and accelerate the momentum we've been experiencing.”

Diermeier applauded the university’s foundation of improvement and excellence but said there is a strong feeling that there is more to come. 

“We are at a place where we have a very strong foundation we can be tremendously proud of what has been accomplished. But we're also not satisfied,” he said. “And I look forward to working together with faculty, staff, students and the board to write the next chapter in the history of this great university.”

A view toward growing the school

In Diermeier, 54, the school is hiring a scholar whose journey led him to from West Berlin, Germany, to a top-ranking official at the University of Chicago.

Diermeier said he is the first of his family’s generation to graduate from high school and then college. Through a fellowship, Diermeier came to the United States to pursue his doctorate.

“I literally arrived at the airport with my luggage and $1,000,” he said.

Since then, Diermeier has been able to garner plenty of recognition – most recently as the University of Chicago’s provost.

There, he leads the university's research and academic programs and oversees the school’s $2.5 billion budget.

He helped lead the reorganization of the university’s financial management structure, leading to savings of $80 million. Federal research grants under his tenure grew by more than $100 million. 

He also led faculty expansion efforts in computer science and data analytics, economics and policy, urban studies, and molecular engineering, culminating in the creation of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering in 2019.

He said he doesn’t have any specific initiatives or programs he wants to bring to Nashville from Chicago but instead wants to grow the school in ways that make sense for Vanderbilt. Growth, he said, doesn’t necessarily mean enrollment, but can instead include development or research.

“It's really about growing the eminence and the reputation of Vanderbilt University,” he said.

An accomplished academic

Diermeier’s resume also includes a host of other accomplishments.

His interests are numerous, he said, and include art, literature and film. It’s led him to write over 100 research articles in subjects such as sociology and computer science.

His scholarly expertise, he said, is in political institutions and governance structures. 

He earned his doctorate in political science from the University of Rochester in 1995. He also holds master’s degrees in philosophy and political science from the University of Southern California, the University of Munich and the University of Rochester. 

Before joining the Chicago university, Diermeier taught at Stanford and Northwestern universities. He won multiple teaching awards during his time at the school and was named among one of the world’s best business school professors by Fortune magazine. 

Diermeier speaks five languages, has consulted in both the private and public sectors and published four books. He and his wife, Ariela Lazar, director of visual arts education and outreach at the University of Chicago, have twin sons, both in college. 

“I look forward to learning more about Nashville," he said. "And, you know, spend more time here. I'm excited about that part of the next chapter in my life — getting to know the community, getting to know the city and learning what it is about.”

Replacing Zeppos as Vanderbilt's leader

Ahead of Diermeier taking over as leader, Interim Chancellor Susan Wente will continue to serve as both chancellor and provost until June 30. After, she will resume her role as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. 

The new president said he will need to resign from his post in Chicago, as well as prepare for his time in Nashville. 

Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos, second right, and former Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee, right, listen to the funeral for former Vanderbilt athletics director David WIlliams Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, at The Temple Church in Nashville, Tenn.

“I still want to be available for the president there as a senior advisor to help with the transition, some of my personal things have to be taken care of, and then, most importantly, I want to spend as much time as I can in Nashville during the transition,” Diermeier said. “My plan is to come back to Nashville regularly, to Vanderbilt, to meet with the faculty, students and academic leadership so that I can learn as much as I can.”

Diermeier replaces Zeppos, who stepped down in August as head of the university due to health problems.

Zeppos started at the university in 1987 as a law professor. Over the decades, he worked his way from the faculty to the administration, eventually becoming the university’s chief academic officer and previous Chancellor Gordon Gee’s chief deputy.

He took the reins as chancellor in 2008 and he has navigated sweeping challenges such as the Great Recession, controversies that include a rape case against former Vanderbilt football players and managed numerous successes in the years since.

He leaves the school in a strong position, growing the university endowment from a low of $2.9 billion during the recession to $6.4 billion, according to figures provided by the university. And the school’s pool of student applicants more than doubled during his tenure, as well as seeing the school grow in national rankings.

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Reach Jason Gonzales at and on Twitter @ByJasonGonzales.