NASHVILLE, TN — Nicholas S. Zeppos became Vanderbilt’s eighth chancellor in 2008, after being interim chancellor the year before. But this past August the school did something under his leadership that not only took courage, but also came at significant fiscal cost. This move is the reason the Tennessee Tribune is naming him one of our two Persons of the Year in 2016.
Vanderbilt officially removed the Confederate name from Memorial Hall. Though they had stopped referring to it by the Confederate Memorial Hall identity since 2002, the United Daughters of the Confederacy sued to prevent them from officially removing that term off the building. A federal appeals court ruled in 2005 that the school could only do that by refunding in full the current value of the original donation made 83 years ago.
The United Daughters provided $50,000 towards the building’s construction and naming rights to honor Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War. Zeppos helped spearhead the efforts that led to a $1.2 million donation paid to the United Daughters. Zeppos made the announcement in August, saying that the Confederate name was “a symbol and a reminder of racism, slavery, and a memory of a bloody Civil War.” Zeppos came to Vanderbilt in 1987, starting as a faculty member at the Law School. He has had multiple positions at Vanderbilt prior to becoming Chancellor. These include associate provost for Academic Affairs, Associate Dean of the Law School, Vice Chancellor for Institutional planning and advancement, and the provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.
No one should downplay the significance of this move. It culminated a 14-year struggle to take the Confederate name off the residence hall. Zeppos has publicly rebuffed contentions that he and Vanderbilt are distorting or changing history, and also debunked the notion Vanderbilt was denying its own history.