Reflections on 45 years of Board leadership

Editor's Note: University School of Nashville welcomed more than five dozen former Board of Trustees members to 2000 Edgehill during a reception on Monday, November 18, 2019. The group included USN parents, parents of alumni, and alumni from throughout the country. Following the event, Director Vince Durnan shared these words with the school's current and former trustees dating back to the school's 1974 transition from Peabody Demonstration School to become University School of Nashville.
Special thanks for making time to be there in the Auditorium once more last night. For me and for many of us it provided a Mount Olympus moment, in the company of people who set the course that makes today’s highlights possible. It’s in your courage, wisdom, good humor, and willingness to stretch that we find the great and lasting examples worth following in today’s deliberations about what’s best for the school community.
Looking at Jim Hogge at the front table and realizing that he served on the legendary Transition Committee in 1974-1975, now forty-five years back, and hearing Ivanetta Davis-Samuels '86 speaking so compellingly now as our second graduate to serve as Board President (with Mike Shmerling ’73 as a precedent) gave me cause for further reflection. That brought to mind seminal decisions made by our Board across the decades seen in hindsight, and I can’t resist sharing those with you in gratitude.
The first commitment, the signal 1970s moment, was the decision not to close. Peabody College's earnestly done feasibility studies concluded more than once that the Demonstration School could not survive if decoupled from its founding entity, and in a sense, they were right. It took reinvention and renaming, thanks to a schoolwide student ballot, to create USN from what would have been the ashes of PDS, against the odds. That Board rented then borrowed (at 17% interest) to buy this campus, and their ceaseless meeting schedule, following the historic first one at Bernard and Betty Werthan’s table, willed us into existence. What they made possible is a school of 1070 students, 39% of whom are children of color, also embracing families from fifty nations. We’re now regularly invited to the table nationally when leading schools are gathered, including this Friday when I’ll join a dozen school heads and a dozen college presidents to discuss ways that K-12 and higher education institutions can cooperate for the benefit of our students.
In the 1980s came, among many others, the decision not to move. The Dem School building needed plenty of work, the seven acres here felt tight (and still do), and for many in the city, the future seemed to be in heading further out of town, maybe with other institutional partners. But they built the West Wing, then the Sperling Center (and the “new gym," now 30 years old). By staying right here, they preserved our unique proximity and potential adjacent to one of the nation's leading research universities — a priceless advantage as we gaze into the future in this booming city. And our impending inclusion as part of VU's new energy infrastructure, a major cost-saving measure that will help for generations, speaks to the benefit and trajectory of our many connections with Vanderbilt.
Then in the 1990s, the Board decided, with great forethought, to retire partial tuition remission for faculty and staff as a form of compensation. In those days, the preponderance of our financial aid budget, however modest, went to people who worked here. By grandfathering those then eligible and asking any newcomers to participate in the determination process available to all other applicants, those trustees opened the door to today’s landscape. All of our more than $3 million tuition assistance budget is assigned based on demonstrated need, and it reaches 22% of our enrollment K-12. With the last of those faculty children whose family qualified back in 1994 having graduated two years ago, happily we count nearly 60 faculty and staff children now enrolled, with average need-based grants larger by percentage than the remission figure was back in its day. And interestingly, while our policy resembles that of leading schools nationwide, we are still conspicuous locally by not offering remission, however uneven a benefit it may be by its nature, given the varied family and financial circumstances of people who work here.
A bonus 1990s example is the decision to buy the River Campus. Those 80 acres, envisioned as part park, part sports facility, and part science research site, are now busy end to end. The wetlands still host student visits for environmental monitoring, and the original sod-farm barter deal has given way to using every inch of our fields. At times in the spring we'll draw several hundred spectators to see tennis, track, baseball, lacrosse, ultimate, and softball simultaneously. It's the big back yard that makes a perfect complement to our Edgehill campus, and it feels closer to town than ever.
In the 2000s, it was the decision to shelve a feasibility study that said USN couldn’t raise more than $6 million and press on anyway. That Board committed to the Tibbott Center and the Hassenfeld Library together, and to endow their care, and to a $10 million goal for a campaign that ultimately raised $15 million. Those buildings kept us accredited and confirmed the earlier decision to make this campus our home, now 230,000 interior square feet in total. And the compact nature of this physical plant helps us keep operating expenses lower as we pay our faculty in the top quartile nationwide, with tuition in the bottom half of our benchmarking group.
Then in the 2010s, as we prepared for and celebrated our Centennial, fully embracing our PDS origin story, came the decision to focus more on building endowment than on building facilities. We did complete a 50,000 square foot restoration project to improve myriad elements of daily activities here, but at the top of the priority list was doubling endowment—which directly led to the $25 million figure that Ivanetta rightfully and proudly shared yesterday.
Of course, there were innumerable additional right calls and strategic moves made across the decades, but following on our gathering, this set seems to connect best to the USN we find it so easy to love, in no small way thanks to you. What occupies our thoughts most in the Board sessions and conversations with our fabulously talented Amin Team is wondering what’s going to be the transformational decision of the 2020s, and not surprisingly, I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.
If you’d be game for coffee and conversation anytime in coming weeks and months, just say the word. Suffice to say there’s plenty of inspiration to go around after seeing you each and seeing you all.
With deepest appreciation,
And finally, if you’re still reading, one delightful element of our gathering was the return of two USN library books by one of you, many years overdue, found in an alumna’s car left behind, then deposited on my desk. Rest assured that they've been returned to circulation, and life goes on ….

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