Growing Forward

"My hope is that while we return to normal in some ways, we create a new normal in others."

by Candice Lee

Dear Commodore Nation,

First, and most important, I hope this message finds you and your family safe and healthy.

Many people have used words such as “unprecedented” to describe the current times. And, honestly, that is probably the best word to describe what each of us has been going through. We’re all facing new challenges, whether that’s working from home while keeping kids occupied, living alone in a time of physical distancing, keeping tabs on aging parents, or struggling to keep a small business afloat. I offer my empathy and encouragement, and it’s in that spirit that I wanted to touch base.

This is the first of what will be regular communication from me. The “Growing Forward” reference in the title comes from a phrase I used in February when talking about next steps during my first few days as interim athletic director. I am firmly committed to the idea that, while we have accomplished a lot, we have a lot of hard work ahead of us to advance our vision to deliver the preeminent student-athlete experience in college athletics.

Though it was mid-March when our Commodores were last in action, we continue to forge ahead as best we can during the COVID-19 pandemic. Doing so requires deep collaboration and thoughtfulness, which serves us well as we keep the health and safety of our community as our top priority. As I told our student-athletes yesterday, we recognize that time is passing quickly, yet we cannot be hasty in making decisions.

I’m pleased to tell you that we have been able to resume some activities on campus. Our football student-athletes have been back for voluntary summer workouts. Starting July 24, the NCAA will allow football student-athletes to participate in up to 20 hours per week of required activities. This is part of the ramp-up to preseason practice, which is currently slated to begin on August 7. Of course, the safety and well-being of our student-athletes are our chief concerns. We have implemented a comprehensive set of health and safety protocols, including regular testing. The next sports we expect to return to campus are soccer, men’s and women’s basketball and men’s and women’s cross country.

Our student-athletes are navigating difficult times. Not only is there uncertainty about when and how their respective sports will resume, but they’re also faced with another jarring issue — one of social and racial injustice. We have always encouraged our student-athletes to use their voice. Among my messages to them is that, “Our platform of sports can encourage love, deny hate and truly effect change, and we can’t stop trying to be part of the solution.”

This extends to the recent allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct in our campus community. We take this issue incredibly seriously. It is not just a professional responsibility, but a moral obligation. As a woman and a mother, my heart goes out to all whose lives have been forever altered by any such heinous acts. As a university leader and as athletic director, I am committed to striving every day to provide the safest and healthiest environment possible for all of our students. Being a Vanderbilt student-athlete is a privilege. And with that privilege comes great scrutiny and great responsibility, but also a great opportunity to lead.

Be assured that we are undertaking a review to evaluate what’s working, what’s not working, and what improvements we can make to advance a safer environment for our students. The review will inform an action plan to address process gaps and improvements and build on existing programs and strategies to combat sexual assault and misconduct currently being implemented through Project Safe, the Title IX and Student Discrimination Office, Vanderbilt Athletics and other parts of the university.

I plan to share more of the various ways Vanderbilt is helping to address the important issues of social injustice and sexual misconduct in the days and weeks ahead.

I also wanted to address the recent changes we made to formally integrate athletics communications with the university’s communications team. Our collaboration with university communications has grown significantly over the last several years. Formalizing this collaboration with an integrated team will provide a jolt of new resources, expertise, creativity and efficiency that will help us advance our goals and better tell our story.

Related to these broader strategic changes is a clear recognition that we must improve in engaging our alumni. As a former student-athlete and an alumna, I consider this group to be near and dear to my heart. We are preparing to launch a new Black and Gold Club, which will help us connect with and honor former student-athletes. We will actively seek input from these special alums to inform our efforts and plans to ensure we are constantly learning and improving. For example, this group’s input will be especially important as we finalize our master facilities plan.

As that broader planning continues, we have been making significant progress on initial projects, including upgrading our basketball practice facility with the generous support of George and Cathy Huber. The pandemic slowed some scheduled upgrades to our football locker room, but we anticipate that project starting again soon.

One silver lining for me during this pandemic has been getting to know many members of the Commodore fan base through interactive gatherings. And some of you have even been kind enough to indulge me with a cold call! Each week, I make it a point to learn something new from our supporters, and I love how those conversations always include stories of how people started supporting Vanderbilt. These are always great reminders of the impact that athletics can have! It’s even more evident now, when we are missing opportunities to cheer for one another. To build even stronger ties with this group, we will be forming a fan relations committee, comprised solely of Commodore fans. I am actively working through the details and will share more about this soon. My goal is to have our first meeting in August.

One final note: I hope you saw our recent announcement about our longtime women’s tennis coach, Geoff Macdonald, who is retiring from his post after 26 years at Vanderbilt. Coach Macdonald will go down in history as one of the most successful Vanderbilt coaches ever — in any sport. His teams won three SEC championships and a national championship in 2015, with NCAA runner-up finishes in 2001 and 2018. Geoff has handed the program over to his former student-athlete and longtime assistant Aleke Tsoubanos, and he will serve as an assistant to Aleke. We couldn’t be prouder of all that Geoff has accomplished, and the program could not be in better hands than with Aleke.

This is just a snapshot of what’s happening right now, and there is much more to come. If you have not already done so, then be sure to watch the video of our new chancellor, Daniel Diermeier, reflecting on the positive and important role of a successful college athletics program. As Commodore fans, I know you share in my excitement as we enter a new chapter for Vanderbilt Athletics!

I invite you to join me on our path of “Growing Forward” together.

Until next time, stay safe and healthy.

Anchor Down,

Candice Lee Signature

Candice Lee
Vice Chancellor for Athletics and University Affairs and Athletic Director