It took four years, two months and 13 days for Mayor Phil Bredesen to say something stupid, and when he did, he opened the floodgates. xxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxIt was not as if Bredesen’s public comments about life in Nashville last week were particularly inaccurate. Or unsubstantiated. Or way off base.
What boggled the mind, initially, was Bredesen’s choice of targets. He dragged in country music, the city’s one truly local art form, and its best-known business. He attacked the city’s leading university, whose alumnae make up the most influential segment of his constituency. Finally, he even managed to bring his wife, the extremely reserved and un-public Andrea Conte, into the mess. As one of his criticisms of Vanderbilt, Bredesen cited the university’s relationship with the Caldwell Early Childhood Center, of which Conte has been an active supporter.
Word has it, the mayor thought of going after Snowbird and the Southern Baptist Convention, but he decided to keep his powder dry.
What was even more amazing, however, was the fact that this was not just any old politician making the flubs. It was the careful, temperate, image-conscious Phil Bredesen, the A-student, the guy who always gets top marks in conduct. Not only was it curious, but it was also an amusing spectacle. First he lands the Oilers, and then, when the big-time national press calls, he gets overexcited and starts tossing out quotes like Christmas candy. Among political insiders, the one-liner of the week was “Bredesen pulled a Boner.”
By the end of the week, the engines of state were roaring, full steam ahead, toward a full and perfect resolution of the several . First on the mayor’s agenda was an apology to the Caldwell Center. The mayor paid a personal visit to Caldwell principal Myron Oglesby-Pitts and said, face to face, that he was sorry.
Bredesen had told reporters that his wife was unhappy with Vanderbilt’s involvement in the Caldwell program. For the past five years, counselors from Vanderbilt Mental Health Center have worked with Caldwell students, but the university’s future involvement with the center may be in question because of funding problems. When the Nashville Banner asked Conte to comment on the flap, she replied, with her typical stoic reserve, “It’s not appropriate for all this to be in the paper.”
When it comes to Bredesen’s statements about Nashville’s corn pone image, the mayor is going to have a tough time mending fences. Bredesen did not say anything that was not correct. Around the country, Nashville’s image does consist of hay bales and Hee Haw. Of course, Bredesen was talking about outside perceptions of Nashville, not the reality of day-to-day life in Music Cityor, if it makes you feel any better, in the Athens of the South. The mayor got into trouble, however, by airing the city’s dirty laundry in the national press. He bruised the civic ego and resurrected Nashville’s inferiority complex and its love-hate relationship with the music industry. He reopened a wound that has been reopened, and healed, many times. What he said may have been true, but to say it in public was not wise.
In yet another inner-sanctum summit, Bredesen has apparently scheduled a meeting with Vanderbilt Chancellor Joe B. Wyatt to discuss the big picture of Vanderbilt’s place in the general framework of the city. By the time the meeting is over, the two will probably be trading bootleg software and breaking out their slide rules. But differences will very likely remain. Bredesen has publicly stated that he isn’t taking back anything he said about Vanderbilt. And don’t look for Wyatt, who is chairman-elect of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, to arrive at the meeting wearing a gorilla suit from Bittner’s.
The issue of Vanderbilt’s service to the city is the thorniest of all the subjects broached by the mayor. Town vs. gown complaints have been around for a long time. To some degree, all universities have troubled relationships with the communities that surround them. In Nashville, though, people have always preferred to keep such thoughts to themselves. At least, they have kept them out of the press.
Vanderbilt likes to conduct its business around the family conference table. The university can cope with criticism from within. But when the carping comes from an outsider, it’s a different state of affairs.
Just ask Bredesen. He issued his broadside against the university within the context of an interview about the Oilers. In a Sports Illustrated article highly critical of Vanderbilt athletics, Bredesen was asked about how the university is perceived by Nashvillians. He was quoted as saying that it “has held itself very apart from the community. Vanderbilt is seen more as a big gorilla that has made its home over therebut nobody invites it to dinner. When something bad happens to the sports program, instead of wringing their hands, a lot of people say, ‘It couldn’t happen to nicer people.’ ”
The Tennessean called the mayor to write a follow-up story, he repeated the comments, and went on to state that a lot of people think Vandy doesn’t do much for Nashville. The story ran. Trouble ensued.
Wyatt held a press conference the next day to state, publicly, that he was “shocked” and “mystified” by the mayor’s remarks. The chancellor insisted that his university does indeed do a lot for Nashville. He beat his breast about his love for country music, which had to be a first for a Vanderbilt chancellor. Don Sundquist would have been proud.
If Wyatt’s argument was that Vanderbilt is vitally involved in the affairs of the city, it was somewhat dulled by the fact that, when his picture appeared that night on the evening news, a lot of people were asking, “Who is that guy?” Many were also wondering why Wyatt had decided to do the heavy lifting on his own. Most of the time, Jeff Carr, the university’s general counsel, deals with the press. Was Carr out of town or something?
Before long, the entire city had taken sides in the argument. On one side, Vandy alums effectively shattered the notion that they are people of repressed emotion. Anger spilled. Tempers rose. To demonstrate its civic spirit, the university released page after page to chronicle its community-service programs. The News and Public Affairs Department worked overtime. Some Vandy backers, incredulously, spoke as if they had never heard anybody suggest that Vanderbilt was not honored and loved throughout the city.
Meanwhile, Bredesen said he stood by his every word.
Politically, of course, Bredesen’s comments were a mine field. He had enraged a group of wealthy, influential, productive, well-connected citizens, a group of people who have, very likely, been supportive of just about all of his projects. They are also just the sort of people Bredesen has been counting on to purchase private seat licenses and luxury suites in the Oilers’ new stadium.
Profit without honor
Still, the question lingers: Is it true that Vanderbilt does a lot for the city? The question, a loaded one, is not easy to answer.
When it comes to Vanderbilt’s image in the community, the university’s spin doctors have never been particularly successful. Like just about every other private university in the nation, Vanderbilt has an aristocratic image that separates it from the broader city. Historically, the school attracted its scholars from among wealthy Southerners, as well as those sons of Belle Meade who couldn’t get into Princeton. Most of the students, faculty and administration didn’t have a thing in common with the hoi polloi who comprised the rest of the city.
In addition, the university has had some very real neighborhood problems. Vanderbilt didn’t win any popularity contests when it razed area homes on Blakemore Avenue for expansion in the ’70s. Relations with the nearby Hillsboro Village merchants are improving, but they remain less than idyllic.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt says that it does a lot for Nashville, and, indeed, it does. All one has to do is look at the list of programs that it released to the public; many are clearly of real benefit to the city.
The university operates a Virtual School program, which trains thousands of local teachers to use the Internet. Every sixth-grade student in Nashville public schools attends a day of classes at Vanderbilt. A program called FAST Track helps young, at-risk children improve their chances for success in school. The university helps sponsor OUR KIDS Inc., an agency that provides medical and psychological evaluations of children who may have been sexually abused. And then there is the fact that Wyatt is the Chamber’s chair-elect.
When many Nashvillians talk about Vanderbilt’s involvement in the community, however, the grumbling is inescapable. The reasons for their complaints are very real. Most often, they are upset about two things: The first is the university’s limited attempts at community education. Second is the fact that, when it comes to fund-raising, the university gobbles up so much of the private money in town.
In Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University offers a vast array of community-education courses available to residents of the area. However, if a Nashvillian wants to take a night course or indulge in a little summertime enrichment, Vanderbilt does not offer much. As a result, Belmont University has become the institution of choice for people who want some personal-improvement sizzle to their lives. Vandy offers lectures and concerts, and the university has a new master’s in the liberal arts program, but many would like it to do more.
Then there is the issue of money. Over the years, the vast preponderance of Nashville’s philanthropywhether as outright contributions or deferred bequestshas gone to Vanderbilt. Having just raised half a billion dollars, the university has sucked up almost unimaginable donations from Nashvillians. These are monies that might otherwise have gone, at least in part, to other community endeavors, perhaps the symphony, the United Way or the Community Foundation. Nobody can fault the university for its success in fund-raising, but the fact remains that, in the aftermath, there are only so many crumbs to go around. Many volunteers and not-for-profit administrators have been left with a bitter taste in their mouths.
To put it simply, Vanderbilt does have an image problem. As Bredesen might have said, the university does seem aloof, insular, uncaring and far removed from the general affairs of the city. A lot of people view the tree-shaded campus with suspicion, unease and ill will. In some ways, the university’s reputation has improved over time, at least in part because of creative programs such as its joint publication projects with the Country Music Foundation or its legal-aid clinics that have been established for low-income Nashvillians.
Meanwhile, the men left to defend the university are the camera-shy, spotlight-shunning Wyatt, and Carr, a general counsel who wouldn’t know a newsroom if he saw one. For Vanderbilt, the solution seems obvious: Hire a flack. Get the message out. Meanwhile, take some of that half a billion dollars and spend it on the city.
As for Bredesen, lay low for a while, would you? The next time you speak in public, talk about peace and goodwill among men.
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