From her early days as a Nashville Banner reporter, through her time as press secretary for former Governor Don Sundquist — the first female in Tennessee history to serve in that role — and on to her best known position as Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs at Vanderbilt University since 2008, Beth Fortune has earned a reputation as a consummate communications professional and one of Nashville’s most credible spokespersons and community leaders.
In her current position, Beth oversees all communications, government relations and community outreach for Vanderbilt and that, ladies and gentlemen, is one heavy-duty assignment. In her role, she not only interacts daily with leaders of both the public and private sectors, here and in Washington, DC, but she also is highly visible and active in the Nashville community, serving on numerous boards, and commands a seat at the table when it comes time to determine the most appropriate role for Vanderbilt in local and state public policy.
It is with great pleasure that we introduce you to Beth Fortune, today’s FACE of Nashville.
As Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs at Vanderbilt University, your department interacts with so many entities at the university from admissions to athletics. Can you tell us what you have worked on during the last year?
Like so many of my Vanderbilt colleagues, the restructuring of the university and medical center into separate legal and financial entities consumed an enormous amount of our time. We are now several months into the new structure, but it still requires a fair amount of time to attend to the details that come with being separated but still connected through the Vanderbilt name and the shared missions of education and research. Beyond that transition, my team has worked to communicate internally and externally about Chancellor Nick Zeppos’ very important initiative of equity, diversity and inclusion and all the substantial work that the university, under the chancellor’s leadership, is doing on the subject. We also announced new men’s and women’s basketball coaches to great fanfare. All of this is just a snapshot of what my team is involved in every day, not to mention managing the “pop up” issues that arise on a college campus. We also continue our robust engagement on the local, state and federal levels as well as in the community. Every day is different, and we fully embrace that.
Before you arrived at Vanderbilt, you held a number of different positions: reporter, lobbyist and press secretary. How has your past work experience prepared you for your current job?
Having a background in journalism, government, politics and public affairs has served me well, because my position at Vanderbilt combines parts of all my previous jobs into one. So it’s a nice fit.
Can you discuss some of your biggest successes and also some of the challenges you face in your job?
I am proud that Vanderbilt does not experience the disconnect issues that other universities do with their communities and cities. Empowered by Chancellor Zeppos, my team and I work very hard to make sure that Vanderbilt is a good citizen, neighbor and partner, and we take this commitment very seriously and strategically invest resources, time and energy in it. We have made great strides in this area, and there are those who pre-date me — notably the late Betty Nixon, a mentor and friend — who laid the groundwork that we have continued to build upon.
As Vanderbilt’s profile continues to rise because of its academic and other accomplishments, the more attention we receive – both positively and negatively. The latter is always a challenge, particularly when there are events or issues that pose reputational risk to the university.
When you’re asked the question, “What do you love about Vanderbilt?” what pops into your head?
Excellence. When I arrived at Vanderbilt 16 years ago, I was struck by how everyone took such great pride in their work, no matter what their position was in the organization. That is still true today. Vanderbilt is connected with excellence, and it’s a great privilege to be a part of it.
Full disclosure here, but I hear from your friends and colleagues that when it comes to mentoring women, you take this role seriously. Can you let our readers know why this is important to you and what you have learned from being a role model for women?
Mentoring is one of the great joys of my life and one of my most rewarding career accomplishments. I am so proud of all the young women I have had the privilege of mentoring. Nothing has thrilled me more than to watch them become outstanding leaders in government, communications, public relations, government relations, business and other professions. I always try to meet with anyone who contacts me regarding career paths and plans. I am committed to helping those who come behind me because it has been done for me throughout my career, and it really matters. Pay it forward.
What is an important piece of advice you have been given?
My boss, Chancellor Zeppos, urges me not “to hide my light under a bushel,” which I — like many women — have a tendency to do. I am proud of my work and my career, but even more importantly, I am proud of my phenomenal team that contributes daily to supporting the mission of the university. They are the best.
The growth in Nashville is certainly a topic of conversation. What are some things that you love about Nashville and how has growth been a positive thing for the city?
Nashville has been very fortunate to have had great leadership under former Mayors Phil Bredesen, Bill Purcell and Karl Dean, and I love that Nashvillians had the wisdom to choose them and then had the brilliance to elect the first female mayor, Megan Barry, who is a rock star completely equipped to deal with the challenges that come with being a city exploding in growth. At Vanderbilt, the fact that we are located in the “it” city is very much a positive for recruiting students, faculty and staff. I also love that when you attend a concert in any Nashville venue — small, medium or large — you never know who all might pop up on stage to perform.
Is there any event that is coming up that you are looking forward to?
At the top of my list would be the YWCA’s Academy of Women Achievement; the Authors in the Round Dinner connected to the Southern Festival of Books; and the Nashville Public Library Foundation Literary Award Gala. These are wonderful events, and I have had the honor of co-chairing two of them in the past, and I currently serve on two of their boards.
Understanding that you are in a high-profile job, what do you do to relax and recharge your battery?
In addition to spending quality time with my family, I have a book club that I started probably 18 years ago, and it’s still going strong, so I read a lot. Debbie Turner and I also love to cook and entertain poolside at our home.
Do you have any irrational fears?
The day I am told I can’t wear high heels, wedges or otherwise fabulous shoes or boots! Actually, it’s probably not that irrational or that far off, but I will fight it.
What are three things that you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Involvement in the community, hair appointments with Toni Gabriele at Cashmere Salon and grilled salmon and steamed broccoli — every Monday night!
Special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s photos.
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