Skip to main content

Nashville Mayor gives philosophy lesson to Vanderbilt engineering students


About 200 engineering students got a philosophy lesson Wednesday from Nashville Mayor Megan Barry.

(L-R) Professor Matthew Wallker III, Mayor Megan Barry, Dean Philippe Fauchet and Professor Amanda Lowrey meet before the lecture begins.

Easily citing Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill and Carol Gilligan, Barry knows her material and knows university students. Sprinkled with references they understand, humorous anecdotes, and questions that caused hands to shoot up, her lecture – The Role of Social Responsibility and Ethics in Government – was part of a semester-long Engineering Design Seminar for all majors as part of a senior design experience required for the bachelor of engineering degree.

Prior to becoming Mayor, Barry had a successful career as an ethics and compliance officer in the telecommunications and health care sectors. Barry moved to Nashville to attend Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, where she received her MBA. She was elected Mayor in 2015.

Settling on a definition of ethics and after a quick discussion of values, Barry asked, “How will your values line up with the place you go to work?” At that, Barry sped away on a tightly woven lecture using slides and very few notes.

Mayor Barry waits for students to settle in to begin her lecture.

The right versus wrong choices are usually easy; the right versus right choices – when there are competing values – can be difficult, she said. “We have a sense of what’s right and wrong. It’s when there’s a value conflict like truth versus loyalty that we have difficulty with our choices,” said Barry, who enjoyed asking where students were from when she called on them.

Barry chose two students, A and B, to be friends and work colleagues. “A sees B take office supplies and put them in his car. The next day, their manager asks A if she knows who may have taken the supplies,” Barry said. Classmates grew quiet as she pressed A for an answer.

“I would tell the manager I would try to find out and then I would go to him and ask him to put the supplies back,” A said. Laughter rolled across the large lecture hall. Barry asked for hands of those who would tell and those who wouldn’t. More examples followed, more responses requested, and chatter rose each time.

“What’s your philosophical bent?” Barry asked, wrapping up her lecture by echoing Kant’s moral rules and rights, Mill’s utilitarianism, and Gilligan’s Ethics of Care theory.

With time only for a single question, a student asked about the city’s affordable housing. Barry gave specific examples of strides in that area and presented a connection to a recently unveiled, sweeping $5.2 billion transportation plan for Nashville. Transportation independence will improve Nashville’s quality of life for generations, she said. “If you are registered to vote here or eligible to vote here, I hope you’ll help us in May on an important referendum [to support the plan].

At the end, Barry smiled and scanned the hall, “I hope you choose Nashville as a place to stay.”

Contact: Brenda Ellis, (615) 343-6314
Brenda.Ellis@Vanderbilt.edu