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January 17, 2014

In a way, it was the vision of a man who spoke about dead people that got Dr. Stephen Nelson interested in the life and times of college presidents.

That man was Dr. Harold T. Shapiro, who spoke of previous college presidents in his inaugural address at Princeton College in the late ‘80s.

“I was taken by, essentially, Shapiro engaging these dead people,” Dr. Nelson said. “They were dead white men. But engaging these dead white men on the grounds of: How did they help shape the Princeton that he was inheriting? Were there insights, messages, ideas that the Princeton of the latter 20th century could benefit from?”

Dr. Nelson read Dr. Shapiro’s speech and wrote his dissertation about college presidents while completing his doctoral work at the University of Connecticut. He has since become an authority on the subject and has written five books, including his latest: College Presidents Reflect: Life In and Out of the Ivory Tower.

The college presidency is an elaborate tapestry, full of nuances and complexities that few understand, says Dr. Nelson, now associate professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State University and a senior scholar in the Leadership Alliance at Brown University.

“Both historically and in a contemporary environment, despite the arguments that some people make to the contrary, these presidents have been and continue to be enormously influential shapers of the college and university,” Dr. Nelson said “… Primarily they do that through the way they serve and the way they lead the institutions where they are chosen to be president.”

Dr. Nelson is one of the few researchers who has written and studied college presidents. In writing several books, he has interviewed nearly 60 college presidents, 24 for his latest book.

The book, written with his own research and with that of a BSU research assistant, stands as a guide to boards of trustees and for people who might aspire to be college presidents. It reveals how their lives become fully enveloped by the job more so than many other leadership positions, almost as much as the president of the United States.

He notes that some of the most successful college presidents are the ones who ascended the ivory tower but were not looking to do so, and the best ones have understood “who’s shoulders you’re standing on” by studying their predecessors and the institutions well in advance of taking the helm.

His interest began in the late 70s when he was a student affairs administrator at Dartmouth College. Back then, the college president was Dr. John G. Kemeny, who died in 1992. 

Dr. Nelson says he was taken by Dr. Kemeny’s role, using the so-called “bully pulpit” to get his message across. He had the vision to introduce the idea of admitting women to Dartmouth College around 1970, despite opposition from some alumni and trustees, at a time when most Ivy League schools were largely male-dominated institutions. By 1972, the first co-educational classes began at Dartmouth.

“Now did he do that single-handedly? No. … It was his really rolling the dice very early in his presidency, in the first year, that indeed Dartmouth needed to admit women,” Dr. Nelson said. “And he was willing to put his own presidency on the line to essentially create a ‘fish or cut bait moment for the institution.”

Another example of a college president standing up to enormous pressure came from Dr. Shapiro himself, Dr. Nelson said, who stood against so-called “political correctness.”
“He was actually almost ahead of his time on this for making the argument about civic engagement, civil discourse, scholarly academic discourse and free speech within the university,” Dr. Nelson said.

The job of the college president, Dr. Nelson argues, is more rewarding and more demanding than being the CEO of a big corporation, who can take vacations or other time off.  “They get out of Dodge,” Dr. Nelson says. “How do you, if you’re the president of Princeton, you’re the president of UConn, how do you get out of Dodge? Because you live in Dodge, you work at Dodge.” 

Read more about the book here. (Story by Steve Ide, University News)