From Northwoods Commerce magazine
By Timi Eckes
It’s a sunny September day as Dr. Richard Nelson settles into a chair in his spacious office, with its captivating view of the woods right outside the windows, to talk about his new job as president of Nicolet College. He may hold the top job at Nicolet, but it quickly becomes clear that his focus is on helping others: ensuring students get as much from their Nicolet experience as possible, helping area businesses get the best employees they can and ensuring that the college continues to play a crucial part in this area’s economic development.
“I don’t see myself as a commander or a disciplinarian,” he says. “My job is more as a ‘choreographer’ and coach.”
That role is one to which Dr. Nelson has long been accustomed, having served as provost of Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York for nine years. Among his accomplishments during that time were the creation of new degree programs and minors to meet students’ interests and employers’ needs and a comprehensive student success program that increased student retention by 10 percent. He also oversaw a campus-wide strategic planning effort that integrated the college’s mission, values and goals with planning, budgeting, reporting, effectiveness assessment and continuing improvement.
Earlier this year, he made the move to northern Wisconsin, succeeding Dr. Kenneth Urban, who served as interim president after former president Elizabeth Burmaster’s departure. In their quest for a new college president, Nicolet’s Presidential Search Committee noticed Nelson’s experience in industry, government and higher education. But his ability to help others develop their potential and his collaborative style made him the committee’s ultimate choice for Nicolet College president, and he assumed the post July 1. For the first couple of months he was here, he primarily stayed on campus in order to familiarize himself with the college’s operations. Now, he says, he will spend more time out in the community.
Although Nicolet and Paul Smiths College are more than 900 miles apart, Nelson notes that the communities surrounding them share several similarities: plenty of vacation homes, plenty of challenges keeping young people employed in a sustainable manner and, in spite of a significant timber resource, a struggling timber industry.
Since arriving here, he has found the community to be welcoming. “I have heard wonderful things from the business community about the college,” Nelson says, but while business owners are happy with Nicolet’s services and graduates, he notes that employers are concerned about where their next generation of entry-level employees will come from.
Their concerns are not unfounded. As is the case in many rural areas, a lot of this region’s young people tend not to return here after they graduate from college. According to U.S. Census data, a number of northern Wisconsin counties – Oneida, Vilas, Forest, Lincoln and Langlade among them – have lost population in recent years.
A shortage of young, working families in a community presents a number of challenges, including fewer skilled workers, fewer innovative ideas, and fewer potential entrepreneurs and job creators. It also results in diminished tax revenue for communities.
Dr. Nelson, however, is optimistic. “There are always challenges,” he says. “We have the energy and we have the talent here to meet those challenges.”
Realistically, “Our goal can’t be to keep all our young people here,” he adds. However, the goal can be to make it so that those young people who want to stay here can viably do so. For those in the community willing to embrace the change needed for this, Nelson says, “I think the outlook is great.”
Many small communities don’t have a technical college in their midst. The presence of Nicolet College in this area is an advantage. “One of the best things about working at a college is I’m surrounded by really smart, clever people,” Nelson says. “I think all the answers are here already.”
Health care and education, specifically K-12, must be strong, he adds, or people won’t raise their families here. “The first thing they look at is K-12 and the second thing they look at is health care.”
Nelson intends to work with the community to help strengthen these two areas. “One of the things Nicolet has a role in is working really closely with the K-12 districts in our region, with the health care in the region and with the businesses. That’s got to be part of our plan to make sure we stay strong,” he says, and points out another crucial element for communities that want to thrive: “Reliable, affordable broadband – without that, nothing else is going to happen.”
The focus is not simply on attracting young people to this community, but also on creating opportunities for those who want to stay, now and down the road. “We want to be responsive to current needs,” Nelson says, “but we also want to be responsive to future needs.”
He cites Nicolet College’s mission statement as a key component of that goal. The college’s mission to “deliver superior community college education that transforms lives, enriches communities, fosters economic development, and expands employment opportunities” resonated with Nelson.
“That’s what we do,” he says. “When I was looking at the job, I thought, ‘That mission says it so clearly.’ I think it’s a perfect mission for the region and times today.”
As part of carrying out the college’s mission and playing a key role in the area’s economic development, Nelson anticipates that Nicolet will add more night and weekend classes. “Providing education isn’t enough anymore. It has to be affordable. We have the content, we just need the format.
“I think we can do a better job,” he continues, “of creating access for more students.”
That involves students having access to online learning, something Nelson sees as a boon to higher education. “Disseminating information, that’s what the Internet is really good at,” he says. However, he notes, even with the explosion in online education, faculty members still play a pivotal role. “That personal interaction with faculty helps students understand what to do with information.”
Through its Workforce and Economic Development department and in conjunction with its industry partners, Nicolet continues to play an important role in building economic growth in this area.
“We want to build innovative partnerships wherever we can,” Nelson says. “I’m eager to talk with anybody who sees higher education as integral to the road ahead.”
Ultimately, making a community a better place to live is inseparable from the reason Nelson and his colleagues got into education in the first place: helping individuals realize their potential.
“There are students who struggle in high school who do extremely well in college,” he says. “Those students so often will come to a college like Nicolet lacking confidence. They get here and realize ‘I can do this.’ When that happens, you know that they’re going to be OK. You know that person’s going to have a better life for having been here. That’s why we’re in higher education.”
For more information about Nicolet College, visit nicoletcollege.edu.