One Year On The Job: An Interview With Dean Suzy Nelson

One Year On The Job: An Interview With Dean Suzy Nelson

In her first year at Colgate University, Dean of the College Suzy Nelson has implemented significant changes to campus policies and devised influential plans for the future.

According to Nelson, she entered the position with a mission that encompassed three major goals. The first goal was to enrich the campus’s physical, cultural and structural environment so that students could thrive intellectually and emotionally. The second was to connect students’ co-curricular experiences with their learning experiences. Thirdly, Nelson wished to best meet students’ needs by introducing new institutes and centers as well as assessing and reviewing different offices.

Nelson said that these goals are easily attended to because of Colgate students’ enthusiasm.

“They’re intelligent, but this passion and sense of involvement and enthusiasm for what they’re doing, whether it’s academic or extracurricular, it’s just off the charts,” Nelson said. “I worked at Harvard and Cornell; it’s a different kind of feel. It’s a really engaged, involved, interested student body and that’s been really fun.”

Nelson cited the recent discussion over changes to the event registration policy as an example of students’ commitment to what they are passionate about.

“A number of students came to every meeting and were really interested in making change, and I’ve never worked with such a productive group of students as I have here,” Nelson said.

Nelson’s largest initiative this year has been forming Living the Liberal Arts, a strategic planning effort to improve residential education.

A committee of 20 students and 13 faculty members headed by Nelson, Dean of the Faculty Douglas Hicks, Associate Professor of Psychology Spencer Kelly and Associate Professor of Religion and Jewish Studies Lesleigh Cushing sought to uphold the principles that a liberally educated person should have.

When determining where Colgate should be in 10 years, the committee chose four areas that they thought needed improving. The committee’s first goal is to introduce holistic advising by integrating personal advising, career services and academic advising, as well as use an effective advising portal to make resources more accessible to students.

The committee also hopes to boost civic engagement on campus by utilizing the Max A. Shacknai Center for Outreach, Volunteerism and Education (COVE), and courses that have a community service component.

The third goal is to consider ways to make use of Colgate’s campus more in the summer and in January. Internships, externships and study abroad programs are a few possibilities.

The final area that the Living the Liberal Arts committee thinks needs improvement is residential life.

Nelson said senior surveys expose that some students are more satisfied with their social lives at Colgate than others, and that stems partly from affiliations with organizations.

“But it’s also: ‘do I feel like I belong? Do I feel like I have a home?’ It’s important to every student. And on most campuses, not just Colgate, if you don’t feel like you have a home and a group of friends and fellowship, then you don’t feel like you belong, and you aren’t as satisfied usually with your social life,” Nelson said.

The committee’s first idea for improving students’ social lives is to devise a system where faculty can engage in residential experiences in a way that is not awkward for them or students. The Sophomore Residential Seminars (SRS), a new program being implemented next year in which sophomores take a class in their residence hall. They then travel to a location connected with the course. The committee hopes to broaden and expand SRS, which is currently limited to about 60 students.

Another idea for improving students’ residential experiences is to integrate first-year students and upperclassmen. While the committee acknowledged that it is important for all transitioning first-years to live together, it thinks that in the future, new room configurations in renovated buildings could make it attractive for upperclassmen to live among first-years and increase integration.

The committee’s final idea is to change the current structure of social events. Nelson said she feels strongly about finding a way to model the moderate use of alcohol and a healthy social environment. Nelson believes that peer-led boards in which students take a larger role in setting standards in the community and holding each other to them would be a step in the right direction. Nelson hopes to create a more relaxed system of monitoring social events that is less staff-driven and more student-driven and staff-advised.

“We want our language and our tone to embody how we’re partners in this,” Nelson said. “This is not like us and you, we and they; it’s not like that. It’s one community. We’re all adults; we all have rights and responsibilities.”

Nelson said that the next step in the Living the Liberal Arts initiative is to ask students what is the best way to make this vision a reality. The planning will start next year.

As Dean of the College, Nelson said it is her job to come up with sensible compromises with students and she has found that students are very reasonable. Therefore, she does not feel much tension when accommodating both student and administrative wishes.

“We know this is a time of one’s life when some people are going to drink more and drink to dangerous levels,” Nelson said. “We’ve been studying this for many, many years because it’s a problem on every campus.”

Nelson said that it is common sense to provide nonalcoholic beverages and food at a party, as well as to not serve alcohol forever, but for the party to have a beginning and end. Nelson said that students are quite rational when she communicates these ideas with them in person.

“I don’t think there’s tension; it’s just life … there’s always going to be disagreement around things we care deeply about. It’s a matter of how do we come to consensus, how are we respectful, how do we agree without being disagreeable,” Nelson said.

Nelson was previously the dean of student life at Harvard for six years and has worked in higher education for over 25 years, so she has thorough experience managing relations with fraternities, sororities, student organizations, residential life and public service.

However, Nelson said that she did not want to apply what might have worked at another school to Colgate because the place and people are different. She said her job is made easier by her strong staff and a student body comprised of active leaders.

Nelson’s message for Colgate students is one of sincerity.

“I care so much about each one of you and I want you to do well on your exams and have a successful end of the semester, but I also want you to stay healthy and well, and we want to be here for you if you need us,” Nelson said.

Contact Julia Queller

at [email protected].