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Suzy Nelson named vice president for student life

Seasoned academic leader brings experience in student affairs at Colgate, Harvard, and Cornell.
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Suzy M. Nelson
Suzy M. Nelson
Photo: Andrew Daddio/Colgate University

Suzy M. Nelson, an academic leader with broad experience managing student affairs and residential life at Colgate University, Harvard University, Cornell University, and Syracuse University, has been named as MIT’s new vice president for student life, effective July 1.

The appointment, following a comprehensive search, was announced today in a letter to the MIT community from Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, to whom Nelson will report. She succeeds Costantino (Chris) Colombo, who last July announced his plans to retire as dean for student life.

“Through her 32-year career in higher education, Suzy has served campus communities — Colgate, Harvard, Cornell, and Syracuse — as different from each other as they are from MIT,” Barnhart says. “Yet in each setting, she has built open, effective, lasting partnerships with students, faculty, and staff; used campus planning efforts to improve the quality of student life; and implemented student support systems that emphasize health, wellness, and safety. She comes to this new position with a keen appreciation for MIT’s unique cultures, traditions, and values, and an inspiring sense of how communities can flourish by working on hard problems together.”

Nelson has served since 2012 as vice president and dean of the college at Colgate. She was previously associate dean of students and then dean of student life at Harvard, from 2005 to 2012, and associate dean of students for fraternity and sorority affairs at Cornell, from 1998 to 2005.

“From our values and our mission to our sense of humor, the MIT community is unusual. I believe it is also unusually strong, and student life is the center of it all,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif says. “In Suzy Nelson, we have found someone who enjoys the qualities that make MIT different, and who demonstrates the kind of collaborative leadership and creative thinking that will help our community grow even stronger.”

At MIT, Nelson will lead the Division of Student Life (DSL), which includes the Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation (DAPER) as well as the Institute’s offices of housing; dining; fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups; residential life programs; student citizenship; student outreach and support; student development; and religious life. Graduate and undergraduate housemasters will also work closely with Nelson. She will oversee a staff of more than 400, working to ensure the Institute’s commitment to a well-integrated student life program that values both formal and informal learning.

“I am excited to begin this new opportunity: MIT is such a special place, with many creative and dedicated people who are thinking about new ways to better support students,” Nelson says. “Having now met several MIT faculty, staff, and students who care deeply about the quality of student life, I am eager to partner with others in creating a campus community where all students will thrive personally and intellectually.”

Nelson currently oversees all aspects of the extracurricular experience for Colgate’s student body of roughly 3,000. She leads departments responsible for residential life; community service; religious life; cultural and LGBTQ programming; student wellness, counseling, and health services; campus safety; advising; crisis management; international student services; and fraternity and sorority affairs.

Among other significant accomplishments during her tenure at Colgate, Nelson:

  • restructured her division in ways that improved both the student experience and staff morale;
  • developed a university-wide working plan on diversity and inclusion;
  • co-developed a process for responding to sexual violence and bias incidents, and developed educational and prevention services to promote sexual health;
  • designed a major renewal of residential facilities, creating faculty-led residential commons;
  • implemented gender-neutral housing and preferred name/pronoun services;
  • revamped the university’s emergency response to student crises and to students who abuse alcohol and other drugs;
  • co-developed a program to support first-generation students through peer support, advising, and social programming; and
  • expanded public service offerings and supported social entrepreneurship.

Comprehensive search

Nelson was selected as MIT’s new vice president for student life following a comprehensive search conducted by a committee of students, faculty, staff, and alumni appointed by Barnhart in the fall. Professor of physics Krishna Rajagopal, the chair of the MIT faculty, led the search committee.

Members of the MIT community contributed to the search process at several points, including through meetings between committee members and students conducted by the Undergraduate Association and the Graduate Student Council, as well as by housemasters and DSL staff. A broad group of students, faculty, staff, and alumni were asked to identify priorities for the new vice president for student life and to discuss the challenges and opportunities currently facing DSL. Additionally, more than 30 undergraduate and graduate students were selected to interview several candidates and provide feedback to the search committee before a list of finalists was submitted to Barnhart.

“The search committee members brought varied experience and perspectives to our task,” Rajagopal says. “After a semester of extensive, and intense, listening we came to a consistent view that we were looking for a partner for the chancellor who will engage with students, faculty, and staff in substantive and constructive ways and who will lead and inspire our Division of Student Life to new heights. As we entered the final stages of the search, I was asking myself how we would find a consensus. Suzy Nelson answered that question, eliciting broad support from a cross section of people across many sectors of our community and the unanimous enthusiasm of the committee. We are impressed with the breadth and depth of her knowledge and experience. She has a track record of meaningful engagement with students, faculty, and staff and has faced challenges with success. Suzy will be an outstanding student life leader for MIT.”

“During our first committee meeting when the Chancellor charged us, it became very apparent that the due diligence the search required would be very high,” says junior Obasi Onuoha, a member of the search committee and vice president of the MIT Interfraternity Council. “Professor Rajagopal and the entire committee showed a strong commitment to gathering feedback from the community. As a student representative, I was sitting across the tables from deans, yet the concerns of the people I represented were given as much weight as anyone else. I am extremely pleased with both the search process and the result."

Work at Harvard and Cornell

In her work at Harvard, from 2005 to 2012, Nelson oversaw all matters related to undergraduate residential and student life, including responsibilities for athletics, public service, and policies related to alcohol, drug use, and sexual assault. As dean of student life, she led an organization comprising 13 faculty housemasters and an equal number of resident deans, 100 professional staffers, and 275 graduate student employees.

Nelson’s achievements at Harvard include:

  • spearheading a reorganization of Harvard’s offices of residential life and student activities, resulting in considerable cost savings;
  • modifying recruitment strategies to increase the diversity of staff hires;
  • facilitating a student-led sustained dialogue to address campus divisions related to race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and religion;
  • serving on the executive planning team overseeing an extensive renovation of Harvard’s undergraduate residence halls; and
  • implementing a multifaceted strategy to mitigate high-risk alcohol use among undergraduates.

“The Graduate Student Council looks forward to the great opportunity to work with Suzy Nelson to continue to improve graduate student life at MIT,” says Michael McClellan, a member of the search committee and president of the Graduate Student Council. “The persistence, creativity, and collaborative spirit she brings to bear on graduate student issues will allow Suzy, along with the Graduate Student Council and the new dean for graduate education, to continue to enhance the vibrancy of the graduate student community.”

At Cornell, Nelson oversaw the advisement and evaluation of 67 Greek-letter organizations with roughly 3,500 student members. During her tenure she introduced the university’s new fraternity and sorority strategic plan, including an assessment of student leaders’ organizational management and active engagement of alumni in supporting Greek life.  She managed 16 Cornell-owned facilities, many of which were renovated during her tenure.

“What impressed me the most about Suzy was that she connected with everyone she met during her campus visits, particularly the students,” says senior Caitlin Heber, a member of the search committee and executive vice president of the Dormitory Council. “Her devotion to students, drive to solve difficult problems, and deep knowledge of the issues impacting student life — both nationally and at the campuses where she has worked — left each individual excited about her and desirous to work with her. I think Suzy is a fabulous fit for our community and I hope that after meeting her, all members of MIT will be as eager as I am to work with her to enhance student life at MIT.”

Earlier in her career, Nelson worked at Syracuse University from 1993 to 1998, serving first as assistant director for leadership and student organizations and then as director of Greek life. She has also held student life positions at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, and at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, and has served as an instructor at various universities.

A native of Oxford, New York, Nelson holds a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Potsdam, awarded in 1980; a master’s degree from Bowling Green State University, awarded in 1984; and a PhD in higher education administration from Syracuse University, awarded in 2010.

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