By Dwight Ott, Special to the NNPA from the Philadelphia Tribune –
Ivory Nelson is leaving the battlefield of Black higher education at the end of what he has called his “finest hour” — his 12-year presidency Lincoln University in Lincoln, Pa.
“This has been hard and diligent work,” said Nelson, 77, of his time at Lincoln, as he sat in his office on the second floor of the schools International Culture Center last week.
Nelson joined Lincoln in 1999, after serving in leadership positions at Central Washington State University, Prairie View A&M University and Texas A&M University.
Nelson’s academic career also spans teaching graduate and undergraduate chemistry and serving as department head, assistant dean of academic affairs and vice president for research. He has also enjoyed a career in the corporate sector where he was a research chemist for both Union Carbide and American Oil Company.
In one of his last interviews as president of Lincoln, Nelson, who is also considered one of the world’s top scientists, talked of how he has safely navigated this oldest historically Black institution of higher learning in its sometimes-unwieldy path toward developing strong Black minds, in particular, and young minds in general. He has steered Lincoln through economic reefs, developmental setbacks, and sometimes public relations minefields into a safe port of unprecedented development and dramatic growth.
“It’s been most rewarding even in its down moments. Even when I may ask myself why am I doing this,” said Nelson who is set to be replaced at the end of the month by Robert R. Jennings.
Nelson, who has developed a reputation as a distinguished educator, has been battling on the front lines of stabilizing Black institutions of higher learning as well as others for three decades.
In that time, Nelson has been president of four universities — two of them majority white institutions. This no-nonsense leader who roamed the university with a list of five-year goals in his pocket has managed to get the university through the recent recession when Black colleges were among the hardest hit institutions in the nation.
He helped guide Lincoln through a tense period when university officials yielded control of the Barnes Foundation board of directors. Subsequent to that the Barnes art collection was moved from Lower Merion to Center City.
Most recently he helped to douse a potentially lethal public relations flare up in which a Pakistani professor made controversial remarks about Israel and the holocaust.
But most importantly, he has also managed to keep the university’s nose out of debt at a time of difficulty. In fact during his tenure he obtained over $360 million in state funding for upgrades [capital construction and renovations] on the main campus as well as in Philadelphia.
Upon arriving at the institution, he helped to beat back a $15 million deficit that was siphoning off the life of the university.
But, he said, recession and post recession cuts have nonetheless taken their toll, with the state alone cutting 17 percent out of the 34 percent for Lincoln’s budget that it once provided.
But Nelson who is a proficient and prolific grants writer [in addition to author of 11 technical books] has helped to raise funds despite such setbacks. A $22 million residence hall was built during his tenure, as well as a $40 million science and technology center. The student union and library were also renovated, and the enrollment at the school has also grown from 1,975 to 2,210.
Part of that growth in students may be due to resurgence in interest in Black universities that began at the end of the 20th century and seems to be continuing.
“Black universities are as relevant as ever,” said Nelson knocking down any speculation that Black colleges may be anachronistic in an age of a new “colorblind” America.
He said Black universities graduate 25 percent of all the Black college graduates in the country.
“We wouldn’t be graduating 25 percent if we had no product to sell [Black well-educated youth]. “Black universities have stood the test of time. We have survived. We have survived and thrived.”
The Louisiana native who graduated with top honors from Grambling University, said he started out in poverty in Curtis, La., his father an AME minister.
He said he did not have such a wide selection in schools to attend. Later generations, he said, with a wider choice, may have chosen majority white universities. But, he said, now the children of those same generations are choosing Black schools where they can find nurturing, mentoring, and caring from people who want you to succeed.
He said Black schools are also more diverse.
“I’ve been president of two white institutions [as well as two Black],” Nelson said. “They have different method of operating. We don’t have vice-presents for diversity and yet our campus has been more integrated than any white college.”
Nelson said the key to his success has been keeping goals in mind. He said his science background allows him to avoid a cookie cutter approach in handling each situation. He said he approaches each situation according to the facts surrounding it and tailors his solution accordingly.
Those who know him might add that part of his success may be do to the help of his wife Patricia Nelson, who like her husband is a Ph.D. and is active on the campus.
Regardless of his method of success, Nelson his “finest hour,” as he describes his stint at the university, has been put to good use.
“I am confident I have left this university a better place.”
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