Protector of Our Program

Spring 2017 | By Tim Pratt

President Chris Nelson is preparing for the end of his 26-year presidency at St. John's College.
President Chris Nelson is preparing for the end of his 26-year presidency at St. John’s College. (Photo by Demetrios Fotos)

When Chris Nelson was a child, he often found himself engaged in battle.

Tomato plant stakes from the family garden were used as swords. Trashcan lids served as shields. The rug in the living room was the river Skamandros as Nelson and his siblings re-enacted the Trojan War from The Iliad, bouncing on furniture and avoiding the water below.

“I slew countless Trojans, over and over,” Nelson says with a smile. “My siblings were very accommodating.”

While as a 12-year-old Nelson immersed himself in The Iliad and Euclid’s Elements, his journey with the great books of Western civilization was just beginning. It was a trek that took him to St. John’s College as a student in the 1960s, to Chicago for a lengthy law career, and eventually back to his alma mater to serve as president. During that time, Nelson became a champion for the liberal arts, played a prominent role in higher education at the national level, and oversaw vast improvements at the college.

Now, Nelson is preparing to step down as leader of the place that has been a part of his life since childhood. He will retire in June after 26 years as Annapolis president.

“Chris is kind of the rock on which the college has operated for over a quarter of a century,” says Mike Peters, who served as president of the St. John’s Santa Fe campus from 2005 through January 2016. “He leaves a pretty amazing legacy.”

The Early Years

Nelson’s connection to St. John’s came as a “birthright,” tutor and former Dean Michael Dink said during a recent Saturday Seminar event in Annapolis held in Nelson’s honor. Nelson’s father graduated from St. John’s in 1947—a decade after Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan founded the college’s great books curriculum—and was a long-serving member and chair of St. John’s Board of Visitors and Governors. Although Nelson’s father didn’t talk a lot about St. John’s at home, Nelson says his childhood was permeated with elements of the Program, from refighting the Trojan War with his siblings to redrawing the diagrams from Euclid’s Elements, with and without drafting instruments.

In high school, Nelson grew tired of the lectures given by his teachers, who would tell students “what the answer was and what to think,” he says. He knew that if he attended St. John’s, he would be able to explore topics for himself.

Nelson arrived in Annapolis in 1966. He never applied anywhere else.

“I was one of those people who come to St. John’s with the attitude that the opening question only needs to be ‘Ready, set, go.’ The desire to try to make the books we were reading our own, and to take them in and accept or reject the things in them as judgments we were making for ourselves, was just thrilling.”

Nelson spent part of his time in Annapolis, where he was an accomplished athlete and active in student government, before transferring to the Santa Fe campus and graduating in 1970. College board chair Ron Fielding (A70)—one of Nelson’s classmates, a fellow intramural sports captain, and officer in student government—says he saw flashes of Nelson’s potential when they were students.

“The leadership aspect is without question,” Fielding says. “He was a natural leader of the athletics teams and of the polity.”

Following Nelson’s graduation, it was off to law school at the University of Utah, where he founded and directed the university’s student legal services program. He graduated in 1973.

Nelson practiced law for 18 years in Chicago and was chairman of his law firm when he was tapped to become president of St. John’s in 1991. He had served on the college’s Board of Visitors and Governors since 1986.

A Natural Leader

When Nelson returned to campus as president in the summer of 1991, he faced a budget deficit and aging facilities. Nelson immediately got to work, coming up with a list of projects and working with former Vice President of Development Jeff Bishop and Treasurer Bud Billups to raise funds, make “prudent” cuts and balance the budget, he says.

“Those guys saved this college,” says Bishop’s wife, Sue.

In the two-plus decades since then, new dormitories and other structures have been erected; every building on campus has been renovated; even the grounds have improved. The four-year graduation rate, which was 36 percent when Nelson arrived, has nearly doubled. Enrollment applications also have increased in recent years following a slight downturn after the economic crisis of 2008—a crisis that affected enrollment at liberal arts colleges all over the country.

Nelson stands with longtime tutor and former dean Eva Brann.
Nelson stands with longtime tutor and former dean Eva Brann. (Photo by Demetrios Fotos)

But some things, like the St. John’s Program, have remained largely the same, with students now reading many of the same works as their predecessors. That is one of the things Nelson takes most pride in as he looks back on his career.

“I think it’s protecting as much as I could the community of learning at the college,” Nelson says. “I’d say that has been most important to me.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been changes. Nelson is excited about the recent focuses on biology and quantum mechanics in senior lab. A new quantum mechanics lab was recently completed in the basement of Mellon Hall.

Nelson says he has tried to give faculty and staff the autonomy they need to be successful. At the same time, he says he was sure to question and discuss the recommendations and decisions being made.

“Everybody on the faculty has ideas about how to improve the work of the academic program in the classroom,” Nelson says. “I’ve wanted them to feel that they could continue to work on the Program. I’ve wanted to provide as much freedom from constraint as I could.”

Others share a similar view of Nelson’s management style. Dink, who served as dean from 2005-2010, said in his Saturday Seminar comments that Nelson was friendly and supportive during his term. Deans are drawn from the faculty for five-year terms, which means they often come with no prior administrative experience.

“But Chris well understood the virtue, indeed the necessity of this practice, and did everything in his power both to assist with the learning curve and to respect and support the authority of the dean,” Dink says.

Leo Pickens (A78), who served for years as athletic director before working as alumni director and now director of Leadership Annual Gifts, describes Nelson as “a great listener.”

“His door has always been open,” says Pickens. “He’s very approachable, he’s extremely fair-minded … and I think it became very clear early on that he was dedicated to the college.”

The Man

Like many others who have known Nelson over the years, Pickens has stories to tell. He attended St. John’s with Nelson’s younger brother, Ted, and recalls hearing about Chris’s intramural sports awards and team championships when he was a student.

“I had not met Chris, but had only heard tales of his athletic prowess,” Pickens says with a laugh.

Having witnessed Nelson’s skills on the badminton court when he returned as president in 1991, Pickens took note of Nelson’s resilience and coolness under pressure.

“Those kinds of qualities he demonstrated as an athlete, even under the most difficult of circumstances … are qualities he also demonstrated as a president here.”

Pickens got to see more of that determination on a cross-country bike ride he took with Nelson, Bishop, former Santa Fe Vice President for Development Jeff Morgan, and friend Bob Gray in 1993. Sue Bishop saw it, too, as she drove the support van. She and Pickens fondly recall Nelson “flying” down steep mountain roads, a smile on his face. And while the group had agreed not to talk about college business on the trip, Nelson would read Gilgamesh out loud during rest stops as his colleagues relaxed in the shade.

“He demonstrated on that ride just how strong of a human he is,” Pickens says.

Through it all, Nelson has maintained his love of the great books, often quoting passages from works he has read over the years. And he often invites students, faculty, and staff to his home for special occasions.

Some who spoke of Nelson recalled lengthy conversations over a glass of wine, or of Nelson’s love for chopping wood, or of the pleasure he gets from working in the garden. There were stories of Nelson, while still a student, presiding over a hearing for fellow Johnnies who were involved in a series of food fights. And there were stories of Nelson going out of his way to help faculty, staff, and students, leading study groups, and teaching classes.

Nelson’s dedication to the college stands out, Peters says.

“I think Chris bleeds Johnnie black and orange,” Peters says. “He is going to be a hard act to follow, but he has smoothed the path for those folks who are coming after him.”

A National Voice

Nelson has served as an ambassador for the college, traveling around the country, giving talks—he estimates he has given more than 1,000 since he took office—on issues like government regulation in higher education. He has met with lawmakers, donors, and others; the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities on February 1 announced Nelson as chairman of its board of directors. And two years ago he received the Association’s highest honor, the Henry Paley Award for his “unfailing service toward the students and faculty of independent colleges and universities.”

Nelson is well-known as a proponent of the liberal arts. A liberal arts education creates more thoughtful, well-rounded people, he says.

“We want to have people who can think for themselves rather than being driven to, or useful tools for, someone else’s purposes,” he says. “So that’s asking each individual to take responsibility for the public good. Each of us has a leadership responsibility in that respect. To get there, we need to cultivate the arts of intellect and imagination, and that’s exactly what we do at St. John’s College.”

Nelson’s 26 years of work toward reaching that goal are commendable, Fielding says. An American Council on Education survey found the average term of a college president is less than 10 years.

“There’s something comforting about having a leader who doesn’t aspire to do anything other than making this current institution better,” Fielding says. “That is uncommon, whether it is a politician in a political office or a college president. It’s very special.”

Alina Myer (A17), who served as president of the student Delegate Council in 2016, says the college is lucky to have someone as dedicated to the liberal arts as Nelson.

“It’s kind of an incredible thing to have such accessibility to someone who has worked tirelessly and on such a large scale to ensure that people understand the value of what we do here at St. John’s,” Myer says. “He is the first person who speaks to us as Johnnies at convocation, and for my class he will be the last, as our commencement speaker. He is emblematic of our St. John’s experience.”

The Future

After Nelson retires, he plans to travel, visit family, and catch up on some reading.

“There’s a book in there somewhere too,” he says.

He hopes to relax a bit after a career which included an 18-month stint as president of the Santa Fe campus, and often found him working seven days a week. But Nelson won’t be completely absent from campus. He has been appointed a member of the teaching faculty and says he will make himself available to lead seminars, preceptorials, or anything else asked of him.

“For the sake of intellectual engagement, it will be good to spend some time with the students,” Nelson says. “I get a great deal of satisfaction out of the study groups I have now when I’m not teaching a regular class, which I used to do, and I can’t imagine not having that intellectual vibrancy in my life going forward.”