Catawba College has a new President, and let me just tell you… Catawba and the Rowan community are lucky to have him! Hailing originally from Illinois, but “from everywhere and nowhere,” President Nelson already considers North Carolina home though he’s lived all over the country. Now that Rowan County is officially ‘home’ for him and his wife, Kimberly, I hope that we give them a good ol’ Rowan County welcome. I figured the best way to ensure that happens is if you get to know him a little!

A first-generation college student, Dr. Nelson began his education with his passion of music in mind. Encouraged by teachers throughout his K-12 career, he went to college and trained as a conductor, later becoming a music teacher. A life-long learner at heart, he ventured back to graduate school to obtain a PhD in Theology. Since then, he has been the Provost at the North Carolina School of the Arts and was most recently the President of Massachusetts College of Art and Design for four years. Even throughout his impressive career as an administrator in higher education, he stayed active in the classroom—teaching mostly Religion and Philosophy courses, but occasionally music as well. He looks forward to doing that at Catawba, too, once he gets acclimated to the campus and this new learning environment in the midst of a global pandemic, of course. 

Though President Nelson and his wife are certainly scholarly, (they love to read and write!) their greatest joy comes from spending time with their three adult children and two grandchildren. In his free time, (though he asks laughingly, “what is free time?”) he loves to camp, hike, be outside, and travel with his family and friends. 


A Natural Leader

From the short time we spent together over the phone, President Nelson’s leadership abilities and passion for students and education exuded. He describes his leadership style as reflective, inquisitive, and kind. We could all benefit from leaders who aspire to be these three adjectives. 

He recently wrote a chapter of a co-authored medical textbook on leadership. He says this really got him to define what leadership meant to him, and here’s what he came up with:

“I believe leadership is stewardship of people and place, and that’s what my role as President should embody. I came to this conclusion by reflecting on what I’ve done in my fifteen years of executive leadership. I believe that stewardship means taking care of the people we serve and the spaces we gather and learn, as well as ensuring resources are used in the best way possible. I am a person who has a particular view of what it means to be a leader and care deeply about mission and value. From the beginning, it was clear that the mission, value, and legacy of Catawba resonates very much with the things I care deeply about.”


The Catawba College seal.


Upholding Catawba’s Mission

Catawba’s mission as a place of higher education is to provide students an education rich in personal attention that blends the knowledge and competencies of liberal studies with career preparation. When asked what interested President Nelson in Catawba, he credits a combination of this mission statement and the people. 

“The mission of this institution and its values, combined with the kind of students who come to Catawba, is what my life in higher education has been about. As a first gen student myself, I’m extremely passionate about opening doors of opportunity, creating access to all, and ensuring student success. I care about the kind of institution where there’s a priority on faculty taking care of students, and that is certainly what I see at Catawba. When I interviewed here, I had a chance to talk with over 20 students, and they overwhelmingly responded that the personal interaction with the faculty members and how obvious it is that they care about them was a critical part of the Catawba experience.”

As a Catawba grad myself, I can speak to Catawba’s focus on an education rich in personal attention. I still consider some of my professors my greatest mentors and even invited many of them to my wedding as peers. Because of the way they cared for me and cared deeply about the quality education I received, I am the woman I am today!


President Nelson interacting with students at Opening Convocation.


Continuing to Foster Catawba’s Mission

A teacher at heart, President Nelson thinks of the future of Catawba with a three-part rubric in mind. 

“Identity: This part requires me to learn the already established identity of the college, its commitment to preparing people for life and work, and then enhancing that identity to its maximum for the benefit of students.”

“Sustainability: both financially and otherwise—this is about ensuring that we take care of our students and staff in all the ways that matter most, and ensuring that we have a sustainable model for years to come.”

“Visibility: which means ensuring that Catawba, as a whole, but also its various programs, are given the kind of visibility to get the attention they deserve and provide more students with the opportunity to study at a place like Catawba.”


Dr. Nelson’s “Faves”

When asked his thoughts on what the most exciting or unique parts about the Catawba experience were, he said a couple of things already stand out, though he’s sure he’ll continue to learn more. 

“In our short time here, we’ve realized that people really treat each other as a family here. That’s certainly exciting and unique. Also, I’m very eclectic in my taste, so I love the breadth of programs. There are so many students who participate in athletics, and in performing arts, and in scholarship, which makes for a thriving learning community. Not to mention, I love a college of this kind in a setting like Salisbury. Salisbury is rich in culture, and we love the downtown area, but I also love that other educational institutions like Livingstone, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, and Hood Theological Seminary surround us. All of the leaders of these institutions communicate and have a drive toward educational attainment in Rowan County.” 


Check out this drone shot of Downtown Salisbury!


Like many others, the Omwake-Dearborn Chapel is his favorite spot on Catawba’s campus, though the 189-acre preserve is a close second due to his love of nature and the outdoors. 

Shout-out to local artist Clyde, who painted a wonderful picture of the chapel that hangs in President Nelson’s house, so that even when he can’t physically see it, (like he can through his office window,) he can always be reminded of its spiritual beauty and presence! 


Omwake-Deaborn Chapel is a breathtaking spot on Catawba’s campus!


Since COVID started hanging around right as President Nelson and his wife moved here, they haven’t gotten to fully explore all that RoCo has to offer. But, his current RoCo faves are the Railwalk district, the older parts of Salisbury, downtown, and the local markets where he can get fresh produce from nearby farms!


If you see the Nelsons around, make sure to welcome them (from a safe social distance, of course) the best way you know how!  


Stay happy, safe, and healthy, friends!