Suzy M. Nelson has been named vice president of student life and will step into the position on July 1, 2016. Nelson succeeds Chris Colombo who announced his retirement last July.
Nelson currently serves as vice president and dean of the college at Colgate University. She has held positions at Syracuse and Cornell, and was dean of student life at Harvard.
She has served at Colgate since 2012, overseeing residential life for a student body of 2,800. Her office also directs Counseling and Psychological Services, LGBT initiatives, and the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs.
“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 said in a press release from the MIT News Office. “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.”
At Colgate, Nelson worked with students to address complaints that their residential system caused a divide between upper and underclassmen. In an article describing her plan to address these complaints, Nelson emphasized building a sense of belonging, breaking down barriers, and connecting academic and co-curricular life. Nelson’s plan, which was set to be implemented for the class of 2019, laid out steps to include classroom space in dorms for first-year seminars, to help living groups develop traditions and plan social outings, and facilitate connections between upperclassmen and underclassmen.
At Harvard, where she worked from 2005 to 2012, she served as associate dean of student life before being promoted to dean of student life. There, she launched the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, led a housing renovations initiative, and revised alcohol policies.
An article in The Harvard Crimson characterized the revised alcohol policy as “ushering in an era of greater University regulation over undergraduate drinking.” The policy regulated the “quantity and type of alcohol that can be served, how it can be advertised and licensed, and when it can be offered.”
In 2008, Harvard announced a $1 billion housing renovation project that would “completely restructure the internal architecture of the Houses” within 15 years. Nelson told the Harvard Gazette that the goal was not “just to refurbish the structures of the buildings, but also to offer an optimal environment for fellowship and learning, which is central to the academic mission of the College.”
In another article, The Crimson said that “reviews of Nelson’s tenure at Harvard are mixed. While administrators and student leaders universally praised Nelson for striving to involve students in the [Office of Student Life]’s decision-making process, some said they thought Nelson was perceived by undergraduates as overbearingly involved in student organization governance — or conversely, not known to many students at all.”
While at Cornell, from 1998 to 2005, Nelson managed 3,500 students in 67 Greek organizations as associate dean of students for fraternity and sorority affairs. Prior to this, from 1993 to 1998, Nelson served at Syracuse University as assistant director for leadership and student organizations, and as director of Greek life.
As the vice president of student life, Nelson will lead the DSL, which includes DAPER, the Department of Athletics, and the offices of housing; dining; fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups; residential life programs; student citizenship; student outreach and support; student development; and religious life.
Last October, following the announcement of Colombo’s retirement, Chancellor Barnhart PhD ’88 appointed a search committee, chaired by Professor of Physics and Faculty Chair Krishna Rajagopal, to find candidates to lead DSL. The search committee included professors, head campus administrators, housemasters, Graduate Resident Tutors, and student leaders from the Undergraduate Association, Interfraternity Council, DormCon, and the Graduate Student Council.
“My goal in communicating with students, really anyone, is to have them feel heard and respected. Being student-centered … means empathizing with students and actively listening to what they are experiencing and what they need,” said Nelson, according to the Chancellor’s email.
“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. 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,” wrote the Chancellor.
“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,” President L. Rafael Reif said to the MIT News Office.